El Mouradi Menzel (Djerba, Tunisia)
Earlier this year me and my girlie friends decided it would be a good idea to take a holiday together. However, being typical indecisive young women we couldn't decide on a destination. All we knew was that we wanted somewhere hot, with a beach and we wanted our holiday to be all inclusive without costing a fortune (unfortunately since ... the week we had chosen to go was not only a bank holiday but also during the schools summer holidays, this proved to be quite difficult). After a long and agonising discussion with our very patient Thomas Cook travel agent we agreed that Djerba sounded like the perfect place for us.
If you lovely readers are anything like my friends, family and work colleagues, I'm sure you will all be currently asking yourselves one question.....Where on earth is Djerba?? Well, let me explain:
Djerba is a small island just off the coast of mainland Tunisia on north-eastern coast of Africa, near the Libyan border and is in fact the largest island of the Gulf of Gabes. Djerba currently has around 60,000 inhabitants and shares the same currency as Tunisia (the Tunisian Dinar which is a closed currency). The Island is home to a relatively small population, most of whom are Tunisian in nationality and are devote Muslims. The island is connected to the south of mainland Tunisia; however it also has its own airport, which is how we arrived on the island.
Being on the northeast coast of Africa, you can safely assume that during the summer months Djerba can get pretty warm. During our stay temperatures ranged from 33-42 degrees centigrade during the day and there wasn't a single drop of rain.
So...our plane touched down at Zarzis Internation Airport in Djerba at around 6:45pm and as me and my friends looked out of the plane windows I must admit we were a little sceptical since all we could see was what appeared to be a very dry, baron wasteland. On exiting the plane we were instantly engulfed by the hot evening temperature but thankful for a light breeze. Once in the airport you have to put your baggage through another scanner before proceeding to get your passport stamped (yippee, I love it when my passport gets stamped - I'm easily pleased). The men who work in the airport aren't exactly what you would call friendly, the guy who stamped our passports actually snapped his fingers at my friend as she didn't pick her bags up quickly enough to move up in the queue and he did this while smoking a cigarette (obviously no indoor public smoking ban in Tunisia). However, following this we did receive our suitcases quickly and proceeded to the coach to take us to our hotel. Now, I understand that in a lot of countries (occasionally ours included) it is customary to give a tip, however I must admit that I did not appreciate the 'gentleman' who put my luggage on the coach thrusting his hand in my face and saying "you tip me" in broken English. How am I supposed to tip you when I have no money?? This is your country, surely you know that your currency is closed and that I can only get money changed at my hotel?!?! Needless to say, I did not give him a tip and thankfully he didn't throw my luggage off the coach.
A short bus ride later (maybe 30 minutes) we arrived at our hotel the El Mouradi Menzel that our holiday guide stated was a 4 star hotel and we were greeted by two beautifully groomed horses and a camel (yippee - I love camels). Once I had overcome my excitement at being greeted by a camel (and of course taken a photo) I then entered the extrememly large main enterance of the hotel that was wonderfully air conditioned. On checking in at reception, we were each given an all inclusive wristband and timetable for when meals are served and at which restaurants/bars and it was explained to us that to the right of the reception desk is a small room through which you can exchange money and provide deposits for beach towels, it is also through this room where you can safely leave you luggage once you have checked out if you have a late flight.
The El Mouradi Menzel Hotel is set in just over 80 Acres of land and is set right on the beach (we had a beautiful sea view from our balcony). The hotel appears huge although I do not know for certain how many rooms it houses, our room number was 378 so that should give you some idea and the rooms are spread over three floors in the main hotel building and also in the Menzels. Our rooms were a good size and contained one extremely large (possibly kingsize) bed and a single bed (there were six of us on our trip and we had two rooms between us). The rooms were air conditioned at no extra cost, which is something I have had to pay extra for at some hotels in other destinations and each had a balcony, full bathroom with toilet, bidet, sink, bath and shower, a direct dial telephone - just dial 9 for reception, satellite TV, hair dryer, fridge and safe (also available at no extra cost). The decor in the rooms were simple yet modern and in very good condition and extremely clean and there was plenty of storage space for the three of us to unpack our belongings (predictably we don't travel light).
***Food, Restaurants and Bars***
I apologise, but I can't remember the exact times at which meals are served, although I know that the full breakfast serving finishes at around 9:30am and continues until 10:30/11:00 as a continental breakfast, perfect for those who love a lie in. Amazingly though, me and my friends managed to get out of bed for the full breakfast every day where they served a variety of tasty dishes. They had cereal, pancakes, omletes and bread on offer for breakfast everyday but also had a selection of other foods that changed on a daily basis. Bizarrely, the Tunisians seem to really like their potatoes, which were present at each meal time prepared in one way or another.
