Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined: Venice is everything it’s cracked up to be; springtime in Paris has even hardened cynics melting with the romance of it all; Oxford’s colleges really are like Harry Potter film sets. Others will surprise, with their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture.

Whether you’re planning to see it all or explore the hidden corners of the continent, these are our top 12 tips for backpacking through Europe, taken from our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.

1. Pick your season wisely

If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.

2. Take the train

Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere. Make sure you check out our tips for travelling by train in Europe.

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3. Be savvy about accommodation

Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. Homestays will often give you better value for money than most hotels so they are also worth considering. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.

4. Plan your trip around a festival

There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include: St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun; Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure; and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.

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5. Eat like a local

You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either. If you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, you’ll find plenty of foodie experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain; relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria; or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.

6. Find the freebies

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin and Berlin to get you started.

7. Get outdoors

It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.

Filip Stoyanov/Flickr

 8. Allow yourself the odd splurge

One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little “flashpacking” guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you’re mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.

9. Stay up late

Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, Budapest’s ruin bars, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you’ll be following in some famous footsteps. Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé, or sipping a pint in one of Oxford’s historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s old haunt.

10. Hit the beach

Clubbed and pubbed out? It’s time to hit the beach. If you’re looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.

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11. Go under the radar

If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, you’ll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with less people and more charm (and cobblestones), and Berat, a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.

12. Stay safe

Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone, and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times. Exercise caution in hostels and on trains; padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.

 

For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image via Agustin Rafael Reyes/Flickr.

Longstanding author of the Rough Guide to India, Nick Edwards, explains how the remote Andaman Islands have been slowly increasing their tourist profile but still reward the adventurous traveller with natural splendour unlike anywhere on the mainland. 

The long emerald necklace of the Andaman Islands – an archipelago lying over a thousand kilometres out in the Bay of Bengal – is unlike anywhere else in India. Here you’ll find some of India’s most stunning beaches, invariably fringed by thick forest, and the only substantial coral reefs in the country, a magnet for scuba divers worldwide. These colourful underwater networks teem with brilliant fish, reef sharks, manta rays and Olive Ridley and loggerhead turtles. Add plenty of exotic bird life, crocodiles lurking in lagoons and the odd feral elephant into the mix, and it’s not hard to see the attractions of a visit.

The archipelago is actually closer and more similar in appearance to the western coasts of Myanmar and Thailand. Indeed, India only really inherited the island chain by default, along with the off-limits Nicobar Islands, on independence from the British, who had used the islands as a useful marine staging post and grim penal colony. In doing so they partly displaced the half dozen distinct indigenous tribal groups who had previously been the only inhabitants. This process has continued since the islands were further colonised by mostly Tamil and Bengali settlers, although certain areas are still set aside for tribal people.

Today, while firmly on the tourist trail in India, the Andaman Islands still receive realtively few visitors and this stunning archipelago is a highlight on any itinerary.

Your first port of call: Port Blair

The only point of entry is the capital, Port Blair, named after an eighteenth-century English lieutenant. Most people fly in from Chennai or Kolkata but it is also possible to make the rather arduous three- to five-day boat crossing from those same two mainland ports. Upon arrival by either means, the requisite free special permit is granted, which delineates the areas and islands you are allowed to visit. The first thing you are liable to notice is a much fresher, greener aroma instead of the unmistakable smell associated with urban India.

The town is a bit of an anomaly, however, with a mish-mash of concrete and corrugated iron buildings draped over verdant hills that dip down to the surrounding water. It says a lot about the Port Blair that its main tourist attraction is the Cellular Jail, a sombre reminder of its punitive past. A boat tour of the small islets in the bay, namely Viper and Ross, is also worthwhile, or perhaps a trip further afield in South Andaman to the Mahatma Gandhi National Marine Park at Wandoor, but most people head for more rewarding destinations after a night or two.

The honeypots: Havelock and Neil

Some visitors forego the dubious pleasures of Port Blair altogether and make a beeline on the first available vessel to Havelock, the Andamans’ prime tourist destination. This 12km-long mixture of hilly forestation, verdant farmland and golden white sandy beaches is the largest of Ritchie’s Archipelago and only a couple of hours from the capital on a fast catamaran. It has grown exponentially in twenty years from a complete backwater with a smattering of backpacker beach huts to a fairly busy place that is home to over sixty accommodations, several of them top notch resorts. These mainly service the growing number of wealthy Indian vacationers and honeymooners from the mainland.

