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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5 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Maldives Resort

Maldives has long been one of the top beach destinations in the world due to its exclusive island appeal.

In the past, those who wish to visit Maldives were limited to resorts advertised on travel agencies. Nowadays, a wide variety of picks are available at your fingertips – you can choose to stay on a quiet island and soak in its rustic charm or be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a touristy resort.

However, with so many options come challenges too. How do you choose a resort that best meets your needs and preferences? To help first-time visitors make this critical decision, here are five important things to consider when choosing which resort to stay in.

1. Cost

Price is obviously one obvious factor to consider. Contrary to popular belief, besides the high-end water bungalows, Maldives has resorts that fit all budgets! There are even accommodations available for backpackers on a tight budget. The backpacker-style guestrooms are located on the five inhabited islands of Maldives –Maafush, Addu City, Thulusdoo, Thulhaadhoo and Isdhoo – you would be immersed in the lifestyle and culture of the locals, if this is what you are after.

Also Read: 6 Tips to Travel Maldives on the Cheap

2. Island features

The islands are grouped into 26 atolls or chain of islands. The capital of Maldives is Male which is pronounced as Maaley.

Most first-time visitors do not realise that every resort sits on an island of its own that has a unique geographical shape and form. This means that the facilities and amenities available on the resort island you choose, especially restaurants, are the only ones you will have easy access to during your stay. So do check if the island where your resort sits on has what you need and prefer during your stay.

For example, if you want to snorkel amongst the coral, check that the house reef (the reef that is closest to the island) is near enough to swim to. This is a very important feature to consider if you are a fan of marine life and if snorkelling is your favourite beach activity. Some resorts have calm, crystal clear lagoons that are perfect for swimming and windsurfing but would require a boat trip just to get out to the coral reef. Each snorkelling trip or excursion come at a cost and would easily add to your expenses. If you want to snorkel any time of the day or every day even, then you may want to stay on a resort island that boasts amazing house reefs. The house reefs on such islands are so rich that you can even spot eagle rays, black-tipped reef sharks and hundreds of tropical fishes in varying colours and sizes. I always describe the feeling as akin to being in a giant fish tank. I would like to strongly state here that even non-swimmers would thoroughly enjoy the experience of seeing the teeming marine life as they are visible even in knee-deep waters. I myself have taken many of my family and friends, even those who cannot swim to save their lives or have a water phobia, but they all ended up looking at the fishes underwater for hours!

3. Accessibility

One of the unique experiences of visiting Maldives is that as soon as you arrive at Hulhule airport in Male, your airport transfers are either by boat or seaplane, unless you choose to stay in Male itself of course; but who does that with the hundreds of islands beckoning you?

Depending on the resort you choose, the transfer can be as short as 10 minutes by boat or as long as an hour by seaplane, depending on the distance. Landing at your island resort on a seaplane is an adventure in itself. The journey is no less impressive with aerial views of the atolls and bright blue sea. Do note that if your resort requires a seaplane transfer, you can only fly during daylight so if your flight arrives after dark, you need to stay one night in Male. Take this into account if your flight home is in the wee hours of the morning too. Therefore, do check with your resort on the transfer schedule and ensure you have an accommodation in Male after or before your flight.

4. Accommodation type

Most of the resorts would have several accommodation types on the island to cater to guests’ varying preference. Usually, they would have both water villas that extends out to the open sea as well as bungalows built on the sandy beach, all at varying costs. The accommodations are single or double-storey at most. You will not find high rise buildings on the island resorts. The building in some resorts are terraced while others are detached, single units to allow for more privacy. They differ in price according to the number of rooms, the exact location of the unit and the view it offers – you can opt for sea view or garden view, beachfront or overwater.  The water villas are built on stilts that extend out over the water would, and for obvious reasons it is at the top of the price range.

5. Meal packages

Another important thing to consider is the meal packages offered by the resort. As all amenities and facilities are limited to what is available on the island, the resorts often have several types of meal plans for guests. The three common ones are Bed and Breakfast, Full Board and All-Inclusive. The standard meal plan will include breakfast only. For Full Board, your stay would include the three meals of the day. The All-Inclusive meal plan includes free flow of soft drinks and even alcoholic ones. The meal plans come at additional cost, of course, but they would often work out cheaper than paying for the meals separately because food on the islands are costly and prices are in USD.

With the above in mind when choosing your Maldives resort, you can be assured of making the best possible choice for your trip. With budget airlines flying to Male available, there is no better time to start planning your trip to this paradise.

 

First published on TripZilla on Apr 26, 2017

5 Things To Consider When Choosing Your Maldives Resort

7 Secret Islands Just Hours Away from Singapore

Looking for a short island getaway for your next long weekend which is unlikely to be swarmed with tourists? Here are seven islands to meet your fancy! The best part is that they are all mere hours away from Singapore and you don’t need to fly. And no, we are not talking about well-known islands like Tioman or Rawa Island.

1. Pulau Tengah

Best for a romantic getaway

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi

Image credit: Phalinn Ooi

For that secluded feel, head to Batu-Batu on Pulau Tengah, a privately-owned island in Malaysia. The island has eight white sand beaches and is a protected marine park because of the rich underwater life in the surrounding waters. Pacific bottlenose dolphins, black-tipped reef sharks and even a dugong have been spotted in this area.

