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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Move over Paris Plage. Although media reports heap praise upon its strip of sun, Seine and sand, the North European city that has a better claim to be the spiritual home of the urban beach is Hamburg. Every April tens of thousands of tonnes of sand are imported as miniature seaside paradises appear in the heart of Germany’s second city. The doors open at the end of May and so begins another summer of beach bar hopping Hamburg-style.

Having spent their weekends on sandy strips beside the River Elbe since the late-1800s, Hamburg residents have long known about urban beach culture. But the reason why no other German city does the Stadtstrand (city beach) with such panache comes down to character. That Hamburg is simultaneously a sophisticated media metropolis and a rollicking port city produces a beach bar scene that ranges from glamour to grunge without sacrificing the key element – good times. Think sand, sausages and Strandkörbe (traditional wicker seats) to a soundtrack of funk and house beats. Ibiza it is not, but then nor is it trying to be.

Your flip-flops on, head to the river in port-turned-nightlife district St Pauli to begin at Strand Pauli (Hafenstr. 89). A year-round institution near the ferry port, it combines retro lampshades, castaway style and views of the ninth largest container port in the world – Hamburg in a nutshell. Next stop west on the beach bar crawl is slicker Hamburg City Beach Club (Grosse Elbstr. 279), all potted palms, day beds and aviator sunglasses, from where it’s a short walk to the former docks in Altona. Behind the beach volleyball pitch are relaxed Hamburg del Mar (Van-der-Smissen-Str. 4) and Lago Bay (same address), which aspires towards Ibiza but scores most for a small swimming pool. A tip wherever you go: sunset is popular, so arrive early, buy a drink and settle in.

Not that it’s all imported sand and urban chic. At the end of the road in Övelgönne further west still is Altona’s Strandperle (Schulberg 2). Sure it’s a glorified shack, but no one minds when it’s on a genuine river beach to make Paris Plage look like a glorified sandpit. Now, what was the German for “c’est magnifique”?

Scheduled flights link Hamburg to airports in London, Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin. Beach bars open from noon to midnight between May and September.

 

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Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Temple of Debod in Parque de la Montana

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Flamenco Dancers in Madrid

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.

 

April is a fantastic month to travel. Spring in the northern hemisphere brings warmer weather, making it an excellent time to soak up the early sun in Marrakesh or take in the rhododendron displays in Sikkim. Over in Australia you can visit Uluru without the crowds, while California’s Coachella festival and Austria’s Snowbombing provide partying aplenty. Here are our tips on the best places to visit in April.

Go rhino-spotting in Nepal

Most people associate Nepal with mountains, but a thin southern stretch of the country is resolutely flat. These plains, which are known as the Terai, have two wonderful national parks, Chitwan and Bardia, both of which are home to endangered one-horned rhinos. The easiest time to spot these majestic creatures – and the parks’ other wildlife, which includes tigers and elephants – is in the spring (February–mid-April), when the long grasses (which can reach well above head-height) have been cut down to size.

Show mother nature you care in Costa Rica

April 22nd is international Earth Day, and what better place to spend it than immersed in Costa Rica’s spectacular flora and fauna? Indeed, Costa Rica has the highest density of biodiversity of any country – hundreds of species are found nowhere else on the planet. From rainforest conservation to assisting at a sea turtle hatchery, there are plenty of worthwhile projects to join, with idyllic temperatures making this one of the best places to visit in April.

Beach, Caribbean, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Wander Sikkim’s rhododendron forests

Between mid-April and mid-May the rhododendron forests of mountainous Sikkim burst spectacularly into full bloom. They are best experienced on a walk or trek in the Singalila region in the west of the tiny state, which is sandwiched between China, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet in the northeast of India. Here you’ll find the 104-square-kilometre Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, a botanical haven with black bears and red pandas, as well as sublime vistas across a carpet of pink, red and violet rhododendrons to the Himalayas beyond.

