Greece offers well over two hundred inhabited islands of all shapes and sizes, set like gems in the sparkling Ionian and Aegean seas – so you’re really spoilt for choice when planning a visit. Former resident and Rough Guide to Greece author Nick Edwards picks five of the best Greek islands for exploration.

For archaeology: Crete

As Greece’s largest island, Crete is something of an all-rounder, boasting the dramatic White Mountains, kilometres of fine beaches, the delightful Samaria Gorge and several interesting cities, not least the island capital of Iraklion. For anyone interested in archaeology, however, it’s the obvious place to combine the joys of an island with a variety of ancient remains to rival the mainland.

Just 5km outside of Iraklion lies Knossos, the island’s preeminent ancient site, with its grand, second millennium BC Minoan palace, where King Minos once kept the legendary Minotaur. The layout of the interconnected halls and rooms is truly labyrinthine and much of the palace amazingly well preserved. Here you can marvel at superb ancient art, such as the famous dolphin fresco. Iraklion’s archaeological museum, meanwhile, is also one of the country’s finest, with a host of fascinating Minoan treasures. East along the coast, Malia Palace is another great site from the same era.

Other star Minoan attractions near the south coast are the Palace of Phaestos, which enjoys a splendid hillside location and view of Mount Psiloritis, and the smaller remains at Ayia Triada. In the same region, the ruined capital of a Roman province that encompassed Crete and a chunk of north Africa can be seen at Gortys, while further afield the Dhiktean Cave and Palace of Zakros are yet more ancient sites to be enjoyed.

For beaches: Milos

Despite being one of the lower profile Cyclades, most beach connoisseurs rate Milos as the best in this most famous island group. Perhaps that is not so surprising – thanks to its volcanic nature and horseshoe shape, it boasts an impressive seventy-five beaches, yet is barely 20km across. Rarely crowded except in the height of peak season, Milos has a laidback feel and offers plenty of choices in accommodation and eating.

One of the best beaches on the south coast is sandy Paleohóri, gently heated by underground thermal currents and linked to a second strand, hemmed in by colourful cliffs, via a tunnel through the rock. The headland that encompasses the northern settlements of Adhámas and Plaka is punctuated by a variety of coves, while the long sandy stretch at Pollonia in the northeast is shaded by tamarisks. It is the rugged west coast, however, that offers the purest beauty and most undeveloped beaches of Triadhes, Ammoudharaki and Kleftiko, the latter accessible only by boat.

For spirituality: Pátmos

Given the ever-present significance of religion in Greece, diminutive Pátmos is regarded as one of the most important islands: it’s where St John holed up and received the visions that he dictated to his disciple Prohoros as the Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. Hike up early in the morning to the cave where this took place, now enclosed in an eleventh-century chapel, to have the best chance of getting the place to yourself and even being able to rest your head in the niche where the saint laid his. Gazing out across the sea to the surrounding islands is enough to get even hard-nosed cynics feeling spiritual.

Further up the hill, another eleventh-century monastery, that of Ayiou Ioannou Theologou, commands more wonderful views and is home to a community of monks. Much of the solid structure is off-limits to visitors but the church is delightful and the museum displays some dazzling Orthodox paraphernalia, dark and brooding medieval icons, and some parchment manuscripts. Needless to say, there are some fine sandy beaches and plenty of secular delights to detain the visitor back down at sea level.

For ocean activity: Lefkada

Mid-sized Lefkada has one of Europe’s largest windsurfing centres (near its southern tip) and a gleaming new marina on the edge of the island capital, making it a magnet for those who love to spend time on the water. It also boasts easy accessibility, being joined to the mainland by a causeway, some dramatic mountain scenery and a few of the most stunning beaches in the Ionian Sea on its west coast. In addition, Lefkada Town is an attractive and cultural place, with some fine old churches.

Yachties flock here for the great facilities at the marina, the large dry dock at Vlyho and ease of mooring at the various bays on the east coast, such as Dessimi, Rouda and Syvota. The satellite islands opposite the main resort of Nydri constitute good sailing territory too, while Nydri itself offers the usual range of watersports. Meanwhile, at Lefkada’s southern end, the bay that stretches from Vassiliki to Pondi draws a youthful crowd, who take advantage of the favourable wind patterns and shallow water that are ideal for windsurfing. At any one time, you might count literally hundreds of colourful sails flapping in the breeze.

