Dzaoudzi Airport, Mayotte

A two hour domestic flight in a Dreamliner (it's going on to Paris), from Reunion back across Madagascar (I can see my old haunt Nosy Be beneath us) to Mayotte. I’m reading the airline magazine and I’ve discovered, to my astonishment, that Mayotte consists of more than one island and we’re actually landing on the smaller of the main two. It’s called Petit-Terre or Pamanzi, and the other is Grand-Terre or Maore, which can only be reached by ferry. None of this was mentioned on my itinerary. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to begin another adventure.

Mamoudzou

The traffic is heavy and we have to queue some time for the fifteen minute crossing to the capital, Mamoudzou, before heading for my hotel on the southerly tip of the main island. It’s already obvious that I’m back in Africa proper. Mayotte has only been a French departement since 2011 and the infrastructure is way behind that of Réunion. The roads are poor and it’s a little unkempt. But it has heaps more atmosphere. This is a Moslem country and the women dress accordingly, but with ultimate style. The prints are bright and striking, the jewellery chic and the headdresses ornate and varied. The make-up, for the most part is also immaculate, but it’s commonplace also to smear your face with yellow sandalwood. This is considered a sign of beauty, as well as contributing to the quality of one’s skin.

It’s dark when I arrive at my hotel, which sounds promising in the write-up. The restaurant is open air, on the beach, waves lapping and my bungalow faces the sea surrounded by tall palm trees and baobabs. The hotel website also promises a plethora of turtles and lemurs.

Touring Grand-Terre, Mayotte

I’m up early in search of the advertised fauna, but there's no sign of animal life. I’m met by my guide, Hanifah, who informs me that the lemurs like to sleep in and they will definitely be around later. Now, an island tour. The countryside is dominated by a huge pyramidal volcanic peak, Mont Choungui, and banana plantations and there are a succession of views across turquoise bays. It’s a real shame that the lovely beaches and roadsides are strewn with litter.

A Proper Musical Beach

There’s nothing of huge importance to see, but it’s a fun outing. The driver, Rachidi, is cynically amusing. He tells me, in French, that he has four children and is a Moslem, but hasn’t got married yet, as he is still trying to learn how to get on with their mother. ‘C’est tres difficile…’ . There are restored original style mud houses, complete with graffiti, at Banga, beneath the pyramid peak. Musical Plage is renowned for a gigantic baobab tree and named because this is where the Madagascan immigrants first brought music to the Moslem population. It is indeed musical. There are sounds of drumming emanating from a house across the road, so we wander in and are invited to listen whilst a band rehearse their forthcoming gigs.

The Salt Museum and a Famous Singer

Down the road the the Salt Museum, where the ladies still scrape up the top layer of salty soil, left by the tide retreating across the flats. This is then added to water and filtered (I remember doing this experiment at school) before being evaporated in flat pans over log fires. We stop at a corner café for a peek in. Rachidi’s sisters and mother all live around here he says (so he has a house on the other side of the island) and there’s a very famous singer (wearing a leather beret) drinking coffee, I’m told. So I dutifully take his photograph.

Sada and the Hat Ladies

Next, a botanical garden (sadly it’s not really flowering season) and lunch in the ylang-ylang plantation area (the flowers are plucked on Saturdays and distilled on Sundays.) The final stop is at Sada,  the second city and ex-capital, where gorgeously attired ladies weave palms to make idiosyncratic hats and baskets. They are adamant that they won’t have their photos taken. This is the response around most of the island - it’s frustrating when they look so incredible.

Lemurs in Abundance

Back at the hotel Hanifah is proved right. The lemurs appear in abundance. They are not indigenous, they are the brown variety, imported from Madagascar. The hotel website has suggested that guests encourage them with bananas. However, confusingly there are signs posted warning that they should not be fed and referring to them as maquis. Anyway, Rachidi ignores the latter and they venture pop-eyed along the branches of the trees to retrieve the papaya he has bought, the juice dribbling down their chins. There are also scores of fruit bats (flying foxes) hanging above the lemurs.

Don't Bother to Come Here if You're Not French

As suggested, the hotel is idyllically situated. It’s sad that the service doesn’t match. I struggled with French attitude in Réunion, but here it seems that if I am stupid enough not to be fluent in French then I deserve to be ignored. Menus are banged down. I’m tutted at, mocked if I don’t understand and generally treated like a gross intruder. I’m eating dinner with a couple from Hamburg, Barbara and Fred, who confirm that they are receiving similar treatment from most of the staff, even though Barbara’s French is very proficient. I’ve heard of behaviour like this historically in mainland France, but never encountered it myself. It’s an odd way to treat paying guests. It’s also even more expensive than Réunion. Set dinner - 35 euros.

