During ten days living on a boat, drifting around the Raja Ampat islands, Andy Turner finds more than just a diver’s playground in Indonesian West Papua.  

“Ladies and gentlemen we have begun our descent to Sorong”. Flicking up the airline window blind I’m greeted with an almost comical vision of paradise. Pink candyfloss clouds part to reveal tropical islands straight out of King Kong, each crowned with a mohican of swaying palms and fringed with bleached white sand. To the east sunlight breaks over the mountains of Papua New Guinea, to the west stretch the fabled spice islands of the Moluccas while below me lies my destination, the reefs of Raja Ampat.

Translating as “the Four Kings”, this quartet of craggy limestone lumps sprinkled off Indonesian West Papua form a kind of marine Galapagos. Packed with unique creatures – among them walking sharks and pygmy seahorses – it’s the most diverse underwater ecosystem on the planet, with over 1700 species of fish (compared with just 300 in UK waters) and 600 types of coral. Unsurprisingly it’s on every diver’s bucket list and I’m giddy with excitement to be arriving here in early January.

Raja Ampat has some of the world’s healthiest reefs. Photo: Jay Monney

Home for the next ten days is a luxury liveaboard confidently named the WAOW, an acronym for “Water Adventure Ocean Wide” – though they should have just gone for “OMG!”. Anchored off Sorong, she resembles the love child of the Black Pearl and an oligarch’s mega-yacht: 190ft of stunning Borneo ironwood and canvas sails pimped up with five-star comfort and state of the art scuba kit. Mooring alongside I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickling.

The three-masted WAOW sets sail from Sarong. Photo: Jay Monney

A nut-brown, tattooed figure grabs me by the elbow and pulls me on deck. “Bienvenue!” he says, welcoming the other guests, all of whom happen to be Swiss or French. I start to worry my schoolboy Francais won’t survive the trip but fortunately Jay and wife Kay, our cruise directors, are fluent in seven languages from English to Thai. We meet the crew and our dive guide, Hawe – 5ft nothing of bouffant hair and giggling enthusiasm – and have the three essentials pointed out: there’ll be 3-4 dives per day, free wine with dinner and “please don’t fall overboard”.

After a morning watching dolphins dancing in our wake we reach Blue Magic, our first dive site. Splashing in off the side I’m reminded of why I learnt to dive in the first place. The reefs here simply look like reefs should look – pulsing with fish and irridescent with colour. Having blown gigabytes of camera memory within a couple of days, I’m soon searching for a Safari style “Big Five”: giant mantas, grey reef sharks, the not-so-big pygmy seahorses, schools of barracuda and the “walking” epaulette shark which drags itself across the ocean floor on its fins. Amazingly, these are ticked off by day five, a testament to Hawe’s eagle eyes and Raja’s sheer vitality.

Schooling barracuda. Photo: Jay Monney

Back on board, time passes in a lazy sequence of mealtime bells, dive briefings and hammock snoozing. Exploring the ship’s library I find Alfred Russell Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago which describes the very same “jutting limestone pinnacles and azure depths” that drift by outside. I realise that little has changed here since the 1850s. Thanks to its remote location there are barely half a dozen small scale dive resorts, with most visitors cruising through on a liveaboard like ours. Eventually the Francophone atmosphere begins to rub off and I’m soon saying “plongeur” rather than “dive” and have adopted “requin!” for “shark!”. Somehow the language of Monsieur Cousteau seems appropriate.

On day six I wake up with a head clogged with cold. Having swallowed enough Sudafed to knock out a whale shark, I decide it’s best to stay above water for a while and commandeer the ship’s kayak. Annoyed to be missing the day’s diving, my mood quickly improves when I find half a dozen baby reef sharks darting beneath me in a lagoon. Dragging the craft onto a beach, I narrowly avoid crunching several hermit crabs wrestling in the sand. Above me neon-green honeyeaters flit in and out of the razor-sharp karst cliffs.

It turns out travelling by kayak makes you something of a curiosity, and I’m soon chatting to a pair of fishermen who paddle past in a canoe weighed down with Spanish mackerel. They invite me to a game of volleyball and a drink on nearby Arborek Island. Despite my notebook overflowing with underwater superlatives it’s this encounter that sticks longest in the memory – laughing curly-haired kids posing for photos and the taste of fresh coconut juice, cut from the nearest palm tree.

Children on Arborek Island (and beach image above). Photos: Steve Woods

Thanks to a combination of traditional know-how and some help from NGOs like Sea Sanctuaries the people of Arborek and Raja’s other islands have made sure they can pass on a stunning natural inheritance to the next generation. Turning back toward Sorong and my flight home I can’t help echoing Alfred Russell Wallace: while the WAOW, like Wallace’s Victorian steamer is “one of the highest results of our civilization”, like him, I’m inclined to rate the simple luxuries of a kayak almost as highly.

Original Diving offer trips to Raja Ampat year round and aboard the WAOW from October to April. From autumn 2014 flights are available from London Gatwick via Amsterdam to Jakarta with Garuda Indonesia. From Jakarta flights connect to Sorong, departure point for dive cruises, via Makassar on Sulawesi. 

Many of the popular island destinations in this part of the world boast golf course resorts and beautiful beaches, but Bermuda has so much more than the standard things to see and do. While many of the activities can be enjoyed year round, Bermuda’s sub-tropical climate means that May to September is when the island is liveliest, so here are ten of our favourite things to do in Bermuda beyond the resorts.

Get your bearings from above

To really get a sense of where you are – a low lying paradise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – a trip up Gibb’s Hill lighthouse is the place for the best views of this 21 square mile archipelago, as well as a unique place for lunch. The oldest cast iron lighthouse in the world started sending its beacon out to ships in 1846 to help reduce the number of wrecked ships scattered on Bermuda’s ocean floors.