Although some would say Havelock is on the verge of becoming spoilt, it remains the only island to offer a wide range of accommodation and eating options – try the Red Snapper restaurant at Wild Orchid – plus it has the majority of diving operations. It also boasts the splendid arc of Radhnagar (aka #7), backed by towering mowhar trees and still home to Rajan, the legendary but now retired swimming elephant, who can be visited at Barefoot Resort. Havelock’s diminutive neighbour, Neil, has started to take some of the overspill from its big sister and is preferred by many for a longer stay.

The long road north: the Andaman Trunk road

Many make the mistake of confining their visit solely to Havelock and maybe Neil, but there are a lot more places to be explored that will give you a real sense of being off the beaten track. The controversial (because it bisects the Jarawa tribal lands and is technically illegal) Andaman Trunk Road runs up from Port Blair through the three largest islands of South, Middle and North Andaman. Although the main settlements along the road are rather forlorn, ugly places, they are the access points for more splendid and much quieter beaches, most noticeably Kalipur in the far north, which can also be reached by taking a boat to Arial Bay. Ferries also stop at Rangat Bay and Mayabunder, home to many Karen people. From the latter, you can arrange a visit to pristine Interview Island, a wonderful nature sanctuary.

The isolated escape: Long Island

For those who fancy a more relaxed and relatively isolated refuge, one of the best options is Long Island. On the boat route from Havelock north to Rangat, it contains a low-key little bazaar, just one or two accommodations, principally the convivial Blue Planet, and the possibility of a fine hike across to the island’s best beach, which you are likely to have entirely to yourself.

The laidback option: Little Andaman

Best of all is Little Andaman, the southernmost island in the group and paradoxically quite large. Reminiscent of Havelock in the nineties, it is just establishing itself on the traveller trail. Much of the island is reserved for the Onge tribe and thus off-limits, but a sizeable chunk of the northeast is included on your permit. There are now around half a dozen small guesthouses and extremely laidback, inexpensive beach hut operations strung along the coast between Hut Bay and Netaji Nagar, behind a magnificent 8km strand. You can also admire the tranquil White Surf Waterfalls, whose name gives away the fact that Little Andaman boasts excellent surfing conditions.

Return flights to Port Blair from Chennai or Kolkata can cost well over £200 during the peak winter season. Boat crossings from the mainland cost as little as £20. Road and sea transportation between the islands is very inexpensive, while the cheaper accommodations only cost £5–10 per night. Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Compare flights, book hostels and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

On a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, just a short drive from bright lights of Puerto Vallarta, Neil McQuillian discovers the unexpected…

There! I whipped my head round to get a better look. Yes – roger that – no doubt about it. That rare combination of bright, clashing colours and drab browns: remarkable. Quite a sighting. I never thought I’d encounter one like her in these parts.

For this, surely, was absolutely the wrong sort of habitat. I was just 40km – a half-hour drive – north of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state’s second-biggest city, a sizzling party town throbbing with North American tourists. I’d have expected my lesser-spotted to shun this neck of the woods.

But no – I’d seen a hippy all right. With the grey slab of a highway gas station forecourt for a backdrop, her beach camo tan and golden dreadlocks was unmistakable. And she’d been thumbing for a ride too: textbook hippy behaviour.

This was only my first full day in Mexico. I’d not yet experienced central Puerto Vallarta for myself, though I’d flown into its airport on one of Thomson’s newly launched direct flights from the UK (the only services here from Europe that don’t require a change). I’d then immediately scarpered north up the coast – having read about the town’s spring-break steam-letting reputation, I didn’t fancy it much. I was after tranquility.

Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

“hubs of hippiedom and bastions of bodaciousness”

Yet Guillermo, my guide, assured me that, not only were the towns we’d be visiting that day chilled: they were hubs of hippiedom, bastions of bodaciousness. I’d been on the edge of my passenger seat ever since – and then there she was, right on cue, a vision in tie-dye.

Even without the proximity of Vallarta (as it’s known), there’s another reason I was dubious about this hippy idea. This stretch of coastline, just over the state border from Jalisco, has been rebranded in recent years. No longer is it the easily overlooked southern corner of Nayarit state, a ragtag of little towns overshadowed by Vallarta. No – these days it is Riviera Nayarit. Mexico’s tourism bigwigs are turning the full force of their will towards it, with the resorts already in place rather more power-shower than flower-power. And beware: the last time the tourist kingmakers got so exercised, Cancún was their target. We know what happened there.

