Portland, Oregon, can be addressed in many ways. It’s a city of soubriquets, bearing nicknames bestowed by locals to reflect its charms: The City of Roses to those who love its natural abundance; The City of Bridges by those who can’t help but notice the freeway’s influence; Beervana by fans of its prolific brew culture.

PDX to pilots and Stumptown to locals, it’s borrowed a catchphrase from another city down south; “keep Portland weird” is a mantra familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Austin, Texas. It’s also one of those west coast cities, like LA or Palo Alto, whose reputation precedes it and whose essence is endlessly debated.

To the outside world, it’s Portlandia, “where  young people go to retire”, where – according to Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein –  the ‘90s is alive, people are content to be unambitious, sleep to 11 and hang out with their friends. A place marooned blissfully in a simpler past where city slackers in plaid shirts and tribal tattoos still read paper books.

We i-spyed plenty of Portland clichés. A vintage clothes shop playing The Bends. A bicycle barista handing out free coffee in a shady university park. Flyers advertising beer yoga. Men with dogs curled over their shoulders like living stoles playing Magic: The Gathering. A feminist bookstore offering protection from all manner of persecution. We did not see anyone playing with a diablo.

Photo: Canadian Veggie / Flickr Creative Commons

Portland sits snugly in its pigeonholes but of course offers much more than Portlandia suggests, comfortably surpassing all the requirements a modern visitor might throw at it.

Craft beer is a thing now – well, Portland has 50+ local breweries. Food trucks have spread like a rash across most western cities; Portland has more than 700 for its half a million city dwellers. Green spaces? The city is riddled with them. In fact, if you’re a fan of wine, live music, gregarious and predominantly liberal locals, books or culture, it’s well worth the two-hour, $15 ride from Seattle.

Cycle superhighways (proper ones, not like the ones we have in England) crisscross the city and the Willamette river, linking its disparate neighbourhoods and providing the easiest, greenest, and most Portland way to see the city.

We started our exploration with sliders and nitro Irish stout at rock’n’roll themed hotel McMenamins, in the Pearl District, Portland’s revamped industrial zone. It’s home to Powell’s City Of Books, declared with the usual American superlative pride as the largest in world, and housing over a million books in 3,500 sections, as well as a massive brewery – Deschutes – who offer tasting flights featuring their latest brews. Books and beer were quickly to become the defining motif of the trip.

Further south, Portland’s Downtown District to the west of the Willamette houses many of the city’s main attractions and we ticked off a few, the contemplative Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden probably the best among them. There are also numerous foodie pilgrimages to be made in this part of town, and we did our best at those, from a flaming Spanish coffee mixed and ignited at the table at Huber’s to doughnuts shaped like a penis and covered in bacon at Voodoo Doughnuts, via poached chicken at bloggers’ favourite food cart Nong’s Khao Man Gai.

Photo:  Ryan Stavely / Flickr Creative Commons

These were all preambles to Portland’s main attraction, though: the suburbs scattered across the eastern half of the city. Up north, Alberta is perhaps the spiritual home of Portland as we know it from the TV, the home of that feminist bookshop, among numerous whole foodsy spots and other crumbling monuments to the counterculture. It’s been deemed gentrified by the locals, which is bad news if you like things to stay raw, but good news if you’re a fan of olive oil ice cream, and some of the parks and residential streets nearby are stunning.

A handful of blocks to the west, Mississippi and Williams are two parallel swathes of excellent coffee shops and food trucks, populated by art school students and other hipster types. ¿Por Que No? serve up the best tacos I’ve tasted north of San Francisco and Ristretto proffer perhaps the city’s finest coffee.

Photo:  rickchung.com / Flickr Creative Commons

Hawthorne & Belmont further south are Beervana’s heart, home to an embarrassment of brew pubs. Cascade Brewing Barrel House specialised in sour beers, oak aged and fruit-infused, tart tipples that edge towards 10% ABV and are presented like a wine tasting with cheese plates and a price point to match. Strawberry, goji berry, apricot, honey and ginger lime can all be enthusiastically vouched for. Lucky Labrador, meanwhile, was a dog friendly pub (naturally) full of laptop-toting drinkers and card players while Green Dragon offered 62 taps of craft beer joy.

On my wife’s insistence, and as recommended by none other than Time magazine, we stopped by a strip club. These are done differently in Portland, and Sassy’s was more of a community affair, featuring a 50/50 male/female split among the clientele, and a world away from the dismal pound-in-a-pint-glass affairs that fester malignantly in London’s darker corners. There’s another in the city that serves vegan food and only allows its dancers to shed non-animal-based clothing – classic Portland. From here, food trucks and bookshops continue south as far as the eye can see – and the belly can withstand – down to Clinton.

Cycling back over the imposing Steel Bridge, under an incessant and uncharacteristic sun and spurred on by a craft beer buzz, it dawned on us that Portland had just leaped to pole position in our ranking of US cities. The ’90s might be alive and well round here, but if this is time travel, we’ll be first in the DeLorean.

Tim stayed in the James Brown room at legendary bar/gig venue/boutique hotel McMenamins and got around Portland on Pedal Bike Tours rentals.

In a bid to finish a once-failed family trip to the North Cape, Greg Dickinson explores the bleak but beautiful northern coast of Norway.

I was just four years old when my family set out in a knackered 1956 Land Rover Discovery to the North Cape of Norway, over 2000 miles away from our Hertfordshire home. My brothers were six and eight and, as is often the case, my memories of the trip are little more than a muddled tapestry formed by the photos I’ve seen and the stories I’ve been told. It was an ambitious trip and, in the end, we were forced to turn home just half way up Norway’s coast after a series of catastrophic breakdowns. 

Twenty years have since passed, and I decided it was time to set out and finish the expedition to the North Cape once and for all. Even if it would be on my own.

I picked up our journey in Bodø, a compact town just within the Arctic Circle and the last stop on Norway’s railway. Beyond here there are no trains heading north. Instead, a fleet of ferries weaves through the fjords, transporting mail and passengers up to Tromsø, Hammerfest and right around to Kirkenes on the Russian border. Without a Land Rover to my name, I would complete the voyage to the North Cape by hopping between Norway’s coastal towns.

