Looking down at decking by a rocky coastline
Gambia,  Jamaica,  Namibia,  USA

Wherever I lay my hat …

Memorable places I’ve stayed, part one

Top ten lists are somewhat invidious things. No sooner have you published one than you realise you have omitted something you should have included, or included something that on second thoughts might have been better omitted. So it is with some hesitation that I offer my top ten list of places we have stayed.

These are not necessarily the most high-end places we’ve stayed in, although some are. Nor are they all in the most special locations, although many are. But these are the places that have stayed in my memory. In some cases the setting was spectacular; in some it was the host(s) that made it special; and in some it was down to the experiences we had there. And sometimes it was simply a touch of quirkiness that made the place so memorable.

I’ll present them in two parts, but in no particular order. So here are the first five:

The Blue House, Ocho Rios, Jamaica

When planning our trip to Jamaica, the only thing we were clear about was that we didn’t want to stay in an all-inclusive. Then we stumbled across reviews of the Blue House on Trip Advisor; suddenly we knew where we wanted to stay! But once it was booked I started to wonder – could it really be that good?

Luckily it was all that we’d hoped and more. Everyone who stays here seems to enthuse about the hospitality of Elise and Darryl, and rightly so. We really felt as if we were staying with friends rather than as paying guests in a B&B. Nothing was too much trouble – a lift to church or to a local restaurant; a call to pre-book an excursion; checking shipping schedules so we could avoid the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls, and so on.

The house is very stylish and set in a pretty garden. Maybe its distance from town (about 2 miles) is a small drawback. But that is more than compensated for by the quieter location – apart from the crickets and frogs, that is! My favourite spot was the terrace, in the early morning before breakfast, with a mug of Darryl’s strong coffee to wake me up and the hummingbirds flitting among the blossoms.

There’s a small swimming pool in the garden, surrounded by more pretty flowers and shrubs. Inside, there’s a comfortable seating area with good coffee table books if you have a spare hour to while away and four comfortable bedrooms. Ours, the ‘Sanctuary’, lived up to its name: cool and comfortable after a day’s sightseeing on the island.

Darryl’s cooking was another real plus point. From the first evening, when we were welcomed with a dinner of curried goat and rice and peas, we realised we were in for some treats. Both breakfasts and dinners here afforded us lots of welcome opportunities to sample Jamaican specialities – ackee and saltfish or rundown for breakfast, conch or that goat curry for dinner. We had planned to eat only a couple of dinners here and go out for the others; but the combination of tasty food and good company was too hard to resist and we only ate out once during our stay.

https://www.thebluehousejamaica.com/

We stayed at the Blue House in 2008. For more about our time in Jamaica see: One love: the rhythms of Jamaica

Huab Lodge, Namibia

This was another place where the hosts really made our stay special, although the lodge itself is also pretty spectacular. Our room was fantastic, with huge picture windows through which we could enjoy a view of the Huab River (dry for most of the year). Even the shower came with a view, as the rooms can’t be overlooked by anyone apart possibly by a stray elephant or kudu. The main lodge building is beautifully designed, completely in keeping with the surrounding countryside. There’s a natural hot spring, a small pool and a hide for bird-watching. Apart from the birds and the chance of seeing the elusive desert elephants (we weren’t lucky) the wildlife isn’t as great as elsewhere in Namibia, but we didn’t care.

Jan and Susi made us so welcome we didn’t want to leave! Jan was so knowledgeable about the local environment. He could imitate all the birds and identify animals at a glance. He described to us in detail how he and Susi had restored this former farm land and gave it back to the wildlife.

And in the evenings everyone ate together by candlelight at the long table in the lodge. The food was fantastic and was washed down with a selection of fine wines, lovingly presented by Jan.

On our last day we were due to leave straight after breakfast. But Jan and Susi persuaded us to stay for the morning so that we could join other guests on a climb to an eagle chick’s nest. Well, one of us climbed – I stayed below to take pictures! Not only was it one of the highlights of the whole trip, it was also another sign of the wonderful atmosphere of Huab, where we were treated like friends rather than paying guests.

Note: Susi and Jan have since retired; the lodge is under new management but still looks pretty special: http://www.huab.com/

We stayed at Huab Lodge in 2004

Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

They say you never forget your first sight of the Grand Canyon. We parked up near the Lodge, went inside, and were at once struck speechless by the sight that greeted us. Immediately opposite the entrance of the lodge is a huge window directly overlooking the Canyon. The weather was worsening, and black clouds combined with swirls of icy rain to give the most dramatic of effects.

Having checked in we headed for our little cabin, about five minutes’ walk from the lodge itself. There we hurried piled on every one of the few jumpers we had packed with us and headed back to the canyon, which drew us like a magnet. Out on the terraces either side of the lodge we gazed at the sight. The icy rain had become first sleet and then snow, and the winds howling through the canyon created what was close to a blizzard. Despite the cold we were transfixed; we took photo after photo until our frozen hands could no longer grip the cameras safely. At this point we retired to the shelter of the lodge. Here we gazed some more through that huge window while warming ourselves with a cup of coffee.