Jump inside the ocean playground

With so much of Bermuda’s life extending beyond the land, it’s only fitting that getting in, on, or under the ocean is a must. This clear blue underwater world is full of colourful fish and beautiful coral reefs – the reefs that often caused the shipwrecks in the first place. The 300 shipwrecks surrounding the island are very popular with divers, but you don’t have to be a diver to enjoy them; some are in shallow waters, so can still be appreciated by snorkelers, and the fish and reefs can be easily reached from shore in places like Tobacco Bay.

Go whale watching and glowworm spotting

Although it’s possible to see whales and worms from shore, a boat excursion is much more likely to provide an unforgettable sighting and is a great reason to get out on the water.  March and April are the months to see humpback whales on their annual migration from warm southern waters, while the glowworms’ flashy mating ritual happens from May to October.

Walk underwater with the wildlife

Hartley’s Undersea Walk is a unique and unmissable experience and has amazed everyone from the seasoned diver to the cynical teenager. Ever seen a wild angelfish swim through a hoop? Well Greg Hartley will introduce you to Diana, who can do just that. You can also meet Charles the Hogfish, Jack the Grouper and many more using a specially designed helmet that allows you to walk on the seabed without need for an oxygen tank or any diving experience.

Take a light-hearted history lesson

History was never as entertaining as it is in the World Heritage Site of St.George’s, where from May to September a historical re-enactment takes place in Kings square. The amusing performance led by the town crier sees an eighteenth century wench receiving her (somewhat sexist) punishment for gossiping and nagging her husband: a chilly dunking in the harbour.

Pay your respects at St. Peters Church

The oldest Anglican Church outside the British Isles, you enter this historic building on some wide steps, opening to its cool cedar interior. Be sure to pay respects, as it’s a working Christian church – and has been continuously for the last 400 years – and remember that you are likely walking over some long-deceased bodies buried underneath the main structure. Queen Elizabeth II herself visited during her Diamond Jubilee and granted it the title “Their Majesties’ Chappell”

Witness traditional dance with the Gombeys

You’ll hear them before you see them; a heart-pounding drumbeat pierced by whistles and finally a burst of wild and colourful fringes, feathers and fancy footwork. These masked-folk dance troupes represent a tradition passed down through families and date back to the dark slave times.

Catch the buzz at market nights

Market nights are a seasonal treat in St. Georges, Hamilton, and Dockyard for tourists and locals alike. Stall tables are laden with local handicrafts and the wealth of Bermuda’s talented artists present their work, which is inspired by the beauty that surrounds them daily. Music plays, children’s faces are painted, and it’s a likely place for the traditional Gombeys to make an appearance.

Go underground in the caves

The Crystal and Fantasy caves were discovered over a century ago by a couple of boys looking for their lost cricket ball. Stalactites, stalagmites and an underground lake make this an intriguing peek into the belly of the island.

Peer into the past at the Maritime Museum

The nineteenth century Royal Naval Dockyard offers many attractions including the Maritime Museum. The Commissioner’s House Slavery Exhibit is an officially Designated UNESCO Slave Route Project, while other displays and maritime artefacts offer a glimpse into the history that shaped this place.

”Swizzle in; swagger out” of the pub

The motto of Bermuda’s oldest and most famous pub hints at the experience awaiting those who enter. Established 1932 in a seventeenth century roadhouse, the Swizzle Inn at Baileys Bay is a cheerful jumble of business cards and graffiti garnished walls. The home of the islands’ unofficial national drink, the Rum Swizzle, also serves the best nachos on the island.

Finally, relax on the beach

Of course, no visit to Bermuda would be complete without some beach time, especially after the exhausting array of activities on offer above. The sugar-soft pink beaches that rim the island are a major attraction, and Horseshoe bay with its lifeguards and beach facilities is the most popular for people watching, swimming and an overall great beach day.

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It’s taken him from the deserts of Oman to the stunning Amalfi coast and the edges of Australia – Orlando Duque is a Red Bull cliff diving champion and lover of all-things travel. At the beginning of this year’s championships, we grilled him on his favourite destinations for diving.

Having started out as an Olympic diver, Orlando told me it was only natural that he progressed onto throwing himself off of various cliffs and structures around the world. Not only is he possibly the coolest man I’ve ever been fortunate enough to chat with – and it’s not just his smooth Colombian accent, I swear – but Orlando Duque’s list of countries could probably put many a travel writer to shame.

“I’ve just come back from Cuba… We were diving in El Moro, the castle in La Havana, it was just beautiful,” he casually tells me. “[There] was like, 50,000 people watching”. Tomorrow he’s going to jump off of a navy ship in Colombia, and then he’s on to Texas in the US to plunge into some lakes – all in a day’s work I suppose. But I’m not at all jealous; beyond the excitement of travelling and exploring new places, cliff diving is a dangerous and terrifying sport and even he gets scared at times.

See Orlando in action in Cuba:

When I asked him about the heights he admitted that there’s a limit, even for him: “Whoever says he’s not scared of heights is not telling the truth. It’s a natural reaction, you know.

“Even two days ago, I was diving in Cuba and I was standing up there and I’m scared. I know it can be really dangerous, if I make a mistake I can get injured, so yeah, I think I’ve been afraid and I am still afraid of heights.”

Height and technique aren’t the only obstacles he’s had to overcome during his career though, one of his latest pursuits saw him jumping from a 38-metre-high tree into the deep, murky waters of the Amazon.

“You don’t know what’s down there” he says. “I had to react and get out of the water because it’s not comfortable being there knowing there are so many animals in there. There are anacondas and piranhas pretty much everywhere.”

