Travel Destinations

Times are hard, money is tight and credit is in short supply. But life is short too, so don’t pass up Paraguay. Frederic reports on one of South America’s best-kept secrets

Paraguay: what does it mean to you? A mixed dream of jungle smells, wildlife and tremendous adventures perhaps. Who knows exactly where it is? Some will guess South America.

In fact, Paraguay is a small country in this huge continent, stuck between Argentina towards the west, Brazil in the east and Bolivia in the north. It’s one of the only two countries in South America – the other is Bolivia – that has no access to the sea. With no sandy beaches where tourists can lay under palm trees and a lack of international knowledge about the country, Paraguay faces a big problem in attracting more tourists.

For a few years, the authorities have been hoping that Paraguay would be included in the route of the famed Dakar Rally. The Chaco, the Northern desert region with amazing sand dunes and wild landscapes should be a good option for the next Dakar, or maybe for the one after. Such an event will showcase the country to the world. So what might get highlighted?

Mrs Liz Cramer, the Paraguayan Tourism Minister explained to CD-Traveller that Paraguay authorities know that Paraguayan tourism is only niche tourism and that it will not change in the short term. That, at least, should protect the country from the over-development of tourism, one of the least desirable effects on the rush to attract more visitors that some countries have had to endure. Paraguay expects a more respectful tourism to what it possesses.

There are no direct flights from Europe meaning tickets aren’t particularly cheap. Coming from Europe you have to fly via another main South American destination such as Argentina, Brazil or even Peru. So many visitors add Pargauay on, having visited a neighbouring country first. And that is probably how your travel agency or tour-operator will suggest a visit to Paraguay to you – as an extension to a holiday in one of the other South American countries.

What is there to draw the visitor?

Iguazu Falls
For a large majority of European travellers, the Iguazu Falls is what attracts them to go on to Paraguay. They are to be found at the junction of three countries: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Whichever guidebook your read, the Iguazu Falls ranks as a ‘must-see’. You can view them from either side and they are positively breathtaking. As the American, Eleanor Roosevelt, said the day she discovered the Iguazu Falls: “Poor Niagara!” You can walk on a platform listening to the rushing waters below and, at the same time, get as wet as though you were taking your morning shower. But, looking at the huge water falls, is something really impressive. It’s one of the best places in the world to measure the strength and the violent beauty of nature.

Most tourists stay at a Brazilian or Argentinian hotel resort for a minimum of two days ,so that they can visit both sides of the falls. Many also head to Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan border town, which is a huge tax-free city with large duty free malls that attract many tourists looking for the latest brand computer or a new cell phone. It also attracts Brazilian smugglers in their thousands!

After that, why not go west for a two or three days to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The route will take you in the path of the Jesuits on the ‘Ruta Jesuitica’, and then in the path of Franciscans on the ‘Camino Franciscano’.

Ruta Jesuitica
In the 17th century when the first explorers from Europe were coming to Paraguay, the Jesuits came to convert the locals. Here, they built a sort of Jesuit country base around a group of nearly 30 towns. This network enabled them to protect the Guarani, the indigenous people, from the Portuguese slave-traders coming from Brazil. You can find these missions split between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Paraguayan ones are among the most beautiful and they are less visited than in other countries: we didn’t see any more than a couple of tourists during our long stay. Compared to those elsewhere it was unspoilt, peaceful and felt like paradise.

These famous Jesuit missions, known as the Jesuit Reductions, were stone or wooden built towns sheltering a population of thousands of Guarani people. Yet they were under the authority of only two or three Jesuits. Around a huge square, the ‘plazza’, on three sides were built the Casas de los Indios, where the people lived. On the final side, between a cloister and a cemetery, stood a church. The pattern is the same wherever you go.

