With the new university year about to start, ABTA (the UK’s largest travel association, representing travel agents and tour operators) have revealed the top 10 gap year destinations for 2015.

This year’s list doesn’t come with many surprises. New Zealand has pushed Thailand out of the number two spot and Vietnam has jumped into fifth position – but Australia remains the most popular.

Interestingly, the balance between budget-friendly destinations, such as Thailand and India, and more expensive countries like the USA and Canada is quite even. This may be a reflection of the kind the gap years people are looking for. “Although a gap year still represents an opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves, increasing numbers of gappers are looking to gap year specialists to provide them with opportunities to gain work experience”, ABTA say.

Other trends they highlight are a move to adventure gap years oriented around trekking, biking and rafting, and the popularity of volunteering trips – from hands-on environmental work to aid panda conservation in China to teaching English in Ecuador.

Here’s the full list – click through for our top experiences in each country

1. Australia
2. New Zealand
3. USA
4. Peru
5. Vietnam
6. Thailand
7. Canada
8. Brazil
9. Argentina
10. India

Staying the night in a treehouse – everyone’s favourite childhood fantasy – has now become a reality. Treehouse hotels have sprung up around the world, with mystical woodland hideaways now found everywhere everywhere from Costa Rica to Thailand. Here are 8 of our favourites.

1. Treehotel, Sweden

Sweden’s Treehotel, built by some of the country’s finest architects, takes the humble treehouse to new levels. Its six, strikingly modern “treerooms” range from the futuristic glass Mirrorcube to the alien-like UFO. And if a night here wasn’t unforgettable enough, there’s even a sauna suspended from the pines.

Image credits: Peter Lundstrom, WDO – www.treehotel.se (top, right and featured image); Fredrik Broman, Human Spectra – www.treehotel.se (left)

2. Tree House Lodge, Costa Rica 

In 10 acres behind Punta Uva beach in the province of Limón lies a treehouse that owners Edsart Besier & Pamela Rodriguez promise will take you back to your childhood. Surrounded by a tropical garden and accessed via a wooden suspension bridge, it’s the perfect place to unwind.

Image courtesy of Tree House Lodge Costa Rica

3. Garden Village, Slovenia

A short walk from the banks of Slovenia’s famous Lake Bled, Garden Village is a fairytale come to life. Neat rows of luxury glamping tents are staggered down the hillside, while six treehouses hide in the woods alongside, connected by wooden platforms and short suspension bridges. Romantic escapes don’t come much better than this.

Image credits: Garden Village / Jost Gantar (top); Jonathan Smith / Dorling Kindersley (left); Tim Draper / Rough Guides (right)

4. Chewton Glen, England

You’ll find the ultimate in treehouse luxury at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. Four luxury treehouse cabins are squirrelled away in a wooded valley here and the extras are fittingly decadent: spa treatments, golf buggies to take you to the main hotel and gourmet hampers delivered through a secret hatch.

Images courtesy of Chewton Glen

5. Tongabezi Lodge, Zambia

It’s hard to imagine waking up to the crashing of Victoria Falls. but when you stay at Tongabezi Lodge’s Tree House, this becomes a reality. Hidden away on the banks of the Zambezi river, along the cliff face past the pool, this ground-level treehouse offers a tranquil situated away from the main lodge. Staying here is a way to “experience the beauty and majesty of Zambia without setting a foot outside”, they say.

Image courtesy of Tongabezi Safari Lodge – www.tongabezi.com

6. Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica, Peru

Deep in the Peruvian Rainforest, a stay at Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica plunges you into jungle life. Set within a 17,000 hectare private reserve, this luxury resort offers the likes of spa treatments, jungle treks and bird watching expeditions. Best of all, however, is their Canopy Tree House – although at 90-ft above the jungle floor, a night here is not for the faint hearted.

Images courtesy of Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica

7. Milandes Treehouse, France

Ever wondered what it would be like to have your own private castle? Well now you can find out with a night at Milandes Treehouse. This extravagant construction has been built in the style of a traditional French châteaux, and as you admire the panoramic views you are guaranteed to feel like royalty.

Image courtesy of www.canopyandstars.co.uk 

8. Free Spirit Spheres, Canada

The gently rocking Free Spirit Spheres on Vancouver Island in Canada might look childlike, but these treehouses are strictly for adults only. The experience is designed to conjure mystery, magic and a connection with the forest – maybe even thoughts of elves and fairies, they say.

