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Taking the plunge: free diving in the Caribbean @SquareMile_com

Free diving in the waters surrounding Petit St Vincent is a breathtaking experience in more ways than one. Not only does it offer an insight into the bright and beautiful sights of the sea, but we get a lesson in ocean conservation, too

By Lydia Winter

Dudarev Mikhail

At 15m below the water’s surface, all I can hear is the squeaking of the coral, the gentle roar of the waves, and the reliable, reassuring thud of my own heartbeat. I float, suspended in the endless blue, watching the dappled light play over the reef and multicoloured fish of all sorts of shapes and sizes darting in and out of their hidey-holes.

Down here, you develop an intense awareness of your body: the constant urge to breathe, the pressure that builds in your ears, and the knowledge that every movement is using up precious oxygen. It’s taking all my attention to override my instinct to head up to the surface. I look at my watch: I’ve been under the water for more than three minutes. I slowly make my ascent to the air, where I exhale before taking a few calm, steady breaths.

While I’m personally chuffed with my time underwater, when it comes to free diving, three minutes is nothing, and 15m is, well, not very deep. But then I’m just setting out on my journey, under the excellent tutelage of former professional South African free diver Hanli Prinsloo, who can hold her breath for six minutes and reach depths of 60m. Even that is small-fry – the standing world record for staying underwater without breathing is 24 minutes and 3 seconds.

Free diving is exactly what it sounds like: the act of diving in deep water without any breathing aids. It’s just you and your mask – and your buddy, who watches over you from the water’s surface.

Originally free divers were subsistence fishermen, and free diving was widely practised in Greece, where it was used to catch octopus; in Korea, where the haenyo dive for abalone sea snails on the island of Jeju; and similarly on the coasts of Denmark and Sweden, home to shellfish-eating fishermen in the sixth century BC. These days, as a competitive sport, free divers have been known to reach depths of 214m.

Today, I’m not diving for abalone or octopus, and I’m a long way off breaking any records. Instead, I’m diving in the brilliant blue waters off the private Caribbean island of Petit St Vincent with Hanli Prinsloo and her partner Peter Marshall, who together form I AM WATER.

The organisation has two arms: the I AM WATER Ocean Conservation foundation, and I AM WATER Ocean Travel, which offers free diving experiences at luxury resorts around the world. Petit St Vincent has partnered with them as part of its commitment to ocean conservation and fighting whale fishing in the Caribbean.

There couldn’t be a better place to learn how to free dive. For starters, the waters here are a delightful 28°C, which makes the diving a much calmer, more pleasant experience. Then, of course, there’s the island itself.

22 ‘cottages’ dot Petit St Vincent’s 115 acres, each with an uninterrupted view of the sea. Sitting on my private terrace, I can barely see any other signs of human life in the island’s vegetation, save for a red London phone box perched on a rocky outcrop, a folly of Petit St Vincent’s owner. Some of the cottages have private beaches, some are by the ocean, and some sit higher up on the hill, with views over the bay.

This is pared-back luxury: everything is deeply comfortable but nothing is over the top. If there’s anything you need, you can hoist a yellow flag outside your room and leave a note expressing your heart’s desire – breakfast, fresh towels, a snack – and it will magically appear. The real ‘luxury’ here is getting away from it all. There’s not even any internet, with only one small patch of WiFi near the restaurant, the idea being that you can switch off completely and focus on being present and in the moment – an ethos which chimes with I AM WATER and free diving.

As part of our free diving course, led by Prinsloo, we do daily meditation and yoga, including special exercises (also used by opera singers), that stretch the ribs and diaphragm in order to prepare them to expand. We also do breathing exercises that we repeat when we’re in the water that help slow your heartbeat and prepare your body to take in more air.

Sat in Petit St Vincent’s yoga pavilion by the water, we spot turtles coming up for air as they munch their way through a patch of sea grass by the water’s edge, and in the distance, dolphins play in the surf. The setting is idyllic, and perfectly tranquil.

It’s all a bit less tranquil when it comes to applying these learnings in the water. We hop into a boat and head out to an empty patch of sea, armed with some buoys, and split into two groups: Prinsloo leading the free diving, and Marshall the all-important safety training (including a hilarious but crucial demonstration of how to get your buddy back to the surface if something goes wrong, which involves taking it in turns to play dead).

