A secret Greek getaway to picturesque Naxos

Instead of the expensive Santorini, try the underrated Naxos

The island is extensively promoted by the Greek tourism authorities and travel industries around the world, and it seems to be on the top of the list for most when travelling to the Hellenic Republic.

According to most travel magazines, guide books and websites, there is nothing more bright and idyllic than the cliff-side walkways of Santorini.

I beg to differ.

While it certainly has amazing views of the Aegean Sea, I personally find it teeming and bustling.

Instead of spending time meandering along the cobblestoned walkways, you have to fight your way through the crowds.

OVERRATED

The tourist-mobbed island that sees more than half-a-million visitors a year, makes this “paradise” an overrated beach destination, not to mention maddeningly expensive.

And that is certainly not my idea of an island getaway.

It was my pursuit of an authentic experience that prompted me to look towards the less popular islands, and spend just one night on Santorini.

But, there are so many Greek islands that it was indeed hard to choose.

Greek sovereign land includes 6,000 islands and islets scattered in the Aegean and Ionian seas, of which only 227 are inhabited.

Most of them are found in the Aegean Sea and are divided into seven groups (from north to south).

Santorini belongs to the Cyclades, a group of 56 islands that are more commonly visited.

Some of the other islands that fall in this group include Andros, Kea-Kythnos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos and Paros.

If you are into the party scene, you might want to consider the trendier Mykonos, Ios or Corfu.

But if you are not, Naxos is ideal.

The Portara is an iconic structure on Naxos (above), along with whitewashed houses along the harbour.PHOTO: ASNAH AHMAD

It is rarelyon the must-visit list of travel sites – something I find puzzling, especially after having been there.

I found out about it when I was looking through a map of the Greek islands.

After Googling its name and reading just one or two reviews by other travellers, I decided it would be worth exploring.

The first sight of Naxos from its picturesque harbour made the hours trawling the Internet so worth it.

A quiet oasis, charming and breathtakingly gorgeous from all angles.

Naxos is everything Santorini is not: Private, laid-back and full of local flavour.

It is perfect for those looking for a little Greek culture and nature to go along with their holiday.

There is no shortage of quirky little shops and craft markets in the narrow alleyways of Naxos.

The buildings have a lovely island feel and the Venetian architecture dominates – with hints of blue sky and sea – making them the perfect retreat from the sun.

The Portatara is an iconic structure on Naxos, along with whitewashed houses along the harbour (above).PHOTO: ASNAH AHMAD

The beaches in Naxos are among the most beautiful in Greece, and are located just a few minutes’ drive from traditional villages perched on mountaintops.

Most are great for diving, with their rich coral reefs, wrecks and crystal clear waters.

A commercial centre that does not depend only on tourism, Naxos has a year-round population of Greeks and foreigners, and boasts a good public transport system, making it convenient to get around.

It is also famous for its variety of cultural events and traditional fairs.

The island consists of several mountains separated by green valleys, vineyards and orchards.

Its rich architecture includes Byzantine monasteries, Mycenaean ruins and churches.

Naxos was once conquered by the Venetians so you can also see many Venetian towers there, some ruined and others turned into museums.

There are not many islands with their iconic archaeological site located right on the harbour, and visible even from your ferry as you approach the island.

The rectangular frame is the Portara, the doorway to the ancient Temple of Apollo.

BUILT

Construction on the structure began in about 530BC but it was never completed.

Lygdamis, the tyrant ruling Naxos then, intended to make it the largest and most glorious temple in Greece.

But he was overthrown before it was completed.

The Portara is 8m high and made of four blocks of marble.

The view of the Portara in the sunset against the blinding whitewashed houses on the cliffs is truly a sight to behold.

Naxos’ understated natural beauty will leave you with some of the most magical memories of Greece.

 

 

First published on The New Paper, Mar 17, 2017
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A Secret Paradise Island in West Sumatra

Cubadak Island: A Secret Paradise on Earth in West Sumatra

Located in Indonesia’s West Sumatra and breathtaking on land and underwater, Cubadak Island is the ideal place for a secluded getaway.

I discovered Cubadak Island by chance as I spend hours trawling the web to find a piece of quiet haven. And to be honest, I feel reluctant to share it with the world in order to preserve its rustic appeal and keep it a secret for many years to come!

Located on an exclusive white sandy beach and surrounded by exceptionally calm waters, Cubadak Paradiso Village is part of the West Sumatra province. The island is surrounded by mountains that shelter it from the strong currents of the sea, making the water amazingly calm and glass-like. Palm trees line the long stretch of beach. It’s hard not to liken it to the setting of the TV series ‘Lost’.

Getting there

Getting to the island is an adventure in itself. Get on a flight to Padang’s Minangkabau International Airport. After that, the resort vehicle will transfer you to the harbour where you get on a short 10-minute boat ride.

