A brand new art exhibition with a difference has opened in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary this month. You can’t exactly buy an entrance ticket and there are no galleries as such.

Instead, you’ll need a PADI license and an oxygen tank, because this exhibition sits 27m below the surface of the Atlantic, around seven miles south of Key West, Florida.

The installation, which comprises a dozen photo illustrations from Andreas Franke’s Sinking World series, is mounted on the weather deck of sunken ship Vandenberg. The vessel, a former Air Force missile tracking ship, was intentionally sank in 2009 to create an artificial reef for marine life to thrive upon. Today, as well as this unusual art exhibition, it sees Goliath grouper and sailfish shelter and breed throughout its decks.

To see the exhibition, visitors can book the Morning Wreck and Reef tour operated daily by the Key West Dive Center.

More underwater attractions across the world

Underwater attractions aren’t a new concept, mind. Here are a few more places you can get cultured under the sea:

  • Museo Subacuático de Arte, Cancun, Mexico: over 400 sculptures of men and women, made from marine-life-friendly materials by English artist Jason deCaires Taylor.
  • Japanese Atlantis, Okinawa Island, Japan: discovered by a diver in 2014 and dubbed the “Japanese Atlantis”, this underwater world off the coast of Okinawa is thought to be part of a 5,000-year-old lost city.
  • Underwater post office, Vanuatu: keen postcard-writers will be pleased to find out they can pen their message above sea, then dive the three metres beneath surface to send it from the island of Vanuatu.

Image by Ratha Grimes on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Explore more of Florida with the Rough Guide to FloridaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Backpacking Thailand can mean staying in fun-packed hostels and idyllic beach bungalows, eating noodles so tasty and so cheap you’ll swear off all other food groups and climbing aboard everything from an overnight train to a lolloping elephant.

But it also means following a well-worn route – one that has sprouted an entire industry to service it, and sometimes, sadly, to take advantage of it.

Sidestep those scams and dodge the dangers with our top tips for making the most of backpacking Thailand.

1. Be respectful – know the etiquette

Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles for a reason, but those smiles can quickly disappear if you don’t respect the culture. The feet are considered the lowest part of the body so never point them (especially the soles) towards somebody, especially if that somebody is a statue of Buddha. The head is considered most sacred so don’t touch people on the head, even children.

2. Eat bravely

One of the best things about travelling in Thailand is the food and you’ll find the tastiest – and cheapest – Thai noodles and curries at the street food stalls.

Be brave and follow the locals, they know which places have the highest standards, and the more people eating means more turnover and fresher ingredients.

3. Embrace public transport

Yes, the tuk tuk is an experience you mustn’t miss but to get proper mileage under your belt (and to get between Bangkok and the highlights of Chiang Mai, the southern islands and Kanchanaburi) you’re going to need to get to grips with the Thai bus service (Baw Khaw Saw or BKS).

Government-run, it’s reliable and extensive, with a BKS station in almost every town. Book your tickets here the day before you want to travel if and take the overnight first class bus to save on a night’s accommodation.

These generally stop somewhere en route for you to eat and will have reclining seats and a toilet on board. Bring a warm jacket to wrap up in, earplugs and an eye shade and prepare to arrive very early in the morning.

4. Timing is everything

The best time to visit Thailand is between November and February, when the monsoons finish for the year and temperatures are at coolest. This is also peak season though so if saving money and avoiding crowds is more important to you than sunbathing, the wet season (May to October) could be a better bet. To see all the highlights at a reasonable pace you’re going to need at least a month, though two is better.

5. Don’t be fooled

That tuk tuk driver stopping you on the street to tell you it’s a national holiday and that temple you’re about to visit is closed? It’s almost certainly not, he or she may just want to take you to their cousin’s carpet factory or sister’s gem shop.

Don’t be fooled by official looking uniforms, cheap or free tuk tuk tours or one day only gem sales either – unfortunately all are scams set up to part you from your travel funds, usually in exchange for a worthless ‘gem’ you can sell when you get back home

And don’t even think about getting involved in the sex industry – prostitution may be rife in Thailand but one thing it’s not is legal.

6. Agree a price before you ride

Be it a taxi or a tuk tuk, you need to agree a price for your journey in advance. Taxi drivers are meant to use the meter so ask them to and if they say no move on along the rank to the next driver.

Tuk tuks should be haggled over – ask your hostel for a rough estimate on current rates and stand firm. Though it also pays to remember that haggling over 20 baht is about equivalent to getting in a stress over 40p or 60 cents – sometimes it just isn’t worth it.

7. Pack light

You’re going backpacking for the freedom – so don’t weigh yourself down. Buy a light backpack and fill it only with the essentials.

You’ll need layers for those chilly bus journeys, a few items of underwear you can wash repeatedly, a waterproof jacket, earplugs, your phone charger and adaptor and insect repellent. Here’s a backpacking checklist to help you plan your backpack.

