Remember the last time you saw that golden orb in the sky? Our SAD travel journalist Jill Starley-Grainger can’t, so she’s on the lookout for some late-winter sun. But it’s not as easy to find as you might think.
Jill Starley-Grainger is commissioning editor for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Each month she'll be musing for us on some of the finer things in life when it comes to travel. This month, she's looking for guaranteed late-winter sun.
I have a new hobby. Instead of spending my lunch break at the gym, I tirelessly browse online travel brochures. Sparkling rays seem to bounce off those sun-drenched photos in a cruelly similar fashion to the raindrops that soak my legs on the short walk to the office.
Britain has just seen the wettest winter since records began, but this year’s lack of sunlight is no anomaly. Thanks to cloudy skies and a northerly latitude, London gets just two hours of daily sunshine in midwinter, increasing to a paltry three hours by March. Worse, between tube commutes and my far-from-the-window desk, I’m lucky if I see that golden orb for five minutes. I’m groggy, hungry and mopey – a classic case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to my GP. The prescription? Sunshine – and fast.
Self-medication seems easy, if you believe the brochures, which promise late-winter sun from Andalucía to Zante. But I’m not falling for it.
Seduced by a travel agent’s blue-sky pictures of Napa Valley, I toured northern California’s winelands in March last year. My sunglasses stayed in my handbag and my woolly scarf on my neck for the entire trip (the region is at its best May to October). The year before, I plumped for the Costa del Sol. Costa del Sog, more like. It rained nearly every day.
Before booking anything, I now check Weather2travel.com, which shows the average temperature, sunlight hours and rainfall for thousands of locations around the world. Using their Destination Finder tool, I can see that European destinations aren’t what the doctor ordered. The continent’s most southerly locales get five to six hours of daily sunlight in March, but that’s only when it’s not raining – which it does for 12-13 days of the month.
The Med is less risky in April, but with highs of just 21 or 22C, it’s not bikini weather even in Greece or the Canaries. It’s perfect for tennis, though, and if I had a decent backhand, I’d head to the Peligoni Club in Zakynthos for Easter weekend to catch some rays on the courts. Families love it for its spacious wood-and-stone villas, dotted near the main ‘clubhouse’ in a corner of the island, and its excellent watersports facilities. The Peninsula Gardens hotel in Kas, Turkey, is a better bet for couples. Kids under 14 aren’t allowed, all rooms have sea views and the sultry hammam in the onsite spa thoroughly banished thoughts of chillier climes on my last visit here.
Image: Peligoni Club in Zakynthos
In March, however, Marrakech is the best bet for short-haul sun. Meandering through the not-too-hot souks (they’re unbearable in high summer), then retreating to the rooftop sunloungers and French-Moroccan suites of my favourite medina hotel, the Riyad El Cadi, is tempting. The other good short-haul option is less so – Egypt’s Red Sea resorts might be hot right now, but so is the country’s political situation.
For risk-free late-winter sun, I’ll have to look further afield. South America is not much good as Rio, São Paulo and Buenos Aires are even wetter than Europe right now. The Caribbean, however, is at its best in March. The kids are gone, the prices low, temperatures high and hurricane risk practically nil. From Heathrow, you can get to the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Grand Cayman in eight hours. I could make like Bruce Willis, Keith Richards and Donna Karan and head to Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos. They’re among the celebs who adore this low-key island resort (designed by hotel maven Christina Ong) – so much so, they’ve bought villas here.
Image: Parrot Cay Pool
Southeast Asia is appealing, too. Monsoon seasons vary, but most start in May or June, so March is a safe bet. Thailand is baking hot and bone dry in late winter, and from Bangkok Airport a small private plane will whisk you in an hour to the discreet retreat of Soneva Kiri Koh Kood. When I was there a couple of years ago we dined in tree-pods, sailed and snorkelled in the crystal-clear seas, and watched films under the stars on the resort’s pop-up screen.
Image: Soneva Kiri Resort
Although a long way to go for a short dose of sunshine, Australia seemed an obvious choice – and the brochures agreed. After all, it’s still practically summer Down Under. Then I checked and discovered that Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef are as rainy as London in March (plus it’s peak box-jellyfish season at the reef).
South Africa beats its Antipodean competitor hands down for late-winter sun – plus it’s closer and there’s no jet-lag because it’s just two hours ahead of the UK. I couldn’t resist booking a trip that combined lion-spotting at Shamwari, one of the continent’s best game reserves, with vineyard-hopping in the winelands, and shopping in Cape Town, the World Design Capital 2014.
Image: Shamwari Game Reserve, Sarili Lodge Deck
I’m off next week, and as I sit on the sun-trap terrace of the capital’s landmark Cape Grace hotel, watching the sailboats bob in the harbour out front, savouring Table Mountain views and sipping a crisp Boschendal Grande Cuvée Brut 2007 (officially one of the world’s top 10 best bubblies), I’m expecting my glass to be as sparkling as the sun that beats down on it. And unlike my cloudy late-winter jaunt to California’s winelands last year, when I head off to the South African equivalent, half an hour outside Cape Town, I’m leaving my scarf at home.
Image: Cape Grace Hotel, Bascule Bar
Image: Cape Grace Hotel