From the faded colonial grandeur of Havana to the lush, green tobacco plantations of the countryside, Cuba is a destination that exceeds all expectations. This small island off the coast of Central America is an endlessly fascinating place, and has  plenty to keep a traveller busy. Here are 20 of our favourite things to do in Cuba.

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.

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

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

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

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

How to get to the San Blas Islands

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

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

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

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

What to take

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

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

And it’s also a good idea to take:

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

What to expect when you’re there

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

Image via Pixabay/CC0

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

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

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

The oceans cover over seventy percent of the Earth’s surface, yet when it comes to travelling most of us stick to dry land. It’s a shame, as there are some amazing experiences to be had underwater – from swimming with whale sharks to diving around World War II wrecks. Thanks to advances in camera technology, more and more photographers are able to capture these mesmerising watery worlds, and once-elusive sights are now just a click away on YouTube or Vimeo. Here are ten of our favourite underwater videos.

On the Ribbon Reefs

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is perhaps the world’s top dive site. The monumental coral maze stretches for over 2000km, but some of the finest dives are in the northern Ribbon Reefs. This footage was captured from several spots along this chain and shows the diversity of the reef and its denizens in incredible detail – make sure you look out for the clownfish wiggling away to the strains of Bach’s “Air on the G string” at 01:21.

Diving the Ribbon Reefs on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef from Undersea Productions on Vimeo.

The underwater river

Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is riddled with cenotes, sinkholes formed as the region’s limestone rocks have been gradually eroded. One of the most spectacular is the eerie Cenote Angelita, a 59m-deep pool in which the top portion of fresh water is separated from the salty depths by two metres of hydrogen sulphide. This cloudy layer looks unmistakeably like an underwater river, as you can see in this clip.

Plane to see

In 1944 during the World War II battle of Pelleliu, a Japanese “JAKE” seaplane, crashed in unknown circumstances three kilometres off the coast of Koror in Palau, Micronesia. Lying just 17m below the surface, the surprisingly well-preserved wreck is now a popular dive site, but few have tackled it as a freedive. Watch fearless swimmer Dean serenely explore the wreckage in this beautiful video. It took him nearly a year to get the perfect conditions to film.

Having a whale of a time

Watch one of the most popular YouTubers, daily vlogger FunForLouis, aka Louis Cole, swim with whale sharks off the coast of Cancun in Mexico to celebrate his channel reaching one million subscribers. Despite their size, these are surprisingly gentle creatures: filter feeders who exist on a diet of plankton and krill. Seeing how close swimmers can get to them it’s easy to see why Louis says this is “one of the most incredible things you can ever do”.

Spear wonder

An official clip from the BBC’s Human Planet series narrated by David Attenborough, which follows Bajau spear fisherman, Sulbin, a so-called sea gypsy from Sabah, Malaysia. Watch as he pushes his body “beyond the realms of possibility”, diving down twenty metres and spending nearly three minutes underwater. Not only does he do this on one breath of air, but he’s able to walk along the sea floor to stalk his catch.

Beautiful Bali

If you’re wondering where your PADI certificate should take you next, check out this film from Johannes Weber, captured off the southeast cost of Bali in Indonesia. The island might be better known for its rice terraces, beaches and surf-lashed coastline, but this series of aquatic close-ups shows there’s just as much beauty underwater as there is on land.

Beneath the Antarctic ice

Claustrophobic? You might want to watch this film with caution. In the two-minute clip divers enter Antarctica’s Ross Sea through a small drill hole, with only a rope to guide them back above the ice sheet. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the sense of serenity in the blue and green dappled waters below.

The sardine run

This is no ordinary diving trip. In this seven-minute film Mark van Coller captures the mayhem of the annual sardine run, which takes place off the coast of South Africa from May to July. There are few natural phenomena as spectacular as this brutal feeding frenzy – and few divers brave enough to capture it.

Just for fun

Have you ever posted a letter underwater? Hideaway Island resort in Vanuatu has run the world’s only underwater post office since 2003. Guests can dive down to use its services with nothing more than a snorkel, although you’ll need to buy a special waterproof postcard, or your despatch from the road will reach its destination rather soggy.