Image credits: Free Spirit Spheres by Kyle Greenberg via Flickr (CC license) [top]; Treehouses 2010 by chillbay via Flickr (CC license) [left and right, with small crop]

Banish thoughts of Miami Vice or ‘God’s waiting room’. The Sunshine State’s most flamboyant city is rapidly changing and there’s more to discover than golden sand and neon nightclubs. Down-at-heel neighbourhoods are being revitalised, the art scene is spreading and with its variety of cultural influences from Latin to Caribbean, Miami has grown into a city full of fantastic food.

Art in all shapes and sizes

Art Basel and its celebrity-studded parties have become a regular December fixture, but Miami is home to a thriving community of artists, designers and collectors and you can find art year round.

Pink Snails – Art Basel by Ines Hegedus-Garcia via Flickr (cc license)

Wynwood, a decaying district in Miami’s midtown, has been transformed into an arty enclave. Warehouse walls were a blank canvas for local artists and now Wynwood Walls is one of the world’s largest collections of street art. Exhibition spaces range from impressive private galleries, such as the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection, to experimental pop ups. Every second Saturday, Wynwood Art Walk run gallery and graffiti tours.

The state-of-the-art Perez Art Museum Miami, opened in December 2013, showcasing contemporary art from the Americas, Western Europe and Africa. Then came the inauguration of Museum Park, the waterfront space overlooking Biscayne Bay in which PAMM is located, where the Frost Museum of Science will open in 2016.

Perez Art Museum by Phillip Pessar via Flickr (cc license)

Midtown’s Design District is home to the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami and the De La Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space and by the end of the year, the Paseo Ponti, will end in the public art-filled Paradise Plaza.

The glamorous island playground of Miami Beach also celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Its living museum of Art Deco design is best explored on foot, with a walking tour from the Miami Design Preservation League, or by bike.

Culinary highlights

Miami used to be all about down-at-heel diners and style-over-substance restaurants, but now there’s everything from hotel dining from star chefs to farm-to-fork restaurants and gourmet food trucks.

Miami’s culinary revival began in the 1990s with the Mango Gang, four pioneering local chefs who were inspired by South Florida’s indigenous ingredients and mixed them up with Caribbean cooking to create Floribbean cuisine.

Taco Heat Food Truck by Phillip Pessar via Flickr (cc license)

At the food trucks, taste Latin flavours in Colombian empanadas, Peruvian ceviche, Puerto Rican mofongo and doorstep-sized Cuban medianoches (slow-roasted pork sandwiches). Or you can feast off the tourist track at one of the ever-expanding range of down-to-earth restaurants.

There are also hundreds of hole-in-the-wall joints. A good way to uncover the best bites and get a real taste of Miami culture is to go on a foodie walkabout around South Beach, Little Havana or the Wynwood Arts District with Miami Culinary Tours.

For a locals’ hotspot, try one of the ever-expanding range of Pubbelly restaurants created by three Miami chefs, including Pubbelly Sushi, PB Steak, the pop-up Taco Belly, or the original Pubbelly gastropub. The atmosphere is laidback, tables are communal and the food is great – wash it down with beer from a local microbrewery.

Retail therapy

From mega-malls to independent shops, Miami has enough to satisfy the most ardent shopaholic.

The warehouses of midtown Miami, now converted into the Design District, see international luxury brands rub shoulders with galleries and restaurants from the world’s top chefs. Still under construction, by the end of 2016 there’ll be more than 200 retailers in this compact space.

Genius Jones – Miami Design District by Ines Hegedus-Garcia via Flickr (cc license)

For more haute design head to Bal Harbour Mall in North Miami Beach. Known as the ‘Shopping Hall of Fame’, it’s home to all the top European designers; the open-air mall’s architecture is unmistakably 1950s Miami-Modern, or MiMo.

Another architectural gem is The Alchemist in Lincoln Road. The brainchild of a former fashion editor, this sixty-foot-high glass box perched on top of a garage is the place to shop for high-end labels.

The Webster’s exclusive collaborations with up-and-coming designers and regular events make it a fashionista’s favourite. Also popular with A-listers and their stylists, C. Madeleine’s Vintage Showroom is where gorgeous vintage gets reincarnated.

Chic sleeps

The city’s makeover also extends to its accommodation. Sleek, design-led hotels seem to open by the week, all paying homage to Miami’s rich architectural history.

Newcomers include the Metropolitan by COMO, its art deco lines complemented by Paola Navone interiors, a Bali-inspired COMO Shambhala Spa, a seafood-focused restaurant and a tranquil stretch of beachfront.

