We recently held a competition where we invited you to write about a lesser-known destination that you had visited, or an unusual activity that you had enjoyed whilst on your travels, with the aim of bringing these “hidden gems” to a wider audience. We were pleasantly surprised by the healthy number of entrants and also the sheer quality of the writing in general.
The sheer variety of places written about spanned both home-grown destinations in the UK and also a variety of places dotted around the globe (some I barely knew existed before finding them on the map!) The entries were all written in their own unique style, and the best ones vividly illuminated what had been a truly memorable life-event with a flourish of well-polished description and creative finesse. I found myself so impressed by so many of these hidden gems, that I too would love to visit someday to see for myself the wonders of nature, architecture and cuisine for that have been so eloquently brought to life for the competition.
You can appreciate and enjoy all of the entries for yourself (as well as the accompanying photo if one was provided) by clicking here and enlarging the map where all of the entries are plotted, and you can choose which entries to read in full. If you are planning a trip away, it is well worth checking if a “hidden gem” is located near to where you will be going, as you have at least one personal recommendation to go on, which can hopefully be a springboard for your own explorations.
After enjoying reading all of the entries, was the hard task of narrowing them down to our shortlisted Top Ten. There were so many entries that had a lot of merit that it took a lot of re-reads and deliberation to whittle it down.
The criteria that we based our decision-making on, was whether the writing :
– was interesting and entertaining
– made us want to go and see or do for ourselves
– was well written and immersed us in the experience through detail and description
– fulfilled the brief of drawing attention to a relatively unknown destination or experience
Read the Top 10
All of the following made it into our best 10, and all make for an entertaining and inspiring read, so get yourself a drink (either warm and cosy, or chilled and refreshing) and…enjoy (in no particular order):
After much angst, the shortlisted Top 10 was sent away to our panel of guest judges. We are very grateful to them for agreeing to judge the competition and thank them for their input in helping us find our ultimate top three to walk away with the coveted prizes.
They were asked to read all of the ten and rank them in order of personal preference, as well as give some feedback for their personal favourites. We received some very favourable comments from the guest judges, who really enjoyed reading the entries (even finding some inspiration to add to their own travel wish-lists) and returned with many positive comments about the standard of writing in evidence.
The guest judges are all established travel writers, keen travellers and travel bloggers, who know a good piece of travel writing when they see it, and we are very grateful for their experience and expertise in ranking the Top 10.
Our Judging Panel
Liz’s earliest travel memories include learning to ski in Norway in the days of wooden skis and leather boots, and swimming in the sea in Torremolinos when it was still a coastal village. In the late 60s her father’s business took the family on an extended trip behind the iron curtain, which was Liz’s first culture shock. No Coca Cola? No adverts? No fish fingers? Since then she has travelled extensively for work and pleasure.
In 2010, after sailing from Turkey to India, Liz began writing about her adventures for Sailing Today magazine. In 2011 she set up the Itinerant Writers Club, an online meeting place for would-be travel writers to practise and hone their writing skills.
Liz’s greatest travel influences have been her parents: her dad instilled a love of antiquities and her mum a love of nature. But it is the people she has encountered along the way who have formed her most cherished memories.
Liz, and photographer partner Jamie Furlong, hope to sail across the equator to Chagos and Africa in 2013, but a sailor’s plans are set in the shifting tides…
Flora The Explorer
Flora is a writer and travel blogger, who chronicles her adventures at Flora The Explorer.
A travelling storyteller with a self penned obsession for the weirdnesses of the world, she spends her time collecting tall tales, small souvenirs and a delightful array of crazy adventures.
Flora is currently living in Ecuador and volunteering her services as an English teacher. For more immediate updates you can find her on Facebook and Twitter, where she spends a large portion of her time discussing travel.
