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Monthly Archives: May 2018

7 Fantastic Romantic Places

The Seychelles

With verdant rainforest stretching down to dazzling white-sand beaches and warm azure seas, it’s no surprise that the islands of the Seychelles are such an intoxicating destination. Home to a number of intimate (and often exclusive) resorts – not least on beautiful La Digue island – this is undoubtedly a honeymooner’s paradise.

Jukkasjärvi, Sweden

Constructed afresh each winter, the IceHotel is just as much an art project as it is somewhere to spend the night. Situated in Swedish Lapland, 200km north of the Arctic Circle, this is more than just an unusual place to stay (and snuggle up); it’s also an amazing spot from which to see one of the most astounding natural phenomena – the Northern Lights.

The Lake District, England

With sixteen major lakes squeezed between England’s highest mountains – and set within a mere thirty-mile area – the Lake District deserves all its hype. This is the place for long walks, picturesque villages and breathtaking scenery – and fantastic pubs in which to cosy up at the end of a day exploring.

Heidelberg, Germany

This pristine town, nestled in a wooded gorge on the River Necker, has inspired everyone from Goethe to Disraeli with the loveliness of its setting. The epitome of a German fairytale, complete with a medieval castle set on the hill and “gingerbread” houses, it’s a great spot for a relaxed few days of fine food and people-watching.

Venice, Italy

Endlessly fascinating, Venice boasts an urban landscape so rich that even the sheer number of other tourists can’t detract from its overwhelming beauty. At its most alluring in winter, when mist descends over the canals, a leisurely wander through the quieter streets at any time of year will lead you to discover the true heart of the city.

Istanbul, Turkey

With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul has been irresistible to travellers for centuries. Boasting a staggering wealth of attractions – from Byzantine churches to the minarets of its Ottoman mosques – complemented by superb food and exciting nightlife, Istanbul is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beguiling cities.

Rajasthan, India

For many, Rajasthan is India at its most exotic; from the labyrinthine old walled town of Jodhpur, to the magical desert city of Jaisalmer and the waterside palaces of Udaipur, it’s not hard to see why. Evoke an old-fashioned romance with a camel-back trip across the sands, then spend the evening relaxing in a luxury tented camp, under the wide, star-filled sky.

Volcano Trekking in Panama

THE LAST HURDLE

The rain is getting worse. I’m soaking wet and can’t see anyone around me. My water and food supplies are running low and I’m starting to shiver. I’m so exhausted I can’t feel my legs, but I know I need to keep moving. How the weather could go from hot and humid to wet and cold in a matter of hours still puzzles me. The campsite where I’ll sleep tonight can’t be far now. I’m sure I’m nearly there.

FOURS DAYS TO GO

Rewind four days and here am I, on a flight to Panama with all the trekking gear you could imagine. I’m very excited and anxious – a weird, stomach-churning feeling. I’m about to climb Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano in the western Chiriquí Province; Panama’s highest point and the highest volcano in southern Central America at 3,474m (11,397ft). I’ve never done anything like it, but my biggest concern is being the only unfit person on the trip. I used to do a lot of sport when I was younger but unfortunately, over the past few years, my desk-bound job has spared me little time to keep fit.

Nevertheless, I’m about to take part in the first ‘Boquete Barú Eco Fest’ joining hundreds of trekkers from all over the world, from curious tourists and experienced walkers to local guides. The trek should take between four and 10 hours over very challenging terrain. This doesn’t bode well but I’m up for the adventure.

THE CLIMB

The views going up are good as the sky is clear. Lush greenery (and plenty of mosquitoes) surrounds me. The heat is, of course, relentless. It doesn’t take much time for everyone to separate as we’ve all got different rhythms. I grab a bamboo stick to help me walk up the boulder-strewn path. Wooden signs informing me of my progress are dotted en route: “11km a la cima”, “9km a la cima”, etc – these are a boost at first, but soon they start to taunt me.

Two hours in, the path becomes much steeper and narrower. The weather also turns misty. I need to make sure I reach the campsite before the rain starts. The trek is increasingly challenging and my energy levels start to wane. I take regular short breaks to recuperate. I meet a lot of friendly hikers along the way. Some offer to carry my bag (do I look that tired?) but I don’t want to take the easy option so I politely decline. One Panamanian family become my companions; Dores, her son and husband tell me (in English) about their life and daughter. The son is about my age and surprisingly struggles as much as me, despite being a regular football player. If anything, the parents are faster than us!