This ideal town arrangement is still completely visible in the marvellous stone Reduction of Trinidad which has been proclaimed, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entering on Trinidad plazza, a huge green grass carpet which is bordered by the ruins of Indians houses, you cross over the grass to reach the church. There, you realise that these uncommon priests were also architects, doctors, artists and much more. Among many activities they learned the Guarani language, compiling the first Guarani dictionary. They also taught Guaranis stone sculpture, woodcarving and fresco art. Inside Iglesia Mayor, the main church, there is a famous carved pulpit above which 40 angels can be seen above the sanctuary playing the music of heaven. A few remaining statues testify of the artwork of Guarani people.

Trinidad is a good place to stop for the night. Pick either a hotel or in one of the Estancias which are huge farms where visitors may also stay. Wherever you stay, most will suggest a horse-riding tour. If you stay overnight, be sure to ask for what I can only call a light show. The site is nicely illuminated and you just walk among the ruins at your own pace. The feeling is more impressive under the stars. It’s so peaceful, you feel in total harmony with this strange beauty.

To read the second part of Frederic’s Paraguay piece, don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller tomorrow!

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Travel Destinations

That’s what South Africa suggests you do this winter. So why not visit Cape Town? The peak period for tourism there is our winter which, of course, is their summer.

A recent survey of tourism companies in Cape Town suggests that South Africa is having a better year than 2010/11. Cape Town airport has highlighted for last November, a 14% increase in international visitors.
Cape Town was named TripAdvisor’s number one destination in 2011 so what is there for us to see.

Cape Town is to be found in the Western Cape, the area at the southwestern tip of the country bordering both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It was on Robben Island – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Today it is a popular tourist attraction having served for over 300 years as a prison. A ferry leaves the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town four times a day for the half hour journey to the island. Just about every visiting political leader feels the need to visit there so why don’t you? Each tour takes about three and a half hour and you’ll have a tour guide. And the interesting thing is that the guides are former prisoners.

Cape Town is dominated by the towering Table Mountain and the easiest way to sample the views is to take the aerial cableway up to the top. Even South Africans and locals never tire of the trip. In the last month alone some 116,000 took the cableway perhaps wanting to see why it has just been named as one of the new 7 wonders of the world. 80% of all the passengers were South Africans. If they think it is worth doing when it’s on their own doorstep it’s something you should do as well. But check first to see it is operating. Weather conditions can shut it down at short notice.

The V & A Waterfront is a big tourist draw for the number of its restaurants, (over 80) its shops (over 450) and its heritage. No, its not named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as you might guess but two harbour basins which were built to give protection from the sea to ships. One is the Victoria Basin named after, well you can guess, and the other is the Alfred Basin named after Queen Victoria’s second son. Here you’ll also find a tourism information office which might persuade you to visit the oldest wine growing area in the country which is in the Constantia Valley. As long ago as the 1760’s one of Captain Cook’s crew was writing of the quality of the wine that was being produced.

Or the office might suggest you visit Hermanus a little town to the east of the city about seventy miles away where there is a whale crier to let you know when he sees whales. That is fairly frequently since the coast around here is one of the big whale spotting areas in the world. Stay closer to the city and visit Boulders Penguin Colony, home to a colony of African Penguins or stay even within the city and see the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden which is open every day of the year for you to see a microcosm of South African indigenous plants.
There’s just too much to see in Cape Town. Which is people go back to explore again and again. Even the locals!

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Travel Destinations

Winter is a good time to test what else a seaside place has to offer apart from beaches. Based on my first visit for many years Boulogne-sur-Mer gets very good marks.

In addition to the beaches, Boulogne is busy all the year with four other attractions. It is worth a stopover for food alone, especially seafood, as it is France’s largest fishing port. It has a magnificent fortified old city, completed in 1230. There is a museum in the castle containing a unique collection of Alaskan art. And for the last 20 years, it’s had the Nausicaa Sea Life Centre dedicated to the study and conservation of marine life with 40 aquariums involving 35,000 “animals” (their words) covering 1,000 different species. In 2012 they expect to see 650,000 visitors.


