Snow-white beaches, giant coconut-eating crabs and karate-loving grannies: Okinawa is Japan but not as we know it. This alluring chain of sun-kissed, hibiscus-draped islands offers a blend of Southeast Asian heat, unique ‘un-Japanese’ culture and delicious, life-extending food. Andy Turner explores how to make the most of a trip to Japan’s subtropical paradise.

Find the elixir of (long) life

An hour’s drive north of Okinawa’s sprawling capital, Naha, the village of Ogimi is famous across Japan for having the most centenarians (people over 100 years old) in the country. In fact, you’re barely considered middle-aged when you hit 80 here.

This could all be down to the local diet: steaming bowls of dark green vegetables, tofu, fresh fish and muzuku seaweed, the latter hoovered up from the Okinawan seabed and exported across Japan. Or perhaps it’s the knobbly goyu cucumber, apparently packed with all kinds of medicinal goodies (and often served up fried with SPAM, of all things).

Whatever the secret, it’s probably no thanks to the local hooch, awomori, ‘island sake’ which can pack a 60% alcohol punch. But that shouldn’t stop you sampling a glass – try the smooth, three-year aged version from local distillery Chuko Awamori.

Image by Andy Turner

Learn to be a karate kid

Not only are people incredibly long-lived in Okinawa, chances are they’re also handy in a fight. Karate was invented here in the seventeenth century (80s movie buffs may remember a certain Mr Miyagi was Okinawan), and you’ll see young and old heading to the local dojo every week (though perhaps not catching flies with their chopsticks).

Okinawan karate is less about flashy moves and more a way of life – the ‘why’ more important than the ‘how’ as they put it. Enthusiasts can arrange lessons with an experienced sensei (instructor). Alternatively drop in to Naha’s Dojo Bar, to lap up the martial arts memorabilia and an ice-cold Orion beer.

Image by N i c o l a on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Kick back on Japan’s answer to Hawaii

Okinawa is often dubbed the ‘Japanese Hawaii’, and the comparison seems apt when you head to the outer islands or jima. With over 130 to choose from it’s tricky to pick out a favourite but Aka-jima (in the Kerama islands), a short if bumpy ferry ride from Naha is hard to beat for sheer beauty. Once the boat departs, you’re left with the sound of waves gently lapping against white sand and the scent of Ryūkyū pines in the sea breeze; you might even spot an elusive Kerama deer taking a dip.

For classic white-sand and emerald water eye candy you’ll need to hop on a plane to Ishigaki, part of the Yaeyama group of islands, 400km southwest of Naha. Here Kabira Bay is as close as Japan gets to Boracay or Waikiki Beach, with only half the level of commercialisation. There’s even a gloriously unpretentious hostel which makes for a tempting place to wake up.

Image by Visit Okinawa

Seek out some strange wildlife

The further you travel from the Japanese mainland Okinawa’s wildlife gets progressively weirder. On Hatoma in the Yaeyamas, huge armour-plated coconut crabs, up to a metre across, lumber past traffic to mate in the sea. A short boat ride away on Iriomote, tiny wild boar, half the size of their mainland cousins, roam the beaches snaffling up turtle eggs, while inland a rare miniature ‘leopard’, the Iriomote cat, prowls the forest.

Image by Visit Okinawa

Explore an ancient empire

Gliding into Naha, aboard the sleek airport monorail, you could be forgiven for thinking that not a single building survived World War II (the city was devastated during the US assault on Okinawa in April 1945). Yet hidden amongst the utilitarian modern architecture are several reminders of its heyday as the capital of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū.

An independent state sandwiched between Ming dynasty China and feudal Japan, Ryūkyū developed its own culture and language, before finally being annexed by the Japanese in the nineteenth century.

The influence of its neighbours can be seen at Shuri Castle, painstakingly rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, vermillion Chinese pagodas and ornate dragons stand side-by-side with minimalist Japanese rooms kitted out with tatami mats. Look up and you’ll spot shīsā or ‘lion dogs’, glaring down from the roof. This uniquely Okinawan mascot can be seen warding off evil spirits and typhoons across the islands.