8. Use hostels

Thailand has a great network of hostels and you’ll not only save money over hotels, but also meet more people and get more local recommendations. Hostel staff are also a reliable source of advice and information on everything from avoiding the latest scam to where to get the best noodles, so talk to them.

9. Go with the flow

Thailand is a place to chill. So stay on somewhere if you love it, move on if you don’t, and if you hear about a cool new bar or restaurant, or a party on the beach, go. Unpredictable sometimes, unforgettable always.

Explore more of Thailand with the Rough Guide to ThailandCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

With its mountainous coastal backdrop, scattering of tawny islands and giddyingly translucent waters, the Croatian Adriatic offers one of the most compelling seascapes in Europe.

Indeed it’s something of an island-hopper’s paradise, with a veritable shoal of ferries providing the opportunity to stride up the gangplank, sprawl on the sun deck and soak up the maritime scenery.

Considering a trip? Here’s what you need to know:

Where should I start?

Where you start largely depends on which airport you fly into. The mid-Dalmatian city of Split receives the largest number of incoming flights and is also the Adriatic Sea’s largest ferry port, serving the ever-popular islands of Šolta, Hvar, Brač, Korčula and Vis.

Dubrovnik is also a useful gateway thanks to its catamaran services to Mljet, Lastovo, Korčula and Hvar.

The two other entry points are the northern city of Rijeka, providing access to a varied group of islands in the Kvarner Gulf; and the north Dalmatian port of Zadar, with its own group of laid-back island getaways.

What’s the best way to get around?

Car ferries run by state company Jadrolinija serve the main islands, providing public transport for the locals as well as sustaining island tourism.

Faster and slightly more expensive than the ferries, passenger-only catamarans run by both Jadrolinija and Krilo Jet whizz across the water to a selection of destinations.

Back in summer 2015, a fleet of seaplanes run by European Coastal Airlines started flying from Pula, Rijeka and Split to Lošinj, Hvar, Korčula and Lastovo, adding significantly to the number of itineraries on offer.

When should I go?

It is possible to island-hop all year round, although sailings to particular islands might be limited to one a day in winter. Wait until the summer timetables come into effect (usually June–Sept) to take advantage of the full range of options.

Note that some routes (such as the Veli Lošinj-Zadar ferry or the Split-Hvar-Dubrovnik catamaran) only run in summer.

July and August can be very hot indeed – perfect for splashing around in the Adriatic, but potentially exhausting if you are indulging in urban sightseeing, not to mention hiking or cycling.

Some of the catamaran sailings can sell out in high season, raising the chances of you getting stranded at least once during your trip.

Costs are also at their highest in midsummer, when accommodation prices go through the roof. Travel in late spring or early autumn and you’ll get better value all round.

What does the classic island circuit look like?

The most popular island-hopping itinerary is from Split to Dubrovnik via Brač, Hvar and Korčula. This allows you to see the very best of Dalmatia and is relatively easy to do.

There are numerous ferries from Split to Supetar on Brač, from where you can cross the island to visit the fabulous (but over-popular) Zlatni rat beach at Bol. A daily catamaran sails from Bol to Jelsa on Hvar, from where regular buses will take you to Hvar Town and its compulsive mixture of Renaissance architecture and cocktail-fuelled nights.

There’s a daily catamaran service from Hvar Town to Korčula, where another seductive blend of past glory and present-day hedonism awaits. From here, you can choose between a catamaran or bus ride to Dubrovnik, which makes for a suitably spectacular climax to your trip.

And beyond that? 

The only problem with the classic island circuit is that it can sometimes seem like an oversubscribed exercise in box-ticking – and you really need to give each island time in order to get the most out of the experience.

Consider a side-trip to sleepy, understated Šolta, the nearest island to Split, with its dry-stone-walled olive groves and picture-perfect harbour villages, Maslinica and Stomorska.

Once on Brač, avoid Zlatni rat and make for less-hyped beaches like Lovrečina Bay, or the rocky shores around bike-friendly Sutivan.

On Hvar, don’t just stick to the main town but find time for the equally historic but decidedly more mellow Stari Grad.

It’s a shame to go to Korčula without visiting Proizd, the famously alluring rocky islet just off the port of Vela Luka.

Very much an independent traveller’s favourite due to the relative lack of package hotels, Vis is the kind of island that attracts superlatives, whether on account of its rugged scenery, stunning beaches, individual cuisine, or its increasingly cool reputation for offshore bohemia.

However Vis is also notoriously difficult to island-hop, with Tuesday morning’s catamaran service to Hvar Town the only link to a nearby island. All other ferry transport goes through Split, meaning that you have to track back to the mainland before travelling onwards. Providing you study the timetable carefully, the diversion to Vis will be well worth the effort.

Is it worth journeying north?