Yet once we’d turned off the highway, the approach road to Sayulita – the best-known of Nayarit’s boho beach towns – certainly didn’t feel like it was gearing up for a touristic boom. Billowing trees crowded in as we drove along. Wire fences were strung between rudely carved posts. Little huts with thinning palapa roofs sat by battered old cars, parked at wonky angles on uneven ground. So far, so hippy.

But while Sayulita itself was a jumble, it was a just-so jumble. The functionally surfaced approach road gave way to tourist-pleasing cobbles. Every low-rise concrete building seemed to be painted a different colour. The central plaza was brisk with bunting and the trees here did as they were told, sprouting up out of little rectangular cut-outs in the sidewalk. It was quaint rather than kooky – and not a hippy in sight.

Surfing in Sayulita, Nayarit

“What could possibly have attracted a group of mind-altering-drug enthusiasts to an area associated with hallucinogenic cacti?”

Guillermo, though, adamant about the town’s alternative credentials, directed me towards the local “galleries” lurking in the shadows of those neatly managed trees. They were shops. Artsy shops, certainly, but shops nonetheless.

I liked them. In one, staffed by a hip local, I bought a boho-chic throw, knowingly striped in shocking pink and neon yellow. Another specialized in the art of the Huichols, a shamanistic and animistic people local to this region. Their art is eye-popping – which is quite how it should be, given that ritual use of peyote (a hallucinogenic cactus) is its inspiration. I solemnly purchased some Huichol art greetings cards to mark my brush with this weighty, mystical culture. (Though what greeting I hope to convey by sending someone an image of two wolf-people playing banjos, or one of a woman with snakes for arms and hair like electrified golden seaweed, firing out multicoloured babies from between her splayed legs, I do not know. I may need peyote to find out.)

So at this juncture, Sayulita seemed to be more about window-shopping than tree-hugging. But peyote – now that was interesting. Guillermo had already revealed that the first wave of hippies arrived at this coastline in the 1960s. So I pondered (paraphrasing Mrs Merton), what could possibly have attracted a group of mind-altering-drug enthusiasts to an area associated with hallucinogenic cacti?

Well, the surf, actually. Or so Guillermo assured me. That pioneering bunch were Sayulita dreamin’. And their followers still are – the conditions here are some of the finest in Mexico. The beach itself was gorgeous too. Yet, as in town, there was a wash of commercialism to it all: a surf board rental shack here, sun loungers for hire there, beach hawkers selling everything from shrimp skewers to woven baskets.

San Pancho, Nayarit

“San Pancho as everyone knows it, felt like Sayulita – just without all the people”

That’s not to say I didn’t like Sayulita. I liked it a lot. I’d happily spend a holiday there. But I’d sort of pictured it more like The Beach. It seemed to me that its legendary hippy identity had been commodified somewhat. So I started wondering – had my sighting been running away?

As it turns out, she might well have been – but probably only ten minutes north along the road. San Francisco, or San Pancho as everyone knows it, felt like Sayulita – just without all the people. Its beach had precisely the same sweep, the same marshy area to one side, the same sun, the same sea. Yet that was about it. An elemental place. Huge grey and white herons floated languidly around. Maybe they had at Sayulita too. I just hadn’t noticed. My mind started moving with them.

I noticed that a few dome tents sat towards the back of the beach. I sat at one of the few beachside restaurants and ate superb, smoky aguachile, watching a long-haired guy who was sitting on a pile of backpacks plonked in the middle of the sand. I waited to see if he would move. He didn’t. He was on to something good.

Brazil has some of the sexiest, swoon-inducing stretches of sand in the world. We’ve all heard of Copacabana and Ipanema, but the country has thousands of miles of unspoilt coral coves, balmy bays and coconut palm-shaded coast beyond Rio.

Glorious beaches fringe much of the country’s 7500 km-long coastline, from the steamy tropical coast in the north to the sweeping strands of silvery sand near the southern Argentinean border. And they offer far more than beautiful people in tiny swimwear and sultry sunbathing. Brazil is one of the world’s hottest beach destinations, with chic low-key resorts, miles of empty white sand, coral reefs and superb wind- and kite-surfing. Here, Alex Robinson picks six of the best beaches in Brazil.

For a city setting: Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro 

Nestled between a bottle-green ocean, a heart-shaped lagoon and the towering, forest-covered boulder-mountains of the Serra do Mar, no city beach has a setting that can match Ipanema’s. Visit the far southern end for an early breakfast in buttery yellow light, grab a chair at one of the simple beach shacks and order an ice-cold, freshly-cut coconut and an energising açai berry sorbet. Then sit back and watch the city’s beautiful people emerge for their start-of-the-day dip.