Read other our features in this series, the best GoPro videos and the ten most beautiful time-lapse films. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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

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

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

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

Port Resolution Yacht Club, Tanna by Peter Watson

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

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

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

Little Beach, Tanna by Peter Watson

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

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

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

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

Mount Yasur, Tanna by by Peter Watson

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

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

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

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

Port Resolution Village, Tanna by Peter Watson

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

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

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. 

December might be dark and chilly in much of north America and Europe, but it’s by no means a dull month to travel. There are world-class classical music events, a clutch of colourful festivals and oodles of southern-hemisphere sunshine. Here are our tips on the best places to visit in December:

 

DIVE THE BLUE HOLE IN BELIZE

Hurricane season has just come to an end in December, making it the perfect time to visit Belize before sun-seekers descend in their droves. Make a beeline for the country’s most popular islands, laidback Caye Caulker and upmarket Ambergeris Caye, from where you can take trips to the reef-fringed blue hole. Spanning 300m in diameter and over 100m deep, this peacock-blue abyss offers superb diving. Those without the necessary experience can snorkel at the nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where nurse sharks might tickle your toes as they pass beneath.

MARKET TIME IN MUNICH

If you want to experience an old-fashioned European yuletide, the run up to Christmas doesn’t get much more traditional than in Munich, capital of Bavaria. The first Christkindlmarkt took place here in the fourteenth century; today there are at least a dozen individual markets centring on Marienplatz, where row-upon-row of wooden stalls appear at the start of the month. Christmas tree decorations, candles and lebkuchen abound, but the highlight of any shopping trip is a mug of glühwein, often fortified with a warming shot of brandy. Prost!

CHRISTMAS ON BONDI BEACH

Spending Christmas day on Bondi has become a backpacker tradition, with an international crowd congregating on the beach each year to celebrate (or commiserate) missing out on turkey and drizzle back home. Expect fur-trimmed bikinis and snowman sandcastles in place of Christmas trees and cake. The beach is now alcohol-free, but the Sunburnt Festival at The Pavillion provides barbecuing and boozing aplenty and certainly promises to be one of the best places to visit in December.

TAKE IN THE TENORS IN MILAN

Opera season kicks off in Milan on the 7th of December, St Ambrose’s Day, when the city’s most glamorous pack into the opulent La Scala. Opened in 1778, this opera house is where Verdi debuted his early compositions and the first night of the season remains a highlight on Debrett’s social calendar. If you’re not lucky enough to bag one of the elusive tickets, there’s plenty of Milanese atmosphere to soak up at this time of year. St Ambrose, or Sant’Ambrogio, is the city’s patron saint, and there are festive markets and special religious services in his honour around a public holiday on the 8th.

PARASOLS, POSADAS AND PIÑATAS IN MEXICO

December is a great time to visit the white-sand beaches of the so-called Mayan Riviera on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Temperatures hover around a balmy 25°C (77°F), and it’s several months before the spring-breakers launch their annual assault on Cancun. From the 16th of December you might also catch families taking part in posadas, processions re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Piñatas – papier-mâché or clay creations stuffed with sweets – make plenty of appearances.

GET A START OF SEASON DEAL IN COLORADO

The four resorts that make up Colorado‘s Aspen Snowmass are all open by the second week of December, and there are some good start of season ski deals available. Away from the slopes, Glenwood Springs, 30 miles north, provides the perfect respite after hitting the powder. The hot springs pools here are heated year-round by the geothermal Yampah spring, which pumps out over three million gallons of water a day at a toasty 51°C (123°F). Thankfully the therapy pool is kept at a slightly less scalding 40°C (104°F); the sight of the steam rising against the snow-capped peaks beyond is a glorious vista.

MINGLE WITH MOVIE STARS IN MARRAKESH

The chaos of Marrakesh’s souks is best experienced in a little less heat, and temperatures usually top out in the early twenties at this time of year. The first week of December also sees the city’s increasingly revered film festival come to town. Big screens pop up amid the snake charmers and henna artists in the Djemaa el Fna, and you might even catch the odd Hollywood star padding around the shady Majorelle Gardens or sipping cocktails in the Nouvelle Ville. Chillier days provide the perfect opportunity to take a cooking class or visit a hammam.