For a little bit of everything: Lésvos

The third-largest island behind Crete and Evvia, versatile Lésvos (often referred to as Mytilini after its capital) is, surprisingly, little visited. Mytilini itself is a large town with a rather grand seafront, an extensive fortress and several absorbing museums, plus plenty of places to eat and drink. Among the smaller towns that impress architecturally, Molyvos (aka Mithymna) and Ayiassos stand out. The former sits on a north coast headland crowned by an imposing castle, while the latter straddles a mountainside valley and has a warren of streets around the picturesque central church. Various other beautiful monasteries are dotted around the island.

The coastline is blessed with numerous excellent beaches, none better than the 9km-long stretch of pebble and sand at Vatera on the south coast. But there are more geological features than just rock and sand: the large shallow Gulf of Kalloni includes salt marshes that are a birdwatcher’s dream; over in the west there’s a petrified forest; and thermal spas punctuate the eastern half.

As the home of Greece’s most highly rated ouzo, there are a fair few lauded distilleries, such as Varvayianni and Samara, yet the island also produces great wines, such as Methymneos, and olive products.

Finally, there is a strong cultural aspect to Lésvos, which has had a literary reputation since ancient times, as the birthplace of the poets Sappho, Aesop and more recently Elytis. It is also the birthplace of the twentieth-century artists Theriade and Theophilos, who have museums in their honour on the island. A lot of Sappho’s erotic poetry was addressed towards other women (quite a thing for the sixth century) and her legacy is perpetually sustained at lively Skala Eresou, which draws lesbians from all over the world.

Explore more of the best Greek islands with the Rough Guide to The Greek IslandsCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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. 

Robotic bar staff and virtual reality aren’t the first things that come to mind when thinking about cruises. But it’s time to forget images of golden-oldies sunning themselves on deck with a pina colada in one hand and foil reflector in the other: Royal Caribbean’s US-based Quantum of the Seas is the most technologically-advanced cruise ship at sea. Now, in April 2015, a carbon-copy sister ship, Anthem of the Seas, will set sail from the UK for the first time, taking in destinations across Europe. We don’t often get excited about cruises, but these ships are packed with travelling techno firsts. Here are ten weird and wonderful innovations to check out onboard.

Last orders for traditional bar staff

Fancy a cocktail mixed by a robotic bar person? (We’re still unsure of their gender.) At the Bionic Bar on Deck 5, created by a company called Makr Shakr, there’s an extensive range of spirits hanging from the ceiling. Create your own blend by tapping an order into a tablet computer and robotic arms reach out to select bottles then shake you a drink. It’s certainly a taste of the future – but like any bar, there’ll still be a queue as they serve around 1000 drinks a day.

A wave of your wrist opens doors

It can be a pain on a cruise having to carry around a keycard to pay for purchases and unlock your cabin door. But the difference here is Quantum and Anthem use wristbands – dubbed WOWbands – featuring futuristic wireless RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology. Just tap your wrist against the lock to open. It also connects to your onboard account for buying drinks and gifts.

A bumper feat of engineering

Whoever put the world’s first dodgem track at sea onto a cruise ship deserves a high five. Jump into a bumper car and you’ll soon forget you’re not on dry land. There’s even the first hot dog truck at sea for the ultimate fairground experience, while Xbox games consoles are built into the walls on the floor above, with extra comfy seating for a long session.

A room with a view

Imagine stepping inside a London Eye-style pod, which is then lifted 300ft above sea level via a huge metal arm. Accessed from the top deck, the North Star is an experience like no other. It offers once-in-a-lifetime views of the vast ocean and even better views when it’s allowed to be used in port. And because it doesn’t operate when it’s windy, there’s no danger of getting a different type of sea sickness from the swaying.

A wall of light and sound

Entertainment venue Two70 resides at the rear of the ship and features a huge panoramic window with 270 degree views of everything in your wake. But at night it turns into a huge floor-to-ceiling 12k resolution screen with projections that provide an immense backdrop to shows staged there. It’s nearly twice the quality of an IMAX cinema and six other independent screens ‘dance’ along with live performers.