At lunch and tea time there was always a selection of fresh salad and bread on offer to accompany your meal, however I am pleased to say that the other items served varied everyday and out of the 8 days that we were there, I only saw chips on offer once. Desserts on offer usually consisted of a variety of ice cream, cakes and mousse. The food seemed fresh and was really tastey, I have absolutely no complaints about this at all.
All of these meals are served in the main dining restaurant (the Olivier Restaurant) which is situated on the first floor of the hotel. There is both indoor and outdoor seating available but since it was so hot outside we always opted for the comfort of the air conditioned indoor seating. It is a very big dining area, however most tables are suited for parties of four or less and there are fewer larger tables, so it initially proved quite difficult for the six of us to get seated together, especially at tea time when it was very busy. Luckily for us, one of the waiters to a shine to one of my friends and from our second day onwards at the hotel he saved us a large table at both lunch and tea time and even decorated it with fresh flowers.
As you would expect from an all inclusive holiday, this particular restaurant is self service, although at lunch and tea time there are waiters on hand to provide alcoholic and soft drinks. All of the waiters that we met during our stay here were very friendly and polite and were extremely attentive, if they saw an empty glass, they topped it up and even managed to remember what drink you had before and if your plate was empty it was quickly whisked away.
The Olivier restaurant however, is not the only place you can enjoy a meal at this hotel. There is also the Calypso Bar/Barbecue where you can order a meal from a menu and enjoy it in this pool side restaurant. It is also free to eat here although you can only do it once during your stay at the hotel and they only serve meals at lunch time. I had a delicious three course meal here, although I must admit that they had a rather strange selection of starters including but not limited to lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese and some cheese and mushroom penne pasta. My main course consisted of a chicken skewer kebab with rice and vegetables which was lush and this was followed by some ice cream for dessert. In the late afternoon, this bar also serves mini pizzas and crepes which are also free of charge and completely delicious. There is also a bar here from which you can get both alcoholic and soft drinks during the day, however it closes once the pool is closed at 7pm. From this point on if you want to continue drinking you must move to the Sultan Bar at the other side of the pool in the main hotel building.
The Sultan Bar is the main bar used at night as it is the closest to the stage and therefore the evening entertainment (although there is the Pacha lobby bar if you want to have a quiet drink somewhere more peaceful). As with most all inclusive holidays, only local alcohol is free, if you want something branded, you will be asked to pay a fairly extortionate price for it. This bar serves until midnight and if you wish to continue drinking into the early hours then once again you must relocate yourself to either the beach bar (a bar with a dance floor and great up to date music that is literally on the beach) or the onsite night club (unfortunately I cannot comment on the night club as we never went).
There is also a bar where you can site and smoke shisha pipes with a variety of flavoured tobacco. I don't smoke usually but you know the saying "when in Rome..." I tried it, but it wasn't for me. However, if this is your kind of thing, it costs 5 Dinar (£2.50) for a Shisha pipe but you have to pay for drinks in this bar.
It is fairly safe to say that you could never be bored while staying at this hotel and that is mostly thanks to the excellent work of the animation team which is headed by Amir a.k.a Brian. Brian is an extremely friendly and hilariously funny man who trawls the beach and pool side in the day and the outdoor seating area at night looking for people to chat to and ensure that their holiday is going well and that they have no concerns. This may seem annoying to some people who just want to chill out on their holiday and don't want to be disturbed but I have to say Brian had us in stitches whenever he spoke to us. Brian also takes part in the evening's entertainment. Other members of the animation team stalk the pool area looking for and attempting to encourage people to take part in various activities which range from Archery to aqua aerobics and Salsa dancing to volleyball. Me and my friends were often far too hot to partake in any of the activities but we were still asked if we would like to join in every day. I must stress however, that when I say we were asked everyday, we were in no was harassed by the team, they simply just asked and when we said no they would make a jovial comment about us missing out on some fun, wish us a nice day and continue on their mission to find willing participants - of which there were plenty.
I will admit though, that on our last day me and one of my friends decided to join in the aqua aerobics which somehow transfrormed into a game of two teams where you had to travel from one side of the pool to the other on a surf board, which was completely unexpected but incredibly fun and we wished we had joined in everyday.
There is also a mini crazy golf course which is free to use during the day.