Consisting of only 20 luxurious one- and two-bedroom villas, Batu Batu is ideal if you seek optimum privacy as you sit back, enjoy the first-class service, relax in the stunning spa and dine on top-notch food. If you want to have direct access to the powdery white sands, choose the Beach Villa. It also comes with a large bathroom with a stand-alone bathtub and a balcony with spectacular views.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Mersing Jetty. This would take you about 2.5-3 hrs. From there, representatives from Batu Batu will take you on a 20-minute transfer on the resort’s speedboat to the island.

2. Kapas Island

Best for a laid-back vibe

Image credit: Dave Anderson

Image credit: Dave Anderson

Kapas Island (Pulau Kapas) is easily one of Malaysia’s nicest islands. The shoreline of Kapas Island is dotted with beautiful white sandy strips of sand that surround the pristine clear water. I can confidently say that Kapas can rival any of the amazing beaches I have seen in Thailand. The island is often overlooked as tourists seek the more popular Redang, Langkawi and Perhentian islands. But to me, this only means that Kapas remains a less touristy island with a very laid-back vibe, ideal if you are seeking some quiet place to unwind.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Marang Jetty in Terengganu. It is a long drive so if you are going by coach, it would depart at night, arriving in Terengganu only the next morning. From the jetty, you get on a speedboat for a 15-minute ride to the island. There are several boat operators so do scout around to get the cheapest deal.

3. Pulau Karimun Besar

Best for a range of pristine beaches

Image credit: Zhao

Image credit: Zhao

Pulau Karimun Besar lies west of Batam and to the southwest of Singapore. Its proximity to Singapore makes the island quite an easy reach for a short weekend. Its main town, Tanjung Balai is a bustling port town. Part of the chain islands comprising of Riau Islands, Pulau Karimun Besar is famed for its pristine white, sandy beaches and its wide variety of fresh seafood dishes. The island also presents visitors an ample variety of watersports to choose from, such as snorkeling. On top of that, Pulau Karimun Besar has a range of smaller islands, such as Terkulai and Soreh surrounding it, which you can easily visit! Take an invigorating bath in the man-made pools created by the waterfalls near Pantai Palawan. If you’re looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, Pulau Karimun Besar is the ideal location to be at.

On top of that, Pulau Karimun Besar has a range of smaller islands, such as Terkulai and Soreh surrounding it, which you can easily visit! Take an invigorating bath in the man-made pools created by the waterfalls near Pantai Palawan. If you’re looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, Pulau Karimun Besar is the ideal location to be at.

Getting there: A 1.5 hr ferry ride to Tanjung Balai from Harbourfront Ferry Terminal where you will be picked up and transferred by car for another hour to Kawal Harbour. From there, a short boat ride will get you to the island.

4. Pulau Besar

Best for a cheap family getaway

Image credit: Bambi Corro III

Pulau Besar is easily the cheapest island getaway you could find to take your whole family to.  It is a laid-back island and a good destination for a simple, relaxing weekend. The island is relatively small and hosts a few simple lodgings. The waters are pristine and the beach beautiful but for some reason, most people know about Sibu or Rawa Island, but not about Pulau Besar. This makes it a perfect destination away from the tourist crowds.

Just to be clear, there are several Pulau Besar in Malaysia. Here we are talking about the one off Mersing in Johore. The island is sometimes called Pulau Babi Besar. The few accommodation on the island usually offers a full-board package that would include all your meals. The island is ideal for the whole family as besides its affordability, it is also kids- and baby-friendly. You can choose from the more basic chalet-types or the higher end Aseania Resort for your stay. On average, it would not cost you more than SG$150-200 per person for a 3D2N getaway, all-inclusive.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Mersing Jetty. This would take you about 2.5-3 hrs. From there, the accommodation you booked would have arranged for a transfer to the island. The boat ride should not take more than 20-30 minutes.

5. Pulau Aur

Best for diving and snorkelling

Image credit: Nicolas Lannuzel

Image credit: Paul

Pulau Aur is located in the east of Mersing and is part of the Johor Marine Park. Its abundant corals, lagoons and offshore pools make it a diver’s attraction. There are about twenty diving spots around the island as it is home to numerous unique sea creatures and coral reefs. This makes Pulau Aur excellent for scuba diving and snorkelling. It is set in a scenic landscape fringed with lush tropical rainforests. Do not expect luxury here. The island is rustic; there are no roads and it is typical of a traditional village. This is to retain the simplicity of the island and provide for an authentic island experience. So if you need creature comforts, this may not be the island for you.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Mersing Jetty. This would take you about 2.5-3 hrs. From there, take a 3-hr ferry ride to the island.

6. Sugi Island

Best for a romantic getaway

Sugi Island, Batam is home to a beautiful private beach getaway Telunas Private Island. Void of modern distractions, it is where you can take time off from your busy schedules and have a quiet time with your better half, girlfriends or family and kids. The easy accessibility of the island makes this resort a perfect choice for that short getaway.  There are only 15 luxurious over-water villas on the island which means the island is never crowded – and that is an attraction in itself.

