Monday, 12 March 2018

Ilies du Salut (Devils Island), French Guiana

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I watched the movie Papillon with my parents at the local drive-in theatre in North Ryde. The Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman classic left a huge impact on me as a young boy so almost 50 years later I was really excited to visit the islands off the coast of French Guiana where the movie is set. 

Kate and I arrived in Cayenne after driving from neighbouring Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and crossing the border at St Laurent. We were collected by Mike, our driver, and Gwen, our guide, at the transport station where many of the convicts from France first arrived. The drive to Kourou, from where you depart for the islands, is about two hours through jungle. The town itself is a big nothing (it exists primarily as a base for the European Space Centre) but the trip to the islands via catamaran is a gem!  

There are three islands with the main one being Isle Royale on which our guide walked us around all of the major sites in about two hours. We visited the museum where, among other stories, you can read about the injustice of France’s General Dreyfus, the old jails including the solitary confinement cells, the officer’s quarters and hospital. There’s also a cemetery but this was not for the deceased prisoners as they were just thrown into the water (with weights attached) for the sharks to feed on! 

The highlight of the day-trip is St. Josephs Island, which technically we were not allowed to be on as it is not open to the public. The buildings and other infrastructure on this island have not been repaired at any stage so it is more authentic – and frankly, more spooky - than the others! Walking through the ruins and seeing the prisoner’s tiny cells where they may have spent most of their life, you can’t help feel for them regardless of their crime.   

In the late 1940’s the then US President started to put pressure on the French Government to close the facility due to its barbaric nature, likened to Hitler’s concentration camps. After much pressure, the islands ceased being used as a prison in the 1950’s.    

I really enjoyed my visit to these historical isles. You can join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to the Guiana’s departing early 2019. Click here for more details. 

Monday, 5 March 2018

Danpaati River Lodge, Suriname

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

In Surinamese (a combination of Dutch and local language), danpaati means “dam on the parting waters”. The eco-resort is in the middle of the Suriname River, surrounded by thick jungle and small villages mainly inhabited by descendants of African slaves who fled from their captors in the mid 1800’s when slave labour was abolished.   

From Paramaribo, it’s a two-hour drive to the small river junction town of Atjoni where where you board your long-boat for the long ride (2 hours) to the lodge. With hat, sunscreen, water and sunglasses, it’s a delightful journey even though it could not be described as luxury in any sense of the word whatsoever!  

On arrival we’re greeted by some of the staff singing and dancing and then shown to our lodge overlooking the river. Now we’re in heaven! The manager of the lodge, Noah, is a delightful, warm and friendly Surinamese from the capital. He and his number two, Gabrielle, explain all the workings and facilities of the lodge. They also tell us how all staff are from surrounding villages and being a community lodge, our stay here makes a major contribution into the local area.     

During our short stay, we undertake a 3km flat forest walk and learn about the amazing jungle plants and wildlife. Our guide, Tony, shows us how the locals use the trees and plants for a multitude of purposes. We also walk through a local village and go swimming in the river at some small rapids.  

The lodge itself is a delightful place to stay. The food is very good, the rooms are lovely (full-on western-style bathrooms in each cabin), there is a swimming pool and lovely places to sit and read, eat or talk. All in all, it’s a gem of a destination in the middle of the jungle and the fact that we did not spot mosquitos added to our enjoyment.  

Join Blue Dot Travel’s three-week small group tour to The Guianas in Feb 2019. Click here for more information.  

Monday, 26 February 2018

The people of Suriname 

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

Our guide is Tony. He is a lovely young man from Paramaribo who has an amazing story to tell. His heritage is like many others from the country in that he comes from a multitude of backgrounds. I ask him where his parents and grandparents were from and I received the most amazing answer (which I needed him to repeat several times… 

“My grandmother on my mother's side was part Chinese and part Amerindian. My grandfather was part Indian and part Creole. On my father’s side, my grandmother was Creole and Amerindian and my grandfather was a Dutch Jew”.  

