Contributed By Jesreen Sidhu
For eight years running now, we take some time off our busy schedules annually to plan at least one amazing trip, where my husband, Karan, and I explore a completely new destination. Although we have a slight weakness and favor comfortable, if not luxurious accommodation, our wandering spirit veers us off tourists traps and fixed itineraries. Basking in a sun lounger with a coconut and rum cocktail in hand can no doubt make a perfect day but the thrill of finding secret waterfalls, secluded beaches, or roaming through hidden alleys to find a quaint coffeehouse is second to none.
Kruger National Park and Ngala Game Reserve, South Africa
For the first part of this trip, we stayed 3 nights at Tamboti Tent Camp within Kruger National Park where we rented our own vehicle and did a self-drive safari. Our semi-luxury safari tent was mounted on stilts and overlooked the Timbavati riverbed which gave us a direct view of spotting animals crossing to and fro. In the spirit of living within true wilderness, honey badgers visited our patio in the middle of the night and created a ruckus when they ransacked our outdoor kitchen in the hopes of finding scraps of food.
For the second part of our trip, we indulged and allowed ourselves to be pampered in the luxurious and intimate compounds of &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge. Here, style and grace mingle faultlessly with the rugged natural beauty of the surrounding. My favorite part of this experience was spending quiet afternoons reading by the poolside and while watching wild animals saunter down to drink at the lodge’s private waterhole.
As we had rented our own vehicle for our time at Kruger National Park, we spent the first three days exploring the park compounds on our own. There were times we drove for over 2 hours without a single sighting, while other times we’d see countless species within a 100m stretch. Being true animal lovers, the unpredictability of animal sightings added to the beauty and sheer appreciation of sighting them in their natural habitat. It was also on this trip I discovered Karan’s incredible ability to spot animals in the wild, even when in a distance and camouflaged. We saw the Big Five within the first day and a half.
While in &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge, we were taken on two game drives a day where sensitive off-roading practices allowed for close-up game sightings. One evening we chased behind a pack of wild dogs as they hunted a deer and watched them make their kill. We also saw the most adorable baby rhinoceros, a truly precious sight considering we, unfortunately, live in a world where their numbers are dwindling as they are hunted despite conservation efforts.
If you are driving from Johannesburg airport, keep within the speed limit when passing through the small towns. The cops, often hiding in the bushes, pull you over for even a mere kilometre over the speed limit and you have to pay them off. We learned the hard way. Several times.
Palawan, Coron, Philippines
Palawan is made up of pristine white beaches, dramatic rock formations, secret coves, rainforests and outstanding dive sites, alive with varied and colorful marine life. It was a no-brainer when shortlisting a destination to do our PADI open water dive license. We based ourselves at Busuanga Bay Lodge, perched on prime waterfront real estate promising sweeping and magnificent views of mountain and sea all times of the day.
Rocksteady Dive Centre surpassed all our expectations with their high safety standards and quality equipment. Our dive master spoke fantastic English, was patient and had a great sense of humour. He quickly sensed my slight awkwardness when underwater and paid extra attention to my needs. It’s most important to feel safe when underwater whether you are a beginner or an avid diver. We saw plenty of marine life, diverse coral reefs and got to explore several wreck sites during our 5-day certification course.
A day trip of island hopping is mandatory while in Coron. We rented a private banca (indigenous boat in the Philippines) from the pier at Coron Town and headed to Kayangan Lake, Twin Lagoon and Siete Pecados for a packed day of snorkeling, cliff jumping and swimming through coves. Each of these sites blew us away; I promise you crystal-clear waters, palm-fringed coves, emerald lagoons and an abundance of marine life. At midday, we stopped at a small secluded island only inhabited by an indigenous fisherman’s family where our boatman cooked fresh seafood on the boat and served us lunch. It was quite the perfect day.
Change your Philippine pesos before you depart your home country as 90% of the island will not accept credit cards. There are only 2 ATMs in the town centre and they didn’t work for us.
I always knew Santorini would be one of those places that lived up to its picture perfect reputation. The contrast of blue and white against the most dramatic of panoramas is the magic that is Santorini. We stayed in luxury boutique hotel Grace Santorini situated in Imerovigli, where we had a perfect view of Greece’s Aegean Sea at our doorstep amid privacy and tranquillity.
As tempting as it was to spend our days lazing by the infinity pool gazing at the world-famous caldera view, we wanted to explore and absorb every inch of the island’s magical beauty. Santorini being a popular vacation spot in the summer meant busloads of tourists spilling all over popular towns Fira and Oia. To avoid the crowds, rent a car or a quad bike and explore the roads less traveled for that picture perfect moment without 10 other people in your frame.
We rode our quad around the entire island, from one tip to the other on all 3 days with no fixed agenda, stopping at beaches along the way to soak in the rays and in the surrounding towns for meals and the occasional summer gelato. Locals at a beach bar shared with us their favorite secret spot. If you continue on the path after the restaurants in Amaudi Bay, there is a cliff-jumping spot only known to a very few. The Aegean sea is freezing cold even in the summer but as the saying goes, life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Every sunset in Santorini is spectacular and should not be left to the last minute. Pick a different town each night to experience the various hues in the sky as the sun goes down. If you are planning to watch it in Oia for the Instagram-famous windmills against the caldera shot, pick up your favorite bottle of wine and head down at least an hour early to pick your spot and await a truly breath-taking experience.