See Orlando cliff diving in the Amazon:

It’s not all about the diving though – when he’s not plummeting into some watery abyss, Orlando tells me he likes to spend time in Paris with his wife, and how he fell in love with Ireland.

“I really like Ireland. I’ve been there four or five times… I just love it, it’s just fun. It’s beautiful, the places to see, even if the weather can be tough sometimes. I really enjoy it. And I love Italy. I’ve had the chance to be everywhere in Italy, you can find all those little towns where you can just stop and have a coffee and pizza and have a good afternoon.”

I wonder if there’s anywhere that’s left for him to explore or launch himself from and so he tells me his future plans.

“I’m going to do [a dive] in the Antarctic, I’m finding that probably not this summer but next, and you know, it has be about a month trip to make sure that you have enough time to make everything, but that’ll be the coolest thing I’ve ever done probably.” While I could make temperature-based puns all afternoon, I bid him farewell over the phone as he has to head off for rigorous training.

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Yangzi, China

River cruises down China’s most important and largest river, the Yangzi, are an increasingly popular tourist attraction. Highlights on the route include the breathtakingly scenic Three Gorges area, now also known for its huge hydroelectric dam, which generates a staggering amount of electricity each year.

Cahabón, Guatemala

Transparent, turquoise water, bubbling cascades and pretty waterfalls are the trademarks of the Cahabón River in eastern Guatemala. But it also has a more active trick up its sleeve – it’s a great spot for whitewater rafting, with punchy rapids and drops churning the water into creamy torrents and challenging even the most experienced of rafters.

Loire, France

A justly deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Loire valley in central France is blanketed in prestigious vineyards, blossoming orchards and spectacular châteaux. It’s also carved by the longest river in France, the lovely Loire, which sweeps its way past tumbledown villages and glorious cities like Angers and Blois, beneath lofty bridges and alongside rolling fields.

Kenai, Alaska

A pristine meltwater river in southern Alaska, the Kenai is a paradise for fishermen – and particularly those who like their fish big, in the form of Chinook (aka King) salmon or Rainbow Trout. September is the best month to catch large silver salmon, while red beauties are typically hooked in the summer months and pink ones are abundant every other year.

Zambezi, Africa

Thundering down from a height of 108m, Victoria Falls is the honey-pot portion of Africa’s fourth largest river, the Zambezi. As well as providing fish for the 32 million-strong population who live in the region, the river is a lifeline for an enormous variety of wildlife such as hippopotamuses, crocodiles, giraffes and elephants.

Mississippi, USA

The good ol’ Mississippi has long been a vital commercial waterway, and from 1820–50, was chock-a-block with tiered steamboats chugging cotton, food, tobacco and timber down its sleepy flow. These old boats have now been replaced with more modern vessels, but the river continues to be a major commercial focus, servicing the important port of New Orleans.

Yarra, Australia

Australia’s Yarra River is in the southeastern state of Victoria, and the buzzing metropolis of Melbourne was established upon its banks in 1835. Victim of logging, widening and manipulating – not to mention extensive mining during the Victorian Gold Rush – the river takes on a brown, silty hue once it hits Melbourne, however in its origins north and east of the city, the water is clearer and the surroundings decidedly more bucolic.

Nile, Egypt

Say the word, “Nile”, and images of the Egyptian desert, pyramids, and pharaohs come to mind. And indeed, the ancient Egyptians owe their remarkable civilization to the mighty river and its fertile basin. But in actual fact, only 22 percent of the Nile flows through the country, the rest covers 10 others including Tanzania and Kenya.

Thames, United Kingdom

England’s second longest river, the Thames flows through the capital, London, as well as smaller towns such as Oxford, Henley and Windsor. It provides drinking water for much of southern England, and is a focal point for recreation, dotted with houseboats, fishermen and rowers, and hosts the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Amazon, South America

The Amazon River dominates a large portion of South America, spreading its thick tentacles through Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Often called “The River Sea”, it can reach up to around 48km wide in the wet season, and at the Atlantic Ocean mouth it’s a staggering 240km across. The most famous fishy resident is the carnivorous piranha; the nasty Red-Bellied species is known to attack humans.

Congo, Africa

The deepest river in the world, Africa’s Congo River (previously known as the Zaire) is generally acknowledged to be the backdrop to Joseph Conrad’s dark and disturbing novella, The Heart of Darkness. Cutting through thick rainforest, the river is home to a varied wildlife including crocodiles and turtles.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Dubbed the “River of Five Colours”, Colombia’s Caño Cristales is reckoned to be the most beautiful river in the world. Once a year (September–November), the moss-like macarenia clavígera plant flowers a deep and brilliant red on the riverbed, and is mesmerizingly offset by the sandy yellows, blues, blacks and greens of the river’s rocks, banks and foliage.

Colorado, USA

The arid Arizona desert is ruthlessly sliced by the magnificent Colorado River, which wiggles its way in a series of dramatic sweeps and bends from its source in the Rockies through to its end in the Baja California delta. Rust-red canyons, yawning gorges, roaring whitewater rapids and thundering waterfalls make up the incredible scenery on the river’s course.

Danube, Europe

So famous it’s got a waltz named after it, the “Blue Danube” has long been Europe’s main waterway, linking west to east from Germany via Austria and Hungary to Romania and Ukraine. It’s a favourite for cruises, passing quaint chocolate-box villages, magnificent cities like Budapest, and ubiquitous rolling green countryside.

Mekong, Southeast Asia

Framed with lush jungle vegetation and soft mountains, the Mekong runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Taking a slow boat from Houayxai to Luang Prabang in Laos is the ultimate Mekong experience; the gentle two-day journey enables travellers to absorb the stunning landscapes and local culture.