The evening's entertainment mostly consisted of variety shows and one night they hosted their own talent show. Out of the seven nights we were there, only once was there an authentic Tunisian show put on, however this didn't bother us at all and as we quite enjoyed the cheesy entertainment. One thing that lets the evening entertainment down however, especially during things such as the talent show is the clashing of languages. Djerba is mostly visited by French and German tourists who have been visiting the island for many years whereas it is still a fairly new destination for English tourists. For this reason, most of what it said during these shows has to be repeated three times; once in French, once in German and once in English. It's probably also worth mentioning at this point that when most of the hotel staff speak to you, they will first speak to you in French - a language in which they are very fluent, despite their first language being Arabic. This is not necessarily a problem however, as long as you tell them you are English, but just bear in mind that their English is not quite as good, although we didn't experience any problems communicating.
Aaahhh, the pool. Perfect for cooling down after a good baking in the sun. The pool is huge and is what I can only describe and a wiggly circular shape that has a couple of small islands in the middle that are home to various neatly pruned plants and displays. The majority of the pool is quite deep and in the area of the pool we seemed to favour for a cool down I could only just touch the floor with my tiptoes and so spent a lot of time treading water. There is of course a shallow area which is near the main steps that enter the pool and it is here that all the pool activities take place (probably the reason we stayed clear of it). There is a fairly large sized children's pool that has a cute little rainbow slide and behind the Calypso bar is another pool that overlooks the sea. Before you go diving into this pool however, I must warn you, it is a salt water pool and so the water tastes awful and can sting your eyes if they're not closed tightly enough. I'm not sure if it's intentionally salty or if it is because it is so close to the sea but it is very salty. Other than this though, its lovely!
Around the pool are a good number of sun loungers, but if you want one you need to get up mega early. We took it in turns to get up at 7am and go and claim our six sun loungers and even at this time there were very few remaining.
I think the hotel owns the part of the beach it is situated on and seems to be very protective of it. If you walk the length of the beach you will after about a 10 minute walk come to a stop thanks to some tall, wire fencing separating you from the rest of the beach which appears to belong to the resort next door. However, this is not an eye sore and you can't even see it unless you purposefully walk towards it as the resort owns a lot of land and is very clever at planting and positioning palms trees which hide it beautifully. The beach itself is lovely soft sand and the sea is mostly beautifully clear and blue. I say mostly because the beach does have a bit of a down side in the form of seaweed. The sea is full of it, although there are areas that are lovely and clear and seaweed free but there are also big piles of seaweed along the beach, although the closer you are on the beach to the hotel, the better the seaweed situation is. Our rep told us about the seaweed during our welcome meeting and told us that it is illegal for the hotel to remove the seaweed, which is why there is so much of it.
Personally, I didn't see this as a problem. It didn't hinder my ability to sunbathe on the beach or paddle and cool off in the sea, just stick to the lovely clear blue areas and you will be fine.
The hotel also has its own onsite photographers that are on hand to take lovely photo shoots. I have been to hotels previously that offer this and have to say have found them very annoying, always badgering you to have your photo taken. Thankfully this was not the case at the El Mouradi and they will only take your photo and inform you of photo shoot opportunities if you approach them. We had some pictures taken by the pool and on the beach and they were lovely. You can purchase the photos individually or have them all on a disc. My friends and I bought a few individual ones and prices vary depending on the size you want. We chose to have 7"X 5" print which cost 5 Dinar each (around £2.50) which I thought was a bargain, especially as they do not charge you for taking the photos in the first place.
As a by the by the hotel also has its own spa that offers a great deal of beauty and spa treatments at very reasonable prices, gym, souvenir shop, small tuck shop, jewellers, kids club and their own on site doctors surgery although I can't comment on any of these as we did not use them. There are also people on site that offer water sports and horse/camel riding but again I cannot comment on these.
I thoroughly enjoyed my week at the El Mouradi Menzel and would definitely visit again. There are unfortunately just a couple of niggles I have. The first is that although the male reception staff are friendly and helpful, the female staff that seem to man the desk during the day are not. They are extremely rude and unpleasant and seem to think nothing of ignoring you mid sentence to answer the phone. So if you have a problem that you need to take up with reception staff thatisn't urgent, I would definitely recommend waiting until the men come on duty as they are so much more polite and willing to help.