Image by Alex Robinson

For an island getaway: Cacimba do Padre, Fernando de Noronha, Pernambuco

Fernando de Noronha island is a  pinnacle of crumbling granite fringed with pristine coral reef and set in deep ocean an hour’s flight off Brazil’s northeastern coast. The entire island is ringed with fabulous beaches – many of them protected as turtle-nesting sites – but Cacimba do Padre is the most spectacular, a kilometre long broad stretch of downy soft sand, set between craggy headlands and pounded by powerful, tubing surf.

For fresh-water wading: Pequeiro beach, Ilha do Marajó, Pará

Not all Brazil’s beaches are salt-water. Pesqueiro sits on Marajó island – a sandbank the size of Denmark in the mouth of the Amazon river. It’s mind-numbingly vast – running the length of a European country to the north, broken by tiny fishing villages with stilt houses, caiman-filled mangrove swamps and towering Amazon rainforest. And it’s washed by a gentle, fresh-water river-sea which flows broad and deep into the Atlantic and a distant horizon, turning the ocean mineral-water sweet for almost a hundred kilometres offshore.

Image by Alex Robinson

For mountainous backdrops: Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande, Rio de Janeiro state

The mountains of southeastern Brazil’s Atlantic forest drop into an emerald green ocean in a run of verdant ridges, rising again offshore as a ripple of islands. The most beautiful of these is Ilha Grande, or Big Island – a few hours bus ride south of Rio. As it’s covered in tropical forest and has no roads, transport to the island’s myriad marvellous beaches is by brightly-painted fishing boat or walking trail. Lopes Mendes is around two hours’ trek from the island’s only village Abrãao, on a path that cuts up into monkey-filled trees, then dropping onto the sand through a series of tiny, balmy bays, and finally cutting into Lopes Mendes itself – a wild, three kilometre strand sitting in the heart of the island’s protected state park.

For lavish luxury: Trancoso, Bahia

Trancoso is a boho beach village clustered around a square of old Portuguese cottages and a tiny church, sitting on a high sandstone cliff between the rainforest and tens of kilometres of long, empty golden beaches. Over the last decade it’s become the playground for Brazil’s off-duty jet set. Supermodels and their sun-kissed celebrity cohorts flock here for New Year, staying in barefoot luxury at a string of effortlessly cool boutique resorts. You can spot them in the evenings – fine-dining al fresco under the stars and dancing samba into the small hours at beach bars. Or you could ignore them altogether and find an empty beach all to yourself. There are plenty to go around.

Image by Alex Robinson

For sand dunes: Jericoacoara, Ceará

Strong prevailing Atlantic winds have swept sand off the broad pink-and-white beaches into towering dunes, which roll far inland, enclosing shallow salt water lagoons and marshes. The views from the dune crests are stunning, with golden sunsets fading over the sands into shades of brilliant red and pink. And the reliable winds, placid sea and myriad lagoons have made Jericoacoara a favourite spot among kite- and wind-surfers weary of the crowded Mediterranean. Surfing here is easy – the town has a string of board rental shops, almost all of which offer classes for kite- and wind-surfers of all levels.

Explore more of Brazil with the Rough Guide to Brazil. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Fiji is about as close to paradise as you can get. This South Pacific archipelago, over three hundred islands lying around 2000km east of Australia, has some of the world’s most glorious stretches of palm-backed sand, myriad crystal-clear lagoons and a blissful tropical climate.

It’s no surprise that Fiji is the destination of choice for thousands of honeymooners, backpackers and families each year. But with almost a hundred resorts throughout the islands, choosing where to stay can be overwhelming. The range of options is huge: Fijian resorts run the gamut from simple beachside bures (traditional thatched huts) with cold-water showers to opulent villas with hardwood floors and private spa pools.  

To help you decide, we’re giving you a sneak peek inside the new Rough Guide to Fiji. We’ve whittled the resorts down to six of the best, each aimed at a different type of traveller.