Verzasca, Switzerland

Scuba divers just love the Swiss Verzasca river in Italian-speaking Ticino for its intensely clear, emerald-green water. Trickling over striated rocks in the upper reaches, the river soon reaches the Verzasca Dam (aka Contra Dam), a favourite bungee jumping site that appeared in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye.

Volga, Russia

The Big Momma of Europe’s rivers, the Volga zips through central Russia and is claimed by its occupants as a national symbol. Dotted with huge reservoirs, crossed by colossal bridges and home to pelicans and flamingos in some stretches, it flows north of Russia’s magnificent capital city, Moscow.

Futaleufú, Argentina and Chile

Glacier till makes up the Futaleufú river, which is why it’s so gorgeously clear and gorgeously blue. Starting in Argentina and traversing the Andes into Chile, the river is currently a hotspot for whitewater rafting and kayaking, though a hydroelectric dam has been proposed by the Chilean government, which may put paid to those incredible frothy rapids.

River Ganges, India

The most famous Indian river with the most densely populated basin in the world, the Ganges is also sacred within the Hindu religion, worshipped as the goddess Ganga. Hindus honour their ancestors by dousing their backs with the river water, and float offerings such as rose petals, flowers and oil. To bathe in the Ganges is a fulfillment of purity in many Hindus religious life.

One of the lesser-known but largest in the Maldives, the Huvadhu atoll is home to a bounty of marine life. Away from the resorts and honeymooners, Annie Biziou van Pol enjoys a spectacular display of rays, turtles and reef sharks as she dives in the southern part of this collection of islands.

Ibrahim unfurls a faded map of the Maldives and murmurs in his southern Dhihevi dialect. I follow his finger in the torchlight as it traces over the page. “Maybe here,” he says, pointing to a spot, a thumb’s width from the edge of the map, where we’ll head for our first diving excursion.

We’re exploring the Huvadhu atoll, which is just above the equator and one of the largest in the Maldives. It’s split into two territories marked in faint ink on our map: the northern Gaafu Alifu and southern Gaafu Dhaalu. It already feels worlds apart from North Malé atoll, that region full of resorts and sun-seekers so familiar from the tourist brochures, but Ibrahim wants us to travel even further. The place he points out is far from the string of fractured shapes that makes up the Huvadhu atoll.

The short internal hop down to Kaadedhdhoo airport in Gaafu Dhaalu is relatively painless when paired with such a view from the window: tiny islands spill fauna onto shores strewn with a thousand shells, untouched by the blueprint of a designer retreat. The palest jade rings mark lagoons, set with sun-scorched sand banks, edges sculpted by the currents of the Indian Ocean

Of the 1192 coral islands across these 26 atolls, just 200 are inhabited, which becomes clear when exploring the deep south. We set sail before sunrise and see nothing for miles but the outline of a dhoni – a traditional wooden fishing boat – drifting on the horizon.

We cut through mirror-still ocean at dawn, accompanied by a pod of spinner dolphins. They leap from crested waves at the bow, each stunt outdoing the next, before their cobalt fins melt into the depths. Suddenly, there are shouts from the crew. “Manta! Manta!” We spot the odd one flapping of their wings in the distance and plunge in with our gear on, straining to see through the swell of plankton.

Miraculously, the Huvadhu atoll escaped shifting ocean patterns associated with a destructive warm current, El Niño, that bleached miles of Maldivian reef in 1998. It is a veritable sweetshop for underwater aficionados, with scores of healthy coral islets and undiscovered dive sites. It’s rare to pass another boat here, let alone spot another tourist.

Beneath the waves, staghorn coral reaches skyward alongside delicate sea fans. Silvered needlefish graze the surface and schools of neon fusilier and skittish blue-stripe snapper dart across the reef. Angelfish drift by in pairs, clownfish snuggle into anemones and lionfish guard rocky lairs. Black and white tip reef sharks patrol the shadows while spotted boxfish hover above clouds of sand thrown up by feasting parrotfish. Sea turtles circle overhead, soaking their ancient shields in equatorial sunshine.

Like the most graceful of eagles, a manta ray glides towards me, a blur of mottled skin and contracting gills. It skims the surface; scooping plankton into a gaping mouth and descending daringly close, fixing me with uncertain, rotating eyes, before disappearing silently into the abyss. Another colossal creature appears, and then another: prehistoric, belittling and majestic all at once. Spellbound, I watch five noble manta rays linger for several minutes, swooping and spiralling, before they fade into darkness.

The lack of tourists willing to make the trek south means manta ray and whale shark encounters here are both enthralling and authentic. The season for large pelagic fish tends to run between May and September, but the Maldives is a year-round dive destination. As a general rule, visibility and marine life is ideal on the western side of the atoll between May and November, and better on the eastern side between December and April.

I spend the evening aboard our vessel, reeling from the day’s dive, and the following morning the sun rises quickly, staining the skies pastel pink and casting a golden, ethereal glow upon the distant islands. A few miles off-coast, Ibrahim coaxes us into the water again. It is choppy and, very deep. I peer downwards at rays of light beaming through sapphire tones. “There’s nothing here”, someone shouts indignantly. Ibrahim gives a wry smile and leans over the rungs. “Ah but there is,” he whispers, “here, we are precisely above the equator, and there is nothing but you and the Indian Ocean for miles.”

Where to dive in the Maldives

Top spots include Vadhoo Thila and Maarehaa Kandu for heart-stopping shark sightings, while Nilhandhoo Kandu and Ekefaru Kandu are frequented by ocean giants such as shimmering barracuda, big-eye trevally and mammoth jackfish. At the northernmost tip of Gaafu Alifu, a deep interior lagoon boasts astonishing macro life on scattered coral gardens and Hithaadhoo Nature Reserve shelters nesting turtles.