Get a virtual window on the world

The thing about cruising is unless you’ve got the money for an outside cabin, you can’t see the sea. But that’s no longer an issue with the ship’s Virtual Balcony. Virtual reality is encroaching making waves the travel industry and Quantum of the Seas is no exception: cameras across the exterior combine images to project a view onto an 80-inch high definition screen on your cabin wall. The image shows the actual perspective of what you’d see if there was a real balcony there.

Go wireless ultra fast

Personally we love that cruises mean you can’t get online easily. But changing tastes means Quantum and Anthem offer satellite-based wi-fi through a system called O3b. Speeds are promised to be the fastest at sea, even when in the middle of nowhere, and that means you can use the onboard app to find your way around, book dinner reservations or report issues – even catch up on TV from home and research ports of call before you arrive.

Staff prescribed tablets

You’ll soon notice all the staff have tablet computers. They’re in the restaurants, at the front desk and across the ship – even built into walls alongside huge touch screen information centres. Waiting staff use them to track your tastes and preferences so you only get the food and drink that’s suitable for you.

Set sail from your computer screen

You don’t even need to step foot on Quantum of the Seas to experience it for yourself. Royal Caribbean has teamed up with Google to create a Street View of the whole ship. It used more than 15,000 still images that took five days to stitch together. You can find it for yourself here.

Check-in without a struggle or hassle

People who book with Royal Caribbean on Quantum or Anthem will benefit from one of the smartest check-in systems ever seen. You upload your own security photo from home and fill in everything you need online in advance. When you arrive you can monitor your luggage from a smartphone to see when it will arrive at your room, thanks to attached electronic tags.

Get inspired to travel with the Rough Guide to 2015. Find out the top countries, cities and best-value destinations to visit this year. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The oldest tourist destination on Earth, Egypt has a multitude of things to see and do. There are ancient pyramids, crumbling temples and vast deserts to explore – on foot or by camel – not forgetting the great river Nile. Find the top things not to miss in Egypt for your next trip.

This competition is now closed.

Always fancied yourself as a bit of an explorer? Ever wondered what it’s like to set foot on one of the Earth’s polar regions? Well now it could be possible, as we’re giving away an Arctic expedition with One Ocean Expeditions

Enter this competition and you could win a cruise for two to Svalbard and the Spitsbergen archipelago for up to 13 days. There you can meet the wildlife and birdlife of the Arctic, get familiar with glaciers and explore the northernmost inhabited lands in the world.

The prize

Beginning in Longyearbyen, the main community in the Norwegian archipelago of Spitsbergen, your cruise will set off to sail the Greenland Sea on a voyage of polar exploration on one of two routes:

Off the Beaten Track
A 9-night voyage which sets sail out of Isfjorden to turn south, before heading west and around to the northwest coast of Spitsbergen. You will explore a beluga whale graveyard at Bamsebu and photograph industrial exploration history near to Recherche Fjord. Sailing north along the west coast of Spitsbergen, you’ll reach Krossfjorden, home to bird colonies and seals, and visit the town of Ny Ålesund, the world’s most northerly community. They voyage continues to Phippsoya, where, at 81° North, you’ll have our a chance to see polar bears in the wild. Heading south, you’ll stop off at Monaco Glacier and Liefdefjorden, and at Prins Karls Forland you’ll look out for a walrus haul out before arriving back into Longyearbyen. During your exploration of the Svalbard archipelago, additional options for full-day sea-kayaking, extended hiking and expedition photography make this voyage an exciting and active foray into the Arctic. See the full itinerary here >

Spitsbergen Encompassed
This 12-night itinerary allows for a thorough exploration of the Spitsbergen archipelago: first heading south, then northwest and then along the northern coastline of the main island of Spitsbergen. Ice conditions permitting, you’ll cruise deep into the Hinlopen Strait. As you explore the waterways of Svalbard, you’ll enjoy frequent stops at well known wildlife sites, places of historic interest and witness glaciers, ice filled bays, and fascinating plant life – all the while soaking up the surrounding stunning beauty. This area is full of wildlife including seals, walrus, birds – and the iconic polar bear. As you return south to the main island group you’ll encounter a great diversity of wildlife including beluga whales, walrus, reindeer, Arctic fox and copious birdlife. See the full itinerary here >