In short, yes. The islands of the northern Adriatic can be just as rewarding as those of the south. Catamaran services from Rijeka allow you to sample some highly individual, under-touristed islands, alongside increasingly sophisticated Lošinj, the rising star of Adriatic chic.

Pixabay / CC0

The uniquely sandy island of Susak ought to be your first stop, followed by bustling Mali Lošinj with its sleek spa hotels and palm-fringed promenades. From here you can travel on to Silba, a snoozy Shangri-la of independent travel where cars and even bicycles are banned.

From Silba, head south by catamaran or ferry to the historic port of Zadar (gateway to another group of low-key islands), or return to Lošinj, where one of European Coastal Airlines’ seaplanes will whisk you down the coast to Split, ready to start your island-hopping adventures all over again.

Explore more of Croatia with The Rough Guide to CroatiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

It’s not just appearance that makes up the beauty of a place. Often, travellers will cite the people as the most beautiful thing about a country or culture. In Southeast Asia, there’s no doubt there is beauty in every form – and now our readers have voted to decide which countries are the most beautiful. Here are Southeast Asia’s most beautiful countries ranked by our readers.

7. Thailand

An ever-popular backpacking destination, we’re surprised to see Thailand at the bottom of this list. That’s not to say it’s not beautiful, though. With brochure-worthy beaches in almost every bay and some luscious mountain landscapes, there’s plenty to wow travellers in Thailand. And, of course, the people are indeed beautiful – they were even voted some of the friendliest in the world by our readers.

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6. Laos

This little nation sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam sits in a similar position here. Laos has no coastline to woo travellers seeking pristine beaches, but instead there are some picturesque waterfalls perfect for swimming beneath, plus one of Southeast Asia’s most charming little towns: Luang Prabang.

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5. Vietnam

If the karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay, jutting out of a cerulean sea, aren’t enough to inspire awe, then perhaps the tiered terraces of Sa Pa might just make your heart beat faster. There’s a lot more to Vietnam’s beauty though, including the evocative ruins of Mỹ Sơn and a string of pretty little beaches along its coastline. Not forgetting one of the world’s greatest rivers, the Mekong, and its lush delta in the south of the country.

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4. The Philippines

An archipelago of more than seven thousand islands, The Philippines earns its place as the fourth most beautiful country in Southeast Asia. The island of Palawan is one of the most picturesque spots, with azure waterways flowing between vast rocky cliffs that drop sheer to the water. For some otherworldly beauty, head to the “Chocolate Hills” on Bohol, an undulating landscape of 40-metre-high grassy mounds.

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3. Cambodia

Voted the world’s friendliest country by our readers, it’s no wonder Cambodia takes a top spot in this list too. No-one could deny that, despite the crowds, sunrise at Angkor Wat is a stunning sight. But Cambodia’s beauty extends beyond ruined temple complexes and into brilliant beaches and fascinating floating communities.

2. Myanmar

Tourism in Myanmar has boomed since the NLD lifted its tourism boycott, and for good reason. The country has plenty of travel eye-candy on offer, whether you want to watch the fishermen on Inle Lake, see the sunrise over the thousands of temples in Bagan, or just slowly meander down the Irrawaddy and meet the smiling locals as you go. A deserving destination for second most beautiful in Southeast Asia.

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1. Indonesia

It’s Indonesia that’s captured the hearts and minds of our readers, taking the number one spot for most beautiful place in Southeast Asia. Its astonishing array of natural wonders would make even the most jaded traveller’s jaw drop: beyond the stunning beaches scattered across these 17,000 islands, there are pretty waterfalls, dense jungles and towering volcanoes.

Pixabay / CC0

Explore more of Southeast Asia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Featured image Pixabay / CC0. 

Richard Mellor explores Šibenik, a city tipped as Croatia’s next best tourist hotspot thanks to a new luxury hotel. 

It’s appropriate that the parachute’s inventor – one Faust Vrančić, if you’re asking – was born in Šibenik, for this Croatian backwater has its feet firmly on the ground. Having a recent history of battle and bombs will do that to a small city.

Just 40 minutes up the coast from Split’s international airport, Šibenik’s travel résumé includes great beaches on its Dalmatian coast, inland hiking and waterfalls, cool music festivals, an evocative old town, fine dining, a UNESCO-protected cathedral and fortresses used in Game of Thrones.

Now, crucially, a top-quality hotel can be added to that list. Previously, as written in the Rough Guide to Croatia, Šibenik’s only downside has been its relative lack of accommodation. But the arrival of the whitewashed D-Resort Šibenik has changed all that: courtesy of Turkish conglomerate Dogus, luxurious digs newly await.

To one side is a new marina, replete with super-yachts and their espadrille-wearing crew. From the other, motorboats scuttle across a short Adriatic Sea inlet to Šibenik’s harbour and tree-lined corniche. Glinting red-tile roofs sprawl mazily uphill, with the ancient St Michael’s Fortress keeping watch over proceedings.