Photograph by Greg Dickinson

My Hurtigruten ship (a name that is impossible to say without sounding Norwegian) was scheduled to leave in a few hours, leaving me just enough time to board a RIB Safari to the Saltstraumen Strait, the world’s strongest tidal current some six miles southeast of Bodø.

Kitted out in oversized fluorescent safety garb, we zoomed out of the foggy port in a supercharged dinghy and into the open waters. Bodø dissolved into the white behind us like it had never been there at all. After cruising for twenty minutes the engine croaked to a halt. The boat, however, continued to move. We were in a whirlpool. In fact, we were in a whirlpool surrounded by dozens of other whirlpools, each vortex threatening to tug us into its turquoise heart before our driver revved the boat to safety at the very last minute.

My face reddened after two hours of exposure to the biting wind, I returned to land and boarded the ship northbound to the Lofoten Islands. Comprising countless islands and twice as many forking inlets, the Lofoten archipelago is one of those rare places that is as immediately and effortlessly breathtaking as people say; a steep, undulating terrain with burgundy wooden houses blemishing the green at random intervals. As I travelled between the islands a low cloud clung to the hills, I could happily have stayed for weeks, but my journey to the North Cape beckoned.

The night passed without going dark, not even nearly dark, and the following day I travelled north through narrow fjords to Tromsø, the largest settlement in northern Norway. Many visitors will head straight from Tromsø Airport to their husky safari or wilderness retreat (the town is nicknamed the “Gateway to the Arctic”, after all) but it would be a shame to overlook the town. During my afternoon here I wandered past what must be the only guitar emporium and head shop in the Arctic Circle and over the looping kilometre-long bridge to the pyramidal Arctic Cathedral, a forceful piece of 1960s architecture that punctures Tromsø’s otherwise shallow skyline.

Image © Peter Wilkens

North of Tromsø the word ‘bleak’ gains new meaning. Our ship kept close to the craggy, subarctic coastline, where waterfalls hang frozen or fluid at their own discretion, and thick blots of snow defy the 24-hour summer sun. Occasionally we would pass a lone fisherman or a small cluster of pastel-coloured houses, but after arriving in the tiny villages of Gjesvaer it soon became clear who Norway’s north coast belongs to.

A few kilometres off the coast of Gjesvaer, the Gjesvaerstappan Reserve is home to one of Europe’s densest populations of seabirds. Ferried over by a few locals, I was greeted by an almighty flock – from kittiwakes and gannets to guillemots and auks – swarming above the rocky islands like mosquitos to flesh, while thousands of puffins and razorbills flitted in synchronised chaos just above the water. This is nothing short of a seabird metropolis, with a higher population of birds in just 1.7 square kilometres than the entire human population of northern Norway.

Image © Peter Wilkens

Shortly after the seabird safari, while crossing Nordkapp’s semi-tundra interior by bus, I finally saw the North Cape plateau in the distance, headbutting the sea with its sudden cliff face. The imposing steel globe stood perfectly still among the shuffling silhouettes of a dozen fellow pilgrims. At 71 degrees latitude, this is continental Europe’s final frontier, with nothing but the Barents Sea separating it from the wild shores of Svalbard and the North Pole beyond. To me, however, it was simply the conclusion to a bygone trip that I neither remembered nor had ever forgotten.

Greg travelled with Hurtigruten, who have been serving Norway’s coast since 1893. Foot passenger tickets start from £10. Cruises (without flights) from Bergen to Kirkenes start from £884 per person. RIB Safari and bird watching excursions can be booked through Hurtigruten. Visit www.hurtigruten.co.uk or call 020 3582 6642 for more information.

Brazil’s World Cup city Manaus will have far more than just football to offer this year. Here are the top ten things to do in Manaus while you’re there.

See Italian architecture at the Manaus Opera House

Completed in 1896 at a total cost of over two million dollars, the Manaus Opera House was built at the height of the Brazilian rubber boom. Wealthy rubber barons constructed opulent palatial homes, hosted elaborate parties and attended opera and ballet shows, living in much the same way as their counterparts in Europe. Italian architects and painters were duly commissioned, and virtually all of the materials used to build the theatre were imported from Europe, including Italian Carrara marble and French tiles.

The streets surrounding the Opera House were constructed with a special blend of rubber, sand and clay in order to dampen the noise of late arriving carriages, so as not to interrupt the voices of Europe’s best sopranos. Today the Manaus Opera House hosts regular music and theatre performances from around the world. The Festival Amazonas de Ópera is held here annually April-June, while the Amazonas Film Festival takes places in November. Visitors can see the theatre interior during the day as part of a guided tour.

Discover opulence and politics at the Palácio Rio Negro

This beautiful colonial-period mansion was built in the early twentieth century by German rubber baron Waldemar Scholz. Scholz’s Amazonian dream came to an end with the collapse of the rubber boom, and his residence was soon acquired by the state. The building thereafter became the seat of the government and served as the governor’s residence for a number of years. Today, the Palácio, with its lovely varnished wooden floors, functions as a cultural centre and museum with displays of beautiful period furniture.

Explore the beginning of the Amazon

About ten kilometres from Manaus is the meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões meet to form the mighty Amazon River. The alkaline waters of the Solimões and the acid black waters of the Rio Negro (literally “Black River”) flow separately for several kilometres before they meet. Black water rivers are born in the central Amazon and have acid waters due to the decomposing organic matter that they carry with them from the forest soil; brown water rivers like the Solimões owe their hue to the large quantity of sediment they carry from the Andes mountains. The muddy brown of the Rio Solimões contrasts sharply with the Rio Negro’s dark black waters, creating a truly unique sight that is well worth experiencing.

Take a panoramic flight over the Anavilhanas Archipelago

Occupying an area of 350,000 hectares, Anavilhanas is one of the world’s largest river archipelagos. It is formed of over 400 islands and lies along the banks of the Rio Negro, the largest black water river in the world. Designated a National Park in 2008, this large equatorial forest is home to truly remarkable biodiversity. A panoramic flight over the archipelago is an unforgettable experience, with spectacular views of flooded forests, navy blue lakes and meandering rivers.