This year, the eco-conscious, 426-room 1 Hotel South Beach opened in a 1925 Art Deco building, channelling green-but-glam with reclaimed wood, living walls and hemp-filled mattresses, with farm-to-table food from Tom Colicchio and the city’s largest rooftop pool.

Room view by Paolo Gamba via Flickr (cc license)

The Edition, a collaboration between Ian Schrager and Marriott Hotels, occupies a renovated 1950s landmark on Collins Avenue, where many of the 294 minimalist rooms and suites boast ocean views and you can try disco bowling downstairs.

And the 380-room beachfront Thompson Miami Beach set in a 1940s skyscraper captures the mid-century modern aesthetic with eclectic furnishings and colourful interiors.

In November, Faena’s reworking of the historic Saxony Hotel will include a cabaret theatre, an enormous spa and an Argentinian restaurant with an alfresco barbecue. While the Faena-owned boutique Casa Claridge’s offers accommodation in ornate Mediterranean Revival style.

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

It’s hard to encapsulate the full depth and variety of the USA – any nation that can marry cities as life-filled as New York, San Francisco and LA with landscapes as breathtaking as those of Alaska, Arizona and Hawaii is beyond easy summary. Its rewards come in droves, from all-American icons like baseball, blues and bourbon to the unbridled spectacles like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

As a travel destination, the USA’s possibilities stretch to the far horizon – with plenty of surprises along the way. Here are 7 of the country’s offbeat highlights from the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

1. Flash some flesh at Fantasy Fest in Florida

The saucy climax of Key West’s calendar is a week-long party known as Fantasy Fest. The old town is transformed into an outdoor costume bash, somewhat tenuously pegged to Halloween; really, it’s a gay-heavy take on Mardi Gras and flesh-flashing costumes. The week is punctuated with offbeat events, like the pet costume contest where dogs and their owners dress the same, and a sequin-spangled satire of a high-school prom.

FantasyFest2-27 by Brian Lin via Flickr (CC license)

2. Attend the most surreal show on Earth in Nevada

Picture a nudist miniature golf course, an advanced pole-dancing workshop and a bunch of neon-painted bodies, and you may be getting close to imagining what Burning Man is all about. Every year during the last week of August, several thousand digerati geeks, pyrotechnic maniacs, death-guild Goths, crusty hippies and too-hip yuppies descend on the Nevada Desert to build a temporary autonomous “city”. Known as Black Rock City, this is the most survivalist, futuristic and utterly surreal show on Earth, where the strangest part of your alter ego reigns supreme.

Burning Man 2013 CARGO CULT by Bexx Brown-Spinelli via Flickr (CC license)

3. Kayak alongside a glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska

As you manoeuvre your way towards the towering face of one of Alaska’s many tidewater glaciers, the gentle crunch of ice against the hull of your kayak sounds faintly ominous. It’s nothing, though, compared to the thunderclap that echoes across the water when a great wall of ice peels away from the glacier and sends waves surging toward you. Your first reaction is quite naturally a jolt of fear, but no need to panic: the danger will have dissipated by the time whatever’s left of the waves reaches you, leaving you to look on in awe.

4. Visit North America’s largest bat colony in Texas

Just after sunset, Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from the deep crevices of the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, flapping and squeaking in a long ribbon across the sky. An eclectic mix of townies and tourists watches from the south bank of Town Lake and from the bridge itself. Picturesque from any spot, the bats’ game of follow-the-leader is most impressive when you stand beneath the ribbon and look up – that’s when the sheer number of these creatures hits home. During the summer, the best viewing season, more than 1.5 million bats reside here, making it the largest urban bat colony in North America.

5. Attend Portland’s last true burlesque show in Oregon

Underground tunnels, quirky museums, swingers’ sex clubs, crackpots, ghosts and geeks. These aren’t the stories you find in the official history of Portland, but in Chuck Palahniuk’s offbeat 2003 guide. One of Palahniuk’s top picks – and ours – is now Portland’s last true burlesque/drag show, the Darcelle XV Showplace. Expect hilarious stand-up comedy – prepare to be insulted – lip-synced Broadway hits and the obligatory Rocky Horror tribute.

Darcelle XV Showplace dragshow extraordinaire by Herb Neufeld via Flickr (CC license)

6. Chase Storms in Tornado Alley

The central plains may not seem the likeliest of places to find a weather wonder, but every long, hot summer these cornfield-flat states play witness to some of the most powerful storms on Earth. Behind every terrible storm is an even greater equipped team of daredevil storm-chasers who specialize in stalking tornados from vans loaded with the latest in GPS systems, Doppler radars, satellites and lightning-detector sensors. Few people know that you can join these professionals on the hunt, keeping an eye on the skies as they try to anticipate growing storms.