Image by Yusuke Umezawa on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

See an underwater Atlantis

Diving is excellent across Okinawa (check out our rundown of the best sites) but the most intriguing is off tiny Yonaguni, an edge of the world kind of place, within binocular-spotting distance of Taiwan. As well as being a hotspot for hammerhead sharks, it’s also home to a mysterious series of ‘ruins’ that resemble a mini Atlantis. With giant sandstone terraces and steps seemingly cut out by hand, it’s tempting to believe this was the work of an ancient civilization and not just a quirk of geology.

Image by Inside Japan

Andy Turner travelled with Inside Japan who offer a twelve-night island hopping trip to Okinawa as well as specialist itineraries for karate and diving enthusiasts. For a video taster of the islands see Be Okinawa.

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

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

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

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

More underwater attractions across the world

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

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

Image by Ratha Grimes on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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

Go Buggy Rollin, France

Buggy, what? Yes, that’s right: Buggy Rollin. It’s a relatively new adventure sport in which each participant wears a full body suit covered in wheels and stoppers – a bit like a PowerRanger – and then hurtles face-first down a bobsleigh track at speeds of up to 100km/h. Weird, wonderful and a little insane – but we love it. Try it at the Beton on Fire festival in La Plagne in the French Alps.

Highline above a canyon, USA

Like a giant spider’s web, a network of slacklines link one side of a canyon to another. At the centre of the net (dubbed the ‘Mothership Space Net Penthouse’ by its creators) is a hole through which base-jumpers drop while highliners perch on one-inch wide pieces of string slung 120m above the ground. The venue is the Moab Desert in Utah, USA, where these extreme sports nuts meet annually to get their kicks.

Ride the world’s steepest rollercoaster, Japan

Get ready to scream as your carriage slowly makes its vertical ascent before plummeting at 100km/h down the world’s steepest rollercoaster drop – a hair-raising 121 degrees in freefall. Takabisha is the newest rollercoaster at the Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Yamanashi, Japan, and is enough to put the wind up even the bravest of fairground thrillseekers.

Wing walk in the UK

In 1920s America, flying circuses travelled the country to promote aviation. Their ‘barnstorming’ pilots performed stunts like rolls and loop-the-loops while wing walkers wowed the crowds with their dangerous acrobatics on the wings of tiny biplanes. You can have a go at wing walking in Yorkshire in the UK, where, despite being fully kitted out with safety harness and parachute, none of the thrill has been lost.

Free dive in the Bahamas

In 2010, William Trubridge broke the free-diving record when he descended to a hundred metres on a single breath at Dean’s Blue Hole. It’s the world’s deepest salt-water blue hole, which is a kind of underwater sinkhole that opens out into a vast underwater cavern. Learning to free-dive in its turquoise waters is a remarkable experience, especially as the coral caves are teeming with sea life, from tropical fish and shrimps to seahorses and turtles.

Go volcano boarding in Nicaragua

It’s a steep one-hour climb up Cerro Negro, an active volcano in northwest Nicaragua. From the rim you can look down into the steaming crater, then hop on your board. The way back down takes only about three minutes: surfing or sliding, carving up pumice and coating your skin in a layer of thick black dust. Messy, exhilarating and oh so fun!

Climb cliffs without ropes, Ethiopia

The only way to access Tigray’s rock-hewn medieval monasteries is by foot, but they are high up in the Gheralta Mountains and there are no ropes to help with the climb. Visitors must traverse a narrow ledge and free-climb up a vertical rock-face. The rewards, however, are plentiful: grand views across a wide rocky landscape, striated pinnacles of sandstone and the fascinating painted interiors of the ancient churches.

Edgewalk at CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

The EdgeWalk at CN Tower in Toronto, Canada, is the world’s highest external walk on a building. Small groups that venture out onto a 1.5m-wide ledge that circles the very top of the tower are encouraged to dangle hands-free off the side of the building, 356m above the ground, trusting completely in the safety harness.