Stay at a Jungle Lodge

Lying at the heart of the Amazon rainforest means that Manaus is entirely surrounded by jungle. There are dozens of lodges here, mostly reachable by boat, to suit all tastes and budgets with accommodation ranging from rustic fan-cooled huts to luxurious air-conditioned chalets. Activities at jungle lodges include piranha fishing, jungle treks, night walks, canoeing through verdant creeks and bird spotting – to name a few.

Shop for crafts and vegetables at Mercado Municipal Adolpho Lisboa

Inaugurated in 1883, this art nouveau iron-cast market was based on Les Halles in Paris. As with most buildings constructed with rubber fortunes, the building structure was entirely shipped over from Europe. Within the market and further along the waterfront, colourful stalls display all manner of goods, including exotic fruits and vegetables, Amazonian herbs, handmade crafts and tropical freshwater fish. East along the river is the lively Banana Market, with heaps of green and yellow bananas and plantains for sale.

Get tribal at the Museu do Homem do Norte

Brazil is home to 220 indigenous tribes, speaking around 180 languages belonging to thirty different linguistic groups. Over seventy uncontacted tribes also call these lands their home. This fascinating museum provides an excellent introduction to the Amazon and its numerous tribes, with informative displays on pre-colonial societies, tribal rituals and medicinal herbs.

Admire the Victoria Amazónica Water Lily

The lakes and backwaters of the Amazon River are home to the giant Victoria Amazónica water lily, the largest water lily in the world. This aquatic plant has leaves that grow up to 2.5 metres in diameter that can sustain the weight of a small baby. The buoyant lilies have beautifully circular leaves with upturned edges, and pretty white flowers that turn light pink on their second day of life. Formerly Victoria Regia, the plant was named in honour of Queen Victoria by Sir Joseph Paxton, head of the Duke of Devonshire’s gardens, who impressed his fellow horticulturalists by becoming the first person to cultivate this exotic water lily in Britain.

Learn the life of a rubber tapper

The open-air Museu do Seringal Vila Paraíso re-creates the living and working conditions of rubber barons and tappers at the beginning of the twentieth century. The museum’s historic townhouse illustrates the luxuries that were available to wealthy rubber barons who lived much like their European contemporaries in the remote Amazonian rainforest. Displays include ancient pieces of furniture and memorabilia, such as a beautiful 1911 piano and a gramophone. Within the grounds is also the replica of a thatched roof shelter of a rubber tapper, along with a rubber-smoking hut where they would spend hours solidifying latex into rubber bales, ready to be shipped abroad.

Get adventurous beneath waterfalls at Presidente Figueiredo

Nicknamed the “Land of Waterfalls”, Presidente Figueiredo is a nature lover’s paradise, home to dozens of towering waterfalls and hidden caves surrounded by jungle. Lying 190km north of Manaus, it’s a popular weekend destination for those living in the city. Meandering paths snake through wild jungle before opening up onto cascading falls with amber coloured pools. This is a great spot for adventure sports including kayaking, caving, rafting and trekking.

With over 27 years’ experience, Select Latin America are specialists in South American travel. The company organises tailor-made and off the beaten track tours of Brazil. Explore more of Brazil with the upcoming Rough Guide to Brazil, out in October 2014. Buy the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget now. 
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Most visitors don’t venture beyond Tallinn, but leave Estonia’s capital behind and you’ll find a country of vast, untouched wilderness. a haven for wildlife and a place to escape from it all. Olivia Rawes gets back to basics to discover some of the wilder things to do in Estonia.

A congregation of jovial boozy stag parties cavorted along the aisle as our flight approached Tallinn. Wild yes – and with its fair share of animals – but not quite the wilderness I was seeking. Despite Tallinn’s status as a favourite stag do (bachelor party) haunt, the Estonia I was to discover had far more to offer than a boozy night out in a dinosaur outfit. In fact, it’s Estonia’s palpable wilderness, so highly prized by the locals, that draws many visitors here; it’s a country of expansive space, abundant wildlife and a sense of pristine isolation.

A quarter of Estonia is a designated nature reserve; seemingly endless stretches of bogs and meadows are interspersed with woodlands, which themselves cover half of the country and provide a haven for wolves, bears, lynxes and wild boars. Marshes and bogs envelope a quarter of the land, and are important nesting grounds and popular stop-over points for migrant birds. Combine that with a population of 1.3 million people spread across a country of 45,227 square kilometres and you begin to understand the extent of land left to its natural devices.

It was this sense of space and remoteness that first struck me when we went seal watching from Haabneeme, on Estonia’s northern coast. To the northwest, the country stretches out to meet the Baltic sea and the coastline is peppered with 1500 islands, many of which are uninhabited. One man lives alone on Aski island, while a number of mainland Estonians apply to be island guards in their holidays, staying for short stints to keep an eye on things.

Our destination was Malusi island, a protected breeding ground for seals; of the 30,000 grey seals that live in the Baltic Sea, around 300 can be found at Malusi. Drifting alone in the placid waters, the tranquillity was only interrupted by our boat’s iPod, which blasted out jolly leelo folk songs and catchy pop tunes, a bizarre yet effective way of attracting the seals. The Estonians discovered that seals loved music in the 1920s when violin-playing traders realised their boats were being followed by these curious critters. It appears that seals are not only curious but also cultured – Beethoven was a firm favourite on our trip.

But isolation and peace were not only to be found when floating alone at sea. Our next stop was Sooma, Estonia’s second largest national park, an area of rivers, brooks, bogs and woodland, that’s home to 185 species of bird including golden eagles, owls and storks, as well as a number of mammals. From a viewing tower we surveyed the park; reminiscent of an African savannah, the expanse of flat land below us stretched seemingly to the horizon, a mix of grasses and mosses in hues of rusty red, bleached beige and earthy brown, fringed on one side by tall forest. Streams cut across a landscape pockmarked with small lakes and dotted with ancient, stunted, spindly trees, that despite being 200 or so years old stretched only to waist height. Keen to explore, we donned our bog shoes; these strange pointy flippers are an essential to avoid sinking in the quagmire.