Photos of the One Ocean Svalbard expeditions:

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How to enter

To be in for a chance of winning this once-in-a-lifetime cruise for two around the Arctic, head to the Rough Guides Community and answer the question in this post: In which Polar region does the Arctic sit: north or south? Click here to submit your answer through the Community >

The competition is open to entrants 18 or over from the UK, USA (excluding New York State and Florida) and Republic of Ireland. Flights are not included. The cruise must be taken on dates specified in the terms and conditions. See the full terms and conditions here >
This competition is provided by One Ocean Expeditions who run Antarctic and Arctic cruises throughout the year. They are committed to running an operation that is a model to the world in terms of ecological sensitivity, and they are steadfastly committed to minimizing our impact on the areas they visit.

On a cruise from Luxor to Aswan, along a stretch of the Nile lined by some of the world’s most impressive ancient monuments, Keith Drew makes the most of Egypt’s greatest sights while they’re still crowd free. 

“Come closer, my dear family,” says Addy, our Orbital guide, “you need to see this.” We gather round like wide-eyed school kids as he runs the beam of his torch along the outer corridor of Kom Ombo temple, etched figures of vultures and serpents and other hieroglyphic characters emerging out of the darkness as he scans the limestone wall.

Eventually, the light settles on a cluster of reliefs that depict a diverse array of medical instruments – scalpels, forceps and dental tools, some startling in their ingenuity. It seems that while the tribesmen of Britain were “ugh”ing around their campfires, the ancient Egyptians were prescribing anaesthetics and checking peoples’ heart rates with stethoscopes made from animal veins.

Elsewhere, on the temple’s inner walls, there are superb carvings of Ptolemy XII appearing before the goddess Isis. Around the corner, another seamless jigsaw of gargantuan blocks acts as a canvas for one of the oldest agricultural calendars known to man. And down towards the entrance, a dozen mummified crocodiles – preserved for the afterlife in deference to the temple deity Sobek, the crocodile-headed god – look like they’d rip your arm off at any minute were it not for the fact that they died some two thousand years ago.

The Temple of Kom Ombo

“It feels like the tomb has been opened just for us”

But perhaps the most striking thing about Kom Ombo is the tourists. There aren’t any. This spectacular site, one of several temple-stops on our four-day cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, is virtually empty.

In the glory days of Egyptian tourism, dozens of cruisers would disgorge their passengers at the village docks here, and the hordes would shuffle around Kom Ombo in one indiscernible mass. There were long waits while the guide in front of the guide in front of you ran through his patter, and tales of tour guides coming to blows in a bid to secure the best spots were not uncommon. But we are one of just a handful of small groups, and we wander the open-air halls and corridors as we please, taking time to pore over the details without fear of causing a queue.

It is a pattern repeated throughout our trip. In Luxor, we nose around the Valley of the Workers without another soul in sight, the village that once housed the painters, builders and embalmers employed in creating the monumental tombs in the Valley of the Kings now briefly home to just eight tourists from England. In the nearby Valley of the Nobles, it feels like the XVIII Dynasty Tomb of Sennefer has been opened just for us, and there’s no limit to the time we can spend admiring the everyday scenes of his life that adorn the burial chamber.

The Temple of Karnak 

“Two dreamy days of gliding languidly upstream”

Only in Karnak, the most magnificent temple complex in Upper Egypt, do we really encounter any other tourists, though even here the numbers are a fifth of what they once were and the groups are easily absorbed across the vast site – the Precinct of Amun alone is enormous and its Great Hypostyle Hall, a thicket of towering columns, famously large enough to house both St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

The river, too, is blissfully quiet, and we see just half a dozen or so other cruise boats during two dreamy days of gliding languidly upstream to Aswan. From the balcony of my cabin aboard the luxurious MS Mayfair, I plot the course of the Nile as the river narrows and widens, diverting around the occasional island and alongside little egrets perching in the treetops. Fishermen paddle past, gently bobbing in our boat’s rippling wake. Behind the riverside palm trees, water-drenched fields of sugarcane, mangoes and figs quickly give way to scorched-dry rock and desert. At times, we pass by the bank close enough to hear children giggling as they play outside their mud-brick houses; at others, you feel a world away from land.