Nausicaa has a comprehensive website Even if you enjoy your visit just to see the “animals” of which, not surprisingly- fish predominate – the center has a vast range of impressive displays in many original layouts. But, bear in mind that the mission of Nausicaa is far more than just aquarium displays of interestingly looking fish and other species. For example, there is currently a great emphasis on the importance of coral: how it grows, the need for its preservation and how Nausicaa develops its own coral. Understandably, there is a lot of scientific information. There is also lengthy information about the principles of marine sustainability. By the way, in marine matters, the word “blue” is used in place of “green.” Some of the information is based on idealistic concepts translated from French. So, I suggest, don’t think you have to read all the words on all the display boards just follow the “threads” that interest you.

Some threads that caught my fancy were the sustainability of coral and the understanding that Nausicaa has about their animals, for example, how animals can be stressed in some display situations. I also liked the presentation of the World Ocean Day on 8th June and two other events coming up in 2012. In the summer, there is a focus on what attracts visitors more than anything else – the babies. “Nausicaa’s babies” takes you back through the last twenty years or so showing the favorite babies of the times such as the sharks, rays, and corals. And finally there’s tie-up and the personal appearance in April of Michel Redolfi the composer whose work over the years incorporates natural sounds to be listened to underwater- take a look at this YouTube link to hear and see what it’s about:

There is no doubt that Nausicaa justifies a trip to Boulogne in its own right and it can be covered from the UK in a long day which is why in term time it is popular for school trips. But I also wanted to have a good look at Boulogne, not having been there for nearly 20 years.

Apart from the demise of the direct ferries, not a great deal has changed in the harbor and seafront areas. The appeal of Boulogne over Calais used to be that all the restaurant and bistro activity was right next to the ferries which meant a final, very good value meal on the way home. So pleasant was that that I never took the walk of under a mile to the fortified Old City. Until now.

Old Fortified town and Museum

You can see most of the old town in about half a day as it covers not much more than a square kilometer. A short list of what’s there includes the 111th-century belfry (UNESCO Heritage site), Notre Dame Basilica, the Gothic Church of St. Nicolas and the Castle Museum. See all the details on the official site:

I would describe the Museum as “attractively compact”. For example, the four Egyptian Rooms have a small number of all the key objects for the periods concerned, including three mummies, to cover it all without the very long walks necessitated at the British Museum and similar establishments! It also has the largest collection of Greek vases in France.

It is always a pleasure to find something that is truly unique. Alphonse Pinart a famous son of Boulogne and an explorer, traveled at times single-handed in a canoe, up the Western coast of what became Alaska. In 1873 he brought back the stunning local Inuit masks which now form the collection in the Museum. Claimed to be “unique in Europe,” this sort of work was hardly known in Europe before the 19th Century. His collection includes early Alaskan Ray-Bans: leather goggles with slits used as protection against the sun and snow (pictured). It’s fascinating to see how similar the masks are to those of South America for which there is no traceable link.

Concerts, Exhibitions, and Gigs

From April to December Boulogne has a good programme of concerts and exhibitions.
The Pompidou Centre Paris is “coming” from May to September 2012 with a mobile pop up exhibition with free entry. It is also bringing a selection, of works on loan, of modern masters including: Picasso, Braque, Léger and Matisse. Throughout the year there are jazz and classical music events at the Palais des Sports 15 minutes’ cab ride from the town. The night I was there, Liz McComb was singing with her Quintet and backing from two local school choirs.