Feeling the height of fashion we waddled across the spongy wetlands bouncing on the oddly marshmallow-like mounds of earth and despite having become strangely fond of our new giant feet we swapped them for canoes to row down the slowly meandering Riisa River. The waters were low this year, restricting the canoes to rivers and streams; however, Sooma is famous for its great floods, a springtime phenomenon, where the water level rises up to four metres, creating what the Estonians refer to as the “fifth season”, when much of the park is under water, making it possible to canoe through flooded meadows and magical, waterlogged forests.

For all its pristine wilderness, Estonia is not all about the rural outdoors. Much to my relief, after a day battling bogs, rivers and seas, there was no shortage of comfort and style when it came to putting our feet up to refuel. And what better place for it than Pärnu, a favourite destination for spa retreats that has also repeatedly received the title of Estonia’s “summer capital”? A charming city of wide streets lined with pretty wooden houses, cocooned by a stretch of long, white sandy beach, which – as it was out of season – we found to be perfectly empty.  After roaming the quiet streets, we checked into Frost Boutique Hotel, a cosy yet achingly stylish place; in my room distressed-wood white-washed beams held up a lofty ceiling, plump pillows and a taupe crushed velvet bedspread transformed my bed into what felt like sleeping on a cloud, and downstairs a roaring fire and large flickering candles tricked us into whiling away the evening lounging with a glass of wine.

This sort of rustic charm meets Scando-cool seemed a theme in many of the hotels and restaurants we visited. A feeling that nature – pine wood furniture, washed-up shells, crackling fires and natural hues – was influencing the interiors. The food was a similarly intriguing mix that was inventive yet earthy, such as the intriguing basil ice cream at NOA, and ox with beetroot served with a surprisingly delicious moss at Cru. In most places we ate, what seemed to drive the meals was a pride in locally-sourced ingredients; organic produce in Estonia is not a trend but a core principle – many Estonians I spoke to still head to the forests to go mushroom foraging.

On our final day in Estonia, we returned to Tallinn to explore its UNESCO-listed old town. Set high above a medieval wall, it charms with its sloping cobbled streets, soft pastel painted buildings, red tiled rooftops, elegant spires and sweeping views across the city out to the harbour. That night, tucked away in Mull, a home restaurant decked out with kitsch style – the grandeur of candelabras and chandeliers gently offset by mismatched teacups and quirky trinkets – Tallinn felt worlds away from a stag party haunt and I realised that even in this bustling city, the sense of calmness and peace we had gained in Estonia remained.

Find out more about Estonia at visitestonia.com
Explore more of Estonia with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

It was around 3pm on the Saturday that I had the first Brighton moment. We were upstairs in a local boozer, watching a woman in her underwear recreate the lift scene in Dirty Dancing. ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ blasted through a laptop while a gaggle of half cut women raised jugs of white wine in the air to cheer her on. Three unfortunate men were holding her skywards, paying penance for their decision to sit front and centre at a stand up gig, while the rest of the pub convulsed in laughter. Gloriously wild and chaotic, it was an archetypal Brighton scene.

We  were in town for The Great Escape music conference and festival, one of the world’s best gatherings of new bands and East Sussex’s decent riposte to SXSW, but we ended up witnessing a host of other attractions. May is party time for the city, as the Brighton Festival, Brighton Fringe, and Artists Open House events vie for your attention in a place already brimming with nooks, crannies, and a classic pier to explore.

So while the semi-naked show, entitled Am I Right Ladies? and created by rising comic Luisa Omielan of What Would Beyonce Do? fame, was a worthy pit stop, we were soon back out into Brighton’s high winds looking for the next kick.

The Great Escape swamps the city with bands, cramming over 400 gigs into 35 pubs, churches and subterranean sweatboxes across the centre, all accessible with a wristband costing around a quarter of a standard weekender.

We couldn’t get into many of the shows we wanted to see – Future Islands, Jon Hopkins and other hyped acts were one-in-one-out and the wind was hooting and howling too much for us to stay in the queues – so we ended up experiencing the pleasant surprises for which the festival is known. We caught a number of buzz bands, from Glass Animals’ hypnotic Alt J-goes-trip-hop to Brooklyn trio Wet’s seductive Alpines-esque pop to Charl XCX. The electropop teen behind mega hits for Icona Pop (and forthcoming tracks for Britney Spears), is now going through a punk phase, and spent her Corn Exchange set channeling the spirit of the Runaways.

Charli XCX at The Great Escape.  Photo: Milo Belgrove

We were laying our hats at the excellent Nineteen B&B a pebble’s toss from the beach, where owner Mark makes you feel right at home. A cosy, friendly treat of a place, they offer breakfast in bed and supercharge your day with free Bloody Marys or Champagne on the side.

Each morning was spent exploring the idiosyncratic centre, wandering past the intriguing Royal Pavilion, losing ourselves in The Lanes’ twisted passageways and making friends among the Peter Blake artworks in the Art Republic shop, fuelled by bacon and egg cupcake bites from Café Coho, before hitting the gigs from around midday.

Photo: Visitbrighton.com

TarO & JirO were perhaps the oddest proposition we saw. Comprising two guitars, one electronic bass drum, and all manner of needless noodling, the Japanese duo blasted any hangovers away at the Japan Rising show. We nearly choked on our free sushi during their reworking of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

As the weekend continued the epic gigs stacked up: Clean Bandit’s alchemy of strings and dance bangers proved why they earnt their recent Number One while Fat White Family’s two shows combined frantic punk, bass so loud it shifted ribcages in the front half of the audience, and de rigeur nudity from frontman Lias Saoudi. He recently labelled Alex Turner a “moron” and this weekend’s performances confirmed him as a demented genius.