At Esna docks, young boys hurl jalabiyas (Islamic dresses) on board and the bartering begins: “Hello sir, you like jalabiya? ASDA price. Buy one, get one free”. There’s a quickness to the trading, as the water rises and the vendors scurry along the dockside trying to close the deal before the boat hits the open river again. Otherwise, afternoons on the stylish sun deck disappear in a haze of heat and ice-cold G&Ts, whilst evenings are spent watching an orange orb melt into the river or sipping karkadays (an Egyptian hibiscus drink) in the cocktail lounge – on several occasions, I regret not packing a linen suit and Panama hat.

MS Mayfair on the Nile

“The tide in Egypt is slowly turning”

Like Luxor, the east bank of Aswan is littered with the skeletons of half-built hotels, their development “on hold” since 2011. But Aswan feels optimistic. The day we dock, a husk of a hotel on the Corniche road near our boat has builders on site for the first time in years. Capacity at the swish Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie holed up to write Death on the Nile, is creeping up to where it was prior to the revolution. And we even end up in something approaching a queue of motorboats as we wait to leave Shallal dock for the short journey to the Temple of Isis, painstakingly moved, block by block, from what is now the bottom of Lake Nasser to a sublime location on Philae Island.

The tide in Egypt is slowly turning. The latest figures from the country’s tourism authority show that visitor numbers are gradually on the rise again, and at the end of November, the Foreign & Commonwealth office lifted their travel restrictions to Middle Egypt, opening up the whole of the Nile Valley from Cairo to Aswan. Kom Ombo and Karnak may not stay empty for long.

EgyptAir has direct weekly flights from London Heathrow to Luxor. A four-night cruise on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan with Nile-cruise specialists Orbital Travel starts at £995 per person. Explore more of Egypt with the Rough Guide to Egypt, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

After an unforgettable first trip to Kashmir, India, in 1990, Nick Edwards returned to research the area for recent editions of the Rough Guide to India and found some things unchanged, while others quite different.

Ever since being mesmerised by the symphonic juggernaut of Led Zeppelin’s epic track in the mid-seventies, the name Kashmir held a particular allure for me. So when I finally trundled round the last bend beyond the Jawahar Tunnel, on the ascent by creaking bus from Jammu in August 1990, and the rich green hues of the legendary valley suddenly flashed out below, it truly felt as if I was approaching a long anticipated Shangri-La.

On arrival in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, however, it did not take long to realise the situation was less than idyllic. We were greeted by frequent checkposts protected by walls of sandbags and grim looking Indian conscripts toting machine guns. A disputed area between Pakistan and India, there has been both military and insurgent conflict in Kashmir since independence in 1947. On my visit, there was a strict curfew as soon as darkness fell and the armed resistance to Indian rule, then a year into its new phase of violence, had given the place the distinct air of a war zone.

Yet the scene out at Dal Lake, in the houseboat my Greek girlfriend and I had arranged to stay on, was comfortingly peaceful. Dazzling kingfishers flitted and dived for food between the expanses of waterlilies, while we sipped tea and admired the stunning mountain scenery on all sides. It was only when we took a shikara ride to the other side of the lake that we were brought back to reality by the crackling of gunfire behind the majestic Hazratbal mosque.

Nearly twenty years later, when I returned to cover Kashmir for the Rough Guide to India – having decided the situation was stable and safe enough to warrant its inclusion – there was undoubtedly a totally different feel about the place. This time I entered the area from Ladakh in the east, across the gruelling and barren Zoji-la pass.

Once again the vivid green patchwork of the Vale of Kashmir was a feast for tired eyes. On this occasion I found Srinagar to be a hive of activity. The bazaars were fully operational, the usual subcontinental riot of spicy odours, bright colours and cacophonous cries. All in all, there was a much happier atmosphere among the hugely increased number of Indian tourists, as well as a resurgent trickle of foreign travellers.

