On Tuesday 10 January I hosted an evening of travel inspiration at Electric House with an excellent panel of experts for Soho House members. Iran, Argentina, Georgia and South Africa got shout-outs, and hotels now on our hit lists:
— Rooms Hotel, Kazbegi, Georgia
— Deplar Farm, northern Iceland
— The Silo, Cape Town, South Africa
— North Coast 500, Scotland
— Kasbah du Toubkal, Atlas Mountains, Morocco
— Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland, Canada
— Katamama, Bali, Indonesia
While the audience were still nestling into their cushioned armchairs in the cosy nook at the top of Electric House, Jonny began the travel inspiration early by reflecting on his trip to Oman, from which he’d just returned – ‘it’s just had such a fast-moving pace of development. With a deep sense of history shown by its forts and castles. But it’s escaping the towns and entering the vast, pristine desert of the Empty Quarter that most captivated me; one of the remaining safe places in the world to see and camp among endless golden dunes...’
JK: It’s a strange time in travel, trends seem to be changing quickly, new flight routes are constantly opening up, the fluctuating pound… People are seeking true ‘experiential travel’ – trips that immerse them in new cultures and where you have genuine interaction with the local people.
What destinations should we be visiting in 2017, and why?
JB: Iran has seen massive growth over the past year, following softening relations with the West. Such constant flow of good news is a tour operator’s dream. However, with the lack of past investment, there is a lack of luxury accommodation
JK: See, now that would put me off...
JB: We certainly have to manage people’s expectations. But this is the sort of holiday focused around the place, the culture and the wonderful people you’ll meet. They’re said to be the most welcoming people anywhere.
JK: Human connection and joy, which after all are the reasons we travel,
JB: Yes, and learning too. My second choice would be the Silk Road. It’s a phenomenal world history of trade and has seen a surge in recent press, with Peter Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads.
JK: And the recent film The Eagle Huntress, set in Kazakhstan.
JB: Central Asia can be challenging for the average tourist. And the range of accommodation will vary hugely, with some lovely boutique hotels having appeared in Uzbekistan, with nice courtyards, and yet in remote Kyrgyzstan you’ll still be using a long-drop loo. Although being somewhere no one else goes, with no-one for miles around, is quite magical.
JK: And the loos are a story for back home!
Audience member: can I visit these places independently?
JB: The Stans would be difficult without arranging transport and translators, so are easier with a tour operator (although I would say that!).
WH: And If you are British or American, you can only travel to Iran with a tour operator.
JB: My final pick is India. It’s somewhere the rupee is almost as bad as the pound right now for a start, so still represents good value. We’ll hear a lot about it this year too as it celebrates 70 years of independence and all sorts of cultural events are planned. Accommodation wise, here you can stay in luxury converted palaces [photo of the Taj Mahal appears... oops].
JB: As someone who runs a travel company, I’m often asked my favourite country, and it’s just too hard to answer, it depends on mood, time, so many things. But one thing that’s for sure is that India is the one country I couldn’t live without.
JT: My vote is Georgia! It’s somewhere you can still experience the joy of discovery, which has been somewhat robbed by social media. I’ve really come back enthused about the place. I’d thought it’d be like Russia, and it’s not at all. And Rooms Hotel in the Kazbegi [national park] in particular is incredible. Tbilisi, the capital, is an absolutely bonkers city, with so many influences. The architecture is ingenious, spectacular, and again bonkers. Oh and you’ll eat absolutely delicious food.
JS: Tbilisi has some amazing Airbnb properties too, with Georgia one of our newest addition destinations.
JB: The only thing with Georgia, and I love the place, is we need a direct flight, London to Tbilisi.
WH: Yes, currently you have to stop over in Istanbul. Or can do Madrid or Vienna.
JT: That just adds to the adventure! With its tumultuous history, Georgian culture is now being reclaimed by the Georgians, in particular the youth culture. Vogue International even covers Tbilisi Fashion Week now. The big boys [hotels] are rumoured to be opening soon, a Four Seasons in Tbilisi, so go now. And it’s got phenomenal skiing opportunities too, you can get passes for €10 a day!
JS: My picks are Cuba, Georgia, Finland... Airbnb means you can travel to places even without the infrastructure yet. While Cuba waits to be developed, we have thousands of properties, where you can live with authentic families. We’ve recently launched ‘Trips’ too, to meet locals and have experiences, which feeds into theme ‘experiential travel’ theme. So for instance, truffle hunting in Italy, or learning martial arts in Japan.