Clean Bandit at The Great Escape. Photo: Julie Edwards

Sadly the embarrassment of things going on meant we couldn’t see it all – I’ll never know what The Barry Experience at the Hobgoblin was like – but we did make time for negronis and margaritas at Twisted Lemon, the city’s most fun cocktail bar, and squeezed in a great feed at 64 Degrees.

Based around an open kitchen at which the chefs take centre stage and 6 Music blasts out, the popular restaurant offers food that excels beyond its modest menu. Small sharing plates came and went amid a flurry of waiters and Rioja, with beer battered broccoli, scallops with lemongrass puree and a cauliflower dish all surprising and irresistable.

As we joined the huddle of music industry bods and journalists at the station for the hour long ride back to London, stuffed full of food and ale and a couple of decibels less perceptive, we realised we hadn’t even made it onto the pier. Next time Brighton…

Photo: Visitbrighton.com. Featured image: Mike Burnell

We stayed at the recently refurbished Nineteen B&B on Broad Street, which offers a variety of rooms, one with a hot tub, and breakfast in bed including that all important Bloody Mary.

Twilight ballooning in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Few sights are more magical than hundreds of tethered, glowing hot-air balloons illuminating a dusky night sky. For many this is the highlight of Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta, a week-long festival launched in 1972, which draws enthusiasts from all over the world. Festivities start after sunset and culminate with a spectacular fireworks display.

Take in Manhattan from the Empire State, New York, USA

Watch the city that never sleeps with panoramic views from the Observatory Deck of New York’s most famous skyscraper. Perched 86 floors up, Manhattan’s twinkling skyline can be seen teeming with celebrated landmarks and aglow with streams of weaving night traffic. Take advantage of the 2am closing time and have the midnight vista more or less to yourself.

Join the early risers at a London market

Open from 3am, arrive early to catch the crack-of-dawn butchers in full swing. Housed in a Victorian market hall with arched ceilings and a curious colour scheme, Smithfield’s smart appearance belies its grisly past as a popular site for public executions. By 7am carnivores can devour a full English at the nearby Fox & Anchor.

Take a night safari in Singapore zoo

The world’s first night zoo, this veteran is still high on Singapore’s must-see list, thanks to special lighting techniques and open-concept enclosures which allow up-close animal encounters. Hop on the 45-minute narrated tram or stroll the trails to snoop on the nocturnal activities of nine hundred creatures; hang out with bats, laze with lions or act aloof with leopards.

Watch the Symphony of Light show, Hong Kong

Escape the glitzy late-night malls and snazzy restaurants for one of Hong Kong’s best free thrills. At 8pm every night, forty or so of Central District’s glittering skyscrapers dance to a synchronised routine of sweeping lasers, neon flashing lights and futuristic tunes. Bizarre yet strangely endearing, this fifteen-minute extravaganza is best seen from Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon.

Feed hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

It’s not every night you come face to face with the snapping jaws of Africa’s second largest predator, yet in Harar this is an evening ritual. Just outside the ancient city walls these hulking beasts slink out of the shadows for dinner with the Hyena Man, sometimes snatching meat from a stick held between his, or if you’re brave enough, your teeth.

Admire the Northern Lights in Lapland, Finland

The Northern Lights may be elusive, but with 24 hours of darkness at the peak of winter here, at least time will be on your side. Embrace the long nights by heading out into the frozen darkness to try and catch this breathtaking spectacle. Streams of shimmering particles twist and twirl in a shifting, sweeping dance that illuminates the inky-black sky.

Lose yourself in Beijing’s hutongs, China

Once crisscrossing all of Beijing, now only a few hundred of these labyrinthine, narrow alleys remain. Dating back 800 years, old Beijing really comes to life at night here, as food carts and rickshaws weave past lively games of mah jong, pavement hairdressers and old men watching the world go by.

Night dive with Manta Rays, Hawaii, USA

Gathering in pools of light cast by divers’ torches, specks of glittering plankton draw in manta rays. Hot in pursuit of these microscopic organisms, the rays perform a mesmerising dance, swooping, spiralling, somersaulting and plunging as they weave effortlessly amongst each other and stretch their 13ft tapered wings within reach of the waiting divers.

Stuff yourself at Shilin night market, Taipei, Taiwan

Food is a big deal in Taiwan, something best understood when sampling xiaochi (“little eats”) at Taipei’s biggest night market. Brave the crowds and polyphonic tunes and you will experience some of Asia’s best cuisine: syrupy grass jelly soup, sweet and chewy bubble tea, artery-clogging deep-fried meatballs, and, for the really adventurous, the rather dubiously named yet delicious “stinky tofu”.

See Petra under the stars, Jordan

Thousands of small candles light the Siq, the narrow, hidden gorge that stretches up to the entrance of the ancient city, as a single-file procession arrives at the Treasury. A Bedouin piper breaks the silence as crowds gather behind a blanket of flickering candles that cast shadows, which flit across Petra’s iconic facade.

Watch Thai kickboxing, Bangkok, Thailand

Worlds away form the kickboxing you see in a Western gym class, Muay Thai is kickboxing in its most distilled, aggressive form. With two stadiums, Ratchadamnoen and Lumphini, you can catch the action any night in Bangkok, so prepare for furious exchanges, looming tension and clamouring crowds that will leave you buzzing all night.

Catch the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan

Take advantage of jetlag and register at 4am for this famous tuna auction. By 5am, the market is frenzied, with trucks and trolleys zipping around laden with man-sized fish and feverish bidders clamouring for the best buys. As the commotion dies down, brave the queues at Daiwa Sushi for a proper breakfast dining on some of the best sushi in town.

Set the town ablaze in Lewes, England

Blazing stakes, flaming crosses and fireworks; Bonfire Night here will certainly set a pyromaniac’s heart alight. This double whammy commemorates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and honours the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake here in 1555–7. As the festival is steeped in history, paraders don medieval garb, grasp burning staffs and light effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope.

Experience Hoi An’s full moon festival, Vietnam

Banish thoughts of glow paint ravers on crowded Thai beaches, Hoi An’s full moon festival is a much more sophisticated affair. Every month on the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar, the town switches off its street lights as glowing silk lanterns, performers and food stalls fill the cobbled streets and the Thu Bon River is lit up with beautiful floats.