Explore the world’s largest cave, Borneo, Malaysia

You’ll soon find out if you suffer from bathophobia – the fear of depths – as you enter the Sarawak Chamber, the world’s largest cave by surface area. Beneath Gunung Mulu National Park in Borneo, an underground river channel takes you deep into the cave network. When you finally arrive at the Sarawak Chamber, the size of the space is hard to comprehend: at 150,000 square metres, the chamber is large enough to house forty Boeing 747 aeroplanes. You’ll feel very small indeed.

Base jumping from Angel Falls, Venezuela

Ever fancied jumping off a vertical cliff in a wingsuit? If so, you should head to Venezuela’s Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall and one of the most magnificent locations to take part in this extreme sport. Just getting here is an adventure. The 979m-high falls are located in a remote spot in the Guiana Highlands, accessible by riverboat and a trek through the jungle.

Bungee jumping from the Verzasca Dam, Switzerland

Like James Bond in the film Goldeneye, you too can leap from the world’s highest stationary bungee platform. The Verzasca Dam (or Contra Dam) in Switzerland is a 220m-high hydroelectric dam near Locarno, which holds back a reservoir containing 105 million cubic metres of water. For an extra adrenalin rush, try jumping at night.

Cliff diving at La Quebrada, Mexico

Leaping from the top a cliff into choppy seas below is a popular daredevil pursuit worldwide, but in La Quebrada, Mexico, it’s so dangerous that it’s best left to the professionals. With one swift movement, each diver soars high then gracefully turns and dives, hitting the water just as it surges up the gorge.

Flyboard in France

The sight of people hovering up to three metres above water is slightly futuristic, especially when they start flipping, spinning and diving whilst attached to what looks like a giant vacuum cleaner tube. Don’t be alarmed, this is flyboarding – a new watersport invented in 2011 by French jet-ski champion Francky Zapata, and it’s (literally) taking off around the world. A good place to try it is at La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic Coast.

Camp out in bear country, Wyoming, USA

Ah the Great Outdoors. If wild camping in a remote spot sounds idyllic, then Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA, could be for you – unless you don’t fancy your chances against grizzly bears in search of dinner… In fact, there is only about one bear attack in the park each year so your chances are pretty good, but you’ll need nerves of steel to lie all night in a flimsy tent whilst listening for bear-like rustling outside.

Swimming in Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls, Zambia

Daring swimmers can bathe in this natural infinity pool just inches from the world’s highest waterfall: Victoria Falls in Zambia. Lie against the edge of the precipice and watch the Zambezi river cascade into the canyon 100 metres below, obscuring the view of the rainforest beyond with clouds of mist. This exhilarating swim is only possible in the dry season (May–October) when the waters are low enough for the natural pool to form.

Abseil from Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

Extreme sports professionals regularly fling themselves from South Africa’s famous flat-topped mountain, but now mere mortals can have a go too. The world’s highest commercial abseil starts at 300m above sea level from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. On the 112m descent, look around you – if you can – at the spectacular view over the beaches and bays of the city’s glittering Atlantic coast.

Skydive over Mount Everest, Nepal

There can be no adrenalin rush quite like it. Free-falling from 29,000ft above Mount Everest in Nepal, will literally take your breath away – not just from the thrill of the jump but from the extraordinary view of the world’s highest mountain. Unfortunately, this once-in-a-lifetime experience comes with a high price tag: tandem jumps with Everest Skydive start at $20,000.

Cycle Death Road, Bolivia

This is said to be Bolivia’s scariest road. The Yungas Road is a narrow track, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, with a sheer drop on one side and a vertical rock face on the other. Heavy-goods trucks used to plough along it – and frequently off it – but now only thrill-seeking cyclists hurtle down the 64 kilometre route from the snowy mountains to the rainforest below.

You can’t expect to fit everything Southeast Asia has to offer into one trip – or two or three or four, to be fair – and we don’t suggest you try. So, to help you start planning, we’ve put together 8 ideas for your Southeast Asia itinerary from The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.

For those taking a big, extended trip around the continent you could join a few together, but remember that the distances you’ll be covering can be vast. Plus, there’s lots to discover off the beaten track.

For a complete guide to exploring the region and up-to-date recommendations of the best hotels, hostels, activities and more, buy the full guide here.