JK: I know Iceland is also a huge destination right now, with demand not even meeting supply. And activities like heliskiing on offer. Deplar Farm in northern Iceland is at the top, top end of this.
WH: The ‘best’ places to travel is a very subjective question, but I do think we’re all looking for good value right now. There are only a few destinations where the £ has actually become stronger since Brexit: Denmark, Mozambique, Egypt...
JK: Such a shame that Egypt is not receiving travellers. They’ve invested so much money in safety too. These countries, Turkey too, need us more than ever.
WH: 100% I would go for a long weekend to Cairo right now. It’d be cheap as chips and you’d have the pyramids to yourself.
WH: But my travel highlight is Iran. Genuinely the friendliest, most hilarious people.
A great one for value is South Africa. Expensive flights, but affordable once you’re there. Cape Town is so wonderful at this time of year.
JK: And new luxury hotel The Silo is opening on the Cape Town waterfront through Royal Portfolio. Built in 1928 as the highest building in sub-Saharan Africa.
WH: Another country is Argentina.
JB: Yes and you may have missed this story just the other day, but they’ve just announced travellers will no longer pay VAT on hotels, essentially saving 20%.
JK: This is what happens when people stop reading travel press! – we miss stories like this! You don’t get this news from Instagram.
WH: You can change money on the blue market once you’re there too.
JS: Yes, you get a much better exchange on the streets – people are on every corner shouting ‘Cambio!’ Just make sure you bring dollars.
HT: One option for travelling sustainably is to stay close to home. The Scottish Tourist Board has been promoting this new road trip, the North Coast 500, which is 500 miles of pristine coast, stopping at distilleries along the way, and wild camping. I’m sure it was created just for me! There are 60 uninhabited islands up there, you’d forget you were in the UK. Just make sure it’s the right time of year when you go... It’s so easy to forget just how amazing the UK is. There’s a joy in rediscovering home.
Other destinations with great emerging eco destinations are Dominica and Guadeloupe.
Jordan is doing well for numbers, too.
JB: Oh I went last year and had Petra to myself!
JK: Where are the places you really wouldn’t go?
WH: When thinking about safety I always think, not where would I go, but where would I send my parents.
JB: We did pull Afghanistan last year. Just felt the situation was too unstable. But you’re right – when I was an adventurer I learnt that ‘no-go zones’ as we read about in the paper and never what it looks like on the ground. I saw a Channel 4 report on Western Aleppo the other day, while the east is under a horrifying siege, restaurants are open and life continues in the west.
JT: Surely sometimes it’s about the ethics of travelling to a regime, and putting money in their hands? Take Burma for example.
JB: I think you can travel consciously to try and minimise money going to the government, although there’ll always be some. After all, there are people on the ground who still need to make a living.
JK gauges audience interest in where they want to go – lots for South America.
WH: Colombia is top of my list for somewhere I haven’t been.
HT: Cartagena, walled city on the Caribbean coast, has really opened up for travellers. You can sail from there to Panama passing desert islands inhabited by the Kuna tribe – through the Darién Gap which was inaccessible previously.
JK: What about the trend for workcations? There’s a growing number of people who can work from anywhere with a laptop. Where would be good places to do this from?
HT: Argentina would work well – great for solo travel as Buenos Aires is so vibrant and social, I adore it. But then also so easy to escape out to Argentina’s forests and wineries.
WH: For people that like to stay within the time zone, South Africa is a great choice.
Introducing the topic of eco travel…
HT: The eco-travel world is littered with words that are meaningless. You need to check and challenge hotel’s claims to be acting sustainably. They may claim to have an in-house marine biologist, which sounds great, but are they actually practising conservation and scientific research, or are they just taking people snorkelling?
JT: Firmdale Hotels in London has the incredible achievement of zero-waste to landfill, and doesn’t even make a big deal out of it.
JK: I think we’re all too obsessed with rates. But it pays to find the emotional story somewhere in order to get a unique experience. These sorts of things will never be on a list of ‘facilities’. You have to seek them out. The Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains for example, gives so much back to the Berber community, and its run by the loveliest people, and yet you could easily miss out because there’s somewhere on booking.com for £10 cheaper a night.