WATCH DERVISHES WHIRL IN KONYA

Turkey has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, but remains a rewarding country to explore. December sees the intriguing whirling dervish festival come to the conservative city of Konya. A week-long feat of hypnotic whirling rituals known as sema, which the Mevlevi believe brings them closer to god, the festival leads up to the anniversary of the death of their founder, Rumi (or Mevlâna, the sainted one) on the 17th.

SEE IN THE NEW YEAR IN RIO

The easiest way to be sure of some winter sun is to head south, where summer is in full swing. From the Amazon to Iguaçu Falls, Brazil’s attractions could easily occupy a whole month, but make sure you end up in Rio for New Year’s eve: the city does a street party like no other. Several million people pack onto Copacabana beach each year for the celebrations, traditionally wearing white to bring luck in the New Year. If crowds aren’t your thing, take in the offshore firework display from a beachfront hotel.

MARVEL AT SWEDEN’S NORTHERN LIGHTS

These soft, flickering wisps of colour are caused by solar particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere: each hue is produced by a different element. They’re best seen within the Arctic Circle, so think about taking a husky-sled tour of Swedish Lapland. It’s best to give yourself a week or two for a good chance of seeing them. Keep your fingers crossed (inside a good pair of mittens) for cloudless skies.

For more travel inspiration, try our Inspire Me page. Find hostels for your December trip here and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Watching Games of Thrones you could be forgiven for thinking that the hulking walls and rugged fortresses of King’s Landing must have been conjured up on a computer. The truth is that Dubrovnik, once a mighty city state that held both the Venetians and Ottomans at bay, is that spectacular. I arrive in this ancient city determined to not just stroll around the Game of Thrones trail, but instead hike, kayak and bash around in a speedboat seeking out my own King’s Landing adventures.

To Game of Thrones fans Dubrovnik is King’s Landing. Rugged limestone crags rise precipitously to the rear while the sparkling sheen of the Adriatic shimmers on the other flank. In between lies the perfectly preserved baroque UNESCO World Heritage listed old walled city that Lord Byron once eulogised as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’. There are Game of Thrones guided tours and the local tourist office even publishes a map that herds devotees of the adventures of the Targaryens, the Baratheons and the Starks around the city.

The best place to take in King’s Landing is from Mount Srđ. The old Napoleonic-era fort that stares down from its lofty perch proved critical to the survival of the city in the early 1990s when real life warfare came to Dubrovnik. A glitzy cable car now whizzes the cruise ship crowds up to the slick cafe at the top, but instead I get on my hiking boots and strike on up the hillside on a winding trail used by citizens of the city for centuries.

archer10 (Dennis) via Compfight cc

The effort of hiking up Srđ is worth it as the views that open up en route are like my own TV series, each one more dramatic than the last, urging me to push on. At the summit the old city unfurls below like one of the exotic Oriental carpets that were once traded through Dubrovnik when it was a key hub on the Silk Route. King’s Landing, the very heart of Westeros, spreads before me and I search for the series locations.

Just outside the chunk of city walls I can make out Lovrijenac Fortress – the daunting eleventh century castle tower that has spiced up scenes in its role as the Red Keep. I peer over baleful Blackwater Bay as I lose myself in visions of evil King Joffrey. In the distance I can also make out Hotel Belvedere. Once one of the city’s finest hotels, it has lain a derelict shell since forming the last line of Dubrovnik’s defence in 1991. Its sweeping terrace has served as a key battle scene.

Back down in the old city I sweep up on to the historic walls, which drape all the way around Dubrovnik. I could have taken an audio guide to fill me in on the rich story of the old Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik’s former name), but instead I battle on around the grand bastions on the 2km hike with only my imagination for company. It is these very walls that were attacked after all by the Baratheons. Finally I reach the highest point, the Minceta Tower, where Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen sought the entrance of the House of the Undying.

The city walls by archer10 (Dennis) via Compfight cc

I end my first day reclining at the Buza Bar, a little bar in the city walls (buza means ‘hole’ in Croatian), where I meet a local kayak guide, Damien. He is well aware of the Game of Thrones connection. “It’s a bit weird. We’re used to the cruise ships, but this is something new. I’ve not seen Game of Thrones, but it is kind of cool to feel like we are living every day in a movie!”, he jokes.

