Not for those without a head for heights: Rough Guides editor Ros Walford conquers one of the cliffs of the Metéora. 

This is no ordinary day. I’m dangling by a rope from a vertical rock face in mainland Greece. All around me are towers of sandstone, jutting from a wide plain – carved by water and wind and transformed by earthquakes. High up on top of these rocks sit ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries, the barely accessible homes of monks since around the ninth century AD, while cliff-side caves mark the former homes of lone hermits. When I’m not grappling with my carabiner, I’m gazing open-mouthed at the scene around me. There’s no doubt about it, the Metéora is one of the most extraordinary climbing destinations in the world.

What makes the Metéora so special?

It’s a strange and captivating landscape. I’m here in spring, while it’s lush and green, daubed with pink blossom and the air smells of fresh herbs. At sunset, the great rock pillars stand out, silhouetted against a hazy golden sky, while a soundtrack of crickets welcomes the night.

Image by Mark Dozier/Visit Metéora

The name Metéora means “suspended in the air”, which refers not only to the remarkable geology of this UNESCO Heritage site, but also to the monasteries that seem to float above it all. It’s also an extremely peaceful place (away from the coachloads of tourists at Megálou Metéorou Monastery at least) and today, even with the bustling towns of Kalambaka and Kastraki slung out along the lower reaches of the rocks, you don’t have to go far to find a quiet spot. It’s not hard to guess why medieval monks seeking isolation were attracted to the place.

For climbers though, all this forms an impressive backdrop to a giant playground. With around a thousand routes that steer well clear of the sacred spots, there’s something for all abilities, including the professionals who come for the international events held here. Many locals are climbers too: don’t be surprised if your waiter is also an expert.

Monastic mountaineers

People have been climbing here for centuries. It’s easy to forget that the monasteries were built by engineers who reached the peaks without modern equipment, cranes and scaffolding. So how on Earth did they get up so high? And why would they want to?

Image by George Kourelis/Visit Metéora

Local people started climbing in the Metéora during the second century BC, using the impenetrable location as protection against a succession of invaders, including the Romans, the Ottoman Turks and the Serbs (and, much later, the Nazis). In about the ninth century, hermits began living in caves accessed by a system of retractable ladders and ledges. No harnesses and carabiners for them; just complete faith and a lot of skill. By the fourteenth century, more solid buildings were established. Twenty-four religious centres were built in total (of which six remain active), complete with Greek Orthodox chapels ornately decorated in gold, icons and moralistic torture scenes. Access became more advanced: there were drawbridges, steps were carved into the rock and a system of ropes and pulleys was used to winch the monks up and down in baskets – they were, literally, “suspended in the air”.

Blind faith at 400 metres

Mountaineering in the Metéora really gives you a sense of how great the monks’ achievements were. I want to see how I stack up against my 600-year-old predecessors so I’m tackling the via ferrata (iron road) to Great Saint rock – a harnessed scramble up a steep valley using ropes attached to iron hooks set into the rocks.

Image by George Kourelis/Visit Metéora

The day starts off gently: my guide Kostas takes me and a small group of beginners on a hike through the forested lowlands, passing shepherd’s huts and sheep pens. We emerge at the base of the “Spindle” where experienced climbers are scaling the 40-metre-high bulging column. From here, we can also see some others crawling up the 300-metre-high cliff on the other side of the valley passing a hermit’s cave halfway. I start to wonder what I’ve let myself in for. Kostas beckons us to follow him up a steep slope. Our footsteps dislodge loose rocks and he shouts out “STONES!” to warn those below of a potentially fatal hazard.

Further up, Kostas clips my carabiner to a rope that’s attached to a hook in the rock. Now that I feel safer, I traverse the slope with more confidence. At the top is a narrow ledge above a vertical drop. As I inch along the ledge, I don’t look down. I have blind faith in the skills of my guide and the safety of modern climbing equipment. Fortunately, without mishap I reach a set of carved steps that once led to the (now long-gone) monastery of the Twelve Apostles. At the top, there are views in all directions. I’d be happy to stay here but we press on, passing an ancient cistern that was used to collect rainwater in times of siege.