As soon as your boat approaches the island, you will see the owners, a friendly and hospitable French couple Dominique and Marco, standing by the pier with some of their staff awaiting your arrival. It’s like you were visiting an old friend.

The accommodation

The resort offers 12 individual bungalows stretched alongside the beach, all less than 50 metres away from the ocean. The layout of the resort has been designed to provide intimacy to all guests so rest assured your door or veranda will not face any neighbouring bungalows. In fact, all bungalows are sea-facing and built 10 metres apart to ensure maximum privacy. The bungalows are made of wood to preserve the essence of local architecture. Its palm-leaf roofs and wooden-panelled walls are reminiscent of good ol’ kampung houses.

Things to do

Image credit: cubadak paradiso village

Besides frolicking in the clear water and lounging on the sunbeds, you can go for a hike just behind the resort. There is a path that takes you to the top in about 45 minutes where you can get an inspiring photo. You may even spot the colourful kingfisher on your way up.

The island is also great for scuba diving. There are several dive sites within easy reach including a pinnacle and even a wreck! The island has its own house reefs so non-divers can snorkel and explore underwater, but visibility depends on the time of the year you visit.

Food

All meals are taken together at a designated time so if you are not much into socialising during your holiday, then this may not be your scene. The food is cooked by the local chefs and fresh fish caught by the island’s fishermen are served and shared with guests every day. The traditional Indonesian fare and western delights are cooked to perfection. You get a great variety of dishes and some delectable dessert like homemade banana ice cream. So yummy! Please avoid the island if you are on a diet; I certainly don’t think you could resist the delicious spread.

Stay package

The price averages around US$120 per person per night. This includes:

  • Full board (breakfast, lunch and dinner)
  • Free flow of Indonesian tea or coffee, instant coffee, water.
  • Snorkelling equipment (for adults)
  • Canoes
  • Boat outings (weather depending)
  • All taxes

Weekend getaway?

How about a little piece of this paradise for your next getaway? Be sure to grab your loved ones and start planning your trip!

 

First published on TripZilla on Aug 1, 2017

A 2D1N and 3D2N Batam Itinerary for the Lazy Planners

A weekend getaway to Batam is always a good plan. Check out this 2D1N and 3D2N itinerary with food options, shopping spots and recommended activities.

So easily accessible from Singapore, Batam has long been a popular destination for weekend getaways. Despite that, I do know Singaporeans who have yet to set foot on Batam, and others who have the perception that there’s nothing much to do there.

Well, if you belong to this group, hopefully these itineraries will inspire you to take that ferry ride to the land of cheap massage, food and shopping. Follow this full three days itinerary if you plan for a 3D2N stay, and skip Day 2 if you only have 2D1N.

Day 1

To start your trip, you have to take a 45-minute to 1-hour cruise departing from Singapore. A return ticket will cost you $48 (inclusive of taxes).

Departure locations:

  • Harbourfront Ferry Terminal: Ferries departing from here goes to Batam Centre, Sekupang and Harbourfront.
  • Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal: From here, only Majestic Ferries goes to Batam Centre.

Tips:

  • Ferry operators include Batamfast, Majestic Ferry and Sindo Ferry.
  • You can book your tickets online or over the counter. Look out for ongoing promotions that could save you as much as $10 per ticket.
  • For trips during long weekends and public holidays, it is best to book ahead to avoid disappointment.

Upon arrival, check in at the hotel of your choice. There is a wide range of hotels to suit your budget and preference. You can choose from resort-style ones to small boutique resorts.

Image credit: Andris Randing

Then, head out to Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall for lunch followed by shopping. It is the largest mall in Batam, and it has everything you need – a huge departmental store (Matahari), supermarket (Hypermart), bags, funky souvenirs, clothes, electronics and beauty products. The dining options at the mall itself are plenty: from the signature Indonesian dishes like ayam penyet and mee bakso to Chinese and Western delights.

If you want to try Indonesian cuisine, check out Warung Cobain! It has a few outlets around Batam, including Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall and Mega Mall.

Next, go for a well-deserved massage, spa or hair treatment. There are various spas and beauty parlours in and around the mall. Make sure you make a booking before you fill your tummies as they get booked up fast during the weekends. During public holidays, do call them to make an advance booking. You can do this through your hotel if such a service is available!

After your pampering session, go for dinner at one of the many street stalls around Nagoya Hill Shopping Mall area. I usually go for the traditional Nasi Padang (many stalls around). They have more than 20 dishes that are served to your table all at one go. Be aware that charges are based on the dishes you take, no matter how little. So what I normally do is get the staff to immediately take away those dishes we are not keen to have.

If you don’t mind going a little further, feel free to check out Pondok Batam Kuring.