Night skiing with vin chaud, France

Staying cosy beside a roaring log fire may seem tempting, but night skiing is an exhilarating end to a day out on the slopes. While some resorts offer floodlit runs, others embrace the frozen darkness with torchlight descents that are beautiful to watch as they snake down the hillside. Afterwards, reward your efforts as you defrost cradling a warming vin chaud.

Stargaze from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

Boasting the world’s greatest collection of telescopes, the observatories at the summit of Hawaii’s highest peak draw space enthusiasts from around the world. However, while serious astronomers will be at home here, a free stargazing programme runs nightly at 6–10pm, introducing curious novices to an expanse of night sky wonders. Globular clusters, planets, double stars, galaxies and supernova remnants are all within reach.

Revel in the White Nights, St Petersburg, Russia

A must-see for all insomniacs, during St Petersburg’s Byele Nochy, or White Nights, from mid-June to mid-July, darkness never quite falls. Sun-filled, sticky days are followed by luminous, breezy nights that are alive with tsusovki (gatherings); vodka-fuelled revelry fills the bars, old friends stroll by the bustling canal, and the Summer Garden teems with lively, impromptu picnics.

Floodlit watering holes, Etosha, Namibia

The name of Namibia’s largest national park may mean “place of dry water”, but its watering holes offer great wildlife spotting opportunities. Okaukuejo Camp boasts a spotlit drinking oasis perfect for spying on nocturnal congregations. Safe on a raised platform you can watch as black rhinos, elephants, lions and giraffes emerge out of the darkness to head to their favourite local.

Join in Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, India

As dusk descends, the ghats teem with life as hordes of residents and saffron-clad pilgrims cluster on the banks of India’s holiest river for the nightly ceremony of Ganga Aarti. Lit by swinging torches, dancers trace slow steps to the rhythmic chanting of the crowds, while small twinkling diyas (candles) float on the dark waters.

From arachnophobia to fear of loneliness – Kia Abdullah explores how to face your fears and open up the world of travel.

It was early morning on my first day in Cambodia that the feeling of dread descended. Trundling along in a tuk tuk, I felt something heavy land on my leg. The brown-black mass was two inches wide and very much alive. As the scream rose in my throat, the creature took flight off into the dawn. I watched it go, noting the humidity, lush vegetation and open expanses of still water. This trip is going to be hell.

To my surprise, that was my only encounter with Cambodia’s invertebrate life, but with a 2014 trip to the Amazon on the cards, I knew I had to do something about my fear of creepy crawlies. It got me talking to other people about their travel fears and how they deal with them. Here is our gathered wisdom.

Spiders & Insects

London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme has been running for two decades and attracts people from all over Europe and beyond. Comprising a half day of talks, Q&A sessions, group hypnosis and face-to-face interaction with spiders, the programme is designed to help arachnophobics deal with their eight-legged enemies. By the end of my Saturday afternoon session, I was comfortably handling ‘Maggie’ the tarantula but still felt giddy around the much faster house spiders. I was able to do a capture and release using a plastic container – something I’ve never been able to do at home – but left the session not entirely convinced I was cured. The real test came five weeks later when I walked into my flat and saw a spindly, long-legged spider crawling along the living room carpet. I felt an instinctive jolt of fear but then rationality kicked in. With a newfound calm, I walked over, knelt down and picked up the spider (albeit with gloves). Holding it in one fist, I opened a window and carefully deposited it outside. There is zero chance I would have done that before so while I don’t know if I’m 100% cured, I’m definitely on my way. We’ll see what happens in the Amazon…

Flying

It’s often said that the best way to deal with a fear of flying is to fly a plane yourself. It was with this in mind that Anna Birch, a copywriter based in London, booked a 30-minute flying lesson at Stapleford Flight Centre. The centre caters mainly for trainee pilots and thrill seekers, but its pilots are also experienced in helping nervous flyers. In fact, I’m told that one weary pilot traipsed an Atomic Kitten member into and out of his plane nine times before she agreed to take to the air.

“My pilot, Nayar, could tell I was nervous,” says Anna, “but he was completely calm. He told me that we could come back down at any time. When we started to taxi, I could feel myself getting sweaty with nerves. I couldn’t help but think how small the plane was; how it would feel every bump in the air. My stomach lurched when we took off and before I knew it we were in the air. About 15 minutes in, Nayar asked if I wanted to take the controls – no pressure. With a dry mouth and clammy palms, I agreed. I flew it for about 5 minutes before eagerly handing back control. As we touched down, I felt elated; if I could do this, surely I could fly in a bigger, studier plane. It’s bloody scary but I would definitely recommend it.”

Three weeks after the lesson, 30-year-old Anna left Europe for the first time.

Illness

The prospect of needing urgent medical care abroad is a genuine concern for many a would-be traveller, and understandably so. Travelling is a break from the norm; it’s all about discovering new foods, exploring new terrain and battling new climates. It’s bathing in the Devil’s Pool, bungeeing over Victoria Falls and hiking the Huashan Trail – things you wouldn’t or couldn’t attempt at home.

Whether you’re worried about a serious injury from a daredevil stunt or a prosaic bout of Delhi Belly, there are steps you can take to protect yourself: Always buy travel insurance with adequate medical cover, never neglect your jabs, take a first-aid kit with you and carry adequate means of translation (a dictionary or translator app). Research the area beforehand so you are aware of particular vulnerabilities. For example, can you drink the local water? Do you need bug spray? Should you eat unpeeled fruit? Preparing for the worst will put your mind at ease, letting you enjoy the actual journey.

Danger

Getting lost, getting mugged, running out of cash – the possibilities alone are enough to discourage you. That said, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who regrets taking to the road, even when it was less than rosy.

Take Samira Ali, a London-based consultant who was mugged in Rio (twice) and contracted malaria in Peru – but who has happily travelled through 64 countries. Her advice is to always cover the basics below even if you’re a seasoned traveller. These, says Samira, will minimise the chances of plans going awry, giving you the confidence to tackle a big trip.