Matangi Island Resort

Best for romance: Matangi Island Resort

Offshore from the rugged island of Taveuni, Fiji’s third largest, lie three islands home to some of the top private island resorts. What really sets the superb Matangi Island Resort resort apart are the beautiful treehouse bures set in forest that is home to orange doves, silktails and parrots. Bures, both treehouse and beachside, are spacious, with high ceilings, en-suite bathrooms and outdoor rainforest showers. There’s also a swimming pool and delightful restaurant and the scuba diving nearby is first-class. It’s run by fifth-generation descendants of the Mitchell family; originally farmers, they’ve lived here for over 100 years.

www.matangi island.com; from US$950

Best for luxury: Vatulele Island Resort

This exquisite resort on the limestone island of Vatulele offers fine dining, nineteen private villas and a ratio of four staff to every guest. Straddling a beautiful white-sand beach and with its own tiny offshore island used as a picnic spot, the resort ranks as one of the finest in Fiji. Residents can even kayak out to a small islet in the lagoon where adorable red-footed boobies and their fluffy offspring are spotted in season.

www.vatulele.com; from US$1800

Image courtesy of Fiji Beachhouse

Best for backpackers: Fiji Beachouse

Viti Levu, the biggest island in the archipelago at over 10,000 square kilometres, is where most visitors arrive and is a good place to start a trip. If you’re after a party atmosphere, head for the picturesque lagoons of the Coral Coast where the Beachouse sits beside tall coconut palms and a white sandy beach. You’ll be made to feel instantly at home here: there’s a good swimming pool and bar, the food is tasty and there’s loads to do – from waterfall hikes to sea kayaking.

www.fijibeachouse.com; dorms from F$55; doubles from F$189

Best for divers: Dolphin Bay Divers Retreat

Hidden at the southeastern tip of the Natewa Peninsula on Vanua Levu is Dolphin Bay Divers Retreat,  one of the best places to access the stunning corals and fish of the workd-famous Rainbow Reef. Half the pleasure of this resort is in the motorboat trip to get to there, but arriving is a treat too: the simple but appealing bamboo bures and safari tents sit right beside the beach. The dive instructors are adept, and the coral reef just offshore is also a paradise for snorkellers. Excellent meals are enjoyed communally at a central bure: meal plans are a must as there’s nothing else for miles.

www.dolphinbaydivers.com; from F$65

Plantation Island Resort

Best for families: Plantation Island Resort

The Mamanuca island chain is one of Fiji’s biggest draws, famed for it’s spotless beaches, calm lagoons and some of the country’s best weather. Among the 32 small islands is picturesque Malolo Lailai, where you’ll find Plantation Island Resort. A large resort bustling with young families, it boasts a stunning palm-fringed beach and a specially cordoned-off lagoon area as well as three swimming pools; windsurfing boards and kayaks are available to borrow. Restaurants, bars, shops and an espresso and juice bar complete the picture.

www.plantationisland.com; from F$465

Best for eco-adventure: Tui Tai Adventure Cruise

One of the best ways to explore the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni is on the luxurious Tui Tai Adventure Cruise. The cruise takes place on a 42m, three-masted schooner with air-conditioned cabins, en-suite bathrooms, spa treatments and on-deck daybeds. along the way you can dolphin-watch, snorkel or dive the Great Sea Reef and kayak up the mangrove-lined nasavu River to a remote village. Probably the only time you’ll run into other travellers is on the visit to Bouma National Heritage Park on Taveuni. The cruise also calls in at the gloriously remote Ringgold Islands and the fascinating cultural enclaves of Kioa and Rabi.

www.tuitai.com; seven nights from $2895 per person

 

Explore more of Fiji with the Rough Guide to Fiji. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

There’s no better way to dust off the yuletide cobwebs than with a Boxing Day swim. Here are some of Britain’s barmiest spots for a festive dip, ranging from pirate outfits in Tenby, to nudism in the Isle of Wight, to a gentle “run-and-swim” in North Norfolk. 

Tenby’s famous Boxing Day Dip, Pembrokeshire

Now in its 44th year, Tenby’s Boxing Day Dip is the preferred option for swimmers with an attic full of fancy dress (this year’s theme is Pirates and Princesses). Some 600 swimmers and onlookers descend on North Beach every year, where a bonfire greets participants as they emerge from the sea. Consider warming up beforehand with a brisk stroll along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path before the great immersion at 11.30am.

Bare all at Rocken End, Isle of Wight

If you haven’t already had enough pigs-in-blankets and tats for the year, the naturist beach at Rocken End on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight is a perfect spot to strip off and face the elements. Take care on the scramble down from the car park at the end of Old Blackgang Road and then reap the rewards on the peaceful pebble beach, with dramatic views along the coast.