Liveaboards cruising the barrier islands take the seasons into account, promising varied itineraries. For the truly daring, MV Sea Queen operates a shark departure designed to spot some of 26 species dwelling in the southwesterly channels of Gaafu Dhaalu such as tigers, hammerheads and threshers. M/Y Duke of York and its sister boat M/Y Conte Max run deep south journeys that span the whole atoll, taking in channels, caves, and pinnacles.

Explore more of the Indian Ocean with the Rough Guides destinations pages, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Original Diving offer a variety of liveaboard trips throughout the Maldives, including set departures and private charters taking in the southern atolls.

Packed with coral reefs, abundant tropical fish and an assortment of World War II wrecks, there is something for every diver in the Red Sea. Yet if you go to many of the popular offshore sites you can find them swamped with dive boats, while below water there can often be more divers than fish. Thankfully, there’s far more to the Red Sea than Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. Join a dive and camel-trekking trip organized by Sinai-based Embah Safari and you’ll be taken to some of the less well-known areas along the coast, such as the Nabq Managed Resource Protected Area, which has excellent diving and can easily be reached from the shore.

At the small coastal village of Dahab you spend the first day getting back into the swing of diving; an easy shore dive to Eel Gardens and then a more technical dive to the Blue Hole. After that you’ll head to Ras Mohammed National Park – Egypt’s only national park, which hosts Napolean wrasse, butterfly fish and turtles. Early the following morning, the real dive safari begins: you pack your belongings onto a camel and trek north for four days along the coast of Nabq towards Dahab, camping overnight with Bedouin in the desert. You’ll dive two to three times a day at various rarely visited locations – including reef tables and walls, mangroves and seagrass beds – under the experienced eye of local dive masters. Along the way you’re likely to see rays, sea horses and a huge variety of coral and brilliantly coloured fish. But best of all, there will hardly be another dive boat in sight.

Dahab is close to Sharm El-Sheikh (1hr) and Taba (2hr). Taxi transfers can be arranged when you book. For itineraries, prices and reservations see www.embah.com; +20 69 3641 690. Tours can also be booked through UK-based Baobab Travel (www.baobabtravel.com; +44 (0) 121 314 6011). Because of the desert trekking, it’s best to avoid July and August. Group sizes are limited to twelve divers maximum and no more than six divers can be in the water at the same time. You will also undergo proper buoyancy checks to avoid overweighted divers damaging the reefs.

 

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Waitomo Caves, New Zealand

Waitomo sits on a veritable Swiss cheese of limestone, with deep sinkholes and beautifully sculpted tunnels all lit up by ghostly constellations of glow worms. As you ride in a dinghy across an inky underground lake the green pinpricks above your head resemble the heavens of some parallel universe.

Coober Pedy, Australia

In the virtually waterless outback, in searing temperatures and extreme terrain, the underground people of this town have created the “opal capital of the world”. The name Coober Pedy stems from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrow” and here homes, museums, opal shops and even art galleries all exist beneath the surface.

Cango Caves, South Africa

A quarter of a million visitors come to Oudtshoorn each year to gasp at the fantastic cavernous spaces, dripping rocks and towering columns of calcite in the Cango Caves. The awesome formations here are the work of water constantly percolating through rock and dissolving limestone on the way.

La Ville Souterraine, Canada

Winter in Canada is extreme and canny Montréalers have created the largest underground city in the world in order to avoid the cold. Since the 1960s, 33km of connected passages have spread to provide access to the Métro, major hotels, shopping malls, thousands of offices, apartments and restaurants and a good smattering of cinemas and theatres.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, USA

This surreal 83-square-mile park in southern Idaho arose from successive waves of lava pouring from wounds in the earth’s crust for over a millennium. The caves are damp, pitch black and silent, but where rocks have collapsed bright sunlight floods in to reveal the secrets of the underground.

City Hall Station, USA

This New York City subway station opened to great fanfare in 1904 but is today eerily silent. The architectural grandeur of the disused station – stained glass windows, skylights and brass chandeliers adorn its curved walls and arched ceilings – can only be viewed by passengers as train #6 loops back uptown or at occasional events like this Centennial celebration.

Yucatan’s cenotes, Mexico

The limestone shelf that forms the Yucatan Peninsula is riddled with sinkholes called cenotes. The most stunning are enormous deep wells of turquoise water set in dramatic caverns and considered by the Maya to be gateways to the underworld.

Puerto Princesa Underground River, Phillippines

A guided boat tour beneath low-lying limestone cliffs and through vast unlit sepulchral chambers is an unforgettable and magical experience. This unique underwater river system is said to be the longest in the world and is visited by more than five hundred thousand tourists each year.

Reed Flute Cave, China

Named for the reeds once found outside the entrance, this natural limestone cave is a brightly lit magical fairyland with impressive stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations. This reflective pool in the heart of the cave makes for a breathtaking spectacle.

Mary King’s Close, Scotland

Spooky tours led by costumed actors explore the warren of underground streets and spaces beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Tenements had been built on the steep hillside and when work on the City Chambers began in 1753, the tops of existing houses were simply sliced through and the new building constructed on top.

Ajanta Caves, India

Hewn from the near-vertical sides of a horseshoe-shaped ravine, the caves at Ajanta occupy a site worthy of the spectacular ancient art they contain. The remarkably preserved murals, carvings and sculpture dating from 200 BC to 650 AD are considered masterpieces of Buddhist religious art.

Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey

Located in a rain-washed basin in Southern Cappadocia, this extensive ancient underground city contains family rooms, communal areas, stables, churches, wine and oil presses, chimneys to bring fresh air, wells to bring fresh water, a school complete with study rooms, and even makeshift tombs. Thousands of people could retreat behind stone doors to safety.