Image by Nikolaos Ziogas/Visit Metéora

The final push involves an abseil, then a climb to a narrow pass with a white cross on the edge of a cliff overlooking Kalambaka and the vast plain beyond. This is it: we’ve reached the summit and I’m feeling rather pleased with myself – until some local teenagers scuttle up to the ridge, light as mountain goats and with not a rope or harness in sight. Initially, it’s a mild blow to my ego but I realise that these boys grew up here: extreme climbing is in their blood. Personally, I’m more than happy to be fully kitted out with safety gear. Although I’ve done quite a good job of the via ferrata, I know that I couldn’t have cut it as a cliff-dwelling hermit.

Need to know
Tours: you can arrange a climbing, hiking or sightseeing tour with Visit Metéora – offices in Kalambaka and Kastraki town centresAccommodation: stay at the Hotel Metéora near Kastraki, which has an outdoor pool and gorgeous panoramic view of the Metéora range. For travel from Athens, trains can be booked through trainose.gr. Explore more of Greece with the Rough Guide to GreeceCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Featured image by George Kourelis.

If you’ve ever dreamed of flying through the air at high speed, or wondered what it might be like to jump off a large metal platform and leave your fate in the hands of some rope and wires, then Zip World Titan is for you. Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills visited the disused quarry in North Wales to tackle the only four-person zip line in Europe.

Zip lining is for kids though, right?

Not at Zip World Titan. Hurtling along at 70mph, with a 500ft drop below, is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Saying that, it is a family-friendly activity, as you can descend together on four parallel lines, meaning competitive parents can race their kids (and is likely to win, as for once, heavier means faster). And if you’re brave enough, you can take a drive 45-minutes north to sister site Zip World Velocity where you soar headfirst at 100mph…

Where is it?

Zip World Titan opened in the summer of 2014 at Llechwedd Slate Caverns, just outside the mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, around ten miles northeast of Porthmadog. There are directions on the website but on a cold and bleak day and with no phone signal or wifi, you can feel a long way from everywhere.

What should I expect?

Titan has three zip lines: Anarchy (890m), Bedlam (630m) and Chaos (450m). The longest of the three, Anarchy, is most susceptible to bad weather and closes for winter and in high winds.

Once you’ve signed the necessary release forms (anyone for a psychologically challenging activity?) you’re given a bright red boiler suit to wear and helped with your harness. After being weighed you’re ushered into a specialised off road vehicle which negotiates the loose scree of the steeply sided quarry while you slide about on benches in the back.

The vehicle drops you off at the highest zip line and you’re clipped onto one of the four parallel wires, seated in your harness with your feet off the ground, steadied behind a metal gate that is shortly going to fly open – not unlike a Grand National steed waiting for the starter pistol. If you don’t weigh much, you’re advised to tuck up as tight as possible for a quicker descent.

The stunning views across moorland and peaks serve to distract from the fear of falling and all in all it’s not as scary as you might think. It can be blustery up there and the howling wind doesn’t exactly allay any fears, but in fact being buffeted by lusty gusts of wind actually slows you down. The upside is that it means plenty of time to look around. Staff are there to catch you at the end and you take a short walk between the lines to start on the next – the final zip line, Chaos, takes you whizzing over the on-site buildings and back to the start.

What should I wear?

Think practical. Hiking boots or trainers and warm gloves are recommended. It’s an exposed site, and it’s colder than you might expect. Plastic glasses, a helmet and a wind and waterproof flying suit are provided. Be warned that it’s far from a glamorous activity!

Is it safe?

Yes! The founders of Zip World are leaders in their field and they’ve built more than one thousand installations in more than thirty countries. Over two years is spent in research and development for each Zip World project. State of the art, patented technology is involved in the safety equipment, which is regularly checked and maintained. Although there is a small chance of a 2012 Olympics Boris Johnson moment as occasionally people have to be rescued by staff if they lose momentum before the finish.