The other thing is that check out is at 10am and a lot of flights don't leave until early evening. The hotel are aware of this and kindly offer to hire out rooms for 1 hour for 10 Dinar (£5)so that you can have a shower after spending your last few hours by the pool/at the beach. However, what they don't tell you is that they cannot provide towels for you to use during this hour. Luckily me and the two friends I was sharing a room with got towels, unfortunately my other three friends did not and they ended up having to share one towel between them that one of them managed to get from a passing housekeeper. The annoying this is that my friend spoke to reception staff twice about having no towels and was told that someone would bring some to the room but these towels never materialised and so my friends wasted some of their hour waiting for towels that were never going to arrive. It was only after we had showered that we were told you are supposed to keep the towels from your previous room. Needless to say it was the moody female staff manning reception at this point.
Other than this we had a wonderfully holiday and would quite happily recommend this hotel to anyone and everyone. It is suitable for all the family and the staff at this hotel are extremely welcoming and friendly (bar the female reception staff). This hotel easily meets and occasionally surpasses its 4 star brochure rating.
***One more thing***
I just want to add that because it is a closed currency, it is a good idea to just change small amounts of money as and when you need it (if you're like us then you shouldn't need much at all) as it can only be changed back at the airport and they will only refund to the nearest pound note. For example if you want to change back 12 Dinars you will only get £5 back instead of £6 and they will only do this providing you have the receipt from when you changed the money in the first place.
For more information about this hotel, you can check out their website www.elmouradi.com
Apologies for such a long review, but it was a big hotel and I had a lot to say.
Read the complete review
Royal Atlas Hotel,(Agadir, Morocco)
Last month my partner and I spent a week in Morocco. We wanted a week of poolside relaxation after a busy period at work so even though we knew we would be breaking the week up with a trip to Marrakech, we decided to go all inclusive. We booked the Royal Atlas in Agadir as we knew it was right on the beach and had some of the best ... ratings on TripAdvisor!
When we arrived at the hotel it was just before midnight and I was instantly impressed after seeing some of the other hotels along the half hour journey from the airport! The marble floors, huge sofas and polite receptionists gave a great first impression of the hotel as we walked in and were promptly given our keys and towel cards. The bars were shut and everything was very quiet but as our bags were being taken to our room we had a quick look around the bar, reception and restaurants to get a feel for the place. Everything was smart and clean although we were slightly concerned about the lack of guests! We didn't see a single soul that evening walking around the hotel so we decided that most guests must be arriving the next day!
My immediate impression of our room that evening was excellent. Huge bed, dressing table, a couple of wardrobes and lots of space for moving round which is something I find really important. It was all tastefully decorated in brown and cream with some beautiful Moroccan art on the walls and a huge mirror which is always a bonus! I was delighted to see that we had a balcony, but it wasn't until the morning that I realised that it was overlooking the street, which was luckily very quiet! Still, it would have been a lot nicer to have a sea or pool view! For me the most important thing about a bathroom is that it is clean and modern and this one certainly ticked the boxes. The large marble sink was rectangular with lots of space around it to keep all of my toiletries. The bath was a good size with a powerful shower over it and plenty of towels and bath mats were provided. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gels and creams were complementary and provided in small bottles which were replaced every day even if I had only used a tiny bit. I stopped using them quickly along with their soap to be environmentally friendly even if they weren't! The toilet was separate to the bathroom which is always useful!
The facilities at Royal Atlas...
The best thing about the resort for me was the swimming pools. It was photographs of them that sold the hotel to me in the first place and I wasn't disappointed as I made my way down on our first day. The complex is made up of three large pools which are all entwined and 'curvy' for want of a better word. They are odd circular shapes which all interlink with a lovely pool bar in the middle. In hot weather I find it really difficult to sit or walk around in the sun so I used the pool bar with its tables and chairs both in the sun and shade regularly. The largest pool was good for swimming in as there was plenty of room, although it was the busiest of the pools. The second was another deep pool but a small oval shape which I assumed would be used for the aqua aerobic classes but never saw these classes taking place! I didn't actually go in this pool the whole time I was there. My favourite was the shallow children's pool but with very few kids in the resort I got the whole thing to myself most days! Round the edge of all of the pools was the foot of shallower water where I spent hours reading my books keeping cool in the water but keeping my book and rest of my body dry! Even in the kid's pool this was great because there was a ledge around the edge with an inch of water where I spent most of my day!
Every day a sign was up outside the pool bar to display a list of activities taking place during the day. This always included 10.00 a.m. pilates an 11.30 a.m. aqua aerobics, neither of which I ever saw taking place. I would have loved both! Guests could also play table tennis or volleyball in the grounds or use the gym which we didn't find until the final day! The hotel also had a spa which was very expensive. The massages started at 300dh (£24) with most spa experiences priced at double that amount. Apparently the wellness centre had a whirlpool bath, Turkish bath, and spa treatments. We didn't use it while we were there, mainly because we were always too hot in the sun and it was closed in the evening. I did pop down to have a look round and it looked wonderful.