  • Read warnings from your local embassy (such as the  FCO in the UK) beforehand and do your research about particularly dangerous areas to avoid
  • Use your common sense when it comes to money: use the hotel safe, never walk around with too much cash and keep valuables out of sight
  • Always have electronic copies of your passport, your EHIC card and the contact details of your local embassy
  • Familiarise yourself with local customs like how to dress or interact with locals – it may help you stay out of sticky situations
  • Check in with someone at home at regular intervals
  • Build up a profile on Couchsurfing so you have options should you find yourself stranded without money

Loneliness

“I used to enjoy travelling alone,” says 29-year-old teacher Peter Watson. “Every summer, I’d take off for six weeks: India, Tanzania, Kenya, Cambodia. After I met my girlfriend, however, going it alone lost some of its lustre. I missed travelling with another person.”

Nevertheless, in summer 2013 Peter set off again, this time traveling across six countries in Eastern Europe. His most pertinent piece of advice is to project an open attitude: “Don’t bury your head in a book or your phone every time you’re alone as this will signal to people that you’re busy. Instead, keep your head up, look around and smile at people. Soon enough, someone will ask where you’re from and suddenly you’re not alone anymore.”

Secondly, introduce some structure into your day: “Wandering around alone can feel aimless and lonely. Doing some routine tasks like updating your travel blog or curating your photographs will break up the day,” says Peter.

If you’ve never travelled alone before, go on a short city break first, he advises – preferably somewhere with a familiar language. Promise yourself that you will initiate conversation with one stranger every day. This will give you the confidence to start planning a longer trip.

Finally, start building a presence on couchsurfing.com or meetup.com which will connect you to fellow travellers and expats abroad.

Long-term Effect

But I have a mortgage! What if I can’t get a job when I’m back? How will the gap look on my CV?

Most would-be travellers worry about their circumstances and how their long-term goals might be affected by taking off. Perhaps your job is going really well and you don’t want to jeopardise your career progression; perhaps you were planning to start a family and fear that soon it will be too late.

The truth is you can’t ‘get over’ this fear. There will always be an adjustment period on your return and there’s nothing to be done but bite the bullet and go. Heed these wise words from Mark Twain – and go!

Kia Abdullah is the editor of travel blog atlasandboots.com.

May is the perfect time to travel in the northern hemisphere. With the weather warming up, fewer tourists and lower prices than the peak summer months, the beaches of the Caribbean and the Med are prime targets, but there’s plenty going on elsewhere. From New Orleans jazz to a whale shark festival in Australia, here are our suggestions for the best places to visit in May.

Hike the Inca Trail, Peru

May is one of the best months to visit Peru and especially Machu Picchu – the rainy season has ended, but the valleys are still green and lush and the big crowds don’t arrive until June. Hiking the Inca Trail is the best way to see the “Lost City of the Incas”, though you’ll still need to plan ahead for a May visit; no more than 500 people (including support staff) per day are allowed on the trail, so you need to get permits months in advance. Anyone moderately fit can handle the route – most guided walks cover just 26 miles (42km) in four days, though there are some steep sections and you’ll be sleeping at over 3000 metres. Still, few sights in the world can match that first glimpse of the mist-shrouded ruins at dawn.

Meet bushrangers and whale sharks in Western Australia

May is the beginning of winter, or the dry season, in most of Western Australia, with long days of sunshine and clear blue skies. It’s a fun time to visit the northern coast, where the annual Whaleshark Festival in Exmouth marks the return of these gentle marine giants to Ningaloo Reef. Parties, live music and a float parade are enhanced by discounted tours to see the whale sharks themselves as they bask over the reef. Further south, the Moondyne Festival celebrates the life of Moondyne Joe, Western Australia’s legendary bushranger who had an uncanny ability to slip out of his prison cell. Held annually on the first Sunday in May, you’ll witness reenactments of Joe and his gang running around town robbing stores, as well as plenty of coppers, spirited floozies and swaggies.

Celebrate crickets, crossbows and candles in Tuscany and Umbria, Italy

Tuscany is another hugely popular summer destination best experienced in May, before things really start getting busy. The weather is perfect, and the region hosts a series of whimsical, raucous festivals with roots in the distant past. In Florence, the attention (briefly) moves off the Renaissance and onto real live crickets at the Festa del Grillo in Cascine Park, where vendors sell the jumpy bugs in decorated cages before they are released, en masse, into the grass. The Middle Ages are recreated at several crossbow festivals and competitions, the best of which are the Giostra dell’Archidado in gorgeous Cortona, and the Balestro del Girifalco in Massa Marittima. Across in equally enticing Umbria, the Corso dei Ceri in Gubbio is one of Italy’s most spectacular and oldest festivals, where competing teams from the city’s three districts race up the mountain carrying 9m-high wooden “candles”.

Explore Crete without the crowds, Greece

Part of Greece, the island of Crete is a beguiling destination, virtually a country apart basking in the eastern Mediterranean. May is a great time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds; you can expect discounted room rates and warm, comfortable days and cool evenings, with more rain in the first half of the month. For the longest sandy beaches head to the north coast, or hike the spectacular Samariá Gorge in the south.  You should also spend a few days soaking up Crete’s incredibly rich culture, the Minoan palaces of Knossos and Phaistos, old towns like Chaniá and the poignant Arkadi Monastery.

Sample Czech beer and classical concerts in Prague, Czech Republic

One of Europe’s most beautiful cities all year round, Prague truly dazzles in May when its gardens and hanging baskets are full of blooms, its magnolia trees blossom and the tantalising Prague Spring Music Festival delivers three weeks of high-quality symphony, opera and chamber concerts. Attending one of them is the best way to appreciate the magnificent Smetana Hall, inside the Municipal House. If all that culture wears you down, you can take solace at the Czech Beer Festival, seventeen days of sampling seventy brands of Czech beer, hearty food from Czech chefs, butchers and bakers and live music every day – rock, not classical.