1. Vietnam

Start in colonial streets of Hanoi (1), the country’s historical, political and cultural capital. Go for a sail around the famed natural wonders of Ha Long Bay (2), before heading to the northern hills to the ethnic minority villages orbiting Sa Pa (3).

Take the train down to imperial architecture of Hué (4), make a day-trip to the DMZ, then move south to charming Hoi An (5). Nha Trang (6) is Vietnam‘s pre-eminent beach party town, whereas Mui Ne (7) offers great water-sports and sandy coasts with a more laidback vibe.

Da Lat (8) is your gateway to the Central Highlands, but if you’re still craving sea and sand the island of Phy Quoc (9) is a haven for beach bums and divers. Float down lush canals in the Mekong Delta (10), and finish your trip in bustling Ho Chi Minh City (11).

2. Myanmar

Kick off in Yangon (1) for street markets and the glorious Shwedagon Paya, then go to Mawlamyine (2), Myanmar‘s third largest city. Catch a boat to Hpa-an (3) before visiting one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country, Kyaiktiyo (4).

Kalaw (5) is a perfect base for treks to ethnic-minority villages, and traditional life at Inle Lake (6) shouldn’t be missed either. Watch the sunset over Mandalay (7), then soar in a hot-air balloon over the awe-inspiring temples of Bagan (8).

Stroll the botanical gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin (9) before taking the train ride across the Goteik viaduct to Hsipaw (10), an increasingly popular trekking base.

3. Laos and Cambodia

Begin with the unmissable two-day trip down the Mekong River from Houayxai to Luang Prabang (1), the city of golden spires. Then its off to the stunning natural playground of Vang Vieng (2), before venturing to the country’s quaint capital, Vientiane (3).

Enjoy the pretty French-colonial lanes of Savannakhet (4) and explore the Khmer ruins of Wat Phou near Champasak (5). Set course towards Si Phan Don (6) to chill out for a few days in one of the four thousand islands scattered across the Mekong River. Catch a mini-bus to Cambodia for river dolphin watching in Kratie (7), or laze riverside in relaxed Kampot (8).

An easy bus ride takes you from Phnom Penh (9) to  Siem Reap, where the world-famous temples of Angkor (10) beg to be explored. But if you’re feeling a little travel-worn afterwards there’s no better place to kick back than the beach resort and offshore islands of Sihanoukville (11).


4. Bangkok and Northern Thailand

After immersing yourself in Bangkok, Thailand’s frenetic and thriving capital, chill-out among the rafthouses and waterfalls of Kanchanaburi (2).

Rent a bicycle to explore the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya (3) and then make for the elegant temple remains in Sukhothai (4). To break free of the tourist route head to isolated Umphang (5), where the surrounding mountains are perfect for trekking.

Chaing Mai (6) is always a backpacking favourite, but an amble through the arty night markets and excellent live-music bars of Pai (7) shouldn’t be missed either.

5. Thailand’s Beaches and Islands

Commence among the old-world charms of Thailand‘s Phetchaburi (1), then take a trip to the paradisiacal islands of Ko Tao (2) and Ko Pha Ngan (3) for raging moon parties or a detox.

Trek through the jungle in Khao Sok National Park (4) ­– one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet – and as you move further south, consider a stop in the slightly ugly tourist village of Ko Phi Phi (5) for undeniably fun all-night parties, snorkelling and diving.

Continue south to the relaxed island getaway of Ko Lanta (6), before winding this itinerary down in the pockets of paradise still remaining in Ko Lipe (7) and the stunning Ko Tarutai National Marine Park nearby.

6. Singapore and Malaysia

Singapore (1) is an easy introduction to Southeast Asia with its array of tourist-friendly pleasures. But move on to Melaka (2) for a fascinating mix of cultures and an ideal first stop in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur (3) is a must, and the cooling heights of the Cameron Highlands (4) will provide refuge after the bustle. Relax on the beaches of the Perhentian Islands (5) then make for the rainforests of Taman Negara National Park (6), before catching a ride on the jungle railway to Kota Bharu.

Attractive Kuching (7) is an ideal base for visits to the Iban longhouses, and a journey along the 560km Batang Rajang (8) river into the heart of Sarawak is unforgettable.