Wild swimming in the Thames, Pangbourne

There’s nothing particularly alluring about the tidal artery that barricades through London, but there are some stretches where the Thames is – believe it or not – delightful for a Boxing Day dip. One barely known spot is right on the edge of the Chilterns, around three miles upstream of Pangbourne. Bring a compass, a towel and a hip flask and enjoy the peace – you’ll likely have the river to yourself.

paul.mcgreevy via Compfight cc

Crummock Water, the Lake District

The Lake District has countless hidden gems for a Boxing Day swim, but Crummock Water is one of the finest. Often overlooked in favour of its sister, Buttermere, Crummock is a tranquil lake (watersports are banned) with impressive surrounds, flanked by Grassmoor to the west and the fells of Mellbreak to the east. After your swim, warm up with a walk to nearby Scale Force, the highest waterfall in the Lakes at 170 ft.

London Fields Lido, Hackney

London’s only heated outdoor swimming pool, the ever-popular London Fields Lido opens its doors to hipsters and cockneys – and everyone in between – on Boxing Day this year. Dust off the cobwebs with an early-doors swim (it’s only open in the morning) before heading to one of the independent cafés or pubs on nearby Broadway Market for lunch.

North Sea swim, Sunderland

One thousand swimmers and up to five thousand onlookers will gather on the sandy Seaburn Beach, a mile north of Sunderland, at 11am on Boxing Day to dash into the ice-cold North Sea. There’s no strict dress code, but participants tend to err on the side of the bizarre. The northeast of England has a taste for fun festive dips, with similar events taking place in Seaham, Hartlepool and Whitby.

Not the Santa Swim, Brighton

The Brighton and Hove city council may have cancelled the boozey Santa Swim event in 2015 – a tradition dating back over 150 years – due to health and safety concerns, but this shouldn’t stop experienced cold-water swimmers from taking to the sea in Brighton this Boxing Day. Just remember to save the alcohol for afterwards.

Paignton Walk in the Sea, Devon

Not so much a swim but rather a stroll into the sea, this annual event in Paignton, Devon is a favourite among eccentrics spending Christmas in the English Riviera. Organised by the Paignton Lions since 1976, the event takes place at midday by the pier. Fancy dress is encouraged, and the swimmer with the best costume will walk home – albeit soggily – with a highly coveted trophy. Everyone else can head to the nearby Inn on the Green for a cockle-warming Marston’s pint.

Loch Ness, the Highlands

Best known for the cryptozoological beast that roams its waters, Loch Ness is a delightful spot for a Boxing Day wild swim (due to open access laws, you can swim in just about all of the Scottish lochs). In recent years some have attempted to swim Loch Ness’s 23-mile length in its entirety for charity. For a more leisurely experience, head to the shore opposite Urquhart Castle, where a pebbly beach offers shallow access into the water.

The Prestwick Boxing Day Dip, Ayrshire

For anyone with energy to burn after Christmas Day, take a bike ride on the Ayrshire Coast Cycleway on Boxing Day before joining in with the Prestwick Boxing Day Dip in the town centre. If you’re undecided whether the swim is for you, all participants are treated to some hot soup and a tod of whiskey (over 18s only, of course) afterwards.

Run and Swim, North Norfolk

The North Norfolk Beach Runners club welcomes all for this charitable run and swim. Meeting at Cromer Pier at 10am, the easy-going route starts along the beach and then heads back along the clifftops, before participants plunge into the North Sea at 11am. The festive swim started as a dare in 1985 but has since spiralled in popularity; today, hundreds of brave (or foolhardy) swimmers take to the water annually.

Explore more of Britain with the Rough Guide to Britain. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Featured image by Gareth Davies. 

From ancient ruins to beautiful beaches, Cyprus has a multitude of incredible things to see and do. Whether you’re after a challenging hike, fancy some wildlife spotting or want to go diving, this sun-kissed country will deliver. Here are our top things not to miss in Cyprus.

Let’s clear one thing up straight away: getting to the San Blas islands is not easy, whichever way you’re coming from. And that’s quite deliberate.

The 360 or so tropical islands off Panama’s northern coast are home to the Kuna people, who since a revolution against the Panamanian government in 1925 have maintained political autonomy from the mainland. As such, they control tourism on their own terms – a very rare thing for an indigenous group. They know how many visitors are coming to their islands on a given day, where they will be staying, and they benefit directly from most of the tourist dollars spent. Aside from fuel for their motorboats, much of it goes on education, health or permaculture.

But are these islands actually worth going to in the first place? Well, picture this: the place you’ll stay on will genuinely look like a Robinson Crusoe hideaway. The sand will be white and fine, the sea will be bathwater warm, coconut palms will provide welcome shade, the snorkelling will be excellent, and there probably won’t be more than fifteen of you there. The Kuna will feed you and take you to other islands, but otherwise they will just let you be. It is, genuinely, a little piece of paradise.