Is it easy?

Zip lining doesn’t require all that much physical effort; it’s more about building up the courage to actually take part. Staff ensure that you’re safely clipped in and all you have to do is walk a short distance in your harness, though this is heavier than you might expect.

What if the weather is bad?

Make sure that you check the ride status online before you turn up. It’s Wales, so inevitable bad weather can affect the schedule – in the event of this, staff will do all they can to rearrange your booking. All through winter (and in high winds) they close the highest zip line and amendments to weight restrictions are sometimes introduced. They’ll try to give you 24 hours notice, but if the site does close you don’t get a refund; however you can rebook your activity anytime in the next twelve months. Call 01248 601 444 (option 2 for Zip World Titan).

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

Rough Guides’ adventure sports expert Helen Abramson gives us her top tips on some of the world’s best adrenalin­-pumping whitewater rafting. Rapids are classified from I–VI, where grade VI is “un-runnable”, so the Grade V rivers listed here are essentially as thrilling as it gets.

1. Zambezi River, Zimbabwe

Africa’s most exhilarating rafting is found on a 24km stretch between the narrow walls of Batoka Gorge, via 23 terrifying Grade IV and V rapids such as the “Gnashing Jaws of Death”, plus some huge drops. The put­-in point on the Zambezi River is at Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall by volume, making this among the most dramatic surroundings you can get while sitting in an inflatable raft. Just to add to the excitement, you might also get to see crocodiles and hippos up close. Trips run from half-a-day­ to eight days.

2. Colorado River, Arizona/Utah, USA

You can take in unique perspectives of the Grand Canyon from the wild Colorado River, which runs for 226 miles (363km) through Utah and Arizona, on this hair­-raising rafting trip down class IV–V rapids in the world’s deepest gorge. You can mix things up with visits to ancient Navajo ruins and side grottos, or with hikes to spectacular waterfalls. If you don’t feel up to a full­-on eighteen-­day belter, three days is usually the minimum to really get to grips with the river, though some companies run half-­day or day excursions too. Vessels vary from motorized, oared or paddle rafts to little wooden dories, and the season lasts from May to September.

3. Magpie River, Canada

Rafting down the Magpie in eastern Québec offers the chance to see more than just stunning secluded forests, intriguing wildlife and the impressive Magpie Falls – you might also catch a glimpse of the wonders of the aurora borealis. As if that’s not enough, the rafting begins after an epic seaplane trip onto Magpie Lake. The rapids get increasingly more aggressive and difficult to navigate as the eight-day trip downriver progresses, climaxing in Grade V rapids on the last day at Magpie Falls.

4. Noce River, Italy

Easily one of the top rafting destinations in Europe, fed by the melting glaciers of the Brenta Dolomites, the Noce River churns out Grade III–V rapids throughout the summer. Astounding views of sheer cliffs and distant snow­capped summits abound, as the river thunders through the gorges of Mostizzolo and across the remote Val di Sole (Sun Valley). The navigable 28km of the river can be done in one adrenalin­-pumped day.

5. Río Pacuaré, Costa Rica

One of the world’s best rafting rivers, the Río Pacuaré snakes its way through the untouched wilderness of Costa Rica‘s Cabecar Indian Reservation rainforest, where tropical birds, monkeys, jaguars and dwarf leopards reside. Day-trips on the Lower Pacuaré, where waterfalls flow into the river, cover 29km through Grade III and IV rapids. Multi­-day trips include stays at remote eco­jungle lodges where guests can enjoy the tranquillity of the nature reserve after tackling their way through tumbling rapids with chilling names such as “Terciopelo Snake” and “Pinball”.