What did we eat?
There were three restaurants at the Royal Atlas Hotel, the main one of which was L'Ocean which served the three main meals of the day, all buffet style. Breakfast was served from 7.00 - 10.00 a.m. and included all the usual including croissants, pastries, cereal and hot items such as bacon, beans and sausages. Omelettes were made fresh by the cooks and individuals could choose from many toppings. Next to the omelette station were the crepes which were made quickly and there was never a queue. This was my favourite breakfast item and while crepes with chocolate sauce isn't the healthiest start to the day, it was definitely the tastiest! Lunch was served from 12.30 - 2.30 p.m. and included a range of meats in sauce with a type of potato, rice and pasta each day. The chefs also prepared mini pizzas which weren't great and were very dry. The bread base was already cooked and they just melted cheese and a couple of toppings on it. Dinner was served in L'Ocean from 7.00 - 9.30 p.m. and was a wonderful range of traditional Moroccan food and other dishes from around the world. There was a large selection of soups and different breads for starter and a huge salad table with every variety possible. Lamb, chicken or fish tagine served with cous cous was a regular favourite for main course but there were plenty of other options including many other meat dishes and types of potato.
Although the meals served in L'Ocean were buffets, there was waiter service to provide drinks at all three. The dining room was absolutely huge and it was never entirely full as there was always room for an overspill, however we chose to sit outside on the terrace most evenings where it was much quieter.
On the second night of the holiday we went to the hotel's Italian restaurant, Ambiano, which not only served wonderful food but also had great service. We were delighted when instead of a glass of red and white wine each they brought a bottle each. Awesome! As part of the all-inclusive package we could select one starter, main and dessert from Ambiano's excellent set menu. The starters included goose liver and apple salad, tomato soup and a selection of cold meats. Alex loved his soup but the goose liver I chose was a little too adventurous for me! I opted for the prosciutto pizza which was a decent size and delicious. Alex's fillet steak was served beautifully but I was happy I went for the pizza as the steak was a much smaller portion and was served with FOUR homemade chips! Hilarious! We both opted for the mixed ice cream option for dessert but the other options including fruit salad and panna cotta looked great.
We decided to visit the Moroccan restaurant El Zahab on our penultimate night at the hotel. The décor was fantastic with a dark setting by candlelight and with bright coloured silk curtains and huge comfy chairs to sit on. The menu was a set menu with a starter, main and dessert which consisted of a range of Moroccan specialities. I opted for the Harira soup which I did like but I needed a few pieces of bread to be able to eat the majority of it. Alex's aubergine salad looked much tastier. For main course I went for the sea bass which was served with couscous and tomatoes and Alex chose the lamb tagine, again served with couscous. Both meals were really tasty and were improved further by our evening entertainment, the dancers. Three young ladies in wonderful Aladdin-type costume danced to traditional Moroccan music and were welcome entertainment for 20 minutes during the meal. Desserts were all cream based which didn't suit either of us, although Alex's fruit salad (covered in cream) was apparently very tasty. My orange sorbet was a great end to the meal, although it was covered in almonds which I had to pick off because I can't stand them!
We booked an all inclusive mainly out of laziness. At our hotel in Kenya in January we were envious of the guests who could walk up to the bar and grab a bottle of water at any point of the day without having to pay, or could drink endless cocktails in the evening. Anyway, when we realised that it would only cost us £50 extra each to go all inclusive rather than the regular bed and breakfast rate we decided it would be a great way to save money, even though we would be leaving for a couple of days in Marrakech in the middle of the holiday.
As I've already mentioned, the food was very good without being spectacular, but it was great to know that there was a constant supply of food as and when I needed it. I have a huge appetite and the idea of 'free' food was very appealing, and well used! The all inclusive meals were served in L'Ocean restaurant but we were also able to dine at both Amiano, the Italian restaurant and El Yacult the Moroccan restaurant once during the week. There was a late breakfast served at the pool bar which was nice after a morning swim. This was a very basic continental breakfast with various croissants and other pastries served with jam. The mid-afternoon snacks again were very simple, with guests offered the choice of four different sandwiches, served with chips and salad. There were other meals and snacks on the menu available but only the sandwiches were included in the all-inclusive package.