Then, it’s time to head back to your hotel for the night! For those who still have the energy left, you can check out Lotte Mart, a wholesale supermarket. And for the night owls, you can opt for a karaoke session at one of the many karaoke spots around!

On your way back to your hotel, don’t forget to grab some pisang goreng keju (cheese banana fritters). The best one is just outside Batam City Square Mall (BCS Mall). This is a must for me whenever I’m there! The stall opens in the evenings and at night.

Day 2

Rise early to enjoy the wonderful buffet breakfast at your hotel! Most hotels offer a really good spread so it is worth paying extra for an inclusive breakfast. After breakfast, try something adventurous like go-karting or watersports!

For go-karting, check out Golden City Go Kart. For watersports, check out Cable Ski Park at Waterfront City. Otherwise, you can also visit Cabana Club for some ATV action and jet skiing.

After spending all your energy on the activities, it’s time for lunch! For good and cheap seafood, check out Barelang Seafood Restaurant.

Image credit: hildo trazo

Next, head to the Barelang Bridge. It is a chain of six different types of bridges connecting the islands of Batam, Rempang, and Galang. The bridge makes for a great photo opportunity, especially at sunset!

After that, hop into a cab and explore beyond the Nagoya area. It’s time to head out to Harbour Bay! This place makes for a nice evening as it is a bustling area close to the sea. You will find a long stretch of restaurants and bars in the area which are great for seafood, sheesha or drinks. For an Italian fix, do check out the highly-rated Bella Italia Ristorante!

P.S. Make sure you have an insect repellent handy as the mozzies might just join you for the night!

Last Day

After breakfast, take a dip in the hotel pool, go for the second round of shopping or just relax in your room until you are due to leave. If you are departing from Batam Centre, take the opportunity to explore Mega Mall, located just opposite the ferry terminal. Be sure to grab a root beer float or some curly fries from the A&W to relive that nostalgic feels or some doughnuts from J.CO to take home with you.

While a well-planned itinerary is important, I personally feel that it is the company that will make all the difference. So go ahead and take that short trip with your significant other, girlfriends, mothers, in-laws and aunts. And don’t be afraid to go solo if you just want some pampering  “me” time.And there you go, a simple 2D1N and 3D2N itinerary for Batam!

 

 

 

First published on TripZilla on July 6, 2017

7 Little Known Islands Easily Reached from Phuket

Phuket, the largest island in Thailand, makes a great base for visiting other smaller islands nearby. Did you know that there are many hidden gems, each with its own personality and charm, besides the overcrowded Phi Phi Island? The best part of all: they can easily be reached from Phuket! So complete your island experience in the southern part of Thailand by visiting these stunning little-known places:

1. Koh Racha (Raya Island)

Image credit: Aleen Linvoyage

Image credit: Aleen Linvoyage

Image credit: Aleen Linvoyage

Koh Racha or Raya Island is my favourite of all. This island is especially famous for its amazing diving and snorkelling sites. It is made up of two islets, Racha Yai and Racha Noi, and its surrounding waters are teeming with corals and fishes. Racha Noi is uninhabited but Racha Yai is home to a beautiful, private, white sand beach accommodation called The Racha. This is a luxurious accommodation that perfectly complements the private retreat vibe of the island. The resort makes for a great getaway from busy Phuket and is ideal for a one- or two-night stay. The long strip of fine white sand and clear waters is perfect for snorkelling. It can get quite busy in the afternoon with visiting boats that make a stop for a day trip.

Getting there: Long-tail and speedboat transfers may be arranged from Chalong Pier or Rawai, and the trip takes from 45 minutes to more than an hour depending on the boat. All-inclusive day tours are also available from tour operators in Phuket.

2. Koh Khai Nok 

Image credit: Christopher Lance

If you prefer a short boat ride, head to Koh Khai Nok. One of two islets, Koh Khai Nok is just a 20-minute boat ride away from Phuket. The island offers a great getaway for some sunbathing and snorkelling without the hassle of long hours on the boat. Popular among sunbathers, the island has all the facilities needed for a good day out at the beach. You will see the long strip of beach dotted with colourful sun-loungers and umbrellas. There are bars and restaurants for you to quench your thirst and fill your tummies too. Do take your Thai Baht with you as the island also has several stores selling local merchandise from T-shirts to sarongs and souvenirs.

The best part about this island is that you will find about twelve different types of tropical fish swimming near its shores, not the least bit afraid of people. Take the chance to wade in the clear, shallow waters with them.

Getting there: Only 20 minutes away from Phuket, a half-day tour is all it takes to experience this island.