Later that evening we ate in the lodge’s dining room before settling to sleep in our cabin, with a stove to heat it and plenty of warm bedding. I loved the fact that it was a log cabin; shades of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ (one of my childhood favourites), if we could ignore for a moment the many close neighbours.

And the next morning we woke to a very different canyon. The bad weather had passed, leaving a pleasantly warm sunny day. The terrace from which we had photographed the blizzard became a perfect sun-trap where we could enjoy a cold beer while listening to an informative talk from a ranger and gazing again on that spectacular view.

https://www.grandcanyonforever.com/

We stayed at the Grand Canyon in 1993

Ngala Lodge, Gambia

Most of our holidays are busy, exploring new places and often on the move. We don’t ‘do’ sun, sea and sand, as a rule. But UK winters are dull and chilly, so a break somewhere warmer is an enticing idea. And now and then we are tempted by a more chilled-out holiday (although I still can’t spend more than a day by a pool without getting the itch to explore!)

Our trip to the Gambia was a bit of an indulgence, so we opted for a week in one of the country’s best hotels, the boutique Ngala Lodge in Fajara. And we were not disappointed! This is a quiet adults-only haven perched on the low rocky cliffs a little away from the main tourist areas but still within easy reach (by taxi or own tours) of some of the main sights. Rooms are all suites and are huge, with private balconies or terraces, and comfortable accommodation decorated with interesting art pieces.

The hotel’s grounds are very nicely planted and decorated with lots of art pieces. Paths wind between the bushes and lead to the restaurant, pool and a decking area above the beach that ensures you can sunbathe there even at high tide. We found service here very good – everywhere we went in the grounds we were greeted with a smile. The pool wasn’t large but was more than adequate for some leisurely lengths and was surrounded by pretty bougainvillaea. They have since added a second pool so it must be even nicer for swimmers!

The food here is exceptional and many non-residents come for dinner in the excellent restaurant. The cuisine is described as ‘healthy and light’, and there’s a lot of fish and fresh vegetables on the menu. You’ll see the salad leaves growing in the hotel garden and they’re picked fresh for each meal. There is music and entertainment every evening. When we were there it was mostly low-key jazz or a wonderful Senegalese singer called Tabou Diop.

This is a tranquil place and won’t suit everyone. No children are allowed, and you won’t find any organised entertainment beyond the low-key music provided by local musicians each evening. There are no pool games, beach sports or other activities. If you want to be continually busy and urged to ‘join in with the fun’, go elsewhere. But if you want to relax, recharge the batteries and be just a little bit pampered in an understated way, head for Fajara and for Ngala Lodge. We rarely if ever go back to any place we’ve stayed, but I am keen to make an exception for this one!

http://www.ngalalodge.com/

We stayed at Ngala Lodge in 2014. For more about our time in the Gambia see: Roots: dark history or tourist trap?

Okonjima Lodge, Namibia

This was another wonderful place on our trip to Namibia, especially as we both love big cats. The lodge is owned and run by the Africat Foundation, which rescues and rehabilitates ‘problem’ cheetahs and leopards, teaching them not to attack cattle.

Our room was an individual round adobe hut, beautifully decorated. Part of the wall was cut away and covered with a canvas flap so that we could ‘let the outside in’. Bird food was provided so that we could encourage them to visit our little ‘patio’ with its small bird bath. A family of ptarmigans visited us soon after our arrival!

The large main building or lapa is apparently shaped like a Camelthorn pod. It is open-sided and overlooks a lawn and beyond it a waterhole. This was where we enjoyed some excellent dinners and night-caps while sitting around the large (and necessary!) fire in the lounge area.

One of the star attractions for us was the resident semi-wild lynx, Pixie. She was tame enough to hang around the lodge and tolerated people; but we were warned not to try to pet her as she was pretty aggressive when upset.

As a guest here you are supporting the Africat Foundation and everyone gets a chance to meet the cheetahs. Most of the cheetahs and leopards that are treated here for injuries are returned to the wild after recuperation, but in cases where the injuries have been too extensive, the cats have had to remain in captivity. The animals are housed in spacious enclosures of between five and four hundred acres in a natural, stress-free environment. Sometimes there are also orphaned cubs that are too young to cope on their own. These have either been captured without their mothers or their mothers have been killed. Finally, some have been in captivity elsewhere and have become habituated to people or completely tame, making them unsuitable for release.

I’d imagined that we’d be lucky to spot a few cheetahs in the distance but that wasn’t the case at all. The rangers can identify roughly whereabouts in the enclosure the cheetahs currently are, as they are all radio-collared. And once the jeeps are close to them there is no need to search further; they have learned to associate the noise of the vehicles with food and soon came running towards us. It was a fantastic experience to see how fast and how beautifully they run, and then to be able to watch them from such a close distance – at times only a metre from the jeep.

We also enjoyed an early morning bush walk with a very knowledgeable guide, and a visit to the lodge’s night hide where we saw honey badgers and porcupines.

Note: there is now a range of different accommodation at Okonjima; the one we stayed is today called the Luxury Bush Camp: https://okonjima.com/

We stayed at Okonjima in 2004

To be continued …

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