To mark its 20th anniversary, Turquoise Holidays co-founder James Bell speaks to Jessica Jonzen about his favourite destinations, the story of the brand, and why travel matters
FANJOVE ISLAND IN THE SONGO SONGO ARCHIPELAGO OFF THE COAST OFF THE EASTERN COAST OF TANZANIA. IMAGE: TURQUOISE HOLIDAYS
There may be no place like home, but there’s also little to beat a really spectacular holiday. After two tumultuous years for the travel industry, we can finally make plans, broaden our horizons and rediscover the unmitigated pleasure of going on an adventure.
For James Bell, who together with his wife Sue and business partner Brian Barton, founded The Turquoise Holiday Company in 2002, it is the romance of travel and its potential to inspire, educate and rejuvenate which inspired him to start his business in the first place.
Now marking its twentieth anniversary, the company which was started at the kitchen table with one computer between the three of them, has grown into the go-to luxury tour operator for dream holidays.
The son of a travel agent, James grew up in Scotland with travel in his blood. “Whenever I was home from school I would help my father stamp the brochures. I’d spend hours looking at the globe on his desk, imagining what those dots in the middle of nowhere – the tiny islands of the South Pacific – were really like,” says James.
FANJOVE ISLAND, TANZANIA. IMAGES: TURQUOISE HOLIDAYS
For a child of the seventies, James was very well travelled. “We’d go wherever Dad had his latest deal, and it was always last-minute – Greece or Spain of the Canary Islands. We’d spend the day stuck to plastic seats in the back of a hire car going off to see hotels,” he recalls. But James had been well and truly bitten by the travel bug. “There was really nothing else I was going to do, and in the 1970s travel was a highly glamorous industry to be in – especially in East Lothian.”
James moved to London and spent the first ten years of his career working for a ski company before moving to another travel company, Bridge the World, where he met his wife, Sue, and their future business partner, Brian Barton.
Sue had recently returned from travelling in the Australian outback. Inspired by Neville Shute Norway’s book A Town Like Alice, Sue worked as a ‘Jillaroo’ – the Aussie moniker for a cow or sheep girl – at an outback station in Western Australia. Sue fell in love with the vast open spaces and the experience gave her a life-long love of remote destinations.
BIRKENHEAD HOUSE IN HERMANUS, AN 11-ROOM CLIFFTOP BEACH HOUSE LESS THAN A TWO-HOUR DRIVE SOUTH-EAST FROM CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA. IMAGES: TURQUOISE HOLIDAYS
In 2002, James and Sue got married, moved from Clapham to a Buckinghamshire village, and started their business. While their previous company had been focussed on selling cheap flights to Australia and New Zealand, James, Sue and Brian believed the focus should instead be on the destinations themselves. Most importantly, they wanted to bring the glamour and romance back to travel.
“I really wanted to create a stylish travel brand,” says James. “I’ve always loved the Tiffany blue, and how no matter what you spend you always get the same beautiful packaging.” The trio had numerous arguments over the name ‘Turquoise’ – “mostly about whether people could spell it” says James, but they agreed it was the word which captured the spirit of glamour and exotic adventure they wanted to harness more than any other.
Starting out offering holidays to Australian outback stations and New Zealand beach houses – or ‘baches’ – Sue noticed that Turquoise’s clients were predominantly honeymooners who wanted a stopover in what used to be called The Coral Route. They were soon selling more honeymoons to Tahiti, Fiji and The Cook Islands than anything else and so offered them as standalone destinations. Asia and the Indian Ocean were quickly added to their portfolio, followed by Africa, North America, the Middle East and most recently the Mediterranean. Over 10,000 honeymoon bookings on, Turquoise is firmly established as an islands and beaches specialist.
Unsurprisingly, those honeymooners have returned with their own families in tow and in 2014 Turquoise released its first family brochure. The company now specialises in honeymoons, family holidays and once-in-a-lifetime celebrations.
SIX SENSES IBIZA, WITH VIEWS ACROSS CALA XARRACA BAY. IMAGES: TURQUOISE HOLIDAYS
So, what are the magic ingredients for a Turquoise property? “It’s all about that ‘wow factor’ experience,” says James. “Every hotel is hand selected and we seek out those unique gems, places which tell a story and are part of the fabric of the place,” says James. “We drop as many properties as we take – if a brand hotel changes ownership and we don’t like it we’re careful about how it will impact our clients.”
Many of Turquoise’s properties are owner run, creating a home-from-home feel, just in spectacular surroundings. This means brilliantly personal service where every detail is attended to, and local recommendations “so you can feel like you aren’t a tourist, even though you are.”
Birkenhead House, an 11-room beach house a two-hour drive from Cape Town is one such place. Named after the HMS Birkenhead which sank in the bay, this elegant retreat set on a cliff’s edge in the Western Cape has spectacular views across two beaches. Between June and November, you can watch the whales which swim right in front of the hotel. Birkenhead House’s surf-loving manager will also be able to share his expert advice on where and when to catch a wave.
Fanjove Island off the coast of Tanzania is another of James’s favourites. “It offers a different type of luxury; not a glitzy, air conditioned luxury, more that you know it’s a privilege to be in this amazing environment. The stars at night are just incredible.”
MATANGI PRIVATE ISLAND RESORT, A 240-ACRE HORSESHOE SHAPED ISLAND IN FIJI’S LESSER-KNOWN GROUP OF NORTHERN ISLANDS. IMAGES: TURQUOISE HOLIDAYS
But it is the Matangi private island resort in Fiji which really captures the spirit of Turquoise for James. The 240-acre island in a horseshoe-shaped bay in Fiji’s lesser known northern group of islands, it is listed in ‘1,000 Places to See Before You Die.’ And with good reason. Each of the 12 ‘bures’ (Fijian wood and straw huts) including three treehouses, has an ocean view and all have been modelled on traditional Fijian homes, using native timbers and bamboo and coconut thatch.
“As well as it being extraordinarily beautiful, the hotel is a real part of the community and the people are so friendly and are genuinely thrilled to see you,” says James. “We forget that about tourism. Too often it’s thought of in negative terms but if it’s done right it’s a benefit for everyone. It’s the best education, and everyone needs a holiday.” Don’t we just…
This is a paid advertorial feature produced in partnership with Turquoise Holidays
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