OCEAN VIEWS

That night, the temperature plummets to about 5ºC (41ºF) so I don’t sleep much. By 5am, I’m ready to summit the last kilometre in time for sunrise. I’m glad I brought a head lamp. It’s pitch black. Climbing up at night is very exciting though. As I reach the top, the sun is almost appearing on the horizon. The presence of radio masts and graffiti-covered rocks is quite unsightly but it doesn’t take away from those magnificent views – a breathtaking panorama of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, soon obscured by clouds.

Wonderfully Bizarre Mexican Festivals

Otumba: Feria Nacional del Burro

Donkeys are not always considered the most glamorous of animals but that viewpoint doesn’t ring true in Otumba, a town whose inhabitants simply adore these humble beasts of burden.

Set on an important crossroads an hour northeast of Mexico City, Otumba was a major centre for the sale of donkeys during Spanish Colonisation. On 1 May every year since 1965, the Feria Nacional del Burro (National Donkey Festival) has been celebrated.

The festival is no longer an unknown, village oddity; it’s a big deal. Attracting 40,000 people annually, with a huge array of events, this donkey-mad extravaganza has truly made a name for itself.

There are firework displays, donkey-shaped hot air balloons, burrito booths and a popular football game where – you guessed it – donkey and man take to the field. Other popular events include a donkey race through the town, hours upon hours of donkey dancing and, to top it off, the crowning of a Donkey Queen.

Noche de los Rábanos

If donkeys aren’t really your thing, head down to the gorgeous city of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico and try your hand at radish carving. The Noche de los Rábanos (The Night of the Radishes) is an annual festival dedicated to the fine art of fashioning radishes into beautiful sculptures.

The Spanish originally introduced radishes to Mexico, and artisans in Oaxaca would carve them into religious decorations in order to attract shoppers to a Christmas market held in the city centre.

A competition began in 1897 and since then the radish arrangements have become increasingly more intricate and impressive. Nowadays, entry is limited to only 100 people and government-grown radishes (huge and inedible) are specially supplied to the contestants.

The Velas of Juchitán

If you’re looking for the most exuberant, colourful and perhaps most exhausting festival in Mexico, look no further than the Velas of Juchitán de Zaragoza, held in the city of Juchitán, about 250km southeast of Oaxaca City.

The Velas were traditionally festivities that marked and celebrated certain saint’s days and has grown over the years. Today, there are 26 Velas, with massive parties taking place from April to September, and quite a few of them focus on the identity of different interest groups and families. For example, the Union of Fishermen have an extremely popular Vela. Another favourite is the Vela of Las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras de Peligro (The Authentic Intrepid Seekers of Danger), which celebrates the Muxes, famous in the region as a group of transsexual men generally accepted in Zapotec society as a ‘third gender’.

The word Vela literally means ‘candles’, so Juchitán is lit up in the entire month of May. The whole city comes alive starting with a big procession called La Regada. The dress code is very formal; women wear ‘trajes de tehuana’, handmade dresses covered with radiant floral patterns, and have flowers pinned in their hair. This has the effect of turning the whole venue into a dazzling field of colours. The men, in contrast, wear austere black trousers and traditional white shirts.

How to Choose the Best Travel Camera

The Best Travel Cameras

Over the past ten years, I’ve scoured the internet and tested camera gear in order to find the perfect travel photography kit. When readers and members of our Instagram community ask us what camera we use, I always tell them that what works best for us won’t necessarily be the best fit for them. Choosing the best travel camera is more about finding one that allows you to shoot the photographs you want.

Choosing the best camera for travel photography is different from choosing a professional camera for things like wedding photography and portrait photography, or even just everyday use at home. With so many camera options on the market, it can be a little intimidating when you start your new camera search.

How to Choose the Best Travel Camera for Your Needs

There are several types of travel cameras on the market (Point and Shoot, Advanced Compact Cameras, DSLR, Mirrorless) and each one has its own list of benefits. First, and most importantly, you should consider what is most important to you – size, weight, price, ease of use, etc. Below, I’ve listed the benefits and limitations of each type of camera as well as the top cameras in each of those categories.

Compact Digital Cameras (Point & Shoot)

If your main concern is price, weight, and purchasing a travel camera that is easy to use, then you will want to look at purchasing a Compact Digital Camera. This type of camera won’t weigh down your luggage and it will easily fit in a small backpack or purse.

Compact Digital Cameras are perfect if you don’t want to be hassled with too many controls and you want the least expensive option. Nowadays, you can still find a Point and Shoot camera that takes great photos. That’s not to say you should pick just any Point and Shoot because they are not all created equal.

Advanced Compact Digital Cameras (High-End Compact)

Advanced Compact Digital Cameras are similar to Point and Shoot cameras, but they come with a few more bells and whistles. They are the high end of compact cameras with built-in lenses.