There are nearly seventy restaurants and bistros in Boulogne and about a third get some sort of comment on the various “travellers’ comment websites”. I only had a chance to try two on my flying visit. One was a disaster, an old established name that was no longer what it once was. I failed to follow my own advice which is to check on current recommendations and always include the Red Michelin book I my bag or at least to see it online. However, we had an excellent lunch at the Restaurant in Nausicaa – two separate fish dishes with individual sauces with the depth of taste that comes from home made stock and the right reductions (Menus: lunch €18 evening from €28) tel: 33(0)321 33 2424. Three other restaurants, all well regarded are: La Matelote (one Michelin Star, menus from €31) tel:33(0)321 30 1797; Grand Restaurant, overlooks Harbour (menus from €19) Tel: 33(0)321 31 4420 and L’llot Vert (menus from €18) tel: 33(0)321 92 0162. Be sure to book in advance for dinner.

Hotel le Metropole tel: 33(0)321 31 5430 has a charming garden next to Phillipe Olivier’s cheese shop rated by some as the best in France.

See it!

Boulogne and Nausicaa is well worth a visit and ideal for a half-term break and I look forward to the next time. So speed down from Calais on the A16 Motorway, or take a coach or get a €15 cab from the Eurostar station. Finally, in the year when Charles Dickens crops up all over the place, Boulogne is included. After 1853 he swapped it for Broadstairs for summer holidays and sent his sons to school there.

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Travel Destinations

Aidan Lawes shares his experience of Hué and Hoi An in central Vietnam with CD-Traveller

Neither Hué nor Hoi An are on the reunification express railway line. We reached them by disembarking at Da Nang and driving the 20km or so south to Hoi An. My father was amused to hear that my tour took in Da Nang which to him was only a USAF base, and indeed as we drove out of town the enormous concrete hangers were still clearly visible. However, nearly everything else has changed: glittering five-star resorts now take up every inch of the shoreline. We spent no time at all in Da Nang itself as Thao, our guide, didn’t think it warranted any attention. From what I could gather, it’s largely a resort and golf centre for people from all over South East Asia who visit for anything from a few days to a few weeks to relax and unwind.

Just outside Da Nang are the Marble Mountains –five hills that rise from an otherwise completely flat landscape. On one of these mountains is a Buddhist temple which offers amazing views over the town below. The temple itself is beautifully arranged around the natural rock, with stairs winding through rocky arches to the different sections of the temple. At the base of the mountain are numerous marble shops made from the famous milky white local stone. These shops export to all over the world, and will custom make you any statue of your choice including copies of anything you care to mention. Even factoring in shipping costs for what could be a ton of marble, the price is still a fraction of what it would cost for similar goods in Europe.

For me, Hoi An was one of the highlights of Vietnam. The town itself is very small – I walked from one side to the other in just over 30 minutes – and has no historical sights as such to visit. So why did I have such a good time? Hoi An is famous as a textile centre and in a few hours, you can have whatever you desire handmade from shoes to suits, leather jackets and couture dresses copied from Vogue. There are so many tailors it is hard to know which to choose. I decided to have two suits made at Yaly Couture on the advice of a friend. A suit there costs anything from US$120 to $350 for the best cloth they have. Yes, there are cheaper places to go: Thao, however, was very pleased with my choice saying it was the best tailor in the city and that my friend who had recommended it obviously had good taste. He was, however, a little taken back by the sight of me spending $600 in one hit – even after I had explained how much suits in London cost and that I have to wear a suit to work on a daily basis. You choose your cut by leafing through racks of pages cut from western magazines showing both adverts and photos of celebrities on the red carpet and in films. My Tom Ford copy is excellent – if only I looked like Daniel Craig too. For some reason, I didn’t buy any shoes. Writing this, I’m still not sure why: a pair of leather brogues was only $30 made from scratch for you in 12 hours. Anyone with the slightest interest in fashion and design or else who, like me, has to wear a suit should pencil in at least an afternoon letting their imagination run riot and indulging in bespoke craftsmanship which is so prohibitively expensive in the West. You really do feel like a king. Dangerously, the better tailors keep your measurements on their books for up to 3 years, so you can order more suits or shirts by email which are then fedexed directly to your home. Of course, this assumes that you haven’t put on a few kgs or grown an extra arm since your last fitting. I have yet to discover the shipping costs, but with a bespoke shirt of the finest cotton costing only $45, and lesser (but still excellent) fabrics only being $20, I think that presents a strong case for a bulk order.