Nature and adventure buffs alike will love Gunung Mulu National Park (9), Kinabalu National Park (10) and the wildlife outside of Sandakan (11). Finish this itinerary among the teeming marine life of Pulau Sipadan (12), one of the top dive sties in the world.

7. Indonesia

There’s plenty to discover by starting in Sumatra’s Bukit Lawang and Danau Toba (1), the famous orang-utan centre, soaring volcanoes and island retreats among them.

Take time to explore Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta (2), before moving on to Java cultural heart: Yogyakarta (3), the best base for the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Take a pre-dawn hike up to the crater rim of still-smoking Gunung Bromo (4), adventure the many wonders of Hindu Bali and hop over the Lombok (6) and the Gili Islands for adventures in paradise.

Enjoy close encouters with Komodo dragons in Komodo and Rinca (7) before heading to the mountainous landscapes of fertile Flores (8). Finish up on Sulawesi, immersed in the flamboyant festivals and fascinating culture of Tanah Toraja (9).

8. The Philippines

Start by soaking up the compelling energy of Manila (1), a convenient gateway to some of the country’s more inaccessible areas.

Check out the shipwrecks and prehistoric landscapes of Palawan (2), before you pass through Cebu city (3) on your way to Camiguin (4), a small volcanic island home to a bohemian arts scene and some amazing adventure activities. 

Surfers flock to the acclaimed reef breaks of Siargao (5), while the captivating sunsets and limited electricity at both Malapascua and Bantayan (6) typifies island living at its best.

Boracay (7) also shouldn’t be missed, home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and nightlife rivalling Manila. Conclude this itinerary in the cool mountain villages of the Igorot tribes in the Cordillera (8), nestled among jaw-dropping rice-terrace scenery.

Featured image by Lee Aik Soon.

Renowned the world over for their palm-fringed beaches and spectacular scenery, the ravishing islands of Hawaii poke up from the Pacific more than two thousand miles
 off the west coast of America. There’s nowhere better to get a fix of sun, sea and surf. To help you to get the best out of your trip, this is our pick of the best best beaches in Hawaii.

Oahu

Kailua Beach
Kailua Beach County Park, which fills the colossal main curve of La’aloa Bay, is utterly gorgeous – it’s the prettiest beach on the whole island – and makes an ideal family swimming spot year-round. The soft wide sands slope down into turquoise waters much used by windsurfers and kitesurfers.

Sandy Beach
Avoiding the crowds is not at all the point at Sandy Beach, half a mile south of Kailua Beach, where the shoreline flattens out between Koko Crater and Makapu‘u Head. Kids from all over Oahu meet up here most weekends for the best body-surfing and boogie-boarding in Hawaii; Barack Obama famously remains a devotee. This is also one of the few places on the island where the waves remain high enough in summer to tempt pro surfers.

The Big Island (Hawai’i)

Hāpuna Beach
With its gentle turquoise waters, swaying palm groves, and above all its broad expanse of pristine white sand, Hāpuna Beach, just north of Waialea and a total of six miles north of Mauna Lani, has often been called the most beautiful beach in the United States.

Punalu‘u Beach
Punalu‘u beach is the largest black sand beach on the Big Island. Black sand is a finite resource, as it’s only created by molten lava exploding on contact with the sea, and at any one spot that happens very rarely. Even those beaches not destroyed by new lava usually erode away within a few years. Each time the coastline of Punalu‘u Bay gets redrawn, however, its black sand washes in again, piling up to create a new beach. At the moment it’s gorgeous, a crescent of jet-black crystals surrounding a turquoise bay and framed by a fine stand of coconut palms.

Green Sand Beach
Green sand beach, a couple of miles northeast of Ka Lae, doesn’t quite live up to its name. It is a beach, and it is greenish in a rusty-olive sort of way, but if you’re expecting a dazzling stretch of green sand backed by a coconut grove you’ll be disappointed. The only reason to venture here is if you feel like a hot, shadeless, four-mile hike along the oceanfront, with a mild natural curiosity at the end. Without great expectations, and on a rain-free day, it’s worth the effort.