The most important cultural sights were now open to visitors, so I was able to reach Hazratbal mosque by road and join the worshippers in its vast courtyard and simple but awe-inspiring interior, crowned by an elegant white marble dome. I also paid my respects at Jamia Masjid, in the heart of the old city, with its pagoda-shaped wooden minarets, exclusive to Kashmir, and the vibrant Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib just to the north. Sufi places of worship, where a palpable sense of the mystical pervades the air, along with frequent outbursts of song, are always a joy. The only place where I encountered any hostility was outside the permanently locked Rozabal mosque, the purported location of the tomb of Jesus, according to the myth that he lived to a ripe old age and died in Kashmir. Here an angry, young self-appointed watchman swiftly persuaded me to move on.

This time I was also able to make a couple of forays beyond Srinagar. My Kashmiri friend Manzoor, a shop owner in the southern state of Tamil Nadu whom I had known for many years, took me on a trip up to Gulmarg, a ski centre during winter and playground for pony-riding and even zorbing in the summer months. Far more impressive is Pahalgam, around 100km east of Srinagar, whose wonderful location on the banks of the rushing Lidder River makes it an ideal base for treks of varying lengths, best done in the company of an experienced guide.

Back in Srinagar, Dal Lake remains a scene of sublime tranquility, of course. I took up residence Manzoor’s family hotel, Chachoo Palace, a small rickety wooden structure with a delightful lawn bordering the lake. Once more, before a tasty meal of the rich local wazwan cuisine, I found myself sipping tea and watching a kingfisher darting for food beneath the placid green surface of the lake. It was as if those twenty years had melted away.

NEED TO KNOW

Transport Srinagar has a domestic airport with direct flights from Delhi, Mumbai, Jammu and Leh. It is also accessible by bus or shared jeep from Jammu (8–12hr) and Leh (14hr–2 days). Travel within Kashmir can be done by bus, minibus, jeep, taxi or trekking.

Accommodation Staying at Chachoo Palace, on the shores of Dal Lake, is the fraction of the cost of a houseboat, and makes a good initial base for scouting out the best-priced boat. Houseboats vary enormously in price and services offered: be sure to consider the quality of accommodation, number of meals and refreshments included and whether there are free transfers to and from the shore before parting with your cash.

Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India.

The stunning karst pinnacles of Ha Long Bay are one of the jewels in Vietnam’s crown, but as Ron Emmons discovers, nearby Bai Tu Long Bay boasts the same beguiling scenery – without the crowds.

After three days cruising through the jaw-dropping scenery of Bai Tu Long Bay, and taking about 5000 photos of rugged limestone outcrops jutting from the emerald waters, I felt totally karst out. Yet many magical moments of this trip had burned themselves into my brain – I knew it was a journey I’d never forget.

Bai Tu Long Bay is located some 30km to the east of Vietnam’s number one attraction, Ha Long Bay, but is less visited thanks to its harder-to-reach location and fewer accessible caves. The rewards, however, are worth the little extra effort it takes to get here. Visiting Bai Tu Long Bay is a more peaceful experience, with extra time for kayaking and swimming among the awesome rock formations that assume all manner of fanciful shapes across this ocean landscape. Some of the larger islands also feature forest reserves sheltering rare species, while dugong swim in the surrounding waters

I was to spend my trip on the Dragon’s Pearl, a large wooden junk-come-cruise boat painted white with enormous red sails. Boarding set the tone for the trip: shortly after stepping aboard, I suddenly realised we were under way, though I hadn’t even heard the engine start or felt any rolling movement. Things continued just as smoothly for the next few days, as we glided away from the workaday world and into a dream realm of towering cliffs, gaping caves, lush growth sprouting from limestone peaks and hawks soaring on air currents above.

Image by Ron Emmons

My shipmates were an intriguing bunch of global travellers, including a pair of cashew nut importers from the Czech Republic, a mountain guide from the USA and a graphic designer from Mexico. Most of them, like myself, had left this experience until the end of their travels: the icing on the cake after exploring this beautiful and welcoming land. Thus our talk over the five- and six-course lunches and dinners of delectable Vietnamese cuisine ranged from the floating markets of the Mekong Delta to the glowing lanterns of ancient Hoi An. We waxed lyrical about the stunning landscapes of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark in the country’s extreme north, and shared stories of dangerous road crossings in Hanoi and Saigon.

Our guide, Phuc, ran a tight ship. As well as being fluent in English and French, she turned out to be an expert kayaker, leading us into hidden caves and to deserted beaches, where we were free to float on our backs in secluded bays sheltered by towering limestone cliffs. On one occasion, she needed to step in to stop a game of beach football, which was being fiercely contested between crew members and passengers (of which there was about a one to one ratio), in order to get us back to the Dragon’s Pearl in time for one of our memorable meals.