Explore a quartet of fortresses

St Michael’s is one of four fortresses around Šibenik. Once a seat for the Croatian king, its defensive castles were still being used by locals as recently as 20 years ago, providing shelter during the Croatian War of Independence. Today, thankfully, an ongoing restoration programme has them attracting tourists instead.

Over to the southeast, Barone’s new audiovisual display reveals what fortress life was like for its seventeenth-century soldiers.

Skulking opposite is St John Fortress – a Game of Thrones set in 2014 – while out west is the eye-catching sea-castle of St Nicholas, built by ruling Venetians to guard the vital channel into Šibenik.

A new island-hopping path, elevated above the sea, allows visitors to admire its gun platform and impressive Adriatic views.

As for St Michael’s, around which Šibenik first sprung up, bands have replaced bullets: its eleventh-century stonework and myriad improvements now play host to a terraced, 1077-capacity concert venue, one costing a cool £1.2 million. The National, Lambchop, Nouvelle Vague and Thievery Corporation have all played, some of them during August’s annual Terraneo Summer Break festival.

See a classic Croatian cathedral

Šibenik’s real historical jewel, however, is its UNESCO-protected St James’s Cathedral. Much of the Dalmatian Coast’s finest architecture was designed by Juraj Dalmatinac in the mid-1400s, and this entirely-stone-built Gothic Renaissance edifice is considered his crowning glory, even if it wasn’t finished until 1536.

Praise be, in particular, for the silvery dome, reflecting light from far around. Look out, too, for a 71-head frieze, containing strange caricatures of fifteenth-century locals. Adam and Eve are there too, looking utterly ill at ease in being very obviously starkers.

Inside, English-language brochures enable self-guided tours. The highlight is the small baptistry, and its sublimely-carved roof and mischievous cherubs.

Dine afterwards at the excellent Pelegrini restaurant, which majors in regional dishes like truffle and prosciutto pappardelle and cuttlefish gnocchi.

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Amble around the Old Town

From the cathedral’s square slinks away Kralja Tomislava (Kalelarga to locals), Šibenik’s main street. Unexpectedly fancy boutiques sit alongside some more predictable shops hawking tourist tat.

Leading off Kalelarga are a jumble of stony stairways and narrow lanes, a maze whose sleepiness is interrupted only by occasional Vespas and the echo of footsteps. The elegant houses are Dalmatian-style, with dark green and blood-red-coloured shutters.

What really appeals is how Šibenik feels genuinely lived-in. Some alleys are left almost dim under canopies of clothes lines and cables. Old men sit smiling on stools outside their homes, wild rosemary grows and wafts of home cooking tease nostrils. Inside phone boxes, a religious sticker advertises salvation.

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Take to the waters

A ten-mile drive inland is the attractive Krka National Park, named after the river which bisects it. Hiking trails criss-cross, but the headline act is the Skradinski Buk series of 17 successive waterfalls at the park’s southern end.

Beneath the final cascades is a wide basin providing swimming opportunities: come summer weekends, locals strip to their speedos, shorts and bikinis to dive in, and a party atmosphere pervades.

Day-trip ferries from Šibenik serve the small islands of Zlarin and Prvić, where bistros and fig trees give way to peaceful, pebbled beaches.

Bathing’s very much an option at the D-Resort, too, with a large infinity pool neighbouring its spa, where facials, massage and hammam rituals are also offered.

Pixabay / CC0

Explore more of Croatia with the Rough Guide to CroatiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image by Stewart Morris on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Among a certain segment of travellers, cruising is sometimes maligned: the dismal buffet and watered-down cocktails. Those kitschy lounge acts. The contrived shore excursions. But that, as they say, was then.

Cruising today, and especially river cruising, offers an entirely different experience, from celebrity chef-driven cuisine to stargazing lounges to bike rides along leafy canals.

River cruising is, in a way, ideal for those who don’t consider themselves cruisers: the ships are relatively small and intimate; land is always in sight, offering daily access to villages and towns; and dinners are elegant affairs at linen-topped tables, instead of noisy group melees.

Here are our five top picks for European river cruises, where the experience is the destination and the journey.

1. The Romantic Rhine, Germany

The Rhine has been immortalized for centuries: it inspired Richard Wagner to write his first opera, and the river’s famous Lorelei rock – supposedly helmed by a swirling-haired siren – has starred in poems, rock songs, and even as a Marvel Comics character.

Germany’s longest river is also one of Europe’s most beautiful cruise routes, particularly the 65-kilometre Middle Rhine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Romantic Rhine.”

During the Roman Empire, the Rhine was a strategic waterway, and looming over its banks are castles and crumbling fortresses that date back a thousand years.