Catacombs of Paris, France

Tourists can wander through miles of claustrophobic, dark and damp caves, tunnels and quarries said to hold the bones of around six million Parisians. Lining the gloomy passageways, long thigh bones are stacked end-on, forming a wall to keep in the smaller bones and shards, which can be seen in dusty, higgledy-piggledy heaps behind.

Cheddar Caves, England

Beneath the towering Cheddar Gorge in the southwest of England, the Cheddar Caves were scooped out by underground rivers in the wake of the Ice Age. Today the vast caverns are floodlit so that visitors can gaze upon beautiful stalagmites, stalactites and rock formations mirrored in glassy pools.

Kverkfjöll Glacier Caves, Iceland

Lurking beneath Iceland’s stark interior is a frighteningly active volcano whose intense heat melts ice from the base of the glacier. The tunnels and caverns etched by the rivers are enthralling frozen palaces that stretch for over 2km and are best explored with an experienced guide.

Capuchin Ossuary, Italy

This macabre attraction beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome displays the bones of more than 4,000 friars who died between 1500 and 1870 in elaborate and ornamental designs along the walls.

Casemates du Bock, Luxembourg

Beneath the northeastern corner of Luxembourg City’s old historic district, the vast network of underground passages and chambers here are a clear legacy of the country’s strategic position within Europe. Now a World Heritage Site, what remains of the underground ramparts is eerie, claustrophobic and utterly fascinating.

Grotto di Nettuno, Sardinia

Reached either by boat or by 656 vertiginous steps carved into the face of the cliff, these stunning natural caves became a popular tourist attraction after being discovered by fishermen in the eighteenth century. Stalactite and stalagmite formations and a saltwater lake are highlights inside.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Placed on the original UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978, this astounding underground mine not far from Kraków is visited by more than one million tourists each year. Nine levels have more than 300km of galleries with works of art, altars, and historic and religious figures sculpted in the salt.

Grotte de Pech Merle, France

Original prehistoric cave paintings can be viewed close to the village of Cabrerets in southwest France. The astonishing rock art depicting bison and mammoths was discovered in 1922 and short of inventing a time machine, this is the closest you’ll get to the mind of Stone Age man.

There’s few better ways to spend a holiday than getting wet. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some of the best water-based holidays around the world. So whether it’s kayaking with sharks or snorkelling with turtles, give one of these experiences a try and let us know how you got on…

Snorkelling “The Rift”, Iceland

Few places on Earth can match Silfra for snorkelling. The setting is unique, a fissure crack running between the American and Eurasian continents, its precise location changing with the shifting of the plates each year. But it’s the water – or more accurately, the stunning clarity of the water – that makes this site remarkable.

Silfra has arguably the finest visibility anywhere in the world. Crystal is cloudy in comparison. The temperature helps, hovering at around 3°C, as does the water’s glacial purity – it takes two thousand years to get here, drip-feeding its way through fields of lava. In fact, the combination creates a clarity so intense that people have been known to experience vertigo on entering the water, suspended like astronauts over a gully that seemingly drops away into the very centre of the Earth.

Diving Iceland (www.dive.is) organizes snorkelling trips into Silfra.

Sea kayaking in Prince William Sound, Alaska

Watching glaciers calve while paddling round a frozen margarita of opaque blue water and brash ice is an undoubted highlight of sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Perhaps better still are the opportunities for viewing marine life here. Seals often loll around on icebergs close to glaciers, while sea otters swim in the frigid waters, protected by the wonderfully thick fur that made them prized by the eighteenth-century Russian traders who partly colonized Alaska. In deeper water, look for pods of orcas cruising the waterways in search of their favourite food, seals (no wonder they hang back on the icebergs). You might even spot a few humpback whales, which congregate in small groups and breach spectacularly on occasion. Keep a splash-proof camera handy at all times.

Even if you miss out on a great action photo, there is considerable pleasure in just gliding around the generally calm waters of the fjords, where cliffs clad in Sitka spruce and Douglas fir rise steeply from the depths. For full atmospheric effect, stay in a simple Forest Service cabin or camp out on a small beach or at a designated campsite in one of the state marine parks.

Alaska Sea Kayakers (+1 907/472-2534, www.alaskaseakayakers.com), in Whittier, rents sea kayaks and runs guided day-trips and multi-day tours.

Kiteboarding in Cabarete, Dominican Republic

Kiters from around the world come in droves to the broad, archetypally Caribbean cove of Cabarete off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Some never leave, hanging out on the beach in a state of perpetual kite-slacker bliss, like lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Others shuttle in at weekends between stints at investment banking firms and crash at the high-end condos on the edge of town.

And why not? Cabarete’s bay seems engineered by a benevolent god of kiteboarding. Steady trade winds blow east to west, allowing easy passage out to the bay’s offshore reefs and then back to the sand. The offshore reef provides plenty of surf for the experts who ride the waves here, performing tricks and some incredibly spectacular jumps. The reef also shelters the inshore waters so that on all but the roughest of winter days the waters remain calm. Increasingly, the kiteboarding community has left the built-up main village to the windsurfers and retreated west to so-called Kite Beach. Here you can experience Cabarete as it was fifteen years ago, a kiteboarder’s paradise filled with fellow wind worshippers and a lively outdoor nightlife scene, including bonfires along the beach into the wee hours.

The international airport at Puerto Plata is 20km west of Cabarete. All the major windsurfing and kiteboarding equipment manufacturers have schools and equipment rental along the town’s main strip.