The next day it is time to take in King’s Landing from a totally different perspective, as I besiege it from the water. In the old town’s polished marble streets it is easy to forget that the hulking city walls were not a confection made just to please Hollywood. For centuries they protected Ragusa, whose motto was “Liberty must not be sold for all the gold in the world”. They were never breached and from kayak height Bokar Fortress surges skywards in a sweep that stirs vertigo in me. This was where Tyrion and Lord Varys planned the defence of King’s Landing in season two. I’m glad Damien and I don’t have to tackle the walls in anger.

Island of Lokrum by Eric Hossinger via Compfight cc

Turning away from the old city we paddle across the choppy channel to the island of Lokrum. This uninhabited isle – whose monastery was long ago abandoned – is a world away from Dubrovnik. There are no roads, and no other people for that matter in the cool of the early morning. Lokrum is also home to another world in Game of Thrones as Qarth.

My last adventure is on a speedboat. I bash a few miles offshore where the drama of Dubrovnik unfolds as strikingly as anything in Game of Thrones. A storm is starting to rumble in from Bosnia over the top of Srđ and Dubrovnik’s mighty walls, towers and buttresses brood against a slate grey sky. The cruise ships are pulling anchor, leaving me to power back and explore the quieter streets of King’s Landing long after the guided themed tours have finished for the day.

Robin stayed in A19 Hedera apartment, which has a sweeping terrace overlooking King’s Landing. Feature image by Leshaines123 via Compfight cc

When it comes to beaches in Croatia, the best advice is to head south: it’s on the Dalmatian coast where the most seductive sandy shores, pebbly coves and sun-fried rocks are to be found. Indeed all of the beaches that made our list are in Dalmatia, except for one (the bewitchingly sandy island of Susak in the Kvarner Gulf). A sizeable collection of swoon-inducing destinations has been left off this list, largely for simple reasons of accessibility: islands like Korčula, Vis and Šolta boast any number of heavenly bays accessed by goat tracks or private boat – gems like these should be left to individual discovery. 

SPIAZA, SUSAK

Desert island getaways don’t come much better than on Susak, the tiny island composed almost entirely of sand. It’s a ferry ride away from Mali Lošinj, which is itself quite some distance from the mainland – the time it takes to get here only adds to Susak’s connoisseur appeal. The island’s main beach, Spiaza, is a majestic moon-grey crescent stretching out from Susak village. The bay is very shallow – you need to wade for almost half a kilometre to find sea deep enough to swim in. Similarly sandy is Bok bay, further east; it’s significantly less crowded because you have to walk round a rocky headland to get there.

NIN

If your idea of a beach is a long strip of sand that stretches away towards the horizon, then you really need to make tracks for Nin. Located 15km from Zadar, Nin’s long, luxuriant Kraljičina plaža (Queen’s Beach) contains a brace of beach bars and very little else, save for mesmerising views of the haughty Velebit mountains across the water. Don’t be alarmed at the sight of fellow bathers smearing themselves in sludge: the reedy area behind Kraljičina plaža is rich in peloid mud, an effective natural treatment for sore joints and muscles.

BAČVICE, SPLIT

For many of its inhabitants Split is not so much a city as a religion, centred around a collection of semi-mystic locations. Among the holiest of holies is undoubtedly Bačvice beach, a shallow bay of sand and shingle that has played an important role in the early childhood and teenage years of virtually anyone who has ever called the city home. Immensely popular as a family beach, it’s also a buzzing social hub, with a café-packed pleasure pavilion rising immediately to the east. Bačvice is also famous for being the spiritual home of picigin, a uniquely Dalmatian sport that involves a lot of acrobatic leaping around as players try to prevent a small ball from hitting the water.

LOVREČINA BAY, BRAČ ISLAND

Four kilometres east of Postira on Brač, Lovrečina Bay is one of several beaches on the island that genuinely deliver what you read about in the brochures, with a sandy shore bordering translucent waters, and a ruined medieval church among olive groves just behind the strand. The fact that there is limited parking and no clear bus stop nearby helps to the beach from becoming overrun. Apropos rent out apartments in Postira, while Villa Adriatica up the coast in Supetar is one of the island’s cosier hotels.