Brandon Elijah Scott
Brandon Elijah Scott is a travel writer, photographer and film maker with over ten years of experience, who specializes in blog coaching, brand/web design and whiskey drinking. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio where he once owned a photography studio, hookah lounge, and where he attended the Ohio State University. Brandon has worked many odd jobs (bartender, inn keeper, valet driver, cameraman) and played many roles throughout his quest of becoming a location independent travel writer and photographer. Brandon prides himself in being a citizen of the world, a storyteller, a whiskey snob and a book zealot. His dream is to travel the world and experience life to the absolute fullest, by living a nomadic lifestyle offbeat of the typical, soul-sucking corporate path, while enjoying his time with as many wonderful people along the way – come along for the ride, you won’t be disappointed!
Anywhere But Home (Naomi)
My name is Naomi, and I stand behind a camera and go ‘click, click, click.’Travel has always been a major part of my life, most importantly because people fascinate me. The things we do, the way we think, and the desires which manifest themselves around us mesmerize me. Being in a completely new place, witnessing something that I’ve never seen before, or learning about a culture in ways I didn’t know – this is what puts the biggest smile on my face. And now, I’ve dedicated my life to pursuing that happiness. In 2010, knowing that I didn’t want travel to be something that only happened once or twice a year, I made the decision to permanently leave home in order to pursue it as a lifestyle. In the time since, I’ve been an expat, working a 9-5 job abroad; a backpacker, bumming from one town to the next; and a transitory nomad, renting apartments for a month and then taking off again. I am 110% in love with this lifestyle. And I have no plans to go home for a very, very long time.
Then Lets Begin (Frances)
I’m Frances and I started this blog in 2010 initially as a place to write about books and films. Slowly it progressed into writing about backpacking and the world of travel. Now, I am writing about the ups and downs of living in and enjoying Melbourne with a working holiday visa, a backpack and my wits. Plans after that will be decided when I feel like leaving. Originally from the UK, I first went travelling in 2010 for three months. I went again for two months in 2011 in a feeble attempt to get it out of my system. The second trip only served to cement my new found travel addiction and it wasn’t long before I started making plans for trip number three!
Once we had received all of the Judge’s Feedback Forms, we compiled all of their scores to find our Top Three winning entries.
And the worthy and extremely talented winners are…..drumroll purlease!…….
First Place and the winner of a Kindle eReader
Manu, Peru by Karen Sherwood
It was the butterflies that really blew our minds. Stepping from the plane onto the strip of grass that passes for a runway this far into the Amazon jungle, we were immediately enveloped in clouds of them. There were more colours and patterns and wing types than it was possible to keep track of: sapphire blues and poppy reds doing battle with pastel shades of aqua and lilac. They were a shimmering carpet on the grass and a decidedly feminine accessory on every t-shirt in our little group of seven. A chaotically beautiful welcoming party for our arrival in Manu – the most unforgettable place on earth.
Having been wowed by Machu Picchu and having fallen in love with Arequipa, Cusco and the Colca Canyon, my husband and I were unsure whether our three days in Manu, deep in the heart of the Peruvian rainforest, could live up to the wonders glimpsed thus far. Would we regret never seeing the shores of the much-vaunted Lake Titicaca if we opted for the Manu trip instead? The butterflies suggested there would be no regrets.
Our guide eventually ushered us away from the safety of the plane, towards the towering wall of jungle that enclosed us on all sides. Once under the shade of the tree canopy the butterflies flitted away, returning to the sunlit warmth of the grassland. There was no lack of life within the jungle proper though; birdcalls and strange crashes and rustles reminded us that we were now at the mercy of a primordial wilderness.
We wove through the trees in single file to the curving edge of the Madre de Dios River. A wooden longboat, with a modern outboard, accepted its seven passengers, and ferried us smoothly to the centre of the wide river. As we slid along the water, round endless bends, always with the jungle pressing hard against the waterline on both sides, it was impossible not to feel a frisson of fear at being so far from what we would consider civilization.