The Rhine scenery is stunning – hilltop castles presiding over terraced, fragrant vineyards. Plus, there’s Riesling-tasting galore, the Mechanisches Muskikkabinett (Mechanical Museum) in Rüdesheim and a stop in Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university town.

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Travel with: CroisiEurope. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016, the family-owned CroisiEurope offers affordable prices, but amenities are on par with the highest-level ships: spacious decks, hotel-style beds, and elegant dining rooms with French menus developed by notable chefs Paul Bocuse and Marc Haeberlin.

2. The River of Gold, Portugal

The traditional fado songs of Portugal are soulful and poetic, much like cruising the country’s waterways. Explore the river Douro and sip aromatic port in the country’s birth city, Porto; explore the lively Spanish university city of Salamanca; and, ease into the evening to the mournful sounds of fado.

A cruise down the Douro glides past looming rock formations and the Valerian and Pocinho Dams, to Barca d’Alva, with an excursion to Castelo Rodrigo, surrounded by almond trees, and on to Pinhão and the Douro Wine District.

Along the way, sample Portuguese specialties like salt cod, caldo verde stew, and the country’s famous port wine.

Image by Viking River Cruises

Travel with: Viking River Cruises winds through Portugal on the Douro River, from the capital city of Lisbon to Porto and its Baroque cathedrals. Their Scandinavian-themed vessels also maximize scenery-watching, with panoramic windows throughout.

3. The Canals of Burgundy, France

Best known for its centuries-old winemaking traditions, Burgundy is going through a rebirth, with wine-tasting salons that are spotlighting the latest oenological tech products and new farm-to-fork restaurants and upmarket B&Bs.

A cruise here floats lazily through the heart of Burgundy, stopping at family wineries like Domaine Briday in the northern Côte Chalonnaise, which is known for its white wines and the sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne.

Highlights include the Chateau de Rochepot, crowned by Burgundian multicoloured glazed tiles; the medieval wine capital of Beaune; and, above all, the barge’s slow pace. The full trip is around 75 miles, which you could cover in a morning drive in a rental car. Instead, this cruise can be spread out over six days, and the hypnotic movement of a barge is a powerful sedative, especially after a glass of Burgundy red.

Pixabay / CC0

Travel with: French Country Waterways. The oldest U.S.-owned barge company operating in France, French Country Waterways is the elegant godmother of the canals. The ship interiors are done up in dark-wood paneling, plush sofas with tasseled pillows, and a grand communal dining table, laden with heavy silverware and flickering candles.

4. The Danube: Prague to Budapest

It’s shortly after that first beer lands on the table, with views of the city’s famous bridges glinting beyond, that Kafka’s famous quote hits home: “Prague never lets you go. This dear little mother has sharp claws.”

After a couple of days in Prague, it’s hard to escape its grip, but the Danube awaits. The river’s history unfolds along the way, with stops at medieval Regensburg; the Benedictine Abbey of Melk, one of the largest monasteries in Europe; and Passau, which rises over the convergence of the Inn, Ilz, and Danube rivers.

The cruise culminates in Vienna – where you’ll sample the famous sachertorte and ink-black coffee – and Budapest.

Enjoy sausages and a beer (or five) at Historische Wurstkuchl, Germany’s oldest restaurant in Regensburg; an evening of opera in Vienna and crossing beneath the 1849 Chain Bridge in Budapest.

Image by Avalon Waterways

Travel with: Avalon Waterways. Launched in 2003, Avalon Waterways has among the newest ships on Europe’s waters, with ample rooms with sliding glass doors, a sky deck with whirlpool, and stylish dining quarters.

5. The Norwegian fjords

Few sights accompany the morning coffee better than the sun rising over Noregian fjords. Greet the first light of day on the deck, as your ship glides around a bend and Norway’s cliffs come into focus, rising like skyscrapers over the waters.

Embark on a twelve-day trip from Bergen to Kirkenes, which includes Ålesund, with its Art Nouveau architecture, and Tromsø, the capital of the Arctic.

Pixabay / CC0 

Travel with: Hurtigruten. On most other cruises, you’ll see the same passengers day in and out, but take the Hurtigruten ship and the faces change daily, since it also functions as a commuter route, with locals hopping on for short jaunts up and the down the coast.

And, don’t underestimate the allure of nostalgia: one of Hurtigruten’s most popular ships is the MS Lofoten – it launched in 1964, and little has changed since then. The ship celebrates the vintage era, with cargo loaded by traditional crane; gleaming wood and brass throughout, as well as oil paintings of coastal Norway; and sherry served on silver trays.

Explore more of Europe with the Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image: Pixabay / CC0

We’ve all heard of the big hitters, such as Ibiza, Corsica and Sicily, but what about Europe’s lesser known islands? Have you ever dreamt of mixing it up with a windswept, heart-pumping hike on the remote hills of Foula? Or kicking through the sweeps of sand that pass for roads on La Graciosa?