Advanced Compact Cameras are similar in size to the above mentioned ones and they offer full manual mode in addition to auto mode. (Note: Both of the cameras listed in the above section offer manual mode as well.) They also usually have the ability to capture photos in RAW format — which is important if you plan to make any edits to your photos once you upload them to your computer.

Mirrorless Cameras

If image quality, size, and weight is the most important factor, you will want to look at purchasing a mirrorless camera. What is a mirrorless camera, you ask? Unlike a Digital SLR, this type of camera does not have a mirror reflex optical viewfinder — hence, the name mirrorless.  This type of camera is perfect for people who still want an interchangeable lens without the weight of a DSLR.

Another plus for mirrorless is the electronic viewfinders because you can view the realtime effect of aperture and ISO adjustments, unlike a DSLR. If you want to take some of the guesswork out of your photography, then mirrorless is the way to go.

4 Tips to Travel Solo

Tip one: ditch the well-made plans

Wasn’t it Woody Allen who first said if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans? Travelling solo is one of the few times in life when you can throw all your plans out the window if you want, or just not make any at all. Unlike going on holiday with friends or – worse still – the family, you don’t need to compromise. Forget lengthy discussions over financial planning, the challenges of badly rehashed route maps and squabbles over who gets the bottom bunk; travelling solo is all about you.

If you’re a people-pleaser to a fault or have a tendency towards OCD then this is the way to go, free from all the obligations and stresses an infuriatingly disorganised friend or selfie-stick addict brings.

Top two: make new friends

Far easier said than done, especially in an age where the soft glow of a smartphone screen uplights every sorry drinker, sat lonely at their bar stool with thoughts of their next whiskey on the rocks. This is where an old school charm offensive comes in good use. Hostels, hotel bars, and clubs are still the best place to start – places where like-minded solo travellers can stop, unwind and quench a thirst.

If you don’t fancy your chances mixing ice-breakers with weary old-time travellers why not up your odds? Almost every major city around the world hosts a sightseeing tour of some kind, and you might not be surprised to find out that we recommend a late night guided bar crawl. Another sure-fire way to feel at home in any city is to experience its karaoke culture, even if you find yourself joining in with a particularly bad rendition of ‘All By Myself’.

Tip three: you don’t have to talk to strangers

Travelling solo doesn’t necessarily mean coming home with a phone full of names and numbers you’ll never hear from again, either. For many, solo travel is all about escaping the idle chitchat and inanity of the everyday and substituting it with the clarity of me, myself and I. The trend for self-reflective tourism – whether in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment or not – is booming, with monasteries reporting a surge in enquiries for retreats completed in near silence (with exception of the daily chanting, of course).

A stay at the Insight Meditation Society (www.dharma.org) in Massachusetts, for example, starts with 5.30am wake up call, is inclusive of daily chores and meals, and allows guests the use of 240 wooded acres of land, perfect for a meditative stroll on your super-silent Sunday afternoon. No whistling allowed.

Tip four: make friends ‘appen

Ignore the traditional stranger-tapping methods and just make sure you have some juice in your phone. Travelling in the 21st century is all about digital connections. Backpackr (www.backpackr.org) and Travel Buddies (www.travel-buddies.com) are the leading apps for making travel companions in this brave new world, while Tinder (www.gotinder.com) is branching out too, giving users a chance to swipe right on their next travel adventure and find a new pal with more than just a night in with Netflix on their mind.

 

Hidden Beaches in Thailand

 Haad Farang (Haad Sai Yao), Koh Muk

Framed by jungle-draped limestone karsts, this small but striking bay has serene waters free of riptides, making it safe for families to splash around in the sun. As its nickname implies – farang is Thai for foreigner – you’ll find a large concentration of backpackers here. Still, with only a few sun-loungers and a couple of ramshackle food stops, it’s a far cry from the chaos of Chaweng beach on Koh Samui or Kamala on Phuket. Most of the bungalows, restaurants and Koh Muk’s near-nonexistent nocturnal scene are tucked out of sight in the adjacent woods.

Rent a sea kayak (100 baht, around £2 an hour) and paddle around the corner to Tham Morakot (the Emerald Cave), a winding stalactite-lined cavern that opens up to a sheltered cove walled by dense foliage and frequented by bands of monkeys. It is awe-inspiring, but to fully appreciate it, be sure to pack a torch to avoid slamming into cavern walls and other kayaks. To avoid congestion, make the trip in the late afternoon, after the longtail boats (from £14) carting other travellers disperse.