The ethnic make up of Suriname is evident in every direction you look. It’s best described as a cultural cocktail. There are the indigenous Amerindians, “Hindustanis” (the name given to the Hindus from India), a large Dutch population, Javanese, Jews from Europe, Portuguese and Africans who are descendants of slave labour. It’s a wonderfully exotic cultural mix and noticably unlike most places I have visited.  

Suriname was colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, British and Dutch from the 1600’s and became independent in 1975. The main language is Dutch but most also speak Surinamese which is a combination of Dutch and a local language. There’s a story which suggests the Dutch and British fought over the region many times and in the end, the Dutch swapped Manhattan Island for what is now Suriname. Not sure how true a tale it is but it is widely accepted.

The villagers living along the river nearer to the capital are mainly descendants of African slaves who fled from their captors in the mid 1800’s when slave labour was abolished. Their ancestors were brought to the region during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch, English and Spanish colonialists of the time. There are also villages populated by indigenous Amerindians who have lived here for centuries.  

To meet this wonderful mix of people and experience their diverse and colourful culture, join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. Click here for more information.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Can I recommend Corsica? Course I can!

The former capital of Bastia is the economic power of the island and mixes old with new
Words and photos by Marion Fagan

What an island of surprises Corsica proved to be. It may not have been on my radar as a destination but having visited recently, its many delights deserve to be shared. Barely an hour’s ferry ride from the northern tip of Sardinia, the final approach into Bonfacio is breathtaking and immediately, the scenery and vibe is different, intriguing and inviting. Starting with the towering cliffs of chalky white limestone topped with an expansive fortress, it draws you in and compels you to find out more.

We explored the island from south to north, east to west and while Corsica is definitely chock full of nuts, three things in particular stood out for me …

Geographically, Corsica is deliciously diverse. The roads twist and turn and rise and fall as they trace the challenging topography. Around every corner is the promise of something different – steep mountain ranges and plunging deep valleys; expanses of scruffy desert or forests of tall leafy timbers; raw rocky coastlines and charming historic villages hugging equally rocky inland tors.

The island’s colour palette is that of a gifted French painter. The eye is continually drawn by rich hues, be it steely grey granite shrouded in white cloud, bold red pinnacles reflecting the sun or glowing golden sandstone. The legendary blue of the Mediterranean provides the island’s surrounding sea and sky delivers in spades. The colourful patchwork of the quaint villages offers splashes of character and variety. It’s visually gorgeous.

The stories the island tells are endless and fascinating: its prehistoric standing stones, its numerous and centuries-old Genoese watch towers, its many impressive cliff-top citadels, its thorny relationship with Bonaparte … and somewhat with mainland France, its cities blending old with new, its warm and inviting culture of fine food and excellent wine.

Our small group came away both surprised and delighted with how we fell under the spell of this enchanting island with its strong sense of identity and independence. There’s so much to appreciate, it stands alone and proud as a great destination. 

Visit Corsica with Blue Dot Travel as part of the itinerary to three very different and lovely Mediterranean Islands, including Malta and Sardinia, with two departures in 2018. What’s not to like? Click here for more information.
Corsica lies an hour's ferry ride north of the tip of Sardinia
Bonifacio's citadel, perched on the high white limestone cliffs, extends a striking welcome

Bonifacio's fortress guards its harbour

The roads twist and turn, rise and fall through Corsica's varied topography
The calanques near Porto are imposing to wander through
The old town of Corte is a former capital of the island from medieval times
The seaside citadel of Calvi glows in the setting sun
History in spades - the 1,000 year old tree and its massive trunk was wider than the 11 of us side-by-side

Monday, 12 February 2018

Bukhara - an ancient city in Central Asia's Uzbekistan

Kalon Mosque and Minaret

One of my favourite Silk Road cities is the town of Bukhara, located a few hours west of Samarkand. Like Samarkand, Bukhara is also home to significant and stunning architectural sites (like the Ark, Po-i-Kalyan and Char Minar), however while they may not be as grand in size and scale, it is the city as a whole that makes Bukhara a truly special destination. The Old Town in particular has an atmosphere and feel that in moments will make you feel as if you have travelled back in time. You will see people living their day-to-day lives, in their beautiful courtyard houses, whilst also being surrounded by historic architecture and significant monuments.