Corbis: Warren Faidley

7. Thrillseek in the roller coaster capital of the world in Ohio

Your knees buckle slightly and you step in. The safety bar locks over your lap: there is no going back. Above the rallying cries of your fellow riders, one question screams inside your head: “Why am I here?” “Here” is Cedar Point, the roller-coaster capital of the world, which sits on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio. Seventeen dot the park – more than anywhere else on the planet – including a fair share of the fastest, steepest and longest thrill rides ever designed, like the perennial favourite, the Magnum XL-200. On cloudless days it’s even possible to see Canada from the ride’s zenith 205ft off the ground.

Cedar Point 004 by Jeremy Thompson via Flickr (CC license)

Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

 

Say Senegal or mention West Africa and misinformed mutterings of ebola start to spread quicker than the virus itself. Sitting on the western shoulder of Africa, Senegal is frequently overlooked by travellers – but for little good reason.

While the excellent birding and beaching in The Gambia – the country that slices Senegal’s coastline in two – attract thousands of tourists on organised tours and package holidays, Senegal simmers in the African sun with stretches of often-empty beaches (around 500km of them, in fact), with few tourists to be seen.

And it’s not just about the coastline. There are near-untouched deserts, steamy cities and some fascinating islands with captivating stories to tell. So if you’ve got no idea what to expect, let us tell you a few things you didn’t know about Senegal…

Senegalese coastline © Lottie Gross 2015

1. The Senegalese seriously know how to bake

Waking to the waft of pastry in the morning or sighting women carrying bundles of freshly-baked baguettes after breakfast is something you’d associate with a holiday in France. But this isn’t France, it’s Senegal, and the bakeries fill the early morning air with the tantalising smell of pastry and bread. A legacy left by the French, warm croissants and pains au chocolat make up the breakfast spreads in many a hotel or resort, as well as Senegalese homes. Baguettes are served with almost every meal, and patisseries showcasing impressive-looking cakes will have your mouth watering as you stroll past.

2. You can camp under a sky full of stars in the desert

Lodge de Lompoul sits in the middle of the Senegalese desert and it’s a world away from the big, brash city of Dakar. As the sun sets, crack open a cool Flag (West African lager), sit back, relax and watch the dunes turn from yellow to orange before they’re silhouetted against the night’s sky.

Lodge de Lompoul © Lottie Gross 2015

Three hours north of the capital, the small village of Lompoul sits on the edge of a desert of the same name. This smattering of huts and concrete and corrugated iron structures is a gateway to a strangely empty patch of yellow sand dunes in the middle of the forested landscape that backs the Senegalese coastline.

Leave your vehicle in Lompoul and jump into the camp’s 4×4 truck to traverse the steeply undulating, foliage-clad dunes – an exhilarating adventure in itself – before arriving at your luxury tent to spend a night in the wild.

3. Senegal’s natural attractions include a vivid pink lake

Blue, crystal-clear waters are beautiful, but what about bright pink? Thanks to its high salt content (up to forty per cent in places) caused by an algae called dunaliella salina, Lake Retba looks more like cloudy pink lemonade than a refreshing cool-blue pool. Don’t try swimming in it though: the salt is terrible for your skin, and the workers who gather the mineral have to cover themselves in shea butter before jumping in. It’s brighter at certain times of year (the dry season, mainly) and is made even more striking where parts of its banks are made up of bright-white salt.

The lake is a hive of activity all year round: men dig for salt under the water and women in brightly-coloured dresses carry buckets full of it on their heads from the waters to the metres-high mounds on the shore.

The Pink Lake © Lottie Gross 2015

4. The country is a twitcher’s paradise

The Gambia gets most of the attention for birdwatching in West Africa, but Senegal also has its own haven for hundreds of winged creatures. The Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, at the southern end of a long, thin, sandy peninsula near the border with Mauritania, is a reserve for over 160 different species of birds, from all kinds of terns and gulls to pelicans and pink flamingoes. Hire a pirogue (traditional canoe) and glide through the calm waters all afternoon for some excellent ornithological observation.