Perched up on one of the limestone outcroppings, the aptly named Ko Yao Viewpoint Restaurant is the best place for sundowners. Skip the saccharine cocktails in favour of an icy Chang beer and bask in the last rays of the day.

Ao Kham, Koh Muk

On the eastern side of the island, about 30 minutes walk or a speedy £1 tuk-tuk ride from Haad Farang, Ao Kham is both longer and more peaceful than its westward-facing counterpart. Luxury bungalows line the edge of the sand, but are set back far enough so as not to intrude on the panorama. In lieu of the clamour of hawkers, you’ll mostly find couples wading through the glass-clear water. Early in the morning, the speckled tracks of hermit and sandcrabs outnumber human footprints.

Sivalai Beach Resort has an extended menu of standard Thai and western dishes and is popular for evening meals. However, prices are high and the quality tends towards the mediocre. A bit further inland, Boon Chu (+66 82 268 3073) has a more local feel and affordable prices, though service is often slow. Meanwhile,Koh Mook De Tara Beach Resort has some of the more authentic dishes on the island. Though the waterfront bar’s claim of the “best margarita in the world” may sound dubious, plates such as massaman curry – with slow-braised, bone-in chicken in a rich sauce with crimson coconut oil – are excellent.

Ao Sabai, Koh Muk

Not far from the Emerald Cave is the island’s only uninhabited beach. Walled in by dramatic bluffs and a smattering of palm trees, Ao Sabai feels like a secret hideaway. It may be on the petite side and its sand is more amber in colour than postcard-perfect alabaster, but the seclusion more than makes up for it. Loll in the shallows or pack a picnic and chill out away from the crowds.

Haad Lang Kao, Koh Libong

The largest Trang island may lack the picturesque, powder sands of some of its more fashionable neighbours, but it more than makes up for it with untamed swathes of mangrove and a low-key vibe seldom found on more frequented shores. Aside from a few fishing villages that house Koh Libong’s 6,000-plus Thai-Muslim residents, there’s little here to intrude on the sublime stillness. Many visitors come here with hopes of spotting one of the dugongs that nibble on the abundant sea grasses just offshore, though sightings of the shy creatures are rare. Haad Lang Kao, a golden strip of coast covered with coarse sand and pebbles, may house all of the island’s resorts, but it still feels relatively remote. The resorts diligently remove driftwood and garbage that washes ashore, keeping these sands in better condition than some others.

The 7 Best Stargazing Sites in the World

1) Mauna Kea, Hawaii

A visit to Hawaii already offers sun, sand and surf; travel to Big Island and you can revel in what many people consider to be the best stargazing on the planet. You may be at risk of altitude sickness (the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is 13,796ft above sea level) but the view is breathtaking in other ways too: a lack of light pollution ensures unparalleled visibility.

2) Atacama Desert, Chile

As one of the driest places in the world, Atacama Desert has few clouds, along with a high altitude and zero light pollution. What better way to experience it than by camping? Elqui Domos, in the Elqui Valley, is the only “astronomic hotel” in the Southern Hemisphere and offers domed tents with open ceilings and wooden cabins with decks.

3) Yangtze River Valley, China

You may not expect heavily polluted China to offer a top stargazing site, but the Yangtze River Valley swaps the lush scenery of Asia’s longest river by day with gorgeous glittering night skies. The Chinese have a long history of stargazing, too, dating back to 4 BC – one of the first observatories was built in Beijing during the Ming Dynasty.

4) Kiruna, Sweden

Its location 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle makes Kiruna a prime spot to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights – although unfortunately these streaks of magical colour are never guaranteed. Other places you may get to see them include Trysil in Norway and Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

5) Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, USA

Cherry Springs is located atop a great mountain range, its nearby communities set down in the valleys, ensuring minimal light pollution. It’s an amazing place to see the nucleus of the Milky Way, and it’s pretty straightforward to do so too: the Night Sky Viewing Area has public parking, information kiosks and benches. More serious enthusiasts can stay overnight in the Astronomy Observation Field and enjoy 360° views of the sky.

6) Crater Lake, Oregon, USA

Oregon’s only National Park, the remote Crater Lake is at 7,000ft elevation and its relatively isolated location ensures clear skies – and the sunsets and sunrises over the Crater, the USA’s deepest lake, are pretty incredible too. Stay at the Crater Lake Lodge in the heart of the action; there’s also a campsite.

7) Death Valley National Park, California, USA

Exchange the neon stars of Las Vegas for Death Valley, only two hours’ drive away on the border of California and Nevada. As approximately 91% of the park is wilderness, there’s very little artificial light or pollution. The expansive vistas will open up a multitude of stars, but beware – visit in summer and temperatures could regularly top 100°F (38°C).