Dance the weekend away in California

After a quiet few months, there are several great music festivals held in April. The big one is Coachella in Indio, California, which takes place over two weekends and features a huge range of music and art. It’s expensive, sure, but you’re guaranteed a great mix of big names and cult favourites, alongside the kind of little-known (for now) performers you’ll love discovering. Elsewhere, the Austrian ski resort of Mayrhofen hosts music and winter sport fiesta Snowbombing, while Down Under you’ll find the blues and roots festival Byron Bay Bluesfest.

Coachella, Indio, California

Celebrate St George’s Day in England

On the week of 23rd April St George’s Day is marked with festivities across England, notably at various National Trust properties. Alongside re-enactments of damsel-rescuing and dragon-slaying, expect a selection of quintessentially English activities, including jousting displays, maypole and Morris dancing, and cream teas (but hopefully not rain).

Party amid tulips in the Netherlands

Two pillars of quintessentially Dutch culture combine this month, and each is more than enough reason to make for the Netherlands. Firstly, April marks the peak of the country’s famed tulip season. Flowers grow in the easily accessible northern regions, where the dull of winter transforms into a vibrant patchwork of fully-bloomed rainbow rows. Secondly, April 27th is King’s Day: Holland’s biggest national event, and one of the best parties in the world. Expect free concerts, markets, fairs and a sea of orange-clad celebrants flooding Amsterdam’s scenic sidewalks, spilling out onto the countless boats bobbing in the canals.

Holland, Amsterdam, bunches of yellow Tulips (Tulipa), close-up

Marvel at submerged Salar, Bolivia

April is (generally) the end of the rainy season in Bolivia, during which the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt lake, becomes partly submerged. This transforms the blistering, white plains – which are flanked by mountains and smouldering volcanoes – into a vast, shimmering mirror. Although some parts of the Salar are impassable and tour prices rise at this time, you are guaranteed an array of otherworldly and starkly beautiful sights.

Explore Australia’s Uluru on foot

Australia is one of the best places to travel in April, with the start of the month an ideal time to visit Uluru, where the tourist season yet to get into full swing and daytime temperatures (which can hit 40ºC at other times of the year) at a more manageable level. A fine way to experience Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) is the ten-kilometre hike around the base of the rock, which takes three to four hours. If you’re still feeling energetic, the hike can be combined with the two-kilometre Mala Walk, which passes by rock art, caves and shaded pools en route to the Kanju Gorge.

Uluru sunset, Australia

Get spiritual for Easter in Italy

When looking at where to go in April, Easter shapes many travellers’ plans. But nowhere celebrates Easter (Pasqua) with quite the same colour and fervour as Italy, which has events throughout the county. Highlights include: the Scoppio del Carro on Easter Sunday in Florence, which involves a symbolic firework display outside the Duomo after midday Mass; and the Sicilian town of Trapani’s processions, particularly those on Good Friday.

Enjoy Marrakesh in the springtime

With the temperatures hovering around 22ºC, late April is a wonderful time to visit Marrakesh and the Jemaa el Fna. As dusk falls, the city’s main square comes alive with an eclectic cast of musicians, storytellers, fortune-tellers, henna-painters, acrobats, medicine men, and snake charmers, as well as a fair few pickpockets and scam artists. The innumerable food stalls here are an attraction in their own right, serving everything from spicy harira soup and tasty merguez sausages to rather more exotic stewed snails and sheep’s heads.

Djemaa el Fna, Marrakesh

Need more inspiration? Check out our list of the best places to visit in May

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. This feature was updated in January 2016. 

Yes, Paris has the elegance of the Seine. Fine, London has the bustling Thames. And OK, Rome has the historic Tiber. Great waterways all, no doubt about it – but none of them is a match for what you can do on the ribbon of snow and ice that is Ottawa’s Rideau Canal in winter.

Because when the chill hits, an 8km stretch of water running through the heart of the city freezes and becomes the world’s largest natural ice-skating surface, the size of ninety Olympic-sized ice rinks. This is the signal for hearty Ottawans to bundle up, strap on their skates and head out onto the ice to play, glide past the sights of the nation’s capital and even commute to work. It’s all part of an annual ritual that has become a favourite winter pastime.

