Tag Archives: travel

12 things to know about the Isle of Mull

The Isle of Mull is one of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. We went on holiday for 2 weeks at the end of August and beginning of September. We stayed in Shieling at Treshnish, it was a really lovely place to stay for my husband and I, we enjoyed a mixture of relaxing in the cottage and going out and about.

  1. White tailed sea eagleAs soon as you disembark the ferry, look out for wildlife – we saw a sea eagle within minutes, a breathtaking sight! We also went on a boat trip to “whale watch”, no whales this time but the crew were fantastically helpful at pointing out all sorts of sea birds and we did see harbor porpoises, basking shark and a rare sunfish! There are multiple tour operators offering all sorts of trips, all seem to have good reviews so just pick what you like the look of but remember you can’t book wildlife!
  2. While driving keep a look out for passing places – 90% of the roads are single track, the only way to pass vehicles is using bulges in the road called passing places, some are well marked with black and white posts are signs, others are more “informal”. Also, you know you’re being followed by a local if they want to drive a lot faster than you! Pull into a passing place, let them overtake and everyone’s happy! Everyone is really polite, just be nice and all’s good!
  3. Journeys may take longer than you think – single track windy roads are just slower, enjoy taking your time! (Google Maps does estimate times fairly accurately.)
  4. East Mull, The Sound of Mull, Tobermory, Salem and Craignure is where the action happens. Tobermory is the capital, you’ll find plenty of lovely gift shops and the distillery. The lady in Tobermory Information Centre, situated in the main car park, is really helpful, she gave us lots of information and helpful tips.
  5. Iona AbbeyWest Mull, Calgary, Ulva and Iona are remote but beautiful and definitely worth the journey. We highly recommend Iona, although it feels like it’s at the back of beyond, once you’re there, there’s a lovely community feel with numerous boutique-style shops, a few places to eat and, of course, The Abbey. At Calgary there’s a lovely beach and Art in Nature sculpture trail.
  6. Everywhere accepts card, but just like small places on the mainland, some asked for the bill to be over £5 or £10. If you’re given Scottish bank notes as change, these are legal tender in England (don’t let any shop assistant etc tell you otherwise!).
  7. Scenery is breathtaking – if you’re an award winning photographer, maybe you would be able to capture the beauty on film but otherwise photographs just don’t do it justice! Around every corner, there’s a fantastic panorama of lush purples and mossy greens – even in the bad weather we had it was stunning!
  8. Do not count on the weather – it’s Scotland!
  9. What 3 Words logoIf you need medical assistance, they have NHS24 (111) – they can give you advice about where to go for appropriate help. If it’s an emergency, it’s 999. While we were there our landlord was involved transporting a lady with a badly broken leg in his pickup because a lot of Mull is inaccessible to normal vehicles! She then needed airlifting because Mull only has a “Community Casualty”. This was where I was sent when I had a mishap with a drone (i.e. my husband flew it into my face!). They were absolutely wonderful and perfectly professional but obviously resources are very limited! For example, x-ray was Wednesday and Friday only! Islanders are familiar with What 3 Words so make sure you have the app downloaded just in case you need rescuing!
  10. If you’re self catering your choice is Spar, or, um, Spar! There was a Co-op in Tobermory but my point is, there’s no big supermarket so unless you’ve taken food from the mainland don’t expect to be cooking anything exotic. There are plenty of places to buy local produce, cheeses, meats, eggs etc so expect to be eating simple food but really good quality.
  11. Mobile phone signal is patchy, to say the least – some cafes etc and most accommodations (but not all) have WiFi. If you’re like us, you’ll enjoy the time to be a bit less connected, sit back and relax without being at the beck and call of your phone!
  12. Pronunciation of towns/villages may not be quite as you’re expecting – our closest grocers was in Dervaig, pronounced Devig. It’s helpful to be aware if you’re being given directions, perhaps have a map handy to be clear which places they’re describing!
Glengorm coffee shop

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of needing to live on soup (for example, when your jaw is swollen from having had a drone flown into it!) I’d highly recommend Glengorm Castle coffee shop – they had four, yes FOUR soups to choose from, I was so excited after having had tomato soup for lunch and dinner for too many days in a row!! My husband also thorough enjoyed a decadent pork and black pudding burger, if that’s your thing! Everything was from their estate and very reasonable priced, just lovely!