There is much more to Hoi An than shopping though. The markets are very interesting, and offer different food to that in the south as well as different handicrafts. It also feels more relaxed being near the coast, and although there are a good many tourists there, I didn’t come across any large groups being marched around the noteworthy sights. There are fabulous and empty beaches only a few km from Hoi An town. It took us only 10 minutes to reach the beach by bike. Thao was of the opinion that the famous beaches in Nha Trang were better, but I don’t really see how this can be possible! After Vietnam, I ventured to Goa and no stretch of sand there could compete with Hoi An which to me is paradise.

Nightlife mainly revolves around food which is astonishingly cheap, with the main plate of chicken noodles coming in at under 50p! Even beer was a bargain. Why Hoi An should have been so much cheaper than the rest of already affordable Vietnam, I don’t know, but it definitely made me feel less guilty about having shopped in a manner more appropriate to the female members of my family. Our group of three spent all evening playing pool in a large pool hall. I never appreciated how hard it is to cue accurately when your hand is sweating from the heat – that’s my excuse anyway for my awful standard of play. We chatted with other locals and tourists and all agreed that Hoi An’s hotels were excellent in terms of quality and value for money.

Hué was very different. As an ex-capital of Vietnam, it is much larger than Hoi An and immeasurably more commercial. Arriving over one of the two bridges crossing the Perfume River, I almost felt like I was arriving back in Saigon. There were large neon signs advertising fast food, banks and Pepsi affixed to modern glass-fronted malls. Our hotel was enormous, probably 20 stories, and as I later found out, owned by the Vietnamese Government.

Hué has many historic sights, including the famous citadel from the imperial times. Despite sounding and looking ancient, this complex was only built in the 1800s and is purposefully and obviously based on Chinese citadels such as the Forbidden City in Beijing. At the centre of the complex are the Emperor’s private rooms to which only the most favored were admitted. From this central area radiate other areas separated by moats, bridges and large arches. As in the Chinese model, status of a person determined how close you could get to the centre. As mentioned before, it was such a disappointment to see areas of this citadel in a terrible state of repair. When UNESCO’s work is complete, I hope to visit again. Despite being at the centre of the civil war and targeted by the Americans, quite large portions of the citadel have survived albeit in places tattooed with bullet holes.

In front of the main gate into the citadel is Hué’s most famous landmark, the flag tower. Looking something like a Second World War fortification, its only purpose is to support the pole flying the biggest flag I have ever seen. Being on the banks of the river, it is easily visible as you enter the city and serves as a useful landmark if you forget which bridge you crossed. Hué’s more recent history centers around Ho Chi Minh, who lived in Hué, attended school there (then and still now arguably the best school in Vietnam) and taught in Hué for a few years before starting his travels. Opposite the entrance to the school is a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. Having a few hours to kill, I went in and found myself to be the only person there. It was an interesting little museum though, with a large number of personal artifacts, letters, and photos of Uncle Ho throughout his life. A few yards down the road is the building which used to be the French headquarters in the city, which is now the La Residence Hotel operated by Accor. That night we headed to the DMZ bar (so called as Hué is the nearest city to the DMZ from the war) which Lonely Planet raves about. Every inch of the walls and tables were covered in graffiti mostly left by backpackers. There was so much of it that there had to be a notice on the pool table kindly requesting visitors not to write all over the baize too.

Just outside Hue, we visited the Minh Mang mausoleum, just one of a number in the area. The Emperor spent 10 years searching for the perfect spot combining all the Buddhist requirements, and the setting he found is beautiful. It reminded me of a Capability Brown garden – so perfect did it look.

Read Aidan’s account of Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sa Pa tomorrow only on CD-Traveller

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