5. You can visit an island made from millions of shells

In the south of Senegal, a hundred kilometres from Dakar, Ile de Fadiouth is one of Senegal’s many little islands, set in the ocean between a peninsula and a warren of lush mangroves. But it’s not like the others that dot the Atlantic coastline here – this one is made of shells. The streets are paved with them, the houses decorated with them and the adjoining mini island, housing only the Christian-Muslim cemetery, is entirely made up of them. Take a stroll to the top of the highest mound of shells in the cemetery for a glorious view over the mangroves and azure waters.

Ile de Fadiouth – © Lottie Gross 2015

6. Senegal hosts a famous jazz festival

Each year in May, the sleepy city of Saint Louis becomes overrun with strumming, scatting and singing musicians, ready to set the jazz standard high. The world-renowned Saint Louis Jazz festival has seen some of the biggest names in jazz take to the main stage in the city centre, and plenty of smaller acts performing in various venues around the city. Restaurants, hotels and bars are abuzz with musical excitement at this time of year; walk down the streets and you’ll hear jazz on every corner, whether it’s blaring out from a shop soundsystem or a jam session in someone’s back garden.

7. You can spot enormous baobabs over 1200 years old

Baobabs are everywhere in Senegal: from the national coat of arms to the city centres and the arid countryside. They’re peculiar-looking trees with fat trunks – that can grow up to 25 metres in circumference – and short stubby branches, and they can live for well over a thousand years. They’re a symbol of wisdom and longevity, the fruit is used to make a sweet, deep-red juice drink called bui and the bark makes strong rope. Whether they look as if they’re bursting from the tarmac of a busy city road, or they’re just standing silhouetted against a burning red sunset, baobabs are a bizarrely beautiful sight to be seen throughout the country.

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

It’s fair to say that Bucharest is usually given a wide berth by most travellers eager to reach the country’s more obvious sights, such as Transylvania, but this is a shame. Romania’s invigorating capital has much to commend it.

Beyond the welter of concrete – which in itself has a strange allure – you’ll find wide, tree-lined boulevards, ancient Orthodox churches and monasteries, and a stock of excellent museums. Not to mention a resurgent historic quarter and nightlife that rates among the best in the Balkans. As summer winds down and the heat subsides, there’s no better time to start exploring.

On the Communist trail

It’s hard to escape the fact that Bucharest is comprised of lots of concrete, a legacy of Ceauşescu’s brutal redevelopment project in the 1980s – but that’s not to say it isn’t fascinating. First port of call is the gargantuan, twelve-storey Palace of Parliament, but don’t worry, you only get to see around a dozen or so of its 1100 rooms on a guided tour. The Palace of Parliament lies on the fringes of the Centru Civic, which, although hardly a thing of beauty, is simply mesmerising in its scale.

Otherwise, take a stroll around Piaţa Revoluţiei, which is where the drama unfolded in December 1989 as Ceauşescu’s command began to crumble; the centre of the action was the former Communist Party Headquarters, a Stalinesque behemoth.

Museums galore

Bucharest’s premier cultural institution is the Village Museum, one of the finest open-air museums in the Balkans, the highlight of which are the iconic wooden churches from Maramureş. Whilst here, take the chance to escape the ferocious summer heat with a stroll around Lake Herăstrău.

Second only to the Village Museum is the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, whose displays of colourful peasant artefacts offers a wonderful insight into Romanian rural life.

Art fans won’t want to miss the National Art Museum, whose collection of Romanian Medieval art is truly outstanding, as is the modern art section, featuring national heavyweights Brancuşi and Grigorescu, among others. Close by, the lush Cişmigiu Gardens are the perfect spot for lazing away an hour or two.

Home-cooked dishes and inventive eats

Bucharest’s culinary scene is finally on the move. Top dog at the minute is The Artist, a super-smooth establishment that can rate marvellously inventive dishes like marinated octopus with salted lemon sorbet and black garlic. Fabulous homestyle cooking is the order of the day at Beca’s Kitchen, whose genial proprietor, Beca, delights in chatting with customers. There’s much fun to be had at Caru’ cu bere, a rousing, German-style beer-hall where you can chow down on mititei (grilled sausages) and tochitură (pork stew).

Coffee culture

While it can’t boast the grand coffee houses of, say, Budapest or Vienna, coffee culture has hit Bucharest big-time in recent months. Your first stop should be Origo, whose baristas really do know their beans, as do the folk at Tucano, a bohemian-style hangout occupying a grand old villa just north of the centre; their cheesecake is the best in the city. For a bit of outdoor coffee action, head to Café Verona, a sprawling, tree-shaded garden attached to the brilliant Carturesti bookshop.