Maui

Oneola Beach
Maui’s most spectacular sweep of golden sand stretches for over half a mile south of the landmark cinder cone of Pu‘u ‘Ōla‘i, just south of Mākena. There’s not a building in sight at Oneloa Beach (literally “long sand,” and widely known as Big Beach), just perfect sands and mighty surf, backed by a dry forest of kiawe and cacti.

Kanahā Beach County Park
Kanahā Beach County Park shallow, choppy turquoise waters are ideal for novice windsurfers, who come from all over the world to swirl back and forth against the backdrop of ‘Īao Valley and the West Maui mountains.

Lanai

Shipwreck Beach
Lanai’s northern shoreline, however, is more commonly known as Shipwreck Beach, because countless vessels have come to grief in these shallow, treacherous waters; the coast is littered with fragments, while two large wrecks remain stuck fast a few hundred yards offshore.

Molokai

Kepuhi Beach
Although the Kaluako‘i Resort was positioned to enable guests to enjoy the long white sands of Kepuhi Beach, located directly in front of the Kaluako‘i Hotel, it’s only safe to swim here on calm summer days. Like most of the beaches of western Molokai, however, it looks fabulous and is ideal for sunset strolls.

Pāpōhaku Beach
Pāpōhaku Beach, long of 2,5 miles, is one of Hawaii’s broadest and most impressive white-sand beaches. It’s so huge that for many years it was quarried for sand, much of which was used to build an other beach in Honolulu, on Oahu.

Kauai

‘Anini Beach
All the way along, the beach is paralleled out to sea by one of the longest reefs in the state. Coral reefs take millions of years to form, so it’s not surprising that Hawaii’s largest are in the oldest region of its oldest island. This one shields an expanse of shallow, clear turquoise water that offers some of the North Shore’s safest swimming. Snorkelers and scuba-divers explore the reef; if it’s calm enough, you can peek at the huge drop-off beyond its outer edge. Other than during winter surf, the Kauai‘s only area to avoid is around the outlet of the ‘Anini Stream at the western end, which is plagued by treacherous currents that sweep out through a gap in the reef. The inshore area is a good place to learn to windsurf, but surfing and boogie-boarding are largely precluded by the jagged coral where the waves break.

Kalalau Beach
Kalalau Valley, the largest of the Nā Pali valleys at almost a mile wide and two miles deep, is home to Kalalau beach. To access it isn’t an easy task, bathers will first have to become hikers and to borrow Kalalau trail. After 10 miles they will finally deserve to discover Kalalau’s lovely white-sand beach. The only beach along the trail to retain its sand year-round, this nonetheless varies greatly with the seasons. In winter it’s a narrow shelf little more than 100 yards long, while in summer enough sand piles up for you to round the tumbled boulders and continue west for half a mile.

Explore more of Hawaii with the Rough Guide to the USA. Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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

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

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

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

Matangi Island Resort

Best for romance: Matangi Island Resort

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

www.matangi island.com; from US$950

Best for luxury: Vatulele Island Resort

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

www.vatulele.com; from US$1800

Image courtesy of Fiji Beachhouse

Best for backpackers: Fiji Beachouse

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

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

Best for divers: Dolphin Bay Divers Retreat

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

www.dolphinbaydivers.com; from F$65

Plantation Island Resort

Best for families: Plantation Island Resort

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

www.plantationisland.com; from F$465

Best for eco-adventure: Tui Tai Adventure Cruise

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

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

 

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

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

Tenby’s famous Boxing Day Dip, Pembrokeshire

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

Bare all at Rocken End, Isle of Wight

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

Wild swimming in the Thames, Pangbourne

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

paul.mcgreevy via Compfight cc

Crummock Water, the Lake District

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

London Fields Lido, Hackney

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

North Sea swim, Sunderland

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

Not the Santa Swim, Brighton

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

Paignton Walk in the Sea, Devon

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

Loch Ness, the Highlands

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

The Prestwick Boxing Day Dip, Ayrshire

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

Run and Swim, North Norfolk

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

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

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. 