Don’t let the simple, rustic exterior of the villas fool you. As soon as you step into the villa, it is nothing short of spectacular opulence. The huge king bed faces the glass-panelled verandah where you get an almost 180-degree view of the ocean. The exclusive vibe of the island can be felt right from the moment you step off the boat and walk along the wooden jetty towards the Grand Lodge where you will be led straight to your villas. No formal check-in necessary (they do not even have a check-in desk).

Opened in 2015, this new resort is located on a small island just a mere 2-minute boat ride across the older Telunas Beach Resort. While Telunas Beach Resort offers rustic accommodations with a community vibe, the private island offers the same authentic appeal but with more comfort, grandeur and exclusivity.

Getting there: A 1-hr ferry ride to Sekupang from Harbour Front & then a 1hr 30 mins transfer by the resort boat to the island.

7. Gem Island

Best for longer breaks

Image credit: HuiChieh

Image credit: HuiChieh

Located in a Marine Conservation Park, Gem Island or Pulau Gemia boasts crystal clear waters, spotless white sandy beaches and spectacular underwater seascape of marine life. It is a privately-owned island. Surrounded by lush greenery and facing the vast blue ocean, it is a superb getaway for a relaxed holiday. Like Pulau Kapas, the island is often overlooked as tourists seek the more popular Redang, Perhentian and Tengah islands.

Getting there: You can drive, take a coach or hire a private transport to Marang Jetty in Terengganu. It is a long drive so if you are going by coach, it would depart at night, arriving in Terengganu only the next morning. From the jetty, you get on a speedboat for a 15-minute ride to the island. There are several boat operators so do scout around to get the cheapest deal.

 

First published on TripZilla on Apr 3, 2017

7 Secret Islands Just Hours Away from Singapore

1st trip to Phuket

1st trip to Phuket (of countless that followed after) was in 2003 (a 2nd one followed soon after in de same year )

Right after my Bali trip, in de first week of the 2nd term of school, the government announced that school will be closed till further notice. I could not believe my ears! So what’s there to do except to TRAVEL!!!

So off I went to Phuket!  I absolutely love the place. Stayed at Holiday Inn and this became my go-to hotel whenever I am there. Just love the hotel & the service is always excellent (they should pay me for giving  them such good publicity huh?)

The highlight of the whole trip was the island-hopping (which includes Phi Phi island of course). At that time, it cost about 1300 baht (full day). I left as early as 6.30am and got back only around 5pm! So it was worth it lah. Besides Phi Phi, the trip took me to about four other islands. One of them is the Maya Bay (where de movie ‘The Beach’ – Leonardo DiCaprio – was filmed). Here, it’s totally crystal clear waters, you could see right through to your feet! Reallieeee…….beautiful white sands at the bottom….but no corals….so no colourful fishes to see. Another island called Kai Island is where you can actually feed the fishes just by going into the waters knee deep! Amazing isn’t it? Schools of fishes would actually come and nibble at your fingers especially if you have some food in your hand.

I was so taken by the islands that I returned to Phuket again in the same year….in June! And has been going there two or three times a year since.

phuket-tailboats

Longtail boats that could take you to nearby islands.

fishes-phuket

The friendly fishies at Kai Island

The best part about travelling to Thailand is the food! I JUST LOVE THAI FOOD. Prices are so cheap too! (Like about SG$6 for a full seafood meal, in 2003 so now it probably cost a little more). At that time, the island was not as touristy as it is now so the shopping is great (but over the years the locals have learnt to mark up their prices by quite a bit).

2nd trip to Phuket in de same year

As I mentioned earlier, I went back to Phuket many times after that first trip.

My 2nd trip was with a group of friends (abt 7 of us) and once again we were at Holiday Inn (oh did I tell u the breakfast buffet there is superb! Wide, wide variety). The hotel has two separate buildings..the newer one is called the Busakorn Wing. They even have a separate pool for the two but guests could use either of the pools….the one at Busakorn Wing is way bigger and better.

We spent 4 days in Phuket & 3 in Krabi. We went to our favourite makan places (Seafood No. 4) and not to be missed..our island hopping trip…..and spent hours in de huge pool (at the Busakorn Wing of the hotel) playing silly water games. We were so noisy dat the hotel staff had to ask us to quieten down due to some complaints from other guests hehe!

You can make your way to Krabi from Phuket by public transport. But we took a private mini van and thereafter a mini bus to Krabi. The journey in total was 4hrs. Krabi is much quieter then Phuket, nothing much else to do except the usual beach stuff lah…but I guess those of you who prefer a quiet and peaceful getaway would like it here.

We started to miss Phuket and actually decided to go back there for the rest of our holiday! To minimise expenses, we chose to go back by the public bus! So cheap..less den SG$5 I think……but decent condition I must say. We were so pleased to be back at Holiday Inn lobby! hahaha…..spoilt aren’t we? Anyway……was a memorable trip and de whole group had loads of fun.

 

I LOVE LOVE Phuket……will write more about my later trips……….. stay tuned!