How to get to the San Blas Islands

There are three main options for getting to the islands. The first is to arrange a tour from Panama City, normally for three days and two nights (expect to pay around US$270 per person inclusive). A 4×4 driver will collect you and any others from your accommodation in the capital, usually at around 5am, and will drive you for around four hours to a port, where a water taxi will take you to the island where you’re staying. Accommodation is in tents or cabañas. Typically you will stop en route at one of the four Carti islands, around ten minutes from the port, where there is a sizeable Kuna community.

A recommended operator is Panama Travel Unlimited, which has English-speaking office staff, works closely with the Kuna on social and environmental projects, and is refreshingly honest about what the tours involve.

For those coming from or going to Colombia and who have plenty of time to spare, you can charter a sailboat that will travel for 4–5 days between Panama City and Cartagena (or vice versa), with a 2–3 day layover in the San Blas islands. Prices start from around $530 for the crossing, though you really need to do your research to make sure you have a seaworthy boat and a dependable captain. Hostel Mamallena operates in both Panama City and Cartagena, and has the best information on sailboats. Be warned: even with a solid boat and captain, this trip involves 30 hours or so on the open ocean; those who get very seasick might want to look elsewhere.

The third option is to fly to the islands from Panama City with Air Panama. These flights are in very small aircraft, typically with a capacity of 20 passengers, and should be booked well in advance. Prices are in the $50–150 range; destinations include El Porvenir, from where you can get a water taxi to other islands.

What to take

It’s best to pack light for the San Blas Islands. Consider leaving your main backpack or suitcase behind in Panama City and taking just a small bag, as you won’t need much. The essentials are:

  • Your passport (the Kuna may insist on seeing it when you enter their territory)
  • A waterproof jacket for boat rides
  • Towel and swimming gear
  • Cash in small notes
  • Camera (bear in mind the Kuna normally expect payment of $1 if you take photos of them)
  • A change of clothes

And it’s also a good idea to take:

  • A torch
  • Water (though the Kuna sell snacks and drinks, should you run out)
  • Snorkelling gear
  • Sleeping bags or silk sheets
  • Insect repellent
  • Antibacterial hand gel

What to expect when you’re there

There’s not a great deal to do on the San Blas islands – in a way, that’s the point. Much of the time you’ll be swimming, snorkelling or reading on the beach. Normally there will be day-trip or two, to a nearby island that offers something different; that could be a shipwreck to explore, or an area full of starfish. Meals will usually be rice and fish. Once the generator cuts out in the evenings, it’s time to bed down.

Image via Pixabay/CC0

As the better tour operators will tell you, when you visit the San Blas islands you are doing so as a guest of the Kuna – and they are an indigenous group, not a tourist operation. So the jeep that picks you up from Panama City might be late, or might make unscheduled stops. The water taxi at the port might take a while to turn up. The toilets will be very basic. And so on. It’s certainly worth reading this list of what to expect before you go.

But none of this should put you off. You’re going to the San Blas islands to get away from it all, and live for a while on an idyllic island with only a few local people and some pelicans for company. A few bumps along the journey will only make the feeling of being there, in a place you sometimes dreamed of, a little bit more special.

Explore more of Panama with the Rough Guide to Panama. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

After leaving Rough Guides to go and explore some of the Pacific’s tiniest islands, Kia Abdullah discovers serenity and adrenaline on Tanna Island in eastern Vanuatu. 

Port Resolution Yacht Club – the name alone evokes vistas of bejewelled starlets sipping cocktails by a Monaco pier. It’s elegant, glamorous, refined – but also a bit of a misnomer. Located on the east side of Vanuatu’s Tanna Island in the South Pacific, this set of eight bungalows is what I’d describe as ‘rather basic’. With no electricity barring two hours in the evenings, shared bathroom shacks frequented by bugs and mosquitos, cold water showers (and, during my stay, no water at all at certain times in the day), it’s not exactly the epitome of luxury. It is perplexing then that I came away feeling relaxed and invigorated after five nights in its most basic bungalow.

I had booked the stay on a whim, tempted by the offer to sample some real ni-Vanuatu culture. It was only later – after doing some proper research – that I started to worry. Were five nights too many? Would I tire of the bracing cold showers and midnight treks to the toilet? With trepidation, I landed at Tanna’s tiny Whitegrass Airport.

We were greeted by manager Werry Narua who packed us into his four-wheel drive for the bumpy two-hour drive across the island. Werry isn’t the most loquacious of fellows (when I asked him how he met his wife, the entirety of his version of events was “we met while we were playing sports”), but he is something of a godfather among the islanders, and frequently stopped to exchange greetings, give someone a lift, advise youngsters on how to get drunk older gentlemen home, ferry residents to a funeral and so on.