Audience member: Where’s good for travelling alone?
WH: I think you’re either someone who would or wouldn’t travel alone, and I’m not. However, I went to Japan a couple of years ago and was so freaked out at first, particularly with the lack of language. But I thought, if I get on the wrong bus, I’ll just get off and try again. It was a liberating trip, which included a wonderful five-day hike.
HT: It’s amazing how much you do rely on language. Without that, it’s still so easy to get lost somewhere – even with a smart phone!
JK: And Japan isn’t as expensive as people think, is it?
WH: No, you can get really cheap fares to Japan with Finn Air.
JK: Are there Airbnb options? What sort of price would they come at?
JS: You can rent private rooms in homes for as little as £30 a night, which is cool if travelling alone, but there are also luxury options.
WH: The food is amazing too. One tip I have is to buy a Japan rail pass before you go – so much cheaper and you can’t get one while you’re there.
Audience Q: Are there any destinations that are newly accessible?
HT: Madagascar is one.
JK: It’s not like the film though... but there are new hotels opening up for sure and amazing water safaris.
JK: Sometimes, a destination will go on the map because of a hotel. This has happened to Newfoundland in Canada for instance, because of Fogo Island Inn. When I told my Canadian father I was going to spend my honeymoon in Newfoundland he couldn’t understand it! But Fogo has found a way to give the local economy an engine. ‘Authentic’ is such a buzz word now but this place just really is.
JB: And sometimes beautiful places aren’t what you imagine as beautiful places. There’s a vast wetland in Argentina called Corrientes, six hours north of Buenos Aires. I took a group out there last year to basically play at being gauchos for a week. And though it’s just rolling flatland, and wouldn’t look like much on Instagram, it’s an absolutely mesmeric landscape with huge sunsets over big skies. We stayed not in luxury hotels but on working farms, and it was such fun!
JK: As UXUA’s Wilbert Das, former creative director of Diesel now an hotelier said to me – a hotel shouldn't impose itself on a destination, it should complement it.
JK: We live in such a visual society, but need to try and shelve the Instagram image for the real thing.
Audience members agreed it can lead to false expectations and disappointment...
JK: Social media certainly has some negative effects in this industry. Hotels have told me that customers have sat in the bar and tweeted them complaints, rather than just TALKING.
WH: Yes I’ve heard the Brits described as the ‘smiling assassins’. If there’s a problem, Germans, Americans, they’ll just say at the time. Brits will smile away, and the moment they’re home – BOOM – unleash the wrath online.
JK: You’re far more likely to be helped if you’re pleasant with your complaint. Walk to reception with a smile on your face and staff will want to help you.
JT: SALT, which started in Norway in 2014 and now travels with messages of sustainability, art, travel etc, is the best possible version of social media however. Because it’s actually social. We [Design Hotels] have also founded a place in Ibiza with similar values, a 10-room farm house, building community and with local long-term initiatives.
JK: What about travelling by calendars and events?
JB: Don’t travel in peak season but in shoulder. It’s better value, fewer people are around and weather is unpredictable nowadays anyway! Monsoon season doesn't ever start specifically on March 1 or whatever.
JK: Yeah, everywhere I’ve travelled to recently has remarked ‘this is very unusual weather for this season...’
JB: Don't just travel for sun either – Angkor Wat in the rain was a really special experience.
Audience member: Where shall I go for a long weekend in June with girlfriends, where I’ll say afterwards: ‘that was an amazing weekend!’?
WH: The Dolomites – basically the Italian bit where they speak German. You get a merging of Italian and Austrian food – pasta and strudel!
JK: Food and drink is probably the greatest travel influencer now.
WH: I have a friend that travels armed ONLY with food blogs. She prints them off and doesn’t even bring a travel guide.
HT: I'd say Lisbon. Great food and wine, really fun and good value.
JT: The Azores. Just google them! They’re Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean with natural spas. They look incredible.
JK: Budapest – and stay at Brody House. You’ll get amazing food and wine, culture and killer cocktails. The whole package – and at an amazing price.
WH: Or Romania is beautiful. Wizz Air flies direct to Târgu Mureș in Transylvania. Its Saxon villages are steeped in history.
Wishing you magnificent travels for 2017.
Huge thanks to Natasha Self for this transcript of our discussion | Tuesday 10 January, 2017, Electric House, Notting Hill.