If you’re wanting to be out and about exploring the island daily, we’d recommend staying somewhere central. We do not have children so we’re not aware of any family friendly attractions. The island is perfect for walkers, nature lovers and anyone wanting to escape!

Everything else you need to know about Madagascar

This blog follows my “10 essential things to know about Madagascar“.
Before coming to Madagascar there was a lot I didn’t know. So, I’ve put together few things I think it’s helpful/interesting to know! I went with my husband for a 12 night safari visiting 4 national parks and staying in 2*-3* accommodation (so I have no experience of bringing children or higher rated accommodation, for example). I hope you’ll find the following helpful! Please do comment below if you have any questions or what to add anything about your experience!

  1. The currency is the Malagasy Ariary which is only available in Madagascar – it is best to buy it at the Airport. It’s best to have Euros or Dollars to change once you’re through visa/security etc. You can get by with a traveller card but you have to be visiting cities with ATMs and be prepared to get cash out multiple times as the daily limit isn’t very high.
  2. It is a tipping culture – everyone who helps you out will be relying on tips to boost their pay. For example, porters expect 1000-5000 Ariary (20p-£1). It’s important to have a supply of small notes. It is polite to tip 5000-15,000 Ariary/day (£1-£3) to a driver and 10,000-20,000/day (£2-£5) to a guide. They rely on the tips for basics like feeding their family.
  3. Restaurants etc don’t always give change, they consider any extra given as a tip – we found this strange at first (as we prefer to choose how much we tip but it was dependent on what notes we had) but we had a accept that this was their culture (and to us, we were only paying a few extra pennies each time, anyway).

Food and Drink

  1. Rice and zebu (Malagasy mammal similar to a cow with a hump) are staple foods. They eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hotels expecting tourists will offer, what they call, an “American breakfast” that usually includes French pastries or bread, eggs (fried, scrambled, omelette or hard (medium boiled)), coffee or tea, fruit and fruit juice – it is up to you which you choose.
  2. They know what a vegetarian/vegan is but be prepared for lots of spaghetti and Chinese food. For some reason they think that’s all we eat. I don’t know why since their staple food is rice and they cook with beans and (limited) veg so I don’t know why they can’t just adapt the meat dishes but on repeated occasions when asking for the vegetarian options and it was spaghetti – eventually I said I didn’t want spaghetti and one place gave me the meat dish without the meat (they didn’t think to put any other protein on it but I was just grateful it wasn’t spaghetti!), another place just gave me the sides…that was a plate a veg, not ideal but not awful! 
  3. Be aware, there are no diet drinks available, you can get water everywhere but soft drinks such as Coco-cola, Fanta and Sprite soft drinks are the full sugar versions. They also have a drink only available in Madagascar called called Bonbon Anglais which tastes like a sweat shop on steroids!
  4. If you’re eating dinner in the accommodation where you’re staying, they may ask you to book/order your dinner food before the time you want to eat – we never really understood why this was but thought it best just to do what we were asked!
  5. You will need to buy a lot of water – it is relatively inexpensive but you’ll need to ensure you can buy from a safe source (for example petrol station shops), unless your tour company provide it. You need water for drinking and washing teeth; it’s ok to shower in the water but it’s not advisable to swallow any.