It pays to follow your inner Robinson Crusoe and break away from the crowds in Europe. Here are 7 European islands you’ve probably never heard of, but should definitely consider for your next holiday.

For hikers: Foula, Scotland

It’s worth the effort of getting to the UK’s most remote inhabited island, especially as you might catch glimpse of a minke whale or an orca as you cruise across the Atlantic by ferry from Shetland’s mainland.

The reward on a remote outpost the Romans dubbed their ultima thule, literally ‘the end of the world’, is jaw-dropping hiking. The chances are you won’t see another human as you vault across the island’s lofty peaks (the highest, The Sneug, soars to 418m), but watch out for the bonxies. These giant great skuas don’t appreciate visitors and have been known to knock hikers clean off their feet.

Image by Robin McKelvie

For beach bums: Porto Santo, Portugal

No doubt you will have heard of Madeira, but what about its Macaronesian neighbour Porto Santo? It may only be less than 8km wide and 15km long, but this little gem packs a proper beach punch.

The main attraction is the epic sweep of golden sand right by the ferry landing that stretches off for over 7km into the distance. Savvy visitors from Portugal’s mainland know all about the sandy charms of this relaxed island, but few other Europeans have yet to descend en masse, even though there are plenty of decent hotels and restaurants on hand.

Image by Ghost of Electricity on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For explorers: Saaremaa, Estonia

Ok, we won’t lie, the Baltic Sea is not the world’s warmest, but try telling that to the citizens of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, who flock here to laze around on the brilliant beaches and take a bracing dip in summer.

We recommend venturing here in spring (winter is extremely cold and summer can be busy), when you have a better chance of snaring one of the cosy wooden houses that snuggle in this tree-shrouded oasis. Hire a bike and head off looking for seals and seabirds, just steer clear of the bears, who we’ve heard are also occasional visitors.

Image by Kristjan Klementi on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For a secret escape: Lastovo, Croatia

The emphasis here is on the ‘Last’ in Lastovo: from here there’s only open Adriatic all the way across to Italy. Most travellers these days know the Croatian tourist hotspots of Hvar and Brač, but this relaxed charmer remains relatively untrammelled by tourism, at least in part due to the vagaries of the ferry timetable.

This outlying island boasts a rich sweep of Venetian-era architecture, with its natural attractions recognised by the Croatian government who have declared it a protected nature park. The local waters also dish up a rich bounty of seafood, the best of which is the plump local lobster, or jastog, which is best enjoyed simply grilled.

Image by Lauren Jane on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For relaxed ramblers: Graciosa, Spain

Forget images of bronzed sunbathers jostling for beach space in the Canary Isles. Bounce over the rough surf from Lanzarote and slip on a pair of sandals as you ease into Graciosa time on this remote isle.

There are no roads as such, just sweeps of sand that shift between the low-rise whitewashed houses of the island capital of Caleta del Sebo.

Embark on an epic walk around the north of the island, taking in one of the five volcanoes or the white sands of Playa de las Conchas, before returning to rest your weary feet in one of Caleta del Sebo’s fresh seafood restaurants.

Image by Gerard Girbes Berges on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For dramatic landscapes: Viðoy, the Faroe Islands

Most people struggle to place the Faroe Islands accurately on a map let alone name one of the islands. This dramatic volcanic archipelago may only harbour fewer than 50,000 residents, but the island of Viðoy is home to what the locals claim are the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

Hire a local guide to tackle the wild heights of the most northerly point in the Faroes, Cape Enniberg. These remarkable cliffs vault over 750m above the fuming Atlantic. Seabirds like it here, too, with one of the most impressive colonies in Europe.

Image by DavideGorla on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For history buffs: Gozo, Malta

Everyone has heard of the deeply historic mainland of the island nation of Malta, but neighbouring Gozo sneaks under the radar a little.

Gozo has always often trod a separate path to the mainland, although it shares much of the same influences, with the Romans and the Phoenicians having breezed through, leaving their indelible traces.

The most striking site are the Ġgantija temples. Dating back to before Stonehenge was even thought of, these rocky remains are some of the oldest standing structures in Europe. The views are impressive from up here, too, with a whole swathe of the island opening up. There are also dramatic views from Gozo’s lofty citadel in the island capital of Victoria.

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For a few chunks of rock in the southern Mediterranean, Malta is a hugely versatile destination. Like its unique language, the country is an intriguing blend of Italian, Arabic and British influences, a legacy of centuries of invasion and assimilation.

As its capital, Valletta, gears up for a stint as European City of Culture in 2018, Andy Turner gives a rundown on how to get the most out of a visit, from Baroque palaces to beautiful beaches.

Bed down in a palace

Recent years have seen large areas of Valletta shrouded in scaffolding as its ancient palazzos are converted into swanky boutique hotels, partly in anticipation of the European City of Culture juggernaut hitting town in 2018.