Alighting at the Manu Wildlife Centre to the sight of wooden huts and uniformed guides was somewhat surreal – what would have appeared primitive just hours ago, now looked like slightly incongruous after so many miles of virtually uninhabited rainforest. In the coming days we would see tapir the size of ponies, fluorescent yellow caterpillar as big as cucumbers, troupes of spider monkeys, spectacular macaw and the near legendary giant otters – whose playful antics and sizeable teeth made an unforgettable impression. Birds too innumerable to count flashed their psychedelic plumage at us whilst the butterflies continued to drop in and charm us whenever we stepped out from the jungle’s shade.
There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe the wonders we witnessed during our treasured three days in the rainforest. Manu may not get the publicity of Machu, but it is most certainly the hidden jewel in Peru’s crown.
Judges feedback for this:
“This hidden gem makes Manu sound beautiful and a magical place to be. It made me want to pack my bag and go.”
“Though the story was short, the author sends you to the heart of the jungle in just a few words. Very vibrant prose, and definitely put Manu on my list!”
“Immediate sense of place, great delicate details and lovely self-discovery on the part of the narrator – really made me want to visit Manu!”
Second Place and the winner of a Nikon Coolpix digital camera
A Felucca in Aswan by Rob Tye
The old man’s dark eyes are hidden somewhere in the wrinkles of his face, scrunched up against the glare shimmering on the Nile. He almost looks asleep. Then, with a guttural murmur to his gangly son, the colossal spread of the triangular lateen sail hoists high up the single mast. A blissful shade casts across the open deck of the felucca and the light breeze goes someway to counter the stifling heat.
The wooden prow eases through the ripples in the water at a lethargic pace. It seems even the boat feels it is too hot to warrant the effort. Wael, our captain, reclines back on decorative cushions and steers the tiller with his barefoot whilst sipping at a bottle of water. He raises a lazy arm, pointing out vast, grey boulders jutting from the river. I swap confused glances with my wife and teenage daughter then Wael’s son explains.
“It’s Elephantine Island,” he says with an easy smile. “Some say it’s named after the ivory trade, but my father thinks the rocks are elephants from a pharaoh’s army, turned to stone by an angry god.”
The breeze dies to nothing as we near the pale-red facade of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. I remember a faded print of Agatha Christie on its balcony, putting pen to an early manuscript of ‘Death on the Nile’. A metallic clang against the hull, and a boy’s voice in the water, snaps me from my daydreams.
A small hand clings to the side of the felucca. A young boy smiles at me then offers wooden bracelets and necklaces. A second thud on the other side of the boat signals his competition has arrived. The rivalry intensifies as the two boys try to grab our attentions, desperate for the sale.
I peer over the side, stunned to see the boy in a hacked apart oil drum with a chopped up plank for a paddle. No wonder he wants to hold on to the boat.
Wael scowls and grumbles at the boys, urging his son to repel the enterprising invaders. The young boy waves his handful of trinkets optimistically, wide eyes persisting. So far, I have resisted the street beggars, but the boy’s endeavour deserves reward, so we hastily exchange a few grubby notes for an intricately carved bracelet. Barely pausing for a satisfied grin, he tries the person next to me before his fingers are prised off the gunwale and he drifts away.
A sudden gust snaps the sail taut and we ease downriver. I glance back at the two boys, paddling furiously in their steel drums to the next felucca, but the breeze is too strong and their miss their target. Such is their determination; they immediately angle for another boat heading their way.
As we return to our mooring, the boat drifts back past the petrified stone army. I struggle to see the elephants. Perhaps if I squint as much as Wael…
Judges feedback for this:
“ Wonderful use of description to set the scene, fascinating characters painted with skill, a strong through-line for the story and some lovely imagery.”
Third Place and the winner of a Kubik Evo MP3 Player
A Walk on the Wild Side by Paola Fornari
‘Nonna, look, a purple bird!’
The malachite kingfisher flashes past and settles on a boulder by the lagoon to our left. On the other side, Indian Ocean breakers pound the shore. The beach stretches ahead for a mile, deserted apart from ourselves and a few cows chomping clumps of seaweed. In the distance wave-washed black rocks dot the waterline.
My grandson Sam peers up from under his green sunhat.