Other practical bits’n’pieces

  1. Police may stop you at the entrance and exit of towns/city – this is nothing to worry about, they want to see the documents for the vehicle.
  2. Public toilets are pretty vile – where as men may pee at the side of the road, it’s not as easy for ladies so it’s good to take advantage of toilets within hotels restaurants etc whenever possible, where they have toilet paper, an actual toilet and a door that locks…enough said!
  3. Some accommodation has a limit on what you can plug into their electricity – do not expect to be able to use a hair dryer or kettle but you can charge a phone. If you plug something too large into the mains, it will cut the power but don’t worry they’re used to travellers doing this!
  4. There can be long drives from one region/city to the next but if you have a good guide, they will offer stops at workshops in the small villages where they are keen to show you their craft – they’re very proud of anything that originates in Madagascar from cotton and silk to sapphires and recycled aluminium pots. You do not need to pay or tip for the tour of the workshop but they appreciate you buying something from them, even something small, this helps the individuals working in the workshop and the economy in general.
  5. Some roads are straight and well maintained, others are not! If you get motion sickness, and are doing a tour/safari of any kind, you’ll probably need to take precautions most days. 
  6. Our experience of 2*-3* accommodation was that it was fairly basic but clean (which was the most important thing for me). The bed and pillow are not always the most comfortable but they’re adequate. They do not offer any extras such as kettle or water unless you’ve got an ‘apartment’ where you’ll have cooking facilities. They do all have mosquito nets of varying designs.
  7. If you’re taking an internal flights, be prepared for Air Madagascar to change flight times at the last minute. Our flight was changed twice, the second time whilst we were on our way to the airport! We spent a few extra hours in a hotel so it wasn’t a problem since we’d allowed extra time before our international flight home.
  8. It’s a good idea to take extra luggage space as they really appreciate you contributing their their economy and when visiting workshops they are grateful to you if you buy some of the crafts etc.

Culture – You don’t necessarily need to know any of this before you go but I think these are some interesting points:

  1. Malagasy people are generally very friendly – the language barrier can be difficult if you don’t speak French but we found people very eager to help.
  2. Malagasy people are grafters. If they’re serving you in some way, for example guiding or in a restaurant, they want to give you the best possible experience – you can ask anything you they will do their best to answer/provide for you.
  3. Some people do not like having their photo taken as it, it is considered taboo. Conversely, some people are very happy to have their photo taken, the couple in a house we visited actively wanted their photo taken so they could see what they looked like as they didn’t know – the best policy is to just ask and be sensitive.
  4. In the south they practice polygamy – men actively advertise that they are looking for their first wife, then second and third by placing a comb with er than front or back of their hair.
  5. In the poorer villages, the average age to get married is 15, by 12 girls will already be starting to look for a husband.
  6. Zebu stealing is a big problem – it is against the law but it’s a widespread tradition for a boy to be expected steal a zebu to show he is ready for marriage.
  7. All baby boys are circumcised – they do it in winter and use the cold as the anaesthetic, the oldest male of the family then eats the foreskin with rum and banana. A boy who has not been circumcised is considered a girl.

We were told on multiple occasions “Madagascar has everything” – this is actually quite true, they produce all sorts of foods etc and manage very well with a fairly basic lifestyle. What they do produce is generally very good quality, for example, the rice they produce is high quality and therefore expensive so they export the rice they produce and import a low quality affordable one for their population to buy and eat – I found this quite sad but I can see why they do it.
Would I recommend Madagascar? Definitely. Are there any down sides? Not really – if you can cope with the poverty and are happy to do your bit to help the economy, it’s all good! I’d recommend going now with an established tour company before the hoards discover it!

10 essential things to know about Madagascar

I recently travelled to Madagascar on holiday, however, before I went, I knew very little about the country (other than I could see lemurs in the wild!). There’s not very much on the internet because tourism in Madagascar is in its infancy. My husband and I went on a 12 night safari visiting 4 national parks (in the East and South) with Jenman Safaris, so the following is based on this experience. I’ve put together a list of things I think it’s essential to know before you go:
1. There are many species of animals and plants unique to Madagascar, this is a big selling point for visiting the country. I was very excited to see lemurs in the wild! It’s also reassuring to know there are no deadly animals in Madagascar – our guide helpfully told us this one, although there are plenty of animals, mostly insects, that can sting or produce dangerous venom, these only cause pain or itch. Malaria tablets are advisable even though malaria carrying mosquitoes are only found in certain areas – it’s better to be safe than sorry.
2. The landscape and animals vary from region to region so it’s worth thinking about why you want to go to Madagascar and what you want to see. It varies from lush rainforest in the east to hot desert in the west. Vanilla plantations are found in the north. The wildlife in each area is related to the habitat provided. It’s not really possible to see all regions in one trip unless you stay for a month or more.
3. They speak Malagasy but you can get by in French – if you do not speak Malagasy or French it’s best to hire an English speaking guide who will stay with you. I’d also advise you to brush up on any French you know. The basics like “bonjour”, “merci”, “boisson” and a few foods are really helpful.
4. You can only buy a visa at the airport with cash Euros or Dollars, important to have enough cash, there’s no other option! Also, Malagasy Ariary (currency used in Madagascar) is not available outside Madagascar. You’ll need to change money at the airport or plan to use ATMs; you can change money in some hotels but we were advised against the unfavourable exchange rate.