Completed in 1832, the whole of the Rideau Canal is actually much longer than the segment you can skate on in Ottawa. Its 202km-length connects the capital with Kingston, to the southwest, via a series of canals, rivers, lakes. In winter, though, the canal is best experienced in Ottawa during the annual Winterlude Festival, held during the first three weekends of February.

In the crisp bright of a Canadian winter the canal is a hive of activity. Thousands glide – and sometimes totter – about, a quick game of pond hockey breaks out on a more isolated stretch, figure skaters spin, speedskaters skim by, all metronome-like consistency, and everybody vies for a glimpse of world-renowned sculptors carving masterpieces from blocks of snow and ice.

As daylight gives way to an even chillier darkness, floodlights light up the canal and the icy spectacle becomes cosier and even more magical. Children – overbalanced either by lack of practice or thick winter clothing – zip precariously along, steaming cups of hot chocolate are sipped, kisses are exchanged and BeaverTails (don’t worry – they’re the fried, sweet pastry variety) are eaten. Everyone, it seems, is totally oblivious to the subzero temperatures. Who needs a beach when you can have this much fun on ice?

The National Capital Commission (613 239 5234 or 613 239 5000, www.canadascapital.gc.ca) maintains the Rideau Canal and has information on ice conditions and events; the canal is usually open for skating from mid-January. You can rent skates at kiosks along the canal.

 

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Home to a burgeoning café scene and an ever-growing stock of backpacker hostels, the western Ukrainian city of Lviv (Львів) represents the country at its most tourist-friendly. A top pick in Rough Guides’ top ten cities for 2014 list, it’s certainly the Ukraine’s biggest surprise, a former outpost of the Habsburg Empire whose elegance and charm will challenge any preconceptions about what eastern Europe or former Soviet cities are supposed to be. So if you’re considering a trip to Europe’s eastern fringes this year, here are ten reasons why Lviv, Ukraine should be on the itinerary.

An Old Town that’s perfect for strolling

Lviv’s pedestrian-friendly Old Town still looks and feels like a slice of Central Europe, its welter of Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches attesting to a multicultural past. Centre of Lviv’s social life is the spacious Rynok or former market square, abuzz with outdoor cafés and surrounded by Renaissance mansions backed by a warren of courtyards. Nostalgia for the Habsburg era has been put to good use by the booming tourist industry, lending Old-Town nightlife a distinctly theatrical feel: you’ll see top-hatted staff ushering visitors into nineteenth century themed cafés, and frilly-aproned waitresses serving up frothy mugs of beer.

Ivan Franco Opera and Ballet Theatre, Old Town, Lviv, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ukraine, Europe

Greenery along Prospekt Svobody

Running along Lviv’s Old Town to the west is Prospekt Svobody (“Freedom Avenue”), a broad two-lane street with a strip of fountain-splashed park running up the middle. Presiding haughtily over the northern end is Lviv Opera House, dating from 1900 and topped with a trio of winged statues symbolizing the arts.  To the south, a modern monument to Ukrainian poet Shevchenko and a pre-World War I statue of Polish national bard Adam Mickiewicz point to Lviv’s ambiguous cultural heritage.

Carpathian Mountain magic

The peaks and pastures of the Carpathians may be a long way from central Lviv, but the lure of the mountains has always exerted a powerful influence over the city’s imagination. Spread over a forested hillside to northeast of the city centre, the Museum of Folk Architecture provides the ideal introduction to the much-cherished rural traditions of the Ukrainian southwest. The most spectacular buildings are the fairytale Carpathian churches, their belfries raised in pagoda-like tiers.

Outdoor art at the Lychakivs’ke Cemetery

Three kilometres southeast of the centre, Lychakivs’ke Cemetery is one of Europe’s most celebrated burial grounds, park-like in its landscaped beauty and brimming with over two centuries’ worth of fine funerary monuments. Originally laid out in 1786 it is now a museum reserve: indeed the sheer profusion of ornate family chapels, sculpted angels and statues of the deceased gives the place the appearance of an outdoor art gallery.