Sadly there was a reminder of the world we had escaped: flotsam (debris), consisting mostly of Styrofoam and plastic bottles, which washed onto these beaches. I was pleased to see members of our crew collecting as much as they could, but such sights made most passengers voice concern for the future of this fragile environment, where birds and aquatic wildlife can die if they accidentally eat man-made rubbish.

Image by Andrea Schaffer on Flickr creative commons

On the second day a side trip took us to a floating village of families who lived by fishing and pearl farming, and though their simple houses consisted of a single room with a hammock swinging in front and in some cases a dog on the porch, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in envying the tranquillity and contentment that emanated from this waterborne community.

All too soon our voyage was coming to an end, but on the last evening, Phuc suggested we dress in our best as the crew had prepared a surprise. Instead of sitting on deck for our meal, we were taken to a cool, candle-lit cave, where a table decorated with vegetable and fruit carvings was set for dinner. An excited babble echoed around as we devoured grilled shrimps, tender strips of marinated beef and a tangy salad. The evening’s finale came when a cake was produced to celebrate the honeymoon couples on the boat. We ended the night with a toast to future travel discoveries as magnificent as this one.

While Bai Tu Long Bay is a great place to visit, it gets pretty cold from December to February, and from August to October the bay is subject to occasional typhoons, when trips are cancelled. Also bear in mind that two-day, one-night trips include only an afternoon and a morning in the bay, so three-day, two-night trips are preferable if you have the time. A reliable operator for a customised itinerary is Buffalo Tours, while the fleet of boats that includes the Dragon’s Pearl is managed by Indochina Junk.
Explore more of Vietnam with the Rough Guide to Vietnam, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: “BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP” goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is “jetblasting” whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury “salt palace” or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The “windy” of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s “blackout” option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the “Blue Lagoon” in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

“I couldn’t survive without my phone.” If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word “survive” – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: “Antarctica Broadband” is on the horizon, promising “fast internet from the bottom of the earth”. At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, “Ultima Thule” harks back to the early, “here be dragons” days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Rebecca Hall takes the long way round: thirty seven days from Athens to Hong Kong via ports in Italy & Spain by container ship.

“You’ll certainly have to lock your cabin door at night.”
“You’ll have to sleep in a container like refugees do.”
“And you’ll probably get taken hostage.”

These are a selection of comments I received when I announced that I’d booked a voyage to travel by container ship from Athens to Hong Kong. As a woman, the initial conclusion that everyone drew was that I’d be unsafe, attacked in my cabin at night by sailors who’d been away from home and their wives and/or girlfriends for months on end. Everyone, that is, except my father – whom you’d have thought would have been the most worried. No, my father used to be at sea in the 1950s and knew what ‘those people’ were like, he was – and still is at heart – one of them. When I made my announcement, armed with all my documentation from the travel agent as proof I was taking this seriously, he merely nodded sagely. “You’ll gain a lot from this trip, just you wait and see.” He wouldn’t elaborate – I’d just have to wait and see then.

It was easier than expected. A Google search brought up an agent – The Cruise People based in London and Toronto – who booked such trips. A degree of flexibility was needed though; I told them where I was living at the time and how long I had, my agent told me of available routes (some ports have more ships than others – Athens, it turns out, was limited). Once my route was sorted, they liaised with the shipping company and offered me a choice of five different sized sleeping accommodations, varying in price.

It turned out I needn’t have worried about my bedroom. After boarding the ship in Athens, I found out my ‘container’ on the Hanjin Boston was actually a 25 square metre en-suite cabin with portholes to the rear of the ship, a double bed and sofa with writing desk and mini-fridge. It was bigger than some hotel rooms or, indeed, some studio flats in London and came in at a cost of 85 euros a day, including all food, port fees and insurance to cover me in case the ship had to deviate from course.

