Interview with Catherine Leech of 101 Holidays

Catherine Leech has worked in luxury travel for more than 25 years. She started in PR before becoming European Director of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, then Managing Director of luxury tour operator, Caribtours. After the tsunami of 2004 she moved to Sri Lanka where she worked for two years, mostly as a volunteer, to develop sustainable tourism projects in affected communities. Catherine is now director of a new travel website, 101 Holidays.

What is it that  you do exactly?

No two days are ever the same. In the last few months, I have been focused on bringing 101 Holidays to life. We launched it in January after an intense period of planning, designing, testing and liaising with the two editors (travel writers David Wickers and Mark Hodson).

I am based in a chocolate-box village in south-west Dorset where I take daily walks on the hills with the next door pub’s springer. I make occasional trips into London for meetings, client briefings, etc. In the past month, I’ve written an outline proposal for an emerging new destination, completed a client benchmark survey for a PR agency, moderated a weekend conference of independent travel agents in Warwick and organised a client event for an alliance of luxury tour operators called Seven Wonders.

London is 2hrs 40mins away by train. There was a time when I would have viewed that as too far but after the six-hour car journeys to get to each of my project sites in Sri Lanka, the train ride goes by in a flash and I keep in constant touch with my iPhone.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

I relish being involved in the industry I know and love but, especially, I value the variety and being relatively removed from the day to day office run, staffing issues, office politics, etc. In fact, I think it is my distance from the daily drag which allows me to cut through some of the BS and see solutions, come up with ideas and work with people to find new ways of moving forward. I also love not having to doll up in heels and make-up every day.

What would you say are the 3 best places you’ve ever stayed?

My “life-changing place” was Huzur Vadisi in Turkey, on a week’s yoga retreat where I bared my soul amongst 22 strangers and changed my life (resigned from my job and moved to Sri Lanka).

For romantic bliss, it is definitely the Koyao Island Resort close to Phuket where I had a week with the dishiest of boyfriends – yoga on the beach at sunrise, breakfast, dive, Jenga, lunch, swim, massage, backgammon, dinner, backgammon etc.

For ultimate luxury, it was joining my gay best friends’ honeymoon at the Plaza Athenee, just weeks after returning from Sri Lanka. The sheer hedonism was dizzying but such a treat and a delicious reminder that you can take the girl out of the luxury tour operator but…

What’s been your most memorable dining experience to date?

It was my 46th birthday in Sri Lanka. I asked my new-found friends to join me at my favourite spot, Beach Wadiya, just outside the centre of Colombo. It will never win awards for interior design (it’s a shack on a beach across a railway track) but I loved the warm sea breeze, toes in the sand, haphazard but charming service, devilled prawns dripping from sticky fingers, baked crab backs, grilled fish and an ice-cold beer or two – all for about £6. Of the 14 people around the table, I counted 10 nationalities, seven religions and not one over-inflated ego.

Have you rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, either through your work or your travels?

I don’t suppose I can count the evening I leg-wrestled with Oliver Reed in the Malta Hilton? I’m not a great celebrity spotter but I did share a lift at the Waldorf Astoria with Tom Berenger and dived with Jean-Michel Cousteau for a week in the Cayman Islands.

What currently ranks highest on your travel wishlist?

The Isles of Scilly, snorkelling with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef and a return to Sri Lanka to see how the various communities I worked amongst are getting along.

Thank you, Catherine. I’ll be watching 101 Holidays with interest to see how it progresses.

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