3. Koh Yao Noi 

Image credit: Jakaphan Suwannakrua

Image credit: Jakaphan Suwannakrua

Koh Yao Noi is more developed for tourists in that there are several accommodation options on the island, from budget to five-star. However, the charm of the island lies in the fact that despite the creature comfort that this island affords, its island-vibe is still much preserved. It remains a great refuge from the hustle and bustle of Phuket. Home to a small community of Muslim farmers and fishermen, Koh Yao Noi allows visitors to feel as if they travelled back in time. There are many restaurants and shops on the island so do have your cash with you. It is useful to note that the islanders are determined to preserve their traditional ways so do respect the local culture by dressing modestly and refraining from drinking alcohol outside the restaurants or resorts that serve them.

Getting there: Long-tail boat ferries make daily trips to Yao Noi from Bang Rong Pier on the east coast of Phuket. From the airport, a taxi will take you to the pier in 25 minutes. The journey is 1 hour, with daily departures from Phuket. The boat will make a short stop on Koh Yao Yai, then cross to Koh Yao Noi, only 8 minutes away. Long-tail boats can also be hired at Ao Po pier for charter to Koh Yao.

4. Koh Hae (Coral Island) 

Image credit: Beth Williams

Image credit: Beth Williams

Koh Hae or Coral Island is easily the most accessible island from Phuket. Just 15 minutes by speedboat, this island is a popular choice for many travellers as it is almost hassle-free to get there.  Like most of the other islands, it offers great opportunities for snorkelling and diving. There are a few restaurants and bars on the island and similar to Koh Racha, you will find many day-trippers here in the afternoon before it regains its peace and quiet in the evening. At night, the island is beautiful and serene. The only accommodation on the island is called Coral Island Resort. You can go for scuba-diving classes starting off in the resort swimming pool or opt for the more cultural experience of a batik painting class. To ease that tired and sore muscles, go for a massage at the open-air pavilion at the end of the long beach.

Getting there: You can rent a longtail boat at either Rawai Beach or Chalong pier. Alternatively, book a snorkelling day trip and you will be taken on a 15-minute speedboat ride from Chalong.

5. Koh Bon 

Image credit: Del Adams

Koh Bon is a small rocky island directly opposite Rawai Beach. Its proximity and calm waters make for a perfect short getaway from Phuket. The tranquillity of the island makes it ideal for a picnic, or for swimming and relaxing under the sun. If you are a seafood lover, this is the island to go as the island is home to Bon Island Restaurant, a huge, renowned restaurant serving authentic Thai cuisine and fresh seafood. The restaurant is open every day of the year from 10am to 5pm. What better way to spend your day at the beach than feasting on great food?

Getting there: The easiest way to get to Koh Bon is to hire a long-tail boat at Rawai’s jetty or along Rawai Beach. The trip does not take more than 10 minutes each way. 

6. Similan Islands

Image credit: Yut Cha

Image credit: Joonas

Similan Islands is a group of nine islands that make up the Marine National Park. “Similan” is derived from the Malay word sembilan, and means “nine”. These islands are totally unspoilt and its teeming marine life easily puts it among the top ten diving sites in the world. The islands are a little further to reach and its remote location makes it more worth the trouble if you scuba dive. I myself went there on a scuba-diving trip. That said, it is also possible to visit the islands on a short day trip.

The Similan Islands are not your typical Andaman Sea islands; you will not find the signature limestone formations but instead, you will find low-lying rock formations covered in lush vegetation. The islands’ most striking feature is what lies beneath the water: the most spectacular coral growths in the world.

There are tents and small bungalows for rent on the island, allowing visitors to spend longer than a day there. If falling asleep to the sound of the waves and the whispering of the sea breeze is your cup of tea, then it is an ideal place to spend the night as you will find ultimate serenity on this rugged island.

Getting there: You can take a day trip from Phuket with a travel time of 2 hours by minibus and another 1.5 hr by speedboat. The whole journey would take about 3-3.5 hours, depending on the boat used. A popular way to go, especially for divers and game fishers, is by joining a liveaboard boat trip from Phuket, which usually runs for 4 days. 

7. Maiton Island 

Image credit: Maiton Private Island

Used to be home to a luxury resort, Maiton Island is a small idyllic spot just 15 minutes south of Phuket. The hotel no longer operates but the pristine white beach is still accessible to visitors and makes for a great day trip from Phuket. You can swim in the clear waters with thousands of fishes and have a relaxing picnic under the swaying palm trees, away from the crowd. There is not much to do on the island but this is one island that will win you over with its unspoilt beauty and stunning vista of the ocean. If you are looking for a quiet day on a beautiful beach, then this island would be right up your alley.

Getting there: You can choose to go on your own by speedboat which will take you there in about 20 minutes. The speedboats operate twice daily at 9am and 1pm from Dolphin Pier in Phuket. Or you can simply book a day tour with any of the tour operators in Phuket.

 

 

First published on TripZilla on Jun 7th, 2017