UVALA DUBOVICA, HVAR ISLAND

The Renaissance port of Hvar enjoys a worldwide reputation when it comes to chic bars and racy nightlife. If a good beach is what you’re after, however, it’s best to get out of town. There are several good choices in the coves and bays to the east, of which the most attractive is Uvala Dubovica, a broad pebbly affair beside a historic manor house. The bay’s shallow nature makes it good family paddling territory, although it gets popular with yachts and motorboats in season. Otherwise, difficulty of access tends to filter out the guests – the parking strip on the main road above the bay is only big enough to accommodate about fifty vehicles. Rent a bike or scooter from Luka Rent in Hvar and beach-hop your way along the coast.

GREBIŠĆE, HVAR ISLAND

While many of Hvar’s beaches involve perching on a rock before stepping gingerly out onto a stony seabed, the silkily sandy Grebišće is absolutely perfect for smooth paddling around. Located 4km east of Jelsa just off the Sućuraj road, the beach is reached by walking through the Grebišće campsite. The beach itself is very narrow and contains very little shade, but the bay is both very shallow and sandy underfoot – which is why it’s such a popular venue for splashing around. Drinks and basic snacks are available at the campsite café or the Čorni Petar beach bar, nestling beneath trees on the headland to the east.

ZLATNI RAT, BRAČ ISLAND

A silvery tongue of shingle extending into a turquoise sea, Zlatni Rat (“Golden Cape”) is very much the poster boy of Dalmatian beaches, pictured in countless brochures and guidebooks. The pebbly peninsula remains a compelling destination despite the crowds; indeed its clear shallow seas and gripping maritime views make it a difficult place to leave. It’s within walking distance of Bol, where More Travel or Adria will sort you out with accommodation.

PROIZD, NEAR KORČULA ISLAND

Approaching by taxi boat from nearby Vela Luka, the islet of Proizd looks at first sight to be a pretty average Adriatic hump of pine trees and maquis. In fact it’s one of the most alluring sunbathing and skinny-dipping destinations in the whole of Croatia, with a trio of dramatic ‘beaches’ made up of sloping rock slabs shelving steeply into a clear sea. The port of Vela Luka is your obvious base for accommodation: contact the ever-dependable Mediterano agency for rooms and apartments.

ŠUNJ BAY, LOPUD ISLAND

Sometimes it’s not just the beach that matters, it’s also about the journey there and back. Getting to Šunj Bay on the island of Lopud involves a delightful fifty-minute crossing on the passenger-only Dubrovnik-Šipan ferry, followed by a hike over the central hump of blissfully car-free Lopud island. Once you get there, Šunj is a graceful crescent of fine shingle and sand strung between rocky promontories. There’s an informal beach bar at the back of the beach; you’ll need it by the time you arrive.

KUPARI

Looking for a beach with just a hint of the post-apocalyptic? Then try Kupari just south of Dubrovnik, one-time holiday resort to the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army. Badly damaged in the 1991–95 war, its hotels have lain derelict ever since. It is, however, home to one of the Dubrovnik region’s best beaches, a fine crescent of shingle with a few sandy bits underfoot, complete with evocative backdrop of shell-damaged hotels. Note that the hotels are unprotected and potentially dangerous –so resist the temptation to go exploring.

For both Kupari and Lopud your obvious base is Dubrovnik, where the excellent Fresh Sheets hostel has just branched out into the small-hotel market with its new venture Fresh Sheets B&B.

Check out the best beaches in Italy >

The third part in our Slovenia In Four Seasons feature sees Senior Web Editor Tim Chester explore the country in August. Check out our trips from the winter and the spring too.

Think of the northern Adriatic and you’d be forgiven for thinking of Italy – of Venice, Rimini, and Trieste – or Croatia, whose abundant seaside gems stretch from Rovinj to Zadar and beyond. However, you’d be missing an important 47 kilometres, which belong resolutely to Slovenia, a tiny fragment of coast wedged between its neighbours that packs in a disproportionately large number of treats.

Croatia might completely hog the waterfront in this part of the world, snatching miles and miles of stunning coastline from similarly-sized nearby countries and attracting huge numbers of visitors to match, but the Slovene Riviera – sitting pretty at the tip of the Slovene Istria in the south west of the country – is equally as beguiling.

Most visitors to this country, which has been independent since 1991, covers an area the size of Wales and numbers just a handful of million inhabitants, head straight for the capital Ljubljana or the justifiably popular Lake Bled, but I’d been told to make a beeline for the beach. So, a couple of hours after our budget plane bounced onto the tarmac we were on top of Hotel Piran in the city of the same name sipping margaritas as the sun dropped into the sea.