Sea kayaking in the Exumas, Bahamas

“Wilderness” is not the first word that springs to mind when someone mentions the Bahamas; rum cocktails, high-rise hotels and limbo contests are the ready images. Yet a short hop from the wall-to-wall cruise ship carnival in Nassau lies the Exuma Cays, a chain of a couple of hundred mainly uninhabited islands stretching for more than 65km along the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Separated by a tranquil sea, the low-lying chunks of honeycombed limestone rimmed by powdery white sand and covered in dense vegetation have seemingly been designed with one mode of exploration in mind: the sea kayak.

The Exuma Land and Sea Park, in the middle section of the cays, makes for an excellent starting point. Your ride begins at dawn, when the mirror-smooth sea takes on a delicate shade of pink. The languid morning hours are spent blissfully dipping your paddle into turquoise waters lit from beneath by sunlight reflected off a brilliant white sandy bottom and brimming with lush undersea gardens, coral reefs and a profusion of tropical fish. At midday, beach your kayak on an inviting swathe of sand and picnic under a palm tree. Snorkel over bright-hued clumps of coral, marvelling at the dazzling colours and patterns of the fish as they dart among the waving purple sea fans.

The main transport hub in the Exuma Cays is Staniel Cay, easily reached from Nassau; for trips departing from Great Exuma, you can fly into George Town from Florida.

Snorkelling with turtles, Bonaire

After months of planning and years of dreaming you’ve finally arrived at a small, uninhabited cay off the coast of Bonaire. Beneath the crystal-blue waters awaits a spectacle unparalleled in the marine world. Immense schools of tropical fish in every conceivable shape, size and colour swim alongside sea turtles and dolphins in and around the most impressive coral and sponge gardens in the Caribbean. The waters surrounding this tiny boomerang-shaped island, 80km north of Venezuela, were made a marine park in 1979.

Once under water you immediately hear the continuous grinding of parrotfish grazing on the algae that grows on top of coral heads. Within seconds, a dazzling spectrum of reef fish comes out of hiding from the delicate stands of soft and hard corals. Schools of brightly coloured butterflyfish, angelfish and damselfish swim in and out of the crevices and between colonies of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Several metres below, purple sea fans and the tentacles of anemones sway back and forth as the swift current pushes you along.

www.infobonaire.com has lots of information on snorkelling.

Kayaking in the Sea of Cortés, Mexico

The remote and ruggedly beautiful Baja coastline has become a favourite destination for sea kayakers – and for good reason. The calm waters of the Sea of Cortés make for easy surf launches and smooth paddling. Hundreds of unexplored coves, uninhabited islands and miles of mangrove-lined estuaries play host to sealions, turtles and nesting birds. Just the shell of your kayak separates you from dolphins, grey whales, coral reefs and over six hundred species of fish as you glide through placid lagoons, volcanic caves and natural arches.

It’s a good idea to keep your snorkelling gear handy – should you ever tire of the topside scenery, you can make a quick escape to an even more spectacular underwater world. Rookeries of sealions dot island coasts, and if you approach them slowly, the pups can be especially playful, even mimicking your underwater movements before performing a ballet of their own. Back on land, as you camp on white sand beaches and feast on freshly made ceviche (citrus-marinated raw fish) under the glow of a glorious sunset, you’ll have time to enjoy some peace and quiet before pondering your next launch.

Tour operators in both Loreto and La Paz offer outfitting, guided expeditions and accommodation, with La Paz providing more rental options for the independent kayaker.

Paddling into secret lagoons, Thailand

The first time you enter a hong you’re almost certain to laugh with delight. The fun begins when your guide paddles you across to the towering karst island and then pilots your canoe through an imperceptible fissure in its rock wall. You enter a sea cave that reeks of bats and gets darker and darker until suddenly your guide shouts, “Lie back in the boat please!” Your nose barely clears the stalactites and you emerge, with your toes first, into a sunlit lagoon, or hong, right at the very heart of the outcrop.

Hong (“rooms” in Thai) are the pièce de résistance of southern Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. Invisible to any passing vessel, these secret tidal lagoons are flooded, roofless caves hidden within the core of seemingly solid limestone islands, accessible only at certain tides and only in sea canoes small enough to slip beneath and between low-lying rocky overhangs. The world inside these collapsed cave systems is extraordinary, protected from the open bay by a turreted ring of cliffs hung with primeval-looking gardens of inverted cycads, twisted bonsai palms, lianas, miniature screw pines and tangled ferns.

Phang Nga Bay covers some 400 square kilometres of coast between Phuket and Krabi. A reputable sea-canoeing trips operator around the bay is John Gray’s Sea Canoe (www.johngray-seacanoe.com).

Sea kayaking around Shark Bay, Australia

The Peron Peninsula in Shark Bay, on the northwest coast of Western Australia, is well known for its regular dolphin visitations, and a beachside resort at Monkey Mia has grown around the spectacle. But there’s much more to this UNESCO-listed reserve than meeting Flipper and the family, and the sheltered conditions make the Shark Bay area ideal for a sea kayaking adventure.

Paddling in a bay named after the ocean’s deadliest predator may sound as sensible as skinny-dipping in Piranha Creek. Sure, there are tiger sharks out in the depths, but the abundant sea life means they’re fed well enough not to bother you in the shallows. Don’t be surprised if before long a green turtle passes under your kayak, followed by rays the size of a tablecloth. And where there are rays there are usually sharks, but only frisky babies less than a metre long, maturing in the shallow nurseries before heading out to sea.

Visit www.sharkbay.org for more information.

Snorkelling with orcas, Norway

As you slide quietly over the side of the boat and put your face in the freezing water, it’s hard to breathe – not just because your teeth are chattering, but also because there, below you in the blue, are six or seven killer whales that seem as curious about you as you are about them. Tell your friends you’re going snorkelling with “killer whales” north of the Arctic Circle in winter and they’re likely to think you’re a few minnows short of a school. But though orcas, as they’re more properly known, have been known to eat prey larger than humans, the ones in northern Norway mainly eat fish.