One of the best is the Luciano Al Porto, with red-shuttered rooms leading off an elegant spiral staircase, and fine views over the Grand Harbour to go with your breakfast.

For a spot more luxury with Far Eastern touches try the Locanda La Gelsomina across the water in Vittoriosa. Here you can practice your warrior pose on the rooftop terrace of a 400-year-old palace.

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Hit the road

Given Malta’s main island is is a fun-sized 27km by 14km, hiring a car gives you access to pretty much everywhere. While you will need to get to grips with local driving etiquette (take no prisoners and don’t bother indicating), barrelling along a coast road, preferably in a convertible, is hard to beat.

The Maltese-only road signs can prove confusing, so invest in a GPS. A circuit from Valletta, north to St Paul’s Bay (San Pawl il-Baħar), via the beach of Għajn Tuffieha and the Blue Grotto, another pretty coastal spot on the west coast, makes for a fun day out.

Just resist the temptation to take a “short cut” inland where you may end up on a rutted track following a horse and cart.

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Embrace beach life

Malta gets ferociously hot in high summer when everyone and their zija (auntie) heads to the nearest beach. The picture-postcard option is The Blue Lagoon, a shimmering expanse of turquoise water surrounding tiny Comino islet, between Malta and Gozo.

It’s well worth the day trip despite the inevitable crowds (arrive early if you want enough space to lay a beach towel).

“Paradise Bay” (yes, Malta knows how to market itself), a jet-ski ride south, lives up to its name with a pretty crescent of white sand accessed down a cliffside path.

If you really want somewhere off the beaten track try St Peter’s Pool in the far southeast. A stunning natural swimming pool, you’ll find locals (and adventurous dogs) diving from the limestone cliffs to cool off (bring everything you need as there are no facilities down here).

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Get cultured in the capital

Valletta, Malta’s capital, seems built for aimless wandering. Its grid of sun-dappled Baroque streets is punctuated by vintage shop signs, red British-era pillar boxes and ornate timber balconies.

Inside the gloriously over-the-top St John’s Co-Cathedral (“co” as it shares duties with another cathedral in Mdina), you’ll find two masterpieces by Caravaggio, completed while a guest of the Knights of St John in 1607 (that the painter was a wanted murderer at the time appears to have been a detail the knights were happy to overlook).

A block away, gleaming suits of armour stand guard along the marble corridors of the Grand Master’s Palace, worthy of a visit if only for its stunning tapestries depicting the exotic wildlife of the New World. A musket shot from here, Malta leaps into the twenty first century with its bold new parliament building by Renzo Piano.

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Go local for lunch (and dinner)

Ask a local to name a Maltese meal and they’ll probably dutifully mention rabbit stew, the de facto national dish. A dental workout at the best of times, try it slow cooked in a ragu sauce (Gululu in St Julian’s serve it up with spaghetti).

Next in the Maltese culinary trinity is pastizzi, the island’s answer to the Cornish pasty, just smaller and filled with cheese and mushy peas. Pick one up at the Crystal Palace hole-in-the-wall bar in Rabat (nothing to do with the London football team).

Last but not least, ftira is a flatbread “pizza” featuring potatoes and anchovies; you’ll find it sold at most bakeries and it makes for a perfect beach snack.

For most visitors seafood is really where it’s at, though, and the island’s finest can be found in the pretty fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced “mar-shash-lock”). Here the day’s catch is unloaded almost directly to your plate.

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Explore Malta by moonlight

After a sundowner drink on a rooftop restaurant (try De Mondion if you’re feeling flush), a moonlit amble around Mdina is one of the most atmospheric experiences on the island.

The lamplit streets of Malta’s oldest town radiate medieval intrigue. You half expect a knight on horseback to clip clop past (fittingly Mdina doubled for King’s Landing in the early series of Game of Thrones).

Back in the capital, Gugar, is a great spot to settle down with Cisk (Malta’s national beer) surrounded by shelves of books and an alternative crowd. For something stronger, join Valletta’s bohemian types at Café Society, where you’ll find well-mixed cocktails in a cool, cave-like bar.

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Party in paradise

Between June and September you’ll find Catholic fiestas crackling into life across the island, with even the smallest village competing to put on the best firework display or the most colourful street procession.

More recently, Malta has become a venue for high-wattage music festivals, including Annie Mac’s acclaimed Lost and Found in spring and June’s  Isle of Malta MTV. This year sees Groovefest‘s blend of Ibiza house arrive at the island’s Café del Mar in late April – don’t forget your glow sticks.

Andy Turner flew with Air Malta who operate direct flights from seven UK airports. Check out visitmalta.com for more on Valletta 2018. Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Japan has long captivated the imaginations of travellers around the globe, seeming to both baffle and beguile all who venture there.