The ship was built in Korea, registered in Germany and had a gross tonnage of 82,794. We had an indoor pool and gym with regular table tennis tournaments (my sparring partner was always the Filipino cook; we developed a camaraderie and he always teased me at how bad I was). Twenty-seven all male crew were on board; the senior officers of Swiss, German and Polish origin, the rest Filipino. Outbound to China the containers were virtually empty, or carrying unassembled electrical goods. Inbound from China to Europe, they’d be filled with the same electrical goods, this time assembled in factories for sale in European cities, as well as the “Made in China” clothes you see on European clothes racks. I was getting to see globalisation in action.

So did I have to be nervous about my safety on board? Not at all. Every night I ate my meals with the senior crew who, even if they were in the middle of eating would all stand graciously whilst I took my seat – while I was the only one this time, they were used to having passengers, who are often of the “alternative” sort – freelance photographers or retired couples looking for adventure. The captain, chief, second and third officers welcomed me to sit with them in the wheelhouse on the bridge during their watch period. We would drink cups of tea, debate the merits of U2 vs INXS, discuss what Poland was like in the summertime or just sit quietly in a meditative state, contemplating life surrounded by endless ocean and horizon.

Rebecca’s photographs:

[soliloquy id=”144900″]

I remembered – with scorn – my friends’ crude remarks, and with fondness my father’s knowing smile when I told him of my plan. He knew that people who spend their career at sea are gentle natured, and I realised, during my time on the ship, that they live in a different world, not surrounded by the ugliness of everyday life; the hour long commute to work, avoiding eye contact on the tube, the rush, rush, rush of city people and the general aggression that surrounds life on land.

After the first ten days on board, I was starting to understand sailor Bernard Moitessier’s decision to embark on his epic round-the-world yachting journeys time and time again, despite numerous groundings and shipwrecks. But then, after we left the port of Suez in Egypt, the ship’s new security came on board and things became serious. As our vessel entered the Red Sea, I watched a speedboat come parallel to us and – James Bond-style – three men clambered up our rope ladder and disappeared into the bowels of our ship. I didn’t get to meet them until later.

At dinner, the captain announced we would all have a meeting. “I’ve asked the security team to keep us all briefed as to why they’re here. This includes you, Rebecca. You’re part of us now and I want no secrets on this ship, we all work together as a team.”

8pm and I was squeezed into what was affectionately referred to as the “Karaoke Room”. Here I came face to face with Huey, Dewey and Lewey (not their real names for security purposes). They were all British and ex-Marines, now working for a private security firm.

Huey was the boss and explained that as our ship had slowed to eleven knots to conserve fuel, in these waters – the Gulf of Aden – security was needed against potential Somalian or Yemeni pirates. (I later learned that it was cheaper to employ three guards at £1000 a day each, for ten days, rather than burn up fuel going at a faster rate.)

“Their boss gets them high on a natural leaf drug from Kenya, then sends them out on skiffs to target containers”, explained Huey. Upon seeing my horrified look, he shot me a reassuring smile. “But, be assured that nowadays these waters are patrolled by coalition warships and will keep in constant radio contact and the number of attacks has lessened due to the presence of security such as ourselves.”

After keeping a respectful distance from them, within 24 hours I was integrated into their watch, shown what type of vessels to look out for and how they might hide behind fishing boats. We ate our meals together in the senior crew room, swapped stories of loved ones and, only during their training exercises, which involved running and doing press ups in the heat of the midday equatorial sun while being shouted at by Huey, did I detect any of their aggression and ability to protect and serve if required.

After their ten days with us – just as they had boarded James Bond style – they exited the ship 12 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka as we continued our way to Hong Kong. I marvelled at the tall buildings as we navigated our way up the Strait to Hong Kong Harbour. I fought back tears as I hugged the captain and my newly acquired uncle – the chief officer – goodbye, and it only took a few hours for the excitement of being in a new country to wear off until I started to wonder what my new ‘family’ were doing now. I missed them, and the hustle and bustle of such a busy and dirty city assaulted my senses – I wanted to be back at sea, surrounded by such a sweeping expanse of nature.

It was my first experience travelling as a lone passenger on a container ship, and my first time travelling through dangerous waters, and while it was intimidating at first, it was a fascinating experience. I would recommend it to anyone who has time to take the long way round to their destination. I still keep in touch with the crew and security; long may that continue.

Explore more of the world with Rough Guides ebooks. Book hostels for your trip. And don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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