Be a beach bum in the Bahamas

May is the best time of the year to visit the Caribbean, especially the Bahamas. Around this time rates start to drop, the weather is still good, the water is warm and there is no chance of a hurricane. It’s hot, but not yet the burning heat of summer and, more importantly, humidity is low and there are virtually no bugs or mozzies. Basically, it’s perfect beach weather, with islands such as Eleuthera prime hunting ground for idyllic strips of sand: Pink Sands Beach on nearby Harbour Island is one of the most spectacular beaches in the world.

Binge on the arts in Brighton, UK

Brighton’s beaches may not be in the same league as the Bahamas, but the trendy seaside town springs to life in May for its annual arts festival, one of England’s largest. The Brighton Fringe Festival and the Great Escape (Europe’s leading festival for new music) run at the same time, adding to the artsy atmosphere, and you can even peek inside over two hundred normally closed venues, houses and studios owned by local artists thanks to the Artists Open House concept, which runs at weekends throughout the festival.

Jive at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, USA

New Orleans is a fabulous city to visit any time, but early May is especially good for two reasons: it’s warm and sunny, but not humid and sticky as in the peak summer months; and Jazz Fest, a ten-day cultural extravaganza which takes place every year April–May, is at its height. In addition to a huge array of live performances in genres that range from jazz and blues to R&B, folk, rock and rap, the festival also includes the Louisiana Heritage Fair, featuring Cajun cuisine and arts and crafts from around the region.

Soak up the sun in Morocco

Just before the onset of the country’s sweltering summer heat waves, May is an ideal month to explore Morocco. Though the Mediterranean coast is warm enough to sunbathe on, cities like Marrakesh and Essaouira enjoy warm spring days and refreshingly cool nights, while temperatures in the Sahara are still tolerable. Alternatively, head to El-Kelaâ M’Gouna, a small town in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, for the Rose Festival. Three days of traditional song, dance, sword-fighting, feasting and even a beauty pageant of sorts celebrate the end of the rose harvest season in the nearby Vallée des Roses – a region blanketed in pink flowers every spring.

Pixabay / CC0

Tackle a trek in Nepal

If you’ve ever wanted to trek the Himalayas, May is one of the better months to do it. June’s rains have yet to pick-up and visibility from the altitudes you’ve endeavoured to climb is usually clear. Some of the tourist hotspots do get busy this month, but that’s all the more reason to veer off the beaten path. Buddha’s birthday falls around mid-May and while it is celebrated across Nepal, each region and minority group often has it’s own special way of celebrating – allowing for a completely unique cultural experience wherever you decide to venture.

This feature was updated in March 2016.

Sri Lanka has many unexpected sights, but few are as surreal as early morning in Haputale. As dawn breaks, the mists that blanket the town for much of the year slowly dissipate, revealing the huddled shapes of dark-skinned Tamils, insulated against the cold in woolly hats and padded jackets, hawking great bundles of English vegetables – radishes, swedes, cabbages and marrows – while the workaday Sri Lankan town slowly comes to life in the background, with its hooting buses and cluttered bazaars.

As the mists clear and the sun rises, the tangled ridges of the island’s hill country come slowly into view to the north, while to the south the land falls dramatically away to the lowlands below, with the far-off view of the coast and its sweltering Indian Ocean beaches faintly visible in the distance. As an image of Sri Lanka’s unexpected juxtapositions, Haputale has few peers, and to stand shivering on a hilltop within a few degrees of the equator, watching a scene reminiscent of an English market town crazily displaced in time and space, is to understand something of the cultural and physical contradictions of this fascinatingly diverse island.

The contradictions continue in the countryside beyond Haputale, as the road twists and turns up into the sprawling British-era plantations of the Dambatenne Tea Estate, whose antiquated factory is filled with the ingenious Victorian mechanical contraptions which are still used to process the leaves brought in from the surrounding estates. For the British visitor particularly, there is always the faint, strange nostalgia of seeing the legacy of one’s great-great-grandparents preserved in a distant and exotic tropical island. But there is also the subversive awareness that the hillsides of Haputale, once colonized by the British, have now reached out and quietly conquered distant parts of the world in their turn, filling the teabags and chai shops of countries as varied as England, Iran and India, with a taste that is purely and uniquely Sri Lankan.

Haputale can be reached by train from Colombo (9hr) and Kandy (5hr 30min). Accommodation is limited to a handful of guesthouses: try the excellent Amarasinghe Guest House ( +91 (0) 57 2268175).

 

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You’ve had a satisfying day or two’s heavy sightseeing in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. You’re culturally replete – but have a nagging feeling that you’ve missed something. The locals. Just what the hell do they do in this metropolis of fifteen million souls?

To find out, head across the Golden Horn to Independence Street (İstiklal Caddesi), the nation’s liveliest thoroughfare. Lined with nineteenth-century apartment blocks and churches, and with a cute red turn-of-the-twentieth-century tramway, it was the fashionable centre of Istanbul’s European quarter before independence, and it is now where young Istanbulites (it has the youngest population of any European city) come to shop, eat, drink, take in a film, club, gig and gawk, 24/7.

By day, bare-shouldered girls in Benetton vests, miniskirts and Converse All Stars mingle with Armani-clad businessmen riding the city’s financial boom, and music stores and fashion boutiques blare out the latest club sounds onto the shopper-thronged street. At night the alleyways off the main drag come to life. Cheerful tavernas serve noisy diners (the Turks are great talkers) wonderful meze, fish and lethal raki. Later, blues, jazz and rock venues, pubs and clubs burst into life – with the streets even busier than in daylight hours. You won’t see many head-scarved women here, and the call to prayer will be drowned by thumping Western sounds. But though Islam may have lost its grip on Istanbul’s westernized youth, traditional Turkish hospitality survives even on Independence Street, and you may find yourself being offered a free beer or two. This is Istanbul’s happening European heart; no wonder it has been heralded as “Europe’s Hippest City”.

From Sultanahmet take a tram to Karaköy then the Tünel funicular railway to the bottom of Independence Street; both close at around 9pm. Return to Sultanahmet by taxi after midnight.

 

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