Back in November 2001, with the world recovering from 9/11 and Europe looking forward to a brand new common currency, we launched our fledgling site. We’d handpicked 100 properties in 10 of our favourite regions, all of which we’d visited in the previous year and photographed with our state-of-the-art Nikon Coolpix! Like digital cameras, online holidays were a novel concept; most people still used high street agencies or tour operator brochures. But we just had three people working from spare rooms in London, Oxford and Bristol – and a shiny website.
Fast forward two decades and we have grown, slowly and steadily, to 1600 properties in 50 countries. We still visit them all, and pick only our favourites. Our Bristol head office has risen to over 20 staff, alongside a network of nearly 100 freelance reviewers worldwide. (Naturally the pandemic put a dent in some of this, but we’re busy rebuilding again now). Along the way, we’ve expanded into villa and apartment rentals, added a pioneering Kids Collection, and special perks for iescape+ members, to name just a few.
Above all, we’ve travelled – a lot! At the latest count, our team has researched over 50,000 properties, and stayed at over 5,000. These range from cheap-and-chic B&Bs to top-end boutique hotels, from tropical treehouses to private islands with toe-in-sea dining. But which have made the deepest impression?
We asked two founding directors, Nikki and Michael, to trawl through their memory banks and pick out their all-time top five.
“It’s so hard to choose just 5 places from the many hundreds we’ve seen over 20 years! But here goes… “
This is possibly the most outlandish place we’ve ever visited. Set in the middle of the Namib Desert, it was our last stopover just before the pandemic struck. It took an exhilarating 8-hour drive to get there, with some crazy weather including tornadoes and deserts turned into shallow seas by the most intense flooding in a decade. We arrived to find 10 luxury tents straddling an outcrop of giant boulders and a level of style and comfort outrageous for somewhere so remote.
Set in the Great Karoo, this vast and beautifully rugged private game reserve has been slowly re-wilded by its inspirational owners. They now have the Big 5, but we’ll never forget our guide helping us track rhinos on foot with our 8-year-old daughter on his shoulders. Safari sundowners took on a whole new meaning here when we drove up high on the plateau to gaze across the plains for hundreds of miles. We’d love to return soon to enjoy their new suites, ideal for families.
We always thought this was going to be a spoiling stopover on our return from Sri Lanka, but we weren’t quite prepared for how much we’d love it here and dream of returning. Apart from the classic Maldivian white sand beaches, exotic marine life and utter peace, Cocoa Island had a wonderful laid back vibe and some of the best food we’ve ever eaten.
They say that if you go once to the Isles of Scilly, you’ll keep on returning. And so it was for us: having first visited Tresco in 2009, we’ve been back every year since to stay in one of their stylish beachfront cottages. There are long, deserted, white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, tropical gardens and no cars. Everyone cycles or walks, so the pace of life is wonderfully slow and you really feel as if you’ve gone back in time. But there is also a top-notch deli, restaurant and cosy pub, as well as a fabulous spa for rainy days. For us, suppers of freshly caught lobster and family picnics on Blockhouse beach are hard to beat.
This was our first – and long awaited – adventure after the covid lockdowns. To avoid the last-minute ban on direct flights to Morocco from the UK, we rebooked flights via France and took tests at every stage – but oh my, it was worth it! This boutique Berber-style hotel just south of Marrakech, with its inspiring interiors, peaceful gardens and pool, was exactly what we needed to unwind. It was also a welcome staging post en route to Le Jardin des Douars near Essaouira – where we stay every year with friends, enjoying their stunning gardens, family-friendly pools and wonderful staff to cook for us in our villa.
“i-escape has taken me from the Alps to Zanzibar – but it’s not always the most exotic places which leave the deepest mark…”
This has to be my favourite place on i-escape – and, at the risk of sounding pretentious – my spiritual home. I first visited Kardamyli, a gorgeous fishing village backed by snow-capped mountains and fronted by crystalline seas, as a child. So when Stavros (yes, that really is his name) told me about Elies back in 2003, I shot out there, viewed his first cottage, and urged him to build some more. Now 28 cottages are tucked among the olive groves, with sea views, chic interiors and an outdoor restaurant beloved by locals. I go every autumn with family and friends for a pre-winter recharge of swimming, hiking and delicious dinners beneath starry skies.
The Puglian hill town of Matera is a unique combination of elegant piazzas and ancient troglodytic dwellings – some of which have been transformed into amazingly chic and comfortable guest suites. Unlocking the creaky wooden door to reveal a vaulted cavern shimmering with candlelight was a moment I’ll never forget; and a long soak in the vast designer bathtub was a fitting prelude to one of the deepest nights’ sleep I’ve ever had. Stepping out next morning, we blinked into dazzling sunshine and plunging views over the ravine; it was like emerging from hibernation.
This super-friendly, rustic-chic, affordable agroturismo tucked into the Tramuntana foothills combines everything I want from a great holiday: a stunning setting, great hiking and cycling from your door, beaches in reach, plus a cool pool and delicious dinners to return to. The welcome could not be warmer, and they have family rooms for when we bring our son (who loves it too). It feels like a quintessential i-escape discovery, and I’m glad to see our guests agree.
The journey here is part of the adventure: a 3-hour drive from Phuket, then a 1-hour longtail boat ride to Koh Phra Thong island, and finally a 10-minute walk along the sands to your private stilted villa hidden in the rainforest. Coming for one day – as I did on the research trip – felt ridiculous; so I had to come back with my family for a full week of lazy, laid-back bliss! The staff – who are from the island and speak little English – looked after our son brilliantly while we zoned out over yoga in the beachside pavilion at sunset.
OK, so sometimes it is the most exotic places which leave the deepest mark! Secreted in tropical forest above a white-sand beach on Pemba, one of Zanzibar’s outlying islands, Fundu Lagoon is reached by speedboat from the island’s grassy airstrip, and feels a million miles from the real world. You’ll see more fish than people: the shallows teem with brilliant reef- and star-fish, while further out are rays, turtles and wrecks for divers to explore. In fact, apart from the charming staff and the small, self-selecting group of guests, the only people we saw were colourfully-kanga’d women walking along the beach to market.
Do you have a favourite hotel or hideaway?Let us know, and we’ll spread the word (or not, as you prefer). We’re especially looking for under-the-radar villas in UK & Europe, so if we end up adding one on your recommendation, we’ll pop a £100 i-escape gift card in the post to say thank you!