The main advantage of going all-inclusive was the unlimited drinks. In 40 degrees we needed constant refreshment by the pool and could just go up and grab a couple of bottles of water at a time. Small bottles of beer were served from 10.00 a.m. which to me seemed quite early but a lot of people were drinking them! Glass bottles of Fanta, Sprite and other soft drinks were also included but in the heat they didn't stay cold long and I never managed to finish a whole bottle! Drinks in the evening were served with dinner in the restaurants or in the main bar until 11.00 p.m. I'm not a big alcohol drinker myself but it would have been nice to have the option of a soft drink before bed. Many alcoholic drinks were available including different wines and beers and local spirits. The few times that I had vodka with Diet Coke I had to ask for a separate Diet Coke with it because the drink was so strong!
One thing I did notice was that the staff didn't really care who was all-inclusive and who wasn't. We were rarely asked for our room number and there was no 'wristband' to identify who was on which package.
The staff at the Royal Atlas were hit and miss, especially in the case of waiters and pool bar staff. The waiters in the two speciality restaurants were helpful and polite, but in a quieter more relaxed setting this could be expected. However, in L'Ocean, the much busier main restaurant with people constantly walking up and down the aisles to get food, the waiters looked harassed and were occasionally rude. One night we ate on the terrace and sat down on a table which they had just cleared as someone else left. We hadn't realised that they would want to completely remake up the table with a new table cloth etc so were left feeling very awkward as they did this around us scowling. For the rest of that evening they pretty much ignored us as we tried to order drinks and when we did they didn't come until we were on our dessert! We sat inside the restaurant the next evening so we wouldn't be recognised!
One member of staff in particular was especially helpful during our stay and that was the Concierge. We had booked a night's accommodation in Marrakech but had no idea how to go about getting there! We went to speak to the Concierge who asked when we would like to go and times etc and said he would handle it! When we got back to our room after sunbathing that day two coach tickets were waiting for us in our room along with a map of where the coach station was! Superb!
and a word about the guests...
I'm not sure what I was expecting from the other guests at the hotel but I was pleased to find that it was mainly couples and families (without young children). Outside of the summer holidays there were few children around the pool which was lovely and relaxing. Most guests were French but there were also more Brits than I had imagined and even the usual few men in Union Jack swimshorts; exactly why I don't holiday on the Costa Del Sol!
Hmmm. Entertainment-wise, Royal Atlas was average. They had an excellent singer in the main bar every evening for a few hours and he was happy for guests to come up and sing which was nice when we were just sitting relaxing with a drink. However after the second night we noticed that we were hearing the same songs and it became a little more boring. As I mentioned there were dancers in the Moroccan restaurant which was a nice touch, and one of the evenings there were a group of male dancers\gymnasts in the bar performing which was rather impressive. They were good break-dancers and also did lots of exciting things like standing on each other's heads and shoulders!
I was also very disappointed with the pool activities. On my first day by the pool I saw a sign up which said there was aqua-aerobics that morning, pilates after lunch and volleyball in the afternoon. I'm not suggesting that I would have gone to any of these and certainly not more than once, but I never saw any of these activities taking place! It's my fault that I didn't ask the whole time I was there, but it's a little strange that we never heard anything about them or saw the classes taking place.
I had a fantastic time at the Royal Atlas and it was exactly what I was looking for in a week off work. If you're looking for relaxation in a hot country and are happy to chill out by a pool for a week then this could be the place for you. However, if you need something with a bit more action and more entertainment and things to see you would probably be better off in another hotel in another city like Marrakech.
The all-inclusive package was worth it for the price although as can be expected it did get boring towards the end. We paid £550 each for one week as a package deal including flights which I thought was great value considering the amount we would have paid for food and drink on top. It was great to have the two other restaurants to mix it up although I would have liked more than one visit. By far the best thing was the pool area. It was wonderful to be able to relax without children screaming and splashing all day and having the pool bar right next to us to be able to get a drink and sit in the shade for a while. The lack of activities wasn't a problem for me but it was disappointing to see things advertised which didn't seem to exist!
I feel I'm being quite mean with my rating here. If the hotel were in another city such as Marrakech where there is more to do it would have received a solid 4 stars, however looking at the whole package and location I will rate it 3 stars.
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Thanda Safari Lodge (South Africa)
I have stayed all over the world in many exclusive hotels, but I can assure you that nothing comes close to Thanda Safari Lodge just outside Hluhluwe in KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa. This luxury lodge took my breath away and is, without doubt, the most beautiful, luxurious and outstanding property that I have experienced, and I believe, ... am ever likely to experience. It has recently won the title of the World's Leading Luxury Lodge at the Grand Final of the World Travel Awards for the second consecutive year - and I believe this is more than worthy of this accolade.