Lviv cemetery, Ukraine

Old-School Museums

Somewhat underfunded in recent years, Lviv’s museums are actually rather charming in their creaky wooden staircases, polished parquet floors, staff that follow you from one room to another switching the lights on and off, and a refreshing lack of anything resembling touchscreen interactivity. Housed in the rather grand Potocki Palace, Lviv Art Gallery does at least display some fine-looking antique furnishings in a sequence of opulently decorated halls.

Beer with tradition

One exception to the old school museum rule is the Brewery Museum, an entertaining display that tells the history of brewing from its origins to the present day. It’s attached to the Lvivskie brewery, a highly respected institution throughout both Habsburg and Soviet eras that continues to churn out local-recipe brews. And it’s far from being the only show in town: Stare Misto is a highly rated local private brewery supplying many of Lviv’s bars, and a number of the city’s pubs (notably Kumpel) brew their own excellent ales.

A walk in the park

A huge wedge of greenery stretching south and uphill from central Lviv, Stryiskyi Park is the ideal spot for a leafy stroll or a blanket-on-the-lawn picnic. Mazey paths lead through the landscaped, largely wooded terrain. In the southwestern corner of the park, the Lviv Childrens’ Railway is run by teenage trainees and operates narrow-gauge services round the rim of the park.

Masoch cafe, Lviv, Ukraine

Kinky drinks

One of Lviv’s most famous sons is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), author of Venus in Furs and inspiration behind psychologist von Krafft-Ebing’s concept of masochism. In this city filled with themed cafés and pubs, it is only fitting that the man who lived his fantasies as well as writing about them should have a tribute bar of his own. The kinky décor at Masoch contains the kind of lacy fabrics and undergarments that are charming rather than over-the-top. Cocktails have corny names like Burning Desire, and your bill is delivered in a high-heeled shoe.

Death by Chocolate

During its Habsburg heyday Lviv’s cafés were famous for keeping the city awash with coffee, hot chocolate and ice cream. And judging by the number of coffee shops and patisseries clogging the city’s central boulevards today, it’s a tradition that is very much alive. Something of a local institution, the Lviv Handmade Chocolate café makes pretty much everything you might want from the brown stuff – you can drink it in any number of forms, eat it as a mousse, or buy bags of chocolate sweets in all possible shapes, sizes and flavours.

Ukrainian shirts

One of the most authentic souvenirs of any Ukrainian trip, the sorochka is a white smock embroidered with traditional folk motifs, still worn by locals on festive occasions. If you’re looking for the high-quality hand-embroidered version, head for the Old-Town souvenir and handicrafts market on the corner of Teatralna and Lesi Ukrainky streets. For a cheaper, factory-produced sorochka, browse the open-air stalls of the Krakivsky rynok (market), the city’s main source of fruit, veg and inexpensive clothes.

You can find more information about Lviv at www.touristinfo.lviv.ua and explore more of the country and region with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.
See what the Rough Guide to 2014 says about Lviv, Ukraine.
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Convertibles sell better in Britain than in much of the Mediterranean. That might make it sound like the inhabitants of this damp island are stupid. A kinder explanation is that they just enjoy the sunshine when it comes – an impression that will have struck anyone who’s attended a pop festival in the UK with the force of a stage diver. The tales of the rains that swallowed tents at Glastonbury in 2005 and turned 2008’s Bestival into a treacherous mudbath rapidly acquired legendary proportions. When the sun shines and the right band are onstage, people tell fewer stories, but the smiles are as broad as they come. And Green Man, which has had its share of blissful warmth and endless drizzle, is the pick of the festive crop.

Sat between Abergavenny and the Brecon Beacons, its estate location feels classically picturesque, but hills including the iconic Sugar Loaf rear around the site, giving that touch of the wilderness. Its capacity (10,000 at last count) is big enough to bestow a sense of occasion but small enough to mean you might manage to find your tent and friends, which will prove a relief to anyone who’s spent hours trekking Glastonbury’s acres. There’s no big branding here, and the staff spend more time helping you out than telling you what you can’t do – even the toilets are decidedly bearable. Green Man also manages the neat trick of being family- and hedonist-friendly – the DJ tent booms through the witching hours, but kids will enjoy the stalls, gardens and children’s parades.