The drive along the top of the peninsula to Piran sets the scene: look to the right as the road crests a hill and you can see the fishing port town of Izola, beyond that the more industrial Koper, whose new developments encircle a medieval core, and in the far distance Trieste in Italy. To the left, signs point to the casinos and bars of resort town Portorož, hedges intermittently open to reveal the salt pans of Sečovlje, and in the distance Croatia squats peacefully.

We only had a long weekend to spare so we hit the ground running the following morning, exploring Piran’s cobbled streets and labyrinthine passageways with a local guide. The city dates back to medieval times but it was the Venetian Republic which really left their mark; some corners of the centre look like they’ve been airlifted from the famous watery landmark across the sea and in fact Piran is very much like Venice if you substract the crowds and the effluent.

Tartini Square is the place to get your bearings, a former inner port whose buildings and statues tell a variety of stories. Named after Giuseppe Tartini, a famouse violinist and local hero whose statue stands proud in the midst, the city’s hub is crowded with messages for anyone looking in the right place.

On one side, Casa Veneziana is a light red example of Venetian gothic architecture, an erstwhile lodging for a local girl who caught the eye of a Venetian merchant, emblazoned with the words “lasa pur dir” (“let them talk”) in response to the gossip that followed their courtship. The Municipal Palace, meanwhile, features a stone lion with wings holding an open book under its paw, the bared pages signifying the fact it was erected during peace time. The nearby 1st May square is also full of secret stories; look out for depictions of Law and Justice in front of the stone rainwater collector, and the statues holding gutters.

Elsewhere and Piran is home to eight churches, most sadly closed due to vandals and thieves, including the impressive baroque St George’s Parish Church which dates back to the 12th Century and commands awesome views. The imposing city walls and several family attractions, from the Maritime Museum to an aquarium, are also worth your time.

That afternoon we were taken by speedboat to a cluster of floating nets belonging to the Fonda Fish Farm, where thousands of Piran sea bass grow into huge healthy specimens under careful supervision. The company are aiming to nurture top quality fish and mussels and their enthusiasm was infectious.

We followed our tour with a dip in the Adriatic back at Piran’s concrete beach and ended the day at Pri Mari, a family-run Mediterranean restaurant and a Rough Guide author pick. The owners, Mara and Tomi, lavished us with fine Slovenian wines and endless thanks once they discovered we were from the book that had brought in so much business over the years, but their hospitality was exemplary before they knew who we were. Two steaks (because that’s what you order at the coast, naturally) were delectable and the place was thrumming with happy customers. Piran nightlife seems somewhat sedate but we managed to find two guitarists playing Pink Floyd to a small dancefloor and a man serving pina coladas in one corner of the port to finish things off.

The following day we drove into the hinterland in search of wine. The Karst region behind the coast is carpeted with vineyards and olive groves, interspersed with peach and cherry trees and harbouring thousands of underground caves (the Postojna and Škocjan caverns are the best known).

Before long we arrived at Korenika & Moškon, a small family-run cellar dating back to 1984. The place actually goes back much further – the family has been producing wine for ages – but the communist regime put paid to that for a while. For several hours we were plied with golden yellow and peachy Malvasia and Paderno whites and bold, interesting reds such as local pride and joy Refošk, a dark ruby and almost port-like liquid.

From here we were driven to Izola for the weekend fish festival, a lively gathering of locals and domestic tourists who descend on the port for live music, craft stalls and plenty of fried catch.

On Sunday we sped through Portorož, Slovenia’s answer to the French Riveria but without the bumper-to-bumper traffic and hordes of people selling tat laid out on bedsheets, to the Sečovlje salt pans.

A vast national park that has been producing salt for 700 years and continues to this day, it marks the border with Croatia and plays host to an abundance of wildlife. We jumped on a golf cart for a flying tour of the endless salty pools before taking a dunk in the dirt at the in-house spa. Lying caked in sea salt and mud wraps in the middle of this barren landscape, we fell into a trance like happy hippos.

Back in Piran, a final goodbye cocktail reflecting the deep orange rays of one last late summer Slovene sunset, we toasted our new discovery: 47km of criminally overlooked summer fun.

 Explore more of Slovenia with the Rough Guides destination page for Sloveniabook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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