The heart of the Old Town is Lab-i-Hauz, a beautiful pool and courtyard-like area, surrounded by old Madrassas (buildings for Islamic education). It makes for a great place to rest under the shade and take time out when exploring the city - especially in the scorching hot summer. In fact, you’ll notice the town has a few ponds dotted throughout, another unique feature. These were much more common and were once Bukhara’s main source of water, however most were filled in during the 1920s to stop the spread of disease. However, on my visit they were being used by local kids as spot for swimming.

Your Uzbekistan trip should include another highlight is the Taqi-Zargaron market, also known as the Trading Domes, and is the spot for picking up a gorgeous souvenir. There are carpet sellers, antique dealers and jewellers all under the one roof, which happens to be a collection of beautiful (and quite minimal) domes. You will find the usual mass produced items here, but you will also find some truly unique Silk Road treasures, especially of the textile variety. Suzanis (embroidered blankets which were used as part of a dowry), ikat fabrics (dyed fibres that are woven, creating beautiful patterns) and traditional clothing items are all here in various shapes and sizes.  

After travelling throughout Central Asia you may start  to feel a bit fatigued with the Blue Domes and Madrassas, however the Old Town of Bukhara and it’s inhabitants are what make this city a really special experience and a standout on your Silk Road journey.
Tour Uzbekistan and the rest of ‘the Stans’ with Blue Dot Travel! Click here.
Map of Uzbekistan

One of the many characterful faces of Bukhara
The Ark of Bukhara

Traditional ceramics

Kalon Mosque

Lab-i Hauz

Some of the local wild life

Colourful Ikat fabrics
Bukhara Old Town

Black tea

A traditional Bukhara mansion

Overlooking Bukhara

Samarkand, Uzbekistan on the Silk Road - the ancient trade route linking China to the Mediterranean

Exploring Samarkand


Samarkand. It conjures up so much when you say the name. One of the oldest inhabited cities of Central Asia, Samarkand was a legendary stop along the Silk Road, being strategically situated between China and Europe, in modern day Uzbekistan.

During the 14th century, Samarkand came under the rule of the conqueror Tamerlane who had a passion and commitment for the arts. In fact, it is said that while being ruthless with his enemies, he would spare the lives of skilled artisans and craftspeople and bring them to Samarkand to improve the city - and the result of such compassion is clearly seen through the city’s ornate architecture. With an impressive skyline of domes and minarets you can easily see why Samarkand is the star destination of Uzbekistan. Looking more closely at each of these sights reveals an incredible amount of intricate detail with the use of ornate tile work in an array of blues and turquoises.

No trip to Uzbekistan would be complete without visiting these notable architectural marvels:
The Registan - a public square surround by three madrasas, Ulugh Beg, Tilya Kori and Sher-Doh.
Babi-Khanym - one of the most important buildings in Samarkand - it was once the largest and grandest mosques in the world.
Gur-e Amir - a mausoleum which contains the tombs of Tamerlane and his sons.
Shah-i-Zinda - a necropolis that contains a cluster of mausoleums and areas for religious rituals.

Not only is Samarkand an architecturally significant city, it still is home to many craftspeople and artisans, and thus you will see an abundance of hand made textile and ceramic pieces including embroidered suzanis and hand painted dinnerware, which make for a special Silk Road souvenir for your home.

After exploring each of the amazing sights in Samarkand, sit back, have some tea and enjoy the incredible city skyline that sits before your eyes.   The best time to visit Uzbekistan is Spring (April to May) & Autumn (September to early November).

Book your trip to Uzbekistan and the rest of ‘the Stans’ with Blue Dot! Click here.

Map of Uzbekistan

Tile details at the Registan

Sher-Dor Madrasah

Handcrafts for sale at local markets

Blue Dot on tour
The entrance to Gur-e Amir
Inside Gur-e Amir

Dried fruits and nuts at a local market

The ornate and stunning Shah-i-Zinda

Beautiful tile details at Shah-i-Zinda

Walking through Shah-i-Zinda

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Enjoying the peace and quiet

The Samarkand skyline