A Whale of a Time

I’m imagining a quiet cruise around the lagoon, basking in the sun and admiring the views (another one boasting to be the world’s largest but I believe that’s New Caledonia). What I’ve got is speedboat trip zooming along with eleven French twenty-somethings. The boat’s alternative existence is as a dive boat, so the seats are in two columns facing forwards. I’m sitting pillion style (which is not at all comfortable) behind a bearded young man called Julian.

The boat captain speaks to me in reasonable English to tell me that he has no intention of repeating everything he says for me, as he hasn’t the time. In fact he doesn’t say anything else in English at all. That’s okay, I won’t find the time for a tip either. Needless to say I can’t follow much of what he says, but I get the general gist and he certainly hasn’t mentioned life jackets.

We spend most of the journey bouncing over the waves (it’s a fresh breeze today, as the forecasts say) searching for whales and dolphins (les baleines et les dauphins). The whales and their calves are very easy to spot. After we have pursued a mother and calf for some time they obtain their revenge by emerging right alongside the boat. The calf and I are engaging eye to eye. I’m relieved they haven’t tried to come right on-board.

Les dauphins are more elusive, but are eventually discovered, offering their usual fascinating aerial displays around the prow of the craft, before the formation loops away. Another case of so long and thanks for the fish...

Les Islots de Mayotte

We visit a couple of pretty islots, with classic white sands, before finishing with some snorkelling. It’s a pretty drift reef, but most of the twenty-somethings prefer to stay aboard and smoke. I don’t think they want to get their designer gear wet. I’m not asking what they’re smoking - it’s roll ups. My shorts have gone AWOL, which is annoying and no-one is owning up. I don’t suppose the beautiful people have pinched them - they’re only Dorothy Perkins. Perhaps they’re still on the islot. Unfortunately, my bungalow key is in the back pocket.

A Perfect Day in Mayotte

There are indeed plenty of turtles out in the bay, just in front of my bungalow. They are happy to ignore me as they, and their attendant scavenger remora fish, feed. There’s also a very rewarding little reef 100 metres or so off the shore. All in all, it’s an excellent beach on which to park my sunbed. I’m adopted by a group of young policemen; ‘Cops on the Beach’ they say, flirting and posing for selfies with me, in front of their girlfriends.

Leaving Mayotte - via Another Réunion

Back on the ferry to Petit-Terre and the airport. It’s the end of the holidays in Mayottte and the first day back at school, so I’ve had to leave early, in case the roads are congested. There are indeed some grands bouchons. This is partly because some of the roads are closed. The French education minister is visiting to supervise the big day.

I’m on my way to my last stop this trip, the Comoros Islands. Mayotte is actually part of the Comoros group, but I’m routed back to Réunion (the other side of Madagascar) and out again. I inquired about this when I got my itinerary and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why I can’t go direct. There are three flights to Comoros on the departure boards, some of them with the same airline. Not for the first time I’m bemused and not a little frustrated. Moroni, here I come - eventually.

Moorea: Another Day, Another Island, Another Contest

Nothing was going to live up to the last three days. I would have deemed this hotel in Moorea very pleasant if I had visited here before the over water bungalows of Bora Bora. There are water bungalows, though not nearly as nice, There's just a view over the lagoon to the reef beyond and a teeny beach. No flower or shell garlands on arrival either. My room is tucked at the back, categorised as garden view, which works if you have a good imagination. Being positive, there is a great infinity pool that really does look as if it dissolves into the sea. And there is a lovely view of the mountains looking back behind the hotel.

Bali Hai

Including the ocean, the whole of French Polynesia is equivalent in size to Europe. Moorea is billed as having the most beautiful scenery in The Society Islands (the Tahitian group). I can see why; it has glassy peaks that soar up, in jagged ridges, from the ocean. This must be why this island is also another contender for the original Bali Hai (the last suggestion was in Vanuatu). It transpires that one of the peaks is actually the one used in the film South Pacific. (I shouldn't have used up all my superlatives in the USA).

Moorea - Another Lagoon Trip

Whales today. Three big ones and a calf all jumping in unison. More stingrays (literally more than before, though no names this time), more reef sharks. Unfortunately, more tourists pursuing them too. Most of the visitors in Polynesia are American and Italian (cheap promotional flights from Rome I'm told). There are far fewer conversations to be shared than in The Cook Islands, though I can hear the conversations of both nationalities quite clearly. Unfortunately, also a lot more hanging around on a motu while the captain does his act. I have seen coconut husking demonstrated three times now. It looks much too strenuous to attempt to me. Good job I have my book. Good job it's still sunny. There have only been small amounts of rain at night this last week. Very clever.