Prime orca-viewing time is October to January, when migrating shoals of herring lure 600–700 orcas to Tysfjord in northern Norway. You might even have a chance to see them feed. Norway’s orcas have perfected a fishing technique called “carousel feeding”: they herd the unsuspecting herring into a tight ball using air bubbles as a net, slap the ball with their tails to stun ten to fifteen fish at a time, then scoff them one by one. Sure it’s cold, but there’s plenty of gear to keep you warm: dry suit, warm inner suit, mask, snorkel, gloves and booties. And yes, you might feel a tad vulnerable drifting on the surface of the North Atlantic surrounded by a bunch of five-tonne marine mammals. But all that’s forgotten as soon as you spot a dorsal fin breaking the surface – and you realize you didn’t just become dinner.

The local Tysfjord tourist office runs snorkelling safaris between October and mid-January for 1700kr per person. See www.tysfjord-turistsenter.no for more.

Sea kayaking in the Mingan Archipelago, Québec

On the map, the Mingan Archipelago, stretching 150km from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan to Aguanish, looks like a trail of biscuit crumbs scattered in the Gulf of St Lawrence. But from the vantage point of your sea kayak, cruising through the channels that separate this collection of forty uninhabited islands and nearly a thousand islets and reefs, it’s a much different story. First, it’s impossible to miss the tall rock monoliths that guard the bays which, from a distance, look very much like people. Second, much of what you’re paddling around to see actually lurks beneath the surface. The waters here are a feeding ground for the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, as well as for minke, fin, beluga and humpback whales – keep your eyes trained on the horizon, looking for the telltale puff of water vapour blown by a whale as it surfaces.

Beneath your paddles the water is so clear that it magnifies the seabed. Bright orange sea stars, deep red urchins and lime green kelp crust the sea floor, the rock worn into underwater monoliths or crazily paved ledges. As sunset stains the sea pink and purple, you’ll need to pick an island and a beachside campsite. Civilization feels a galaxy away as you laze around the campfire or scramble up a clifftop for a last gaze out at sea, hopeful of spotting a whale silhouetted against the sinking sun.

Expédition Agaguk in Havre-Saint-Pierre (418/538 1588) rents equipment and also provides guides for trips around the islands.

Rafting the Tatshenshini, Yukon

The silt-laden waters of the Tatshenshini River are a paddlers’ paradise, with the most magnificent portion coursing 213km through the heart of the St Elias Mountains, which extend from the southern Yukon across to northern British Columbia and on into the Gulf of Alaska. There’s no shortage of things beaked, toothed and clawed here, and the inevitable sightings and full-on encounters are thrilling: grizzly bears lumber along gravel river beds, hoary marmots scramble up scree slopes and schools of glinting salmon swim in the murky waters below.

Putting in at tiny Dalton Post, Yukon, for the start of a ten-day expedition that ends at Dry Bay, Alaska, you’ll soon be floating through the same territory prospectors did during the late 1800s Klondike gold rush, when the river was a busy thoroughfare. Yet you’d barely know anyone had ever been this way – the whole region remains gloriously untouched, surrounded as it is by Canada’s Kluane National Park, BC’s Tatshenshini Provincial Park, the Yukon’s Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary and the US Glacier Bay National Park. Journeying through these, you’ll pass through steep-sided mountain canyons, negotiate rapids, drift past razor-sharp cliffs and thick stands of pristine wilderness and come within touching distance of 10,000-year-old icebergs – the river system, after all, passes through the largest non-polar ice field in the world.

Tatshenshini Expediting in Whitehorse (867/633-2742, www.tatshenshiniyukon.com) has details on package tours ranging from day-long rafting trips to 10-day expeditions.

 

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The Nile is often associated with bad puns and Egypt, but the world’s longest river actually stretches over ten countries and assumes a variety of identities along its 4,130 mile course. Taking in (deep breath) Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and of course Egypt, it’s a magnificent stretch of waterway full of breathtaking sights and steeped in history.

Hover over this custom Rough Guides map to bring up photos, information and video from across its course. Go rafting in Jinja, see the treasures of Alexandria, and take a hot air balloon over the Valley of the Kings. And head to our Thinglink page for more.

“It’s like being in another world!” may be the most predictable observation following a close encounter with the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s only when you’ve come face to face with the extraordinary animals, shapes and colours here that you realize you’ve truly entered a watery parallel universe. And as a curious thick-lipped potato cod nudges your mask, you might also wonder, “who exactly is watching who?”

The Great Barrier Reef follows Australia’s continental shelf from Lady Elliot Island, in southern Queensland, 2300km north to New Guinea. Its northern reaches are closer to land, so while it’s 300km to the main body from Gladstone, Cairns is barely 50km distant, making this the best place for reef day-trips. Scuba diving may get you more quality time down below, but a well-chosen snorkelling location can reveal marvels no less superb without all the bother of training, equipment and lengthy safety procedures. Though commonly called the world’s biggest life form, the Great Barrier Reef is more an intricate network of patch reefs than a single entity. All of it, however, was built by one animal: the tiny coral polyp which grows together to create modular colonies – corals. These in turn provide food, shelter and hunting grounds for a bewildering assortment of more mobile creatures.

Rays, moray eels and turtles glide effortlessly by, while fish so dazzling they clearly missed out on camouflage training dart between caves to nibble on coral branches, and slug-like nudibranchs sashay in the current. It all unfolds before you one breath at a time, a never-ending grand promenade of the life aquatic.

For more information, visit www.greatbarrierreef.aus.net. For snorkel tours, try www.seastarcruises.com.au.

 

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