With Prinsloo, we hold onto the life ring and float face down in the water, going through our breathing exercises to calm our body and our minds. One by one, we take it in turns to descend, pulling ourselves headfirst along a weighted rope – we later master the art of duck diving in a way that doesn’t expend much energy, saves oxygen, and gets you deeper faster.

Ahead of my first dive, I’m admittedly nervous. We’re being buffeted by waves, the sun’s gone in, it’s started to pour with rain, and the idea of going straight down head-first is, quite frankly, not all that appealing.

Prinsloo senses my distress and talks me through some extra breathing, helping me to relax, and eventually I go for it. Under the water, I surprise myself by remaining calm, heading down the rope slowly and carefully, equalising my ears and taking time to scan the water around me. At the bottom, I turn upright and make my way back to the top.Free diving continues to mystify scientists and divers often go beyond what scientists believe our bodies’ limits to be

At the surface, I feel stupidly euphoric and eager to go again. After a few more rounds and safety drills, we head over to a reef, where we buddy up and explore, becoming more confident and diving deeper. We’re only here for a few days, but if you’re lucky enough to do one of the full-length courses, you can reach depths of up to 30m. Prinsloo glides among us like a mermaid – a visual helped by her metallic scale-printed leggings and extra-long flippers – as we watch nurse sharks and a beautiful spotted eagle ray glide over the reef.

I’m mesmerised, but Prinsloo laments the lack of sea life here. Tomorrow, she says, after more training, we’re going to head to a protected reef further out, where the currents are stronger but the sea life is abundant. As you’d expect from people who spend so much time in the ocean, both she and Marshall are ardent ocean conservationists, and Prinsloo is involved in environmental projects all over the world.

When we reluctantly return to Petit St Vincent for lunch, I can’t wait to get back out into the water… until I take a seat in a hammock under one of the beach palapas and promptly fall asleep.

The evening is spent on free diving theory, and Marshall takes us through the sport’s history. Free diving continues to mystify scientists and divers often go beyond what scientists believe our bodies’ limits to be – take, for example, that science dictates our lungs should collapse at 50m below water. That said, there are plenty of associated risks if you don’t have proper training and don’t take the correct safety precautions.

The next day, after some more yoga and a talk about ocean conservation, we head out on PSV’s sloop, aptly named Beauty, and spend the day cruising around nearby islands. We come to a stop and get into the water at Tobago Cays, which sits within the National Park where wildlife is monitored and the reefs are under observation.

Here, the current is much stronger and it takes more effort to dive, but the results are worth it: the coral is incredible, and shoals of gem-coloured fish flutter around us. Nurse sharks make their way through the water, and Marshall swims between us taking photos, but the photos simply don’t do the scene justice – it’s like being in an episode of Blue Planet. We head closer to land, and find warm shallow waters where sea turtles gently graze on seagrass, and red starfish stud the sands below.

It’s a completely different world to the reef yesterday, despite their proximity. The two images stay in my mind’s eye for weeks afterwards: one bright and beautiful, and the other empty and forlorn.

Back on land, sat in Petit St Vincent’s plush surroundings, I realise that I AM WATER’s free diving workshops are far more than just a very nice holiday. Together, Prinsloo and Marshall are teaching to love the ocean, and how can you fail to protect what you love?

Read the full article from Square Mile here

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The world’s most beautiful ski hotels @squaremile_com

When it comes to luxurious rooms and fancy fittings, the world of skiing serves you pretty well, and these are some of the best alpine escapes in the world

By Tom Powell

There are no two ways about it: ski holidays can cost a pretty penny. So with that in mind, why not just go all-out and splurge the entire budget on a luxurious lodging rather than the chilly chalet you stayed in last year? There’s nothing better than living it large when you’re in the mountains, after all.

Not convinced? You will be once you’ve browsed this illustrious list of banging boltholes in some of the most amazing ski areas around the world. From Robert Redford-approved places to stay in the snowy mountains of Utah to ski-in/ski-out beauties in the European Alps, we’ve got you a little bit more than covered. Just remember to keep your credit card with your lift pass.

So, without further ado, here are a few of the shining lights in the big-mountain, big-money ski hotel game this year. They might not be all about the après, and they might break your bank balance for the forseeable future, but quite frankly, with mountain-view indoor pools, Michelin-starred menus and interiors with cleaner lines than the ones you’ll be making in the fresh morning powder, we don’t really care.