The place to party

These days the best place to party is the Old Town, whose narrow, cobbled streets are packed cheek-by-jowl with good-time party places. A cracking all-rounder is Bordello, where you can variously enjoy live music, cabaret, burlesque, or just kick back with a good old-fashioned pint. Biutiful, meanwhile, is an uber-cool industrial-style space frequented by Bucharest’s beautiful people, naturally. Another place worth seeking out is La 100 De Beri, which, as the name suggests, stocks 100 beers – enough said.

Away from the Old Town, the shores of Lake Herăstrău offer enticing possibilities, not least at Fratelli, a thumpingly-fine venue where you’ll find the very best local and visiting DJs.

Romanian wine is something of an unknown quantity, but a number of bars have emerged recently, the most convivial being Abel’s, a small, laid-back kind of place in the Old Town where you can discover any number of local vintages.

This is the Old Town by Jake Stimpson (license)

Cool kips

Airport hotels are generally fairly unexciting places, but the VI Hotels angelo Airporthotel Bucharest, just a stone’s throw from the runway, bucks the trend. Warm, welcoming and super-colourful throughout, it also possesses a first class restaurant.

Bucharest’s most historic, if not its most glamorous hotel is the Athenee Palace Hilton, which for years functioned as a hotbed of espionage and intelligence – the rooms themselves are supremely comfortable.

Inauspiciously tucked away on a quiet residential street, Christina is a cool, eco-driven residence offering rooms in four colour schemes, each with ergonomically-designed beds and strip lighting, plus neat touches like Nespresso machines.

Festival Fun

The city’s premier event is September’s George Enescu Festival, three weeks of world class music in honour of Romania’s most celebrated composer; this year the line-up will feature the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the London Symphony Orchestra – most concerts take place in the stunning surrounds of the Romanian Atheneum.

Wizz Air has regular flights from London Luton to Bucharest. 

Tucked away in the far northeast corner of the Netherlands is the erstwhile Hanseatic city of Groningen. Dripping in history, this charming provincial capital with bubbling arts scene is awash with green spaces, cultural attractions, fine restaurants and gabled houses reflected in the miles of scenic canals. Gilly Pickup explores this little Dutch gem. 

Groningen is sometimes referred to as the most Italian city north of the Alps and it can’t be denied that Italian architects have left their mark. Fine examples of of this are all around from Alessandro Mendini’s Groninger Museum and the Waagstraat Complex by Adolpho Natalini, to the public library by Giorgio Grassi.

One in five residents in Groningen is a student, and with this comes a flurry of bicycles and bells on the streets. The centre is almost car-free with a network of cycle paths and bus lanes and plenty of cycle parking. There’s little wonder that Groningen has the highest quality of life ranking in the Netherlands and 97 percent of inhabitants say they are satisfied with living here.

Groningen by Arnooo (license)

Something special on every street corner

There are a score of brilliant museums for those with a lust for learning. The Grafisch Museum is for anyone who loves typefaces and scripts, bookbinding and every printing technology under the sun. Better still, many of the old presses and graphic machines are still in working order.

There is the University Museum too, which describes itself as ‘a museum for man, nature and science’. If you like all that’s gory, you’ll love the torso which was frozen then sawn into sections, plus the blackened lung – bound to make smokers think again.

Meanwhile the Groninger Museum, an oddly shaped modernist structure which may not be to everyone’s taste, houses archaeological finds, portraits of prominent Groningers from days of yore and examples of regional arts and crafts including Groningen silver.

Groninger Museum © Gilly Pickup

Brilliant views and historic pews

Standing 97m-high, the Martinitoren (or Martini Tower – named after the city’s patron saint, St Martin) has kept a watchful eye on the city for more than five hundred years. If you want to hoof it to the top you are rewarded by views that are riveting from all angles. Locals refer to the structure as ‘d’Olle Grieze’ meaning the ‘Old Grey One’ due to the colour of the weather beaten sandstone.

A church of the same name, Martinikerk, was where – or so the story goes – pilgrims in the middle ages came to view a relic, the arm of John the Baptist. There again, several different locations lay claim to portions of John including Jerusalem, Alexandria and Bulgaria, while Damascus, Rome and Munich say they have his head.

The Martinikerk’s organ has its own true claim to fame. It dates from before 1450 and is one of the Netherlands’ oldest musical instruments.

Fun festivals and Europe’s largest pub

When fifty percent of the population is under 35 years old you can expect great nightlife. Nightbirds should head for the Grote Markt – the Great Market – where the whole of the south side has morphed into a huge bar complex.