‘Where are we going, nonna?’
‘There’s a special treat at those rocks, you’ll see.’
Sam trots ahead, stopping occasionally to pick up a cowrie or a crab’s leg from the fringe of treasures deposited at the high tide mark.
‘What’s this, nonna?’
He hands me a perfectly formed pale green and off-white shell, delicately studded, and hollow.
‘It’s a sea-urchin skeleton, Sam. A sea urchin’s spiky, like a hedgehog. It lives in the ocean.’
He carefully places it in his bucket.
The sky is fortuitously overcast, and there’s a balmy headwind. Rolling hillsides sweep down to the beach. Further on, cliffs loom into the clouds. I am reminded of many summer holidays by the Irish North Antrim coast, only here it’s twenty degrees warmer.
We’re on the Wild Coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. No gated communities of pseudo-Tuscan villas here, no security patrols, no malls or highways: just a few traditional Xhosa rondavels spangling the hillsides, and behind us, the Mbotyi River Lodge. Twelve miles down a bumpy track from the main road, it’s one of the few places visitors can stay.
Clearly, the local Pondo community believes that the value of safeguarding this pristine landscape outweighs the short-term profits of selling out to developers.
Before 1994, this province was the Transkei, an area marginalised by the apartheid regime under the guise of granting it political and economic independence. Perhaps the decades of neglect have played in its favour: here eco-loving visitors can relish a natural environment unsullied by urban development.
‘Nonna! Birds! Birds!’
Sam totters towards an outcrop where a flock of perhaps five hundred terns are perching. At his approach, they fan out in a giant halo over his head.
We continue walking, and soon we reach our goal: rocks deeply encrusted with rough shells.
I pick up two smooth tennis ball-sized stones and hand him one. We paddle through puddles left by the receding tide.
Should I really be doing this, I wonder? Is it ethical? But my doubt is short-lived. These giant oysters must have been put here for a reason…
‘See the shells stuck in the rocks? Each one has a surprise hidden inside. They are our snack, and the stones are our hammers.’
Sam, as always, is enthusiastic. We bang away, and soon we are sitting on the beach, our hands cupping an open oyster each.
‘Go!’ finishes Sam, and we both slurp.
‘A bit salty and slimy, nonna, but yummy! More?’
Worth the ten-hour drive from Johannesburg? Definitely.
Judges feedback for this:
“The author approached the story from a very interesting angle, and I really enjoyed reading through the lens of a day out with her grandson. It gave a very human quality to the description of place.”
“This entry shone for me. The writer’s voice is clear and unfussy; grammar and spelling are excellent. The relationship between grandmother and grandson is tender without resorting to sentimentality. I liked the historical information, which gives the reader some background and understanding of the place. Evocative descriptions. I would love to go to this place.”
A hearty pat on the back to our three well-deserving winners, and a big thank-you to everyone who entered the competition, we hope that you will continue to travel and to write, and enter another of our writing competitions in the near future!
Our current competition combines the serious message of making sure that travel insurance is an essential of your travel preparations, with the fun aspect of taking our Harold with you, and taking a great photo along the way.
If you are inspired by any or all of our “hidden gems” to do some travelling of your own (either with or without the well-travelled Harold along for the ride!), then we are ready, willing and able to fulfil your essential travel insurance needs.
Although nobody sets out on their travels anticipating anything untoward, the best laid plans can go awry, accidents happen and problems occur. Travel insurance can shield you from the stress, financial burden and upheaval if things go wrong e.g. it can pay for emergency medical treatment (and repatriation if necessary), reimburse you if your trip is cancelled for unforeseen circumstances or provide recompense if your personal belongings are lost or stolen, plus many more benefits too.
We offer a number of different policies that cater for a variety of travelling scenarios – all of them offering great value for money and all provided with impressive customer service.
To find out which of our policies will be right for you, either check out the benefits page to find out about the levels of cover offered, or give us a ring on 01424 223964 where one of our customer advice team will be happy to help.