6. Kali Gandaki, Nepal

The Kali Gandaki is named after the Hindu goddess of destruction for a good reason. It runs fiercely down from high in the Himalayas through one of the earth’s deepest ravines, with an excellent alpine view of the snow­-capped Annapurnas. Suitable for both rafting novices and connoisseurs, a three­-day trip from the lakeside town of Pokhara involves tumbling down grade IV rapids, encountering numerous waterfalls, temples and suspension bridges, and camping on isolated white­s-and beaches under an impossibly bright star­-filled sky. Conditions are best from mid­-October to mid­-December and March to April, conveniently crossing over with the peak seasons for trekking.

7. Futalefú River, Chile

In October 2014, plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Chilean side of the Futalefú, in Patagonia, were successfully quashed after a long struggle by organisations determined to save the communities, wildlife and environmental beauty of the area. This means that, for now at least, rafters can still plummet down stunningly clear glacier­-fed waters. There are sections to suit all abilities, from for beginners to those willing to brave some seriously intense Grade V rapids. Chances of getting bored here are pretty slim – you can also go hiking, canyoning, ziplining, horse riding and abseiling. And to cap it all off, riverside camps all have hot tubs.

8. North Johnstone River, Australia

Deep in the lush volcanic gorge of North Queensland’s Palmerston National Park runs 80km of the North Johnstone River, offering Grade IV and V rapids which are boosted by the region’s heavy rainfall. The adrenalin stakes are upped on this trip with the compulsory arrival at the put-in point via helicopter ride. On this four-­day adventure into the heart of pristine rainforest, Aboriginal burial sites and 3,000­-year­-old trees are interspersed with wildlife such as saltwater crocodiles, pythons and water dragons, as well as eerily luminous fungi that grows on the riverbank rocks.

9. Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, USA

Dive into one America’s largest wildernesses outside of Alaska on a trip down the roaring Salmon River, Idaho – often referred to the “river of no return”. With over 300 Grade I–III rapids over 105 miles (169km), a total drop of 3000 feet (900m), hot springs and wildlife such as brown bears, it’s no wonder that this is one of the world’s most popular rafting spots, and it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience. July and August are the best times to go, and trips usually run for 5 or 6 days.

 Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills goes deep underground in the heart of Snowdonia National Park to discover the latest, and craziest, adventure activity in North Wales.

A Victorian slate mine close to the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog was once where miners wielded hammers and chisels to eke out a hard living from the rock. Today, it’s home to the world’s first subterranean trampoline. I went to investigate.

Yes, a trampoline in a cave

In fact, three giant trampolines in a cave twice the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. Bounce Below came about after entrepreneur owner Sean Taylor saw a similar set up in the woods in France, but this is the first time it’s gone underground. Five hundred tonnes of rubble had to be removed from the cavern before the huge trampolines were strung up – the highest at 180ft – with chutes between each level and nets to stop the kids (and big kids) bouncing out.

Begin with trepidation…

This big kid is in her thirties and was feeling a fair amount of trepidation as our group crowded round to hear about the surreal activity we had signed up for. We grabbed helmets not dissimilar to those on a building site, except these were wet and smelled of cleaning chemicals. This was my first clue that things were going to get a bit sweaty.

We were then led through the damp and gloomy mines, ducking so not to hit our heads – the helmet wasn’t just a fashion accessory – and things got darker and colder the deeper we went.

Eventually we came into a huge cavern, which was ringing with noise like a crowded swimming pool on a weekend morning. I gazed up at the massive nets hanging suspended from the ceiling, illuminated with muted neon lights.

After another safety talk, which was mostly about not double bouncing the kids and taking the chutes (which I planned to avoid altogether) one person at a time, we were ushered across the walkway and into the initial practice zone, a quiet area where excited ten-year-olds bowled passed me to get to the good bit. As I wobbled from foot to foot, clinging to the netting at the side, I wondered if my day wouldn’t be better spent in a coffee shop somewhere warm. With a solid floor.

A drunk on a bouncy castle

Taking a deep breath, I launched myself through the gap and into the first zone.

It was almost impossible to stand and bounce in one spot as the trampoline heaved and pitched beneath my feet. As I bounced I was propelled from one side of the net to the other not unlike a drunk on a giant bouncy castle. It was very, very fun.