***Where is it?***
Its situated in Hluhluwe in KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa - which is north of Durban and South East of Johannesberg. You can drive from Johannesberg or Durban - either self-drive or Thanda will arrange for a driver to pick you up from either airport. From the airports its about a 3 hour drive over mostly decent road, although the last 30 minutes or do is along a dirt track. On my first trip, we had a driver pick us up from Durban and it went without a hitch. On our second trip, we took a chartered aircraft from Richards Bay airport which is just about 30 minutes from Thanda - although the flights are more expensive but do go directly to Johannesberg. I believe this is the better option.
***So what's so special about it?***
Everything! The accommodation, the food, the staff, the surroundings, the wildlife, the experience......everything! It is a special place which will truly leave you feeling refreshed, alive, exhilirated, enamored and pampered - and ultimately it will make you upset to leave and eager to revisit again. I stayed for the first time in January 2008 and for the second time in September 2009 - and I wouldn't be adverse to visiting again sometime soon.
There are two main areas that guests stay - the tented camp and the safari lodge. I have stayed at both areas and they each have something to offer that is unique and highly recommended. For anyone who is planning to stay, I would suggest staying for a period of time at the tented camp and then moving up to the safari lodge afterwards. I would say that 2 days in each would be ideal.
---The Tented Camp---
This is an area that is away from the main lodge but which is within 15 minutes drive (by landrover) to the main lodge area. It truly is in the middle of the African bush, without fences, buildings, tourists - and electricity! There are four tents in this area but they are spread out and separate and so you are unable to see another tent from your tent.
Now, don't worry. Just because you are in the middle of the African bush, miles from civilization, does not mean that you have to do without luxury. The tents are stunning and are colonial in style. They really give the impression of being transported back to the bygone age when travel was glamorous. The tents are huge, comprising of a four poster bed, beautiful wooden closets, an en-suite canvas bathroom with shower - and a decked area that allows you to sit out on it and watch the sunset and the game area. There is no electricity at the tented area, but there are battery operated lights for the tent at night - and lanterns light the public areas. Away from the tented area but within a few minutes walk, there is a shared thai sala area with a plunge pool, a outdoor boma area, and a small dining tent which can fit a maximum of eight guests.
What is amazing about staying at the tented area is the fact that you really are in the thick of it. The first night in the tent was a little bit scary as we were lying awake listening to the wildlife walking around outside the tent - and our anxiety was not made any easier by the fact that we were handed a whistle to use if we needed help! However, it was an exhiliarating experience and one I couldn't wait to repeat the second night! It was also wonderful walking around near the tents and being greeted by impala, warthogs and porcupine to name but a few.
The tented area is less expensive than the lodge area, but actually by the end of the two nights we didn't want to move up to the lodge area.....that is until we got there!
---The Lodge Bush Villas---
Wow. Wow. Wow! The bush villas are absolutely stunning, and while the tents were an amazing experience, the villas themselves were luxury in its purest form. There are just nine villas which can have two people in each - and so the maximum number of people staying at the lodge at any one time is 18 (although the number was lower than this when I was there).
Each villa is detached and completely separate from the other villas. They are huge....and I mean huge. When I walked into the villa for the first time, I vowed never to leave it again! Each villa boasts a spacious lounge area complete with log burning fire. The bedroom has a four poster bed which looks out onto the private decked areas outside the villa. The bathroom has a huge bath where you can open the windows completely so that you are literally sat outside, an indoor walk-in shower and a private outside shower so that you can shower under the stars.
While the inside of the villa is stunning, the outside area of the villa is even more stunning. You walk out onto a private decked area which is raised above the game area below. When you are on your decked area, you are not able to see the villa next to you and so you are in complete privacy, with no one being able to see you, except for the odd passing elephant! Each villa has a small (bit deep) plunge pool which you can relax in and sip drinks while overlooking the bush area. There is also a private thai sala area which you can lounge on - and even sleep on if you so wish. There is a private boma area where staff will sometimes serve you a private dinner around....and yes, you will have your own private waiting staff!
Sitting on the decked area was completely amazing - and you really can see wildlife up-close and personal. Imagine my surprise while skinny dipping in my plunge pool having an elephant walk by and dip his trunk in for a drink! Another day I was sat on the thai sala and watched two cheetahs stalk and hunt a small impala - literally within 30 metres of my outside bed!