Sloth

Very little done today. I saunter along the reed edge and watch an octopus desultorily dragging his girlfriend along on the end of one long tentacle. That’s marine romance in action. I sunbathe, read and do a few laps of the pool, avoiding the French aqua exercise class. Un, deux, trois. I also eat Polynesian buffet. Raw tuna, tuna salad, tuna steaks.

More Firsts in Moorea

I'm leaving later today and feel guilty about yesterday's sloth so at the last minute I (literally) jump on a 4WD that is leaving early for a tour of the interior. Good decision. Amazing views down to the reef and across the mountains, and bays, including Bali Hai and the bay where Cook might or might not have first landed. The drive up to one viewpoint, is possibly the scariest ever, with part of the uphill track running along a barrow ridge that falls away steeply on both sides. Pineapple plantations and neat little fruit farms tucked under the hills. Breadfruit, soursop, citrus, pawpaw (papaya), mango, barbadine, coconut and bananas. A few temples known as marae, that date back 500 hundred years or so, complete with altars for the sacrifice of animals and the odd human.

A Close Shave

I'm late for the bus to the airport as I have been give the wrong time. I'm faced with a sea of glowering faces when I finally manage to pay my bill and clamber aboard. So it's not great news that I almost miss the flight itself as well. This too has been called before the stated time and I am sitting outside reading. I am waved onto the plane by an angry little man and it takes off early. Also possibly the shortest flight I have ever been on, Moorea back to Papeete. As soon as we are up in the air the tannoy announces that we are landing. It must have taken all of six minutes and we land one minute before we were due to take off.

Samoa next.

Alaska

Alaska is the forty-ninth state and one of only two (along with Hawaii) that's not part of the main USA. The area was settled by Russians as Russian America, and bought from Russia in 1867 for US$7.2 million (equivalent to $133 million in 2020). It was deemed too expensive to maintain - I wonder if the Russians regret it now? Alaska was designated a territory and wasn't actually admitted as a state until 1959. Alaska is by far the largest U.S. state by area. It comprises more total area than the next three largest states (Texas, California, and Montana) combined.

The weather in Alaska is beautiful, most of the time, except when it comes to trying to spot elusive Denali (Mount McKinley). There’s that chill in the air when you get up that is invigorating and round every corner is something amazing. 

Alaska's Cities

I've landed in Anchorage - half of Alaska's residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area. The best thing about Anchorage is the eating. Anchorage cuisine tends to focus upon seafood: fresh wild salmon, cold water oysters and king crab claws. But, despite having the population it's not the state capital. This is Juneau, situated on a sliver of coast further south . his is the second-largest city in the United States by area, (larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined). The former capital of Alaska, Sitka, close to Juneau is the largest U.S. city by area.

Kenai Fjords National Park

From Anchorage to Portage Lake and the dramatic scenery of the Byron Glacier Creek with its permanent snowfield under a hanging glacier. Then, Seward, a picturesque port ringed by a stunning landscape of mountains and glaciers, lying alongside the rich waters of Resurrection Bay. Seward was founded at the turn of the twentieth century by engineers building the railroad to the interior. It was chosen as it is ice free and it prospered during the early years of the Nome gold rush. Now it's the gateway port for cruises into the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park. This has to be the best short boat trip in the world.

Here, nearly 40 glaciers flow into the water from the Harding Icefield and we're sailing (for five hours) to the tidewater glaciers in Aialik Bay and the Holgate arm of the bay. Orcas and humpbacks create a mesmerising display (especially the mother and calf - 'Come and look at the strange humans dear'. A whale breaches several times. Puffins, crested and otherwise, are bobbing, or squawking from rookeries on jagged outcrops, along with cormorants, marbled murrelets and a plethora of other seabirds. Steller sea lions cavort, adorably cute sea otters float on their backs waving happily. The backdrop is sparkling blue glaciers, calving thunderously. What a performance.

Valdez

 The very long ferry journey across the stunning Prince William Sound to Valdez, via Portage Glacier and Whittier, is almost a disappointment after all that excitement, despite seals and more sea otters gliding past on ice floes. Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in the western hemisphere. It's also the terminus of the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which begins in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. This astounding feat of engineering traverses the Brooks Range, crossing rivers and valleys, above and below ground, before finally feeding its oil into the waiting tankers.

Wrangell St Elias National Park, Alaska

Onwards to McCarthy, in Wrangell St Elias National Park. We stop en route to see the remarkable fish wheels on the Copper River, an ingenious method of catching the abundant salmon that follow the river to spawn. It is chilly enough to call for hot water bottles at night. Wrangell St Elias contains the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. I could see some of the peaks poking through the clouds when I flew in. Some 13.2 million acres of the park system have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage area.