Trying to jump as high as possible, I went with it and tried, not very successfully, to stay on my feet. Before long I was exhausted and slightly hysterical, begging very small children to go and double bounce someone else.

Image courtesy of Visit Wales

Slides, walkways and shaky legs

There’s a narrow walkway (which thank goodness, isn’t bouncy), which takes you to the top trampoline 180ft off the ground. From here, it came as a bit of a shock to find out that the only way down was dropping feet first into a net chute sixty foot long and no wider than my shoulders. Luckily I heeded the warnings about covering your face with your hands as the netting whips against you as you plummet – another good reason for wearing something with long sleeves.

Slightly steadier on my feet by now, I happily bounced around the middle net before whizzing down to the lowest level where I had a well-earned lie down well away from the teenagers free running across the net.

The way up was a constricted walkway, likely made with very small cave trolls in mind, which I shuffled along, bent over double while it spiralled up for what seemed like forever. Emerging right back at the start, I was free to do it all over again. If only my legs would stop shaking.

Need to know

Restrictions
Weight: Max: 120kg Min: None
Age: Max: None Min: 7 (5 & 6 year olds by special arrangement)

Price for 1hr session
£20/person

Explore more of Wales with The Rough Guide to WalesCompare flightsbook hostels or hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Header image courtesy of Visit Wales.

With a little courage, a lot of leg-power and some encouragement from an exuberant Italian guide, Greg Dickinson discovers some of Europe’s best mountain biking in the Dolomites, Italy

“Do you suffer from vertigo?” Paolo is straight faced, but it’s hard to take him seriously in his patchwork yellow and pink sunhat. I tell him I’m alright with heights, and can’t resist asking why. He hops on his mountain bike and pedals ahead, leaving it a few seconds before calling back “It’s a surprise!” 

I met up with mountain expert Paolo in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a couple of hours north of Venice by coach. During the winter months skiers and snowboarders descend on this glamorous resort town – put on the map as the setting of Roger Moore’s epic Bond ski chase in For Your Eyes Only (or for hosting the 1956 Winter Olympics, depending on who you’re talking to). For the rest of the year it’s an increasingly popular base for mountain and road biking in the UNESCO-protected Dolomites, with a number of “bike hotels” in town offering storage, maintenance and massage therapy for cyclists.

My two-day adventure started with some news: many of the area’s cable cars and chairlifts – used by cyclists over the summer – had closed a week earlier than scheduled after an uncharacteristically rainy season in the region. Paolo revealed this with a good-humoured shrug, his concentration fixed on a map as he figured out a revised route. It was an overcast morning, but occasionally the clouds parted to unveil a splintering mountaintop, hundreds of metres higher than expected, and I wondered what on earth I’d got myself into.

On my bike, the early, knee-straining hours along forest roads are tough, but as we gain altitude I find Paolo’s carefree attitude to be as uplifting as the regular espresso breaks we take. And I’m not the only one enamoured by the man. Just about every driver that passes us honks their horn and yells “Ciao, Paolino!”, he’s on backslapping terms with the owners of all of the mountain rifugios (mountain refuges), and even receives a clean high five from one passing jogger.

I soon reap the benefits of his popularity myself when a moustachioed gent named Fausto beckons us off our bikes and into his falconry headquarters. We’ve caught him between his 11am and 3pm displays, and I’m thankful to rest my legs for twenty minutes as we sit and watch him fling birds of prey into the deep pine valley behind him.

We’re soon back on the road, and after ascending over a thousand metres the mountain biking finally begins. For the first single track run I’m sat down, with all four fingers clutching the brakes as I dodge football-sized boulders and very nearly hurtle over the handlebars when I forget that the front and back brakes are on the opposite sides here.

Paolo clocks my abysmal technique and gives me a crash course on how to avoid doing just that: stand, arms outstretched when going downhill; pedals level; only one finger on the brakes; manoeuvre the saddle with thighs for extra control; and, most importantly of all, stop being such a wimp.