While researching the Rough Guide to Bali & Lombok, Jeroen van Marle took some time out to explore an underwater shipwreck in east Bali.

We waded into the warm sea from the black sand beach, slipped on our flippers, did a last safety check and then dived down. Our dive master Wayan had only led our small group of divers along the gently sloping seabed for a minute or two when the massive hull of the Liberty shipwreck came in sight, taking my breath away. The 125-metre long wreck is still reasonably intact, with towering metal beams reaching from the huge cargo bay towards the glistening surface, and colourful fish swarming all over and around it.

In the shallow waters just off the beach of Tulamben village, near Amed in east Bali, the Liberty wreck is one of Asia’s best dive spots. The US Army cargo ship was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942, then towed towards Singaraja harbour in northwest Bali but sank near Tulamben and was beached in order to save the cargo. Liberty lay there until the violent 1963 eruption of Bali’s Gunung Agung volcano caused her to slide back into the sea, where it now hosts an incredible variety of sea life.

Swimming through the holes in the wreck, we spotted hundreds of resident reef fish, and plenty of larger fish from deeper down visiting for a snack. With some luck you see herds of huge humphead parrotfish grazing on the Liberty’s coral in the early morning, but there are reef sharks, turtles, rays and many other species too.

“There are so many fish that sometimes you need to push them aside to see the wreck,” explained John Huxley, enthusiastically pawing imaginary fish away with his hands. Huxley is the Canadian manager of Eco Dive, the first dive centre to open in Amed in 1997. “By now, generations of fish have grown up with divers around, so they’re quite fearless and allow you to get very close. The Liberty is great for snorkellers too, as the upper parts lie just below the surface.”

East Bali’s other main centre for snorkelling and diving is Padang Bai, a busy village that’s also the main port for car ferries and fast boats to neighbouring Lombok island. Cedric Saveuse of  the French/British-run Geko Dive says that Padang Bai is the perfect place for underwater adventures. “The diving and snorkelling is excellent here as we can reach most sites in under ten minutes, the coral is in good condition and there’s a surprising amount of sea life, including tiny pygmy seahorses, whitetip reef sharks, turtles and great macro diving, focusing on small creatures. East Bali is great for offering a lot of surprises on land too.”

Padang Bai’s village beach is crowded with fishing and tourist boats, but out along the headlands and in the deeper ferry channel there’s excellent diving. A short walk away across the headland, the tiny Blue Lagoon beach has colourful coral and large numbers of fish in the shallows, so that children too can safely snorkel here.

roaming-the-planet via Compfight cc

The region is little visited when compared to the bustling resort towns around Kuta near the airport in the south of the island, but it’s gaining recognition as a place to take it easy, see living traditions and take in the beautiful landscapes. The diving scene here is still very low-key, relaxed and affordable, certainly when compared to other Asian dive areas.

A number of factors makes diving around Amed and Padang Bai especially good. The black volcanic sand absorbs the light and makes colours stand out for underwater photography enthusiasts. The deep trench between Bali and Lombok supplies the coast with a constant current of cooler, nutrient-rich water, benefiting corals and plankton-eating sea life, and flushing out pollution and river sediment. East Bali also has a very good variety of shallow reefs and steep dropoffs, most of them with only moderate currents, making the area suitable for divers of all levels.

astio via Compfight cc

East Bali is also best positioned for day trips to Nusa Penida island, where Manta Point and other dive sites rank as the best in the world, albeit only for very experienced divers as the weather and currents can be treacherous. Besides manta rays, large sharks and huge mola-mola sunfish, the heaviest bony fish in the world, can be seen here.

After having dived the Liberty wreck, Wayan took us a few hundred metres east along the coast to explore the Tulamben Wall dive site. There was nobody else on the beach as we waded in, and our slow drift dive in clear visibility along the vertical cliff revealed yet more stunning underwater wildlife. As we swam back to shallow waters, we passed dozens of spotted garden eels, sticking their heads out of their sandy burrows and swaying in the current. I waved back to the eels, determined to return for underwater adventures.

Jeroen van Marle updated the eighth edition of Rough Guide to Bali & Lombok, out on 1 October 2014. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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