WIESERGUT, HINTERGLEMM, AUSTRIA

The hotel after a heavy dumping of snow

Design hotels 

Step one: get hold of a 14th-century family estate that’s a two-minute walk from the ski-lifts of Saalbach-Hinterglemm. Step two: slap on floor-to-ceiling windows with gobsmacking mountain views. Step three: get all your designer friends to deck out the interiors with a homespun, contemporary edge. Bam, now you’ve got Wiesergut, a modern retreat with all the warmth and comfort you’d want in the sub-zero temperatures of the Austrian Alps in winter.

Stay: From £398pn. designhotels.com

Getting there: easyJet offers return flights from London Heathrow to Saalbach from £54. easyjet.com

FAIRMONT BANFF SPRINGS, ALBERTA, CANADA

Ice skating at Fairmont Banff Springs, Canada

With acres of amazing mountains, plus ice climbing and more on offer, Banff is a must-visit if you’re sick and tired of the alps. And there’s nowhere more sumptuous to stay while you’re there than Fairmont Banff Springs – a gorgeous castle in the Rockies that’s been keeping the winter set happy for more than 125 years. Sounds like they must be doing something right.

Stay: Seven nights from £1199pp. ski-i.com

Getting there: WestJet offers return flights from Gatwick to Calgary from around £400. westjet.com

GRAND HOTEL KRONENHOF, PONTRESINA, SWITZERLAND

Grand Hotel Kronenhof in the Swiss Alps is near-legendary

When you’ve been welcoming guests since 1848, it’s safe to say you’ve probably got things nailed. Kronenhof – just six miles outside of St Moritz in some of the most epic Swiss scenery – is a testament to this. You’ll probably enjoy it best while chilling in the panorama-view pool, or chowing down in the stately Grand Restaurant. The choice is yours.

Stay: From £429pn. kronenhof.com

Getting there: SWISS offers return flights to Zurich from £108. swiss.com

SUNDANCE MOUNTAIN RESORT, UTAH, USA

Mountain views at Sundance, Utah

Bryan Rowland

Rustic modern lodgings, complimentary yoga and serious ski pedigree: Yep, Sundance might be most famous for being home to Robert Redford’s annual film festival that goes by the same name, but come winter, it’s packed with nordic-style backcountry trails, a high-flying zipline and the chance to ski at night under lights. Basically, you can count us in.

Stay: From £165pn. sundanceresort.com

Getting there: KLM offers return flights from London to Salt Lake City from £531. klm.com

M DE MEGÈVE, MEGÈVE, FRANCE

Cosy rooms at M de Megève

@KarinCreuzet

Wood-clad interiors and modern fittings give this trendy Savoyard hotel in the cutesy alpine town of Megève a luxurious yet rustic feel. Channel some serious 1920s opulence by arriving in a horsedrawn carriage through the snow, then trade old-school for new with the hotel’s world-class alpine tapas menu and modern spa, because that’s just how it is here.

Stay: From £540pn. mdemegeve.com

Getting there: Jet2.com offers flights from London to Geneva from £50 return. jet2.com

For more information visit Square Mile here

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Beautiful golf courses, luxury resorts: Playa Grande is a Dominican paradise @squaremile_com

Playa Grande has always been special. A mile-long finger of beach bending outwardly into the Atlantic – a come hither to the waves that crash against its palm-lined shores – it is located near the town of Cabrera in Dominican Republic’s northern María Trinidad Sánchez province.

PLAYA GRANDE HAS always been special. A mile-long finger of beach bending outwardly into the Atlantic – a come hither to the waves that crash against its palm-lined shores – it is located near the town of Cabrera in Dominican Republic’s northern María Trinidad Sánchez province. For the locals, it’s where they surfed as children, watched the sunrise, stole kisses from love conquests, and the adventurous dove in search of treasure among the shipwrecks lost to the reefs centuries ago. Until recently, it was an unknown to tourists, far from the primitive five-star resorts scattered across the arid, commercial south, and the affluent Punta Cana in the east. Much has changed since then. The beach may be just as quiet, the embodiment of paradise, but it was never this luxurious.

Standing guard atop the 60ft tall western cliffs of Playa Grande is Amanera, the latest hotel from Aman Resorts. Set among 373 acres of lush terrain, the five-star destination opened in November 2015 to widespread acclaim, and has already established itself as one of the finest resorts in the Caribbean.

If there’s one thing you can be certain of across the 7,000-plus islands and 28 nations that populate the azure-blue waters of the Caribbean sea it’s that luxury accommodation is never going to be far away. So what rises Amanera above its exclusive neighbours? The answer begins in the journey to its front door.

Read the article @squaremile_com