The results are immediate. I can’t possibly descend at the speed of Paolo, who lets out a high-pitched “WOOP!” as he flies down the path with zero regard for his own mortality, but I quickly build confidence and speed, and find the experience to be far closer to skiing over moguls than riding a bike.

After a couple of muscle-rattling hours the light begins to draw in and we call it a day, hopping on a chairlift up to Rifugio Scoiattoli. The kitchen here cooks up a divine three-course meal, including the local specialty casunziei ampezzani (beetroot ravioli with butter, parmesan and poppy seeds). Exhausted, I knock back a few home-brewed grappas before retreating to my dorm, still wondering what Paolo’s promised vertigo surprise will involve.

I wake up at 5am, restless with the disorientation that comes from sleeping at altitude, and stumble outside the refuge to find a dozen people wrapped in scarves and woolly hats, tripods at the ready. Behind the nearby Cinque Torri – a series of finger-like dolomia towers – the sun emerges, spray-painting a warm pink onto the peaks that loom above us, and exposing a blanket of cloud hundreds of metres below. Marmots, ubiquitous to the Dolomites, shriek from their unseen caves as they awaken while I head inside to get my cycling kit on.

Without the burden of gaining height, I’m treated to a series of fast downhill trails and some more “off-piste” experiences. Paolo’s knowledge of these mountains is indisputable, but there’s plenty of improvisation involved in his guidance; he leads us across knolly fields, over fast-flowing streams and down squelching mud tracks. At one point we meet an almighty ravine, caused by a landslide thirty years ago, and carry our 13-kilogram bikes on our shoulders as we scramble down and up onto the other side.

After a few hours of more conventional riding we prop up our bikes and walk towards the edge of a cliff, where I see a thin pathway wrapping around to the left – no wider than a metre at points. With just a wire rope to protect walkers from a 100m plummet, I realise this must be the vertiginous challenge I’ve been waiting for.

We start along the path, Paolo far cooler than me as he casually runs a finger along the rope that I’m gripping with two white fists (he later tells me that you’re not technically supposed to walk this path without a carabiner and safety harness). A steady rumble emerges from around the corner and I grin as I know what’s coming. The rope becomes slippery and a cloud of water bursts into my face.

We shimmy behind the glorious hidden waterfall that Paolo had kept a surprise, the water droplets enveloping my overheated body. And as I look out through the cascade, my view impeded like a half-tuned television, I tell myself that it’s two days of high-octane mountain biking, not vertigo, that’s causing my legs to tremble.

Bike rental from Due e Due Cortina costs from €26 per day for adults and €12 for kids. Dorm bed and half board at Rifugio Scoiattoli costs from €55 per night in half board. The Cortina Bike Pass grants access to ski lifts with your bike, costing from €60 for a 3-day pass. Single journeys can also be purchased at the lift stations. 

With a whole host of new attractions opening this year, from world-record-beating skyscrapers to whacky amusement parks, there’s plenty to get your teeth into. To help you decide where to visit, we’ve picked the top 9 new tourist attractions around the world. 

Shanghai Tower, China

A better symbol of China’s continuing march forward would be harder to find than the new Shanghai Tower, at 632 metres the world’s second tallest building and muscling its way in to every shot of Shanghai like a giant robotic arm. Twisted from base to tip, at about one degree per floor, it is even designed to withstand typhoons. By the end of this year the tower will also have the world’s highest observation deck, at 557 metres above sea level. Lifts will reach this in under one minute – so prepare for some ear-popping.

Lincoln Castle, UK

Want to see the document that gave birth to democracy? We’re talking about the Magna Carta of course, which reaches its 800th birthday this year. You can find out why it’s so highly lauded at Lincoln Castle. This eleventh-century Norman castle reopens in April and promises a state-of-the-art underground vault to house the Magna Carta, an ‘in-the-round’ film explaining its importance and history, a complete circular walk around the castle’s ancient walls and access to both the Victorian male and female prisons for the first time.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

One of the great shames of the art world is the amount of exceptional artwork kept in storage and rarely seen by the public. What is the point, after all, of owning a large art collection if you don’t have the space to exhibit it? The Whitney finally solves its space problem in 2015, with the opening of its new building; at 18,000 square feet, the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City. A cantilevered entrance beneath the High Line sets the tone for a graceful, light-filled gallery with river views – and, of course, some of the world’s greatest artworks.

