Country Holidays’ Stella Fan talks about learning to dance in Cuba, eating local, and ensuring you travel at the right pace on your next adventure.
You’re not the type of traveller who ticks off attractions and sights from a bucket list; what are the “essential elements” you include when planning your travels?
Indeed, I’ve never even counted how many countries I’ve been to. Travel is just a personal experience, not a mission to be accomplished. I like my personal travel to be a holiday that follows a slow pace. I always check Country Holidays’ itineraries first for suggestions and some ideas like how to avoid big crowds, then I will add a few nights along the route. Nice, charming boutique hotels wherever available are a must, as are a private guide and a nice car, with plenty of room for two people and luggage. Local cuisine is always a fascination for me, but I’ll happily pass on the Michelin starred places in lieu of places that are popular locally or are recommended. Of course, business class flights also allow you rest well and be ready for your tour.
What’s your favourite destination?
It’s hard to say, as each destination has its own charm. If I had to choose, I’d say Africa; it’s a place where you can really switch off, leaving the internet and television behind and returning to nature.
What are the advantages of indulging in a slow-paced itinerary?
When you pay for a good hotel, you need time to enjoy it to its maximum value. I’ve spent hours watching DVDs of Out of Africa and Born Free over a glass of champagne in a Kenyan luxury lodge; played snooker in an Australian property; learnt oil painting at a Chinese Hakka House; and sipped cocktails on a Havana hotel’s rooftop while watching the sunset. The convenience of a private guide and car means you can take your time in your favourite museums or dance the night away with new friends without worrying about finding a taxi to take you back to the hotel. Sometimes it’s these moments that form long-lasting memories, moments that can be even more impressive than seeing the sights. Of course, a slow-paced itinerary also allows for the unpredictable, like flight delays or bad weather.
What’s your definition of ‘stay well eat well’?
I prefer boutique hotels where staff offer personal care. Location is also important as it makes it easier to walk around safely. Thanks to my experience working for Country Holidays, I’ve had the chance to experience many beautiful properties; each has its own charm and character, from a unique location or its own art collection, to a rich history, or interesting activities like a jungle gym or wolf kissing. You get what you pay for, that doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to big hotel brands.
I do not purposely look for Michelin starred restaurants – if there’s one in my hotel I will try it – but otherwise I prefer to find where local people go, and order what they’re having, and this could range from a simple salad of local organic ingredients, to harvesting your own vegetables and cooking alongside a local chef.
Tell us about some of your recent travels to Cuba, Mexico and the Caucasus.
The Caucasus is all about wining and dining on local cuisine; a bit of soft hiking; rural bliss; and absorbing the breathtaking scenery. Georgia was the first country to produce wine, and it’s interesting to see how wine is still produced using large traditional pottery jars. I still remembering whiling away an afternoon at the Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi, where I read a book in the cozy lounge, while watching the changing colours of the sky.
In Trinidad, Cuba I visited a small studio to learn local dances. A private class made learning the complex steps easy and I quickly felt my movements become more fluid. Music really is in the blood of all Cubans; everywhere you go, from the street to the park to the beach there is music.
In Mexico I visited a private cenote. There are public access cenotes – natural swimming holes bound by limestone rock – but private cenotes are much more enjoyable and have better facilities. We were greeted by chilled hand towels and drinks and while we swam a chef cooked chicken and pork in a traditional ground oven. After changing in the private facilities, we had a picnic in the shade.
Any advice for like-minded travellers?
Try to avoid travelling at peak season and consider shoulder seasons, with similar weather, and better value. Don’t be too ambitious with your itinerary and remember to leave time to relax. Also, do not read too much information before you go, try to leave yourself some surprise.
Where are you headed next?
Chile, Argentina and Brazil in March.