The old mining town of Kennicott has been designated as a National Historic landmark. It is described as 'the finest remaining example of an early twentieth century copper mine anywhere'. The town is a fascinating monument reminiscent of wild west movies, complete with swinging saloon doors. We are lured by the possibility of mountain goats and Dall sheep with long curly horns, wolves, black bears, coyotes, bison and caribou. Sure enough, I spot my first bear on the road to our suitably authentic timber lodging.

Here, we climb the Bonanza Mine trail, a steep 16 kilometres following the ridges and tram lines to the old copper mine, taking in the magnificent panoramas of the Chugach Mountains, Mount Blackburn and the Kennicott Glacier along the way. Here, the semi derelict mine buildings are astonishingly dark crimson against the sky - they are reputed to be haunted. And the dirty glacier peaks stretching across the valley floor are spectacular in their own way.

Tangle Lakes

Then, along the Denali Highway to Tangle Lakes. The views of the mountains reflecting in the snowy lakes framed by taiga are utterly gorgeous. Moose, deer, squirrels, foxes and chipmunks all participate in turn. Guide Matt demonstrates using his self defence canister and leaping a stream at the same time.

Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali is six million acres of wild land, one of the world's last intact ecosystems, bisected by one ribbon of road. Relatively low-elevation taiga forest gives way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains. It culminates in North America's tallest peak, 20,310 foot Denali. The Athabascan name means 'the high one' and the guides say that this towering pyramid of rock, ice and snow is often shrouded in a blanket of mist and cloud. True to form, the famous mountain refuses to put in much of an appearance, but more bear (mother and cub gambolling), moose, wolves and Dall sheep do. And there are sled dog demonstrations led by earnest rangers.

Denali by Plane

Next, the tourist town of Talkeetna - motels and log built fast food eateries. It's a good base for Denali exploration. But the peak remains elusive, even from the air. However, our Talkeetna air taxi uncovers clear views up the river systems of Talkeetna and across the Susitna Valley. It's an incredible landscape of cascading icefalls, meltwater pools of the deepest possible turquoise, glaciers and snowy peaks. We swoop through The Great Gorge of the Ruth. It has mile high granite walls filled with a 4,000 foot thick river of ice, and it's the deepest canyon in North America. Take that Arizona! Dipping into a snowy bowl known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre, at the head of the gorge, where we bump softly onto the ground.

Hatcher's Pass

Also in the Talkeetna/Denali area is Hatcher's Pass. The top of the pass is the site of another mine; this time it's gold. The Old Independence Mine, is today an Historical State Park, but it was once the property of the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company. The pass is named after Robert Lee Hatcher, who established the first lode claim in Willow Creek Valley in 1906. At the peak of its production the mine employed over 200 men and produced nearly 35,000 ounces of gold. At today's rates that would equate to over $17 million dollars' worth a year.

The Mine Manager's House now serves as a visitor centre. It features a simulated mining tunnel and displays on gold-mining methods. From the centre, we are directed to follow Hardrock Trail past other restored, but oddly deserted buildings in the complex: a timber shed, warehouse, collapsed mill, mess halls, and bunkhouses. The highpoint - literally - is climbing the trail to the water tunnel portal, where there is a great view of the entire complex and a blast of cold air pouring out of the mountain.

Musk Oxen

Next up on the tourist trail, a musk ox farm in Palmer. The huge animals' pelts are sublimely soft and the wool ridiculously expensive. There's now a thriving herd of 80 musk oxen here, having been reintroduced into Alaska, after being hunted out. This, despite the fact that they were one of very few species to survive the Pleistocene era in the far north.

Dog Sledding and the Alaska Iditarod

The Talkeetna (and trip) finale is a husky sled ride on another Alaska glacier. This involves a scenic helicopter flight over the Chugach Range, Knik Glacier, and Lake George. Then, 30 minutes of sledding in the stunning snowy landscape on the glacier. The Alaskan sled dogs and their mushers live here all summer long. Each of the dogs has their own small white kennel. They're in training for the annual Iditarod Race Trail Sled Dog Race. This is run in early March from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and a team of 14 dogs, of which at least five must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. The owner here, Dallas, has won five times already.

It’s a little murky today, but this just adds to the atmosphere up top, as the chained up dogs howl mournfully from their kennel roofs and vie to be chosen for the ride. Which I hope is done at a more sedate pace. The dogs are selected in strict rotation, with pegs used to denote who has had their turn.

One of the most rewarding trips - ever.

Read more about the U.S.A. here.

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