***The Main Lodge***
There is a main lodge which is in the area where the bush villas are located. The lodge is equally beautiful and is the communal area which is an extension from your private retreat. Most meals are taken in the dining area here or at the shared boma area just outside. There is also a lounge bar area, a library, a small (very small) business centre - and the Wellness Centre. There is a small waterhole at the lodge where animals frequent.....often the smaller animals such as warthog, African dogs, cheetah and antelope.
The Wellness Centre is probably the only area of the lodge that I would suggest needs a little bit of development. While the spa areas are beautifully decorated - and the treatments offered are varied and professionally carried out, I do think the swimming pool area needs a little work as its not terribly comfortable as its all stone - with some sharp areas. Having said that, because everyone has a plunge pool, hardly anyone uses the swimming pool area anyway. The treatments at the spa were reasonably priced and really helped us to relax even more than we already were.
The lodge works on an all-inclusive basis as far as food is concerned - and it is varied and delicious. For breakfast, you have the options of a full english, fish, fruit, cereals, breads, pancakes etc - or all of them if you wish. Lunch is usually fairly light but also really good - like a salad or sandwich. Whereas dinner is a full three course affair and even takes place in the dining room, in the shared boma area or in your private lodge. At the tented area you tend to eat in the tented dining room or around the boma. You often don't know from one day to the next what your evening dining experience is going to be - but actually that adds to the experience.
The food is fantastic - and usually has 3 or 4 options, catering for the adventurous and the not so adventurous. Memorable meals for me included Kudu (a large and very yummy antelope) and crocodile. One of the more memorable nights was when we have a exquisite BBQ around the communal boma area where you could try some of the more unusual dishes should you so wish. Another night, we were served dinner around the boma in our private villa grounds - and we had our own waiting staff (and felt like royalty!).
***The Safari Experience***
Lets face it, most of us come to a safari lodge in order to see wildlife - and Thanda doesn't disappoint. The lodge is situated in a private game reserve within Hluhluwe National Park and it does have the big five. I had been on safari in Kenya previously and so, for me, my focus was not so much seeing all the animals so that I could tick them off a list, but more so that I could watch these animals in their natural environment and get to know and understand them a little better. The trackers and safari guides here are definitely more into quality rather than satisfying quantity - and this suited me well.
We did see the big five when we were here and actually saw some animals that we hadn't seen in a four week safari in Kenya (such as the African dog, porcupine, black rhina, civet etc). We also saw lion, buffalo, cheetah, leopard, white rhino, baboon, giraffe, antelope, elephant, warthog etc. However, the area is not so heavily packed with animals that it gives the impression of being in a safari park or zoo - as I have found in other places in South Africa! As I said, the guides are very much about watching the animals while providing you with plenty of information. During my stays there I have been in the jeep as we were chased by a hormonal elephant, sat in the jeep next to two lions who were roaring their heads off (wow....so powerful), had a cheetah run in front of me on the path as I was walking to dinner, had an elephant drink from my plunge pool and watched a warthog give birth.
While you are at Thanda, there are at least two games drives a day. The one in the morning starts at about 5.30am and the one in the evening starts at about 4.30 (although it varies according to the time of year) and each game drive lasts about 3 hours. You are in a open air jeep and every guest is sat next to a "window" (even though there are no windows as its open air - but you know what I mean!). On each drive you also stop and have a sundowner or a sunriser - depending of the time of day. I made a point of making sure I went on every game drive because each drive is different and you never know what you're going to see (sometimes nothing......but sometimes everything!).
There are various additional activities you can undertake if you wish for a nominal fee. I did the croc and hippo safari which was okay but not run by Thanda and not up to the standards of Thanda and so I personally wouldn't bother doing this again.
***The bottom line***
And now for the bad news! Thanda is expensive. Very expensive! I actually can't believe that I paid this amount....and never regretted it. Infact, I stayed an extra night the first time I went - and then I went back again a year later. But there is no way to soften the blow......this type of luxury costs a lot of money.
To stay in the tented area, in the peak season (November - March), you're looking at spending about £550 per tent per night. To stay in the villa at the same time of year, you're looking at spending about £1100 per villa per night. I know....GULP! This does include the accommodation, all food, local drinks, and 2 safari drives a day.
I know its expensive - I really do get that. But if you can afford it, this is somewhere you really should stay at least once during your lifetime.
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Africa Hotel International
Address: PO Box 363, Diani Beach, Ukunda, Kenya / Hotel International / Tel: +254403203721
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