Between language barriers and Japan’s rather deceiving size (roughly stretching the length of Miami to Montreal) it’s all too easy to miss out on the country’s best spots during the trip-planning process. From countryside almost mystic in its tranquility to the addictive buzz of urban life, there’s a lot to pack into a single itinerary.

Let this video serve as a starting point – a one-minute guide on which to base your Japanese odyssey. Whether you decide on the seaside or the mountains, big city backstreets or rustic villages, one thing’s for sure: you’re bound to discover a culture like no other.

Spain’s massive size means that it’s thankfully not as hard as you might expect to wander off the well-beaten tourist track. Whether it’s quiet coves, tucked away old villages or eerie landscapes you’re after, here are seven places that you’ve probably never heard of but really should visit in Spain.

1. Las Alpujarras, Andalucía

South of Granada, the hills and valleys of Las Alpujarras provide some of the country’s lushest scenery. This isn’t an area for novice drivers – hairpin bend after hairpin bend lead up to many of the region’s lovely white-washed villages – but it’s worth the effort to enjoy the serenity of the countryside.

In the settlements here you can really get a sense of a truly local way of life – one that revolves around shady central plazas, welcome siestas from the midday sun and sherry in the local bar after dark.

2. Beget, Girona

Beget is tucked so deeply into a valley that you won’t see it before you’re almost in it. This tiny village in northern Catalunya is definitely worth stumbling over, however – little has changed here for centuries, creating a quiet charm that’s hard to beat.

Explore the narrow cobbled streets to find old stone houses and pretty little bridges that cross the river. For dinner, sit down to a plate of seasonal Catalan food at one of the family-run restaurants.

The centrepiece of the village is the stately, beautiful twelfth-century church, which boasts a carved wooden Christ figure dressed in a tunic, with arms outstretched.

Image by azama8 on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

3. El Burgo de Osma, Soria

The Río Duero cuts across central Castilla and some of its loveliest scenery can be found in and around the graceful old town of El Burgo de Osma.

Though its buildings pay homage to the fact that this was once a very grand place – it is home to both a cathedral and a university – El Burgo today is quaint and gorgeous, with little in the way of attractions, but a joy to experience nonetheless.

The town is particularly lovely on summer nights, when locals congregate on the main square to use it as a social club, playground and exercise yard. El Burgo also makes a great base from which to explore the surrounding area, which boasts both a dramatic canyon park and a mighty fortress.

Image by jesuscm on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

4. Zahara de la Sierra, Andalucía

The beautiful southern region of Andalucía is particularly known for its beautiful white towns, and one of the best examples of which can be found at Zahara de la Sierra, reached via a very scenic drive through the countryside from the lovely old town of Ronda.

An obvious landmark for miles around, it is the castle that you notice first, sitting dramatically on top of a stark rocky outcrop; below which huddle bright white houses (with their equally picturesque red-tiled roofs).

5. Cadaqués, Girona

It’s easy to shun the idea of the Costa Brava, with its rather old-fashioned image of sun-and-sea holidays, but the region is home to some very pretty beaches, and with a bit of knowledge it’s not too hard to find more interesting towns and quieter sands.

The most pleasant place to stay on the northern Costa Brava is undoubtedly the picturesque seaside town of Cadaqués, its narrow, hilly streets filled with bougainvillea-covered houses and with craggy headlands on either side of its still-working fishing port.

The beaches here are small and pebbly, but there’s plenty else to the town to keep you occupied, not least its art galleries and studios – Dalí settling nearby after World War II saw the town attract a rather bohemian artistic community – and smart restaurants.

6. Las Médulas, Castille y León

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the other-worldly landscape of Las Médulas had been ravaged over hundreds – even thousands – of years by the weather, but you’d be wrong. The strange, jagged red rocks here are the result of Roman strip-mining, when five tonnes of gold were taken from the hillsides via canals constructed for the purpose.

Looking more like Arizona than northern Spain, this eerie landscape of red-rock needles and caves is best viewed from the Mirador de Orellán, which offers a spectacular panorama over the area; undoubtedly the best way to experience it is on foot, via the Las Valiñas trail from pretty Las Médulas village.

7. The Costa da Morte, Galicia

Don’t be put off by its name – the “Coast of Death” – this relatively undeveloped region is well worth a visit. Though at times it has a rather desolate beauty, and though it can be as wet and windy as the shipwrecks that litter its seabed suggest, the quiet, beautiful coves, snug fishing villages and mountain slopes make this costa surprisingly enchanting.

This isn’t the place to go for resort facilities – and all the better for it; instead, head for the charming little seaside towns like Malpica de Bergantiños and Laxe, the latter of which offers some of the area’s safest swimming.

For really wonderful scenery, head to Ezaro; here, the mineral-rich rocks of the escarpments are multi-coloured, and appear to glisten underneath countless little waterfalls.

Image by Asier Ríos Molina on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Explore more of Spain with The Rough Guide to SpainCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.