De Drie Gezusters (The Three Sisters) is Europe’s largest pub. It holds 3750 people and is made up of four connected buildings which house around twenty bars. Jazz fans might want to indulge their passion at the De Spieghel in Peperstraat, while funky folks will like the Buckshot at the Zuiderdiep, open till 3am most days.

Eurosonic © Marketing Groningen

Groningen has countless festivals too. The Noorderzon is a summer highlight where over eleven days the town attracts an extra 130,000 people who come to enjoy this celebration of music, dance, visual arts, multimedia and theatre. In the second week of January, more than 250 pop acts descend on town for the Eurosonic Noorderslag festival which showcases Dutch musical talent.

Groningen has several ‘coffeeshops’, some are set up like a full service café that just happens to sell cannabis and allows patrons to smoke it. Although some also sell space cakes, pastries with the drug baked into them, alcohol is not served in any of these coffee shops and rather incongruously, smoking (normal) cigarettes is frowned upon.

The quirky and the quaint

In a narrow cobbled street close to a canal there is a public urinal. Granted, this isn’t your usual tourist attraction, but this particular facility is not only functional but also decorative. Designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, this look-at-me public loo is a work of art, its milky coloured glass decorated with blue and black figures.

Another unusual building is the Wall House on the banks of the Hoornsemeer. It has come to be recognised as an icon for Groningen. A thick wall is its central feature while the entrance and living elements are literally attached to it. Its current function is to house artists in residence.

Wall House © Marketing Groningen

Then there are the almshouses, more than thirty of them. Hidden behind ornate wrought iron doors, these clusters of dwellings once provided shelter for the poor and sick. The fifteenth century St Geertruidsgasthuis has two courtyards and was originally where pilgrims stayed. The bars on some windows are reminders that part of the building was once a mental home where on Sunday evenings, patients were exhibited to the public in exchange for a fee.

Visitors can take guided walks through the inner courts of these almshouses but remember don’t peer through the windows; nowadays these are private houses.

Gilly Pickup travelled with Stobart Air in conjunction with Flybe who operate a daily service between London Southend and Groningen from £34.99 one way. Explore more of the Netherlands with the Rough Guide to the NetherlandsCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Think of Hong Kong and what image comes to mind? Crowded streets? Skyscrapers? A forest of neon signs?

Filmmaker Stephane Ma wants to challenge your preconceptions. In this beautiful three-minute film he uses drones to put the city in perspective, sweeping above the central high-rises and out over the beaches and mountains in a series of magical dawn and daytime shots.

“I made this video because I wanted to show a different side of Hong Kong”, he says, “[to show] how beautiful it is is and how it’s actually really easy to escape this hectic city and end up surrounded by nature just minutes from all these skyscrapers.”

He couldn’t have succeeded better: his film is our pick of the week.


Hong Kong from above from Stephane Ma on Vimeo.

Explore more of Hong Kong with the Pocket Rough Guide to Hong Kong and MacauCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

In a country where censorship rules, few people gave the idea much of a chance. In little more than a decade, however, the 798 Art District, which occupies a former military zone on the northeastern edge of Beijing, has grown to become a genuine creative hub for contemporary art.

The story begins in the 1950s, when huge brick factories were thrown up around the Chinese capital to help satisfy the army’s growing demand for communications technologies. When manufacturing techniques moved on, these Bauhaus-style buildings were left abandoned.

By the early 2000s artists had moved in, attracted by low rents and the high-ceilinged spaces that gave them room to work on, and show off, their paintings and sculptures. With few other places for local artists to express themselves, and the empty factories effectively a blank canvas, news began to spread.

Today, the vast 500,000-square-metre complex teems with bookshops, galleries and art stores. Bright sculptures (think lipstick red and lime green) add colour to the traffic-free streets, while hipsters from Beijing, Shanghai and beyond rummage through trailers stacked high with ceramics and old cameras, searching for souvenirs.

It’s hard to spot much in the way of politically charged art, though you might glimpse the odd cartoonish doodle of a tank or gunman, and the shops do a good line in “Obamao” T-shirts.

Away from the glossy commercial galleries, multimedia installations and corporate-sponsored exhibitions, though, there are still traces of the area’s edgier beginnings. Old factory walls shimmer with graffiti, and lone photographers snap at the handful of tumbledown industrial buildings and rusting pipelines that have yet to be torn down or redeveloped.

On its journey from niche art hangout to major tourist attraction – a transition that has caused rents to spiral, and thus priced out many artists – the district has picked up its share of critics. But then, if an art district like this wasn’t bringing in the money, it might not have been tolerated for so long.