5. Tourism is in its infancy so don’t expect everything to run smoothly or as you would expect in another country. They had 230,000 tourists last year (compared with 39.2 million to the UK (a country less than half the size). We’ve not had bad experiences but when comparing this holiday with one in Kenya, Madagascar has a way to go – for example their visa system consisted of a pile of pieces of paper, no computerisation!
6. It is the 4th poorest country in the world – this affects tourists in a couple of ways. We were told to be aware of pick pockets (we didn’t experience anything but we were careful with our belongings). We were told to be especially careful when leaving an ATM as you could be followed. There’s a small amount of begging that goes on so it’s best to know where you stand on this, some people give money or food, others choose not to. Everything is incredibly cheap, we haven’t spent anywhere near as much as we thought we would – for example, a beautiful hand carved nativity set was bartered down to <£15, similar in the UK I think would be £80+. Lunch of a main course and drink will be £2-£4/person.
7. Healthcare isn’t good – we learnt this as unfortunately we needed trip to hospital – we were very well treated but cleanliness wasn’t a priority! Life expectancy is 60-65 years for Malagasy people, this is because there is no help with healthcare, they can either afford it or they can’t. So make sure you bring first aid supplies and all medications you may need. If you need medical attention while out in Madagascar you’ll have the choice of a village/town ‘doctor’ (usually a nurse) that serves the local rural population or a city hospital, which may be further away (up to 3-4 hours by road) but you’ll be able to see a qualified doctor.

8. Phone signal and WiFi varies – most places we stayed had WiFi in reception and/or restaurant but it was very slow. There is phone signal in most places but some carriers don’t allow you to send or receive texts. If people back home usually like to hear updates from you, you’d better warn them to assume “no news is good news” as we did before mobile phones!
9. Most National Parks are explored on foot – your travel agents will ask about your capabilities but even though we said “we like walking but can’t do too much” (because I have arthritis and use a brace on 1 ankle) our itinerary contained a lot of walking! Even “easy” or “short” routes around the national parks are often 5km+ over moderate-difficult terrain. Although local people/guides are willing to help we saw people with mobility issues really struggling to get around the national parks. We loved it and didn’t find it too difficult but it’s good to know what to expect.
10. Essential packing list:

  • Be prepared for rain, requiring wet weather gear, a rain jacket at least (especially in the rainforests in the east but we had unexpected torrential rain in the south too)
  • Be prepared for sun, requiring sun cream, sunglasses and a hat (especially in the west/south) – the only weather they don’t get is snow.
  • A good set of walking boots is also recommended if you’re planning on going into any of the national parks – they’re varied, some require scrambling through rainforest undergrowth, others are rocky.
  • Mosquito repellent – they were not a big problem when we visited but it’s just sensible! All the hotels we stayed in had mosquito nets.
  • If you’re visiting national parks you’ll most likely be offered a night walk, for which a torch is essential. If you don’t have one you can sometimes borrow from your guide.
  • The sockets require a 2 pin plug adaptor. Be aware that some hotels have a imit on what their sockets can be used for and some have specific periods without power.
  • Whether you’re exploring national parks or not, a camera is a must – the culture and landscapes are incredibly photogenic!
  • As with any holiday, any regular medication for the full duration of the trip.

For more exciting information, please watch out for my next blog “Everything else you need to know about Madagascar”.