Port Resolution Yacht Club, Tanna by Peter Watson

By the time I arrived at the Yacht Club, twilight had come and gone and the grounds were bathed in darkness. Werry hopped out and turned on the generator, low lights humming to life in the outhouse. I met Monique, Werry’s wife, who fed us a delicious home-cooked meal and showed me to my bungalow – a one-room building with two beds and, I noted with mortal fear, many, many open spaces for bugs and insects to worm their way in. That first night, I secured my mosquito net like Fort Knox and nestled down into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The next morning, after the first cold shower of the stay, I went off to explore the area of Port Resolution, named so by Captain James Cook after the HMS Resolution. Following Werry’s directions, I came upon ‘Little Beach’. Swathes of yellow sand, vivid azure waters and black volcanic rock made for a stunning slice of paradise reminiscent of Alex Garland’s Ko Phi Phi – but without the teeming tourists. In fact, in my whole time there, I met only one other westerner.

Little Beach’s neighbouring beach boasts huge expanses of the softest black sand while the nearby ‘White Beach’ completes the enchanting trio. As I lounged on Little Beach that first morning, I realised that I need not have worried; I could spend five weeks here – five nights would be a breeze.

Little Beach, Tanna by Peter Watson

Friday nights in particular are interesting as visitors are able to observe the rituals of the ‘John Frum’ cult at Namakara. Members of the cult sing songs of praise to the tune of American battle hymns in honour of John Frum – a figure most often depicted as an American World War II serviceman – with the hope that he will one day bring them the material riches of the American west. At five kilometres from Port Resolution, Namakara is easy to get to and offers a unique way to end the working week.

Other points of interest on the island include its ‘Giant Banyan Tree’. At 80 metres tall and over 100 metres across, it is larger than a football field and continues to grow today. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from Port Resolution and, at approximately £15 per person, is a tad pricey but worth a visit if you have the time and cash.

The most unmissable attraction on the island, however, is Mount Yasur, one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. Yasur has been erupting nearly continuously for 800 years and continues to do so several times an hour – guaranteeing fireworks for most visitors.

My visit to Yasur started just before twilight with a 40-minute drive from Port Resolution, followed by a steep 10-minute walk to the crater. Many visitors choose to stay at the first viewing point but while it’s a great spot for watching eruptions from the bigger of Yasur’s two craters, it doesn’t offer a view into the crater itself. I walked a further 10 minutes to a spot that allows direct view into the second crater replete with black ash and oozing lava.

Mount Yasur, Tanna by by Peter Watson

The evening started with a few small eruptions but, 15 minutes in, I heard a stomach-churning roar followed by red hot lava shot metres into the air above. A collective gasp of awe was followed by a collective step away from the crater’s edge. With no safety precautions policing access to the volcano, one false step could you have you tumbling to its depths. I found myself repeatedly pulling back Peter who was leaning over the edge taking photographs.

As darkness fell, I watched – and felt – numerous ground-shaking eruptions. At one point, a single flare flew above my head and landed threateningly close by. As a nearby French tourist put it, it felt “super dangereux”.

Around 6pm, most visitors shuffled back to their waiting transfers. My advice is to agree an extended stay with your driver beforehand as, by 7pm, we had the volcano all to ourselves – undoubtedly one of my ultimate travel experiences. And yet it’s not the main reason why I’d recommend a visit to Tanna.

The island, and particularly the village of Port Resolution, is the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life. Its charm lies in its simplicity, a trait that Werry consciously preserves: “I want people to experience real village life,” he told me. “If you want to stay in a big hotel, there are lots of places for you. You come to Tanna and to Port Resolution to live like we do.”

Port Resolution Village, Tanna by Peter Watson

Essentially, Werry encourages guests to get back to basics. His fellow residents live in bamboo huts with thatched roofs, grow or catch their own food, wash their clothes and dishes by hand, and live a simple life unmarred by the trappings of materialism. Like most ni-Van, they are generous with their time, curious, respectful and, evidently, one of the happiest peoples in the world. And they’re infectious. Staying at Port Resolution restored a sense of peace and wellbeing that had long been stripped by my smoky, dusty hometown of London.

On the journey back from Yasur, I watched Werry stop for yet another passenger. It reminded me, as all good travel does, that it’s human nature to talk, laugh, share stories and help other people – something you seldom see ensconced in a Sheraton.

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