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Unexpected sums up the Florida Keys. Just one road, the Overseas Highway, connects these long, narrow islands, strung out between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. With names as varied as No-Name Key, Fiesta Key and Fat Deer Key, this coral cay archipelago has North America’s only coral barrier reef, indigenous Key Deer and protected mangroves. It’s a world away from the Florida of theme parks. Here are a few reasons why you should visit this laidback island chain.

1. To meet the turtles

Spanky, Gonzo, Calico Jack and, erm, Jaws might be your favourite holiday encounters. These rescued turtles, often injured by discarded rubbish, boat strikes or victims of turtle cancer, are among the residents at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Named by the person who found them, these adorable creatures are even listed as ‘current patients’ on the hospital’s website. Visitors are taken on an hourly guided tour – the get-better pools, ‘rescue, rehab and release’ ethos and pure turtle love which permeates the place has most people captivated.

Hatchling by Florida Fish and Wildlife (license)

2. To take relaxation one step further

As if the Keys aren’t chilled-out enough, anyone seeking another level of bliss can practise yoga on a paddleboard or meditate on a kayak. It’s thanks to Sarah Sullivan, who’s combined a psychology degree and background in mental health with her yoga and aquatic skills to create Serenity Eco Therapy. Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and kayaking are lovely ways to explore the quiet backwaters even without the yoga, but you can’t beat a downward dog in the silence of the mangroves.

3. To get a fix of island community culture

There’s a real sense of community in the Keys, and the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District on Islamorada is one example. This six-block corridor between the Green Turtle Inn and the Hurricane Monument was inspired by local artists who wanted to create an arts space with galleries, restaurants and businesses. One newcomer is the Florida Keys Brewing Co, the first and only microbrewery in the Upper Keys, producing and serving craft beers in a very cool venue with furniture and murals designed by local artists. The monthly ArtWalk (third Thursday of the month) is the best time to visit because everyone stays open till late for an evening of local art, food and drink.

IMG_0232 by Zach Petersen (license

4. For the chance to cook your catch

Turning up to a restaurant with a piece of freshly caught fish and asking the chef to cook it may not always be the ‘done thing’, but it’s pretty standard in the Keys. Novices and keen anglers alike can enjoy a day at sea before feasting on their prized catch later. Some fishing trips operate under a strict catch-and-release policy – no good if you want Nemo for dinner – but several companies such as SeaSquared Charters, Chelsea Charters and Bud N Mary’s will keep your catch bagged and fresh.

5. To celebrate sunset – every day

Sunset is such a big deal in the Keys, it has its own website. The daily sunset celebration is testament to the fact that Key Westers love a party and they’ll celebrate no matter how big, or small, that ball of orange is in the sky. Come sundown and it’s happy hour in Mallory Square which packs out with food carts, street performers, artists and psychics. For others, it’s simply about sitting on the water’s edge waiting for the daily spectacle over the Gulf of Mexico. For a crowd-free version, head out to sea on Danger Charters’ Wind and Wine Sunset Sail.

6. For a taste of the Floribbean

That’s not a made-up word. The influence of the Caribbean on this archipelago isn’t all that surprising – after all, Key West is closer to Cuba than Miami. Food is king – it’s hard to emphasise just how much so. From tiny cafés to upscale restaurants, the buzzword is fresh and the reigning style Floribbean. Coconut, citrus fruits, mangos and papaya make a regular appearance in dishes and expect to see those key limes in more than just pies.

7. For the festivals

The fact sunset is celebrated every day tells you something – these locals love a party and the Keys’ festival calendar is packed. There’s Hemingway Days in July, marking Ernest’s time in Key West, with lookalike contests and a marlin tournament, a nod to his love for deep-sea fishing, and Marathon Seafood Festival and Key Lime Festival for the foodies. Most flamboyant of all is Fantasy Fest, a 10-day party in October with outrageous costumes, floats and a 2015 theme of ‘All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show’…

8. To visit a micro-nation…

It all kicked off in 1982. Amid concerns over immigration and drug-smuggling, US border control set up a roadblock between the Keys and the mainland. The restrictions annoyed many locals, leading to Key West’s mayor proclaiming, “Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!” Enter the ‘Conch Republic’, passports and all. It’s tongue-in-cheek but each April, a week-long celebration in Mallory Square marks ‘independence’ with parties and parades. The tagline, ‘We seceded where others failed’, says it all. The sense of humour and independent thinking makes the Keys so lovable.

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