Indeed, while many festivals that try to be all things to all people end up tying themselves in knots, Green Man pulls out some crackers. There aren’t many stadium headliners here, but the intriguing assortment of folk veterans, psychedelic hipsters and bluesy rockers have been picked by organisers who care deeply about their music. They’ve seen Animal Collective get the crowd frugging to swelling math-rock, Richard Thompson play nimble songs of love and loss, Bon Iver bring his Vermont laments to a sunny Saturday and Spiritualized rock out in the downpour. Worth the risk of rain? You bet.

Green Man takes place every year, generally in late August. See www.greenman.net for more details.

 

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The Pembrokeshire Coast Path fringes Britain’s only coastal national park, which has resisted the onslaught of the twenty-first century in all but a few hotspots such as Tenby and St David’s (and even these remain remarkably lovely). Get out and stride along part of the 186-mile trail and you’ll soon appreciate this evocative and spectacular edge of Wales.

Long golden surf beaches easily rival those of California; the clear green seas are the habitat of seals, whales, dolphins, sharks and, in summer, exotic species such as sunfish and even seahorses. Further offshore, you’ll spot islands that are home to internationally important seabird colonies. You can wander atop the highest sea cliffs in Wales, bent into dramatic folds by ancient earth movements; and in the hamlets, harbours and villages you pass through along the way, there are plenty of charming pubs and restaurants at which to refuel.

This variety is one of the best things about the coast path, which offers something for everyone – and not just in summer. The off-season can provide the thrilling spectacle of mighty Atlantic storms dashing thirty-foot waves against the sea cliffs as you fight your way along an exhilaratingly wind-lashed beach, whilst the next day the sun could be glittering in a clear blue sky with seabirds wheeling and screeching overhead. Take time out from your hike to relax and enjoy views across the Atlantic, which, other than the occasional lighthouse dotting the horizon, have remained unchanged since St Patrick sailed from Whitesands Beach to Ireland.

To walk the full length of the path takes up to two weeks and, surprisingly, involves more ascent than climbing Mount Everest, but even just a half-day outing along the trail is worth the effort and acts as a reminder that Britain boasts some of the finest coastline in the world.

For more info, go to www.pcnpa.org.uk.

 

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If a guidebook tells you that something is “impossible to describe”, it usually means the writer can’t be bothered to describe it – with one exception. After pondering the views of the Grand Canyon for the first time, the most spectacular natural wonder on Earth, most visitors are stunned into silence. Committed travellers hike down to the canyon floor on foot or by mule, spending a night at Phantom Ranch, or hover above in a helicopter to get a better feeling for its dimensions. But it is still hard to grasp. The problem isn’t lack of words. It’s just that the canyon is so vast and so deep, that the vista stretches so far across your line of vision, up, down and across, giving the impression of hundreds of miles of space, that it’s a bit like looking at one of those puzzles in reverse – the more you stare, the more it becomes harder to work out what it is or where you are. Distance becomes meaningless, depth blurs, and your sense of time and space withers away.

The facts are similarly mind-boggling: the Grand Canyon is around 277 miles long and one mile deep. The South Rim, where most of the tourists go, averages 7000 feet, while the North Rim is over 8000 feet high – its alpine landscape only adding to the sense of the surreal. On the canyon floor flows the Colorado River, its waters carving out the gorge over five to six million years and exposing rocks that are up to two billion years old through vividly coloured strata. It’s this incredible chromatic element that stays with you almost as much as the canyon’s size, with the various layers of reds, ochres and yellows seemingly painted over the strangely shaped tower formations and broken cliffs. Think of it this way: the Grand Canyon is like a mountain range upside down. The country around the top is basically flat and all the rugged, craggy elements are below you. The abruptness of the drop is bizarre and, for some, unnerving. But the Grand Canyon is like that: it picks you up and takes you out of your comfort zone, dropping you back just that little bit changed.

The South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the North Rim from mid-May to mid-October. See www.nps.gov/grca for more information.

 

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