IceCave, Iceland

Ever wondered what the inside of a glacier looks like? White? Deepest blue? Both? Well, wonder no more. Book a trip to Iceland this year and you can visit the country’s latest attraction, the IceCave. Here you can venture into a series of tunnels and caves running inside Langjökull Glacier, which stretch as much as 300 metres into the solid ice about 30 metres below the surface. These mind-bending proportions make the IceCave one of the largest man-made ice structures in the world – and well worth donning multiple layers of clothing to see.

Lost and Found festival, Malta

In April 2015 Malta will make its debut on the electronic music scene. From the 3rd to the 5th DJ Annie Mac will host Lost and Found, a new festival in St Paul’s Bay on the north shore and Ta’ Qali National Park near Rabat. With a line-up of international dance DJs, Lost and Found promises daytime pool and boat dance parties against an ocean backdrop and nighttime open-air raves with a chilled out vibe. You won’t even have to camp either: packages including hotel accommodation start from £148/$225 per person.

Dreamland, Margate, UK

2015 is set to be a great year for Margate, as the seaside resort’s most famous attraction, Dreamland, finally reopens. The UK’s oldest amusement park is being reimagined as the world’s first heritage amusement park by designer Wayne Hemmingway, its centerpiece the Grade II listed Scenic Railway, Britain’s oldest rollercoaster. Numerous rides from other parks are being rebuilt around it, many of which are the only remaining examples of their type. Ride the 1950s Hurricane Jets and the 1940s Caterpillar that once stood at Pleasureland Southport, before strolling past the large Tiffany lamps donated from the Blackpool Illuminations collection.

TreeTop Crazy Rider, New South Wales

Two words have never belonged together more than rollercoaster and zipline. Well, the crazy folks at Ourimbah State Forest on Australia’s Central Coast certainly think so. Their new 1km-long adventure must-do promises to combine the thrill and suspense of a rollercoaster with the flying sensation of a zipline. Strap in and swoop through the forest, twisting round corners and dropping into the bush. No special skills are required and it’s open to everyone over seven.

Musée des Confluences, Lyon, France

A new building has landed at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers – although we think it looks more like the giant foot of a crystal transformer. This is the new Musée des Confluences, a science centre and anthropology museum dedicated to pondering life’s big questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? And what do we do? No existential crisis needed though, there are said to be 2.2 million objects in the collection to answer these head scratchers, not to mention regular arts and crafts exhibitions.

Sa Pa cable car, Vietnam

Reaching the peak of Fansipan Mountain (3143m) used to mean a full-day hike at least. But from later this September the trek up will be reduced to a 20-minute flight by cable car. This will be the world’s longest and highest cable car, no less, running up from sleepy Sa Pa Town in Lao Cai Province to Indochina’s rooftop. Enjoy the view from the summit before exploring Sa Pa itself, an isolated community set to become firmly established on the tourist trail – the cable car will transport 2000 people per hour, the same number as reached the peak in an entire year previously.

For the best cities, countries, and best-value destinations to visit this year, check out the Rough Guide to 2015Book 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. 

View Sydney from the Harbour Bridge, Australia

The ‘coat hanger’, as it’s affectionately dubbed by locals, was the longest single span bridge in the world at the time of its construction. Those with a head for heights can climb the bridge’s 503-metre-long, 134-metre-high framework, scaling the steel arch to the summit – an excursion that’s rewarded with 360-degree views of the city, from the glittering harbour to the iconic white-fins of the Sydney Opera House.

Hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara, Kenya

No amount of documentary watching can prepare you for the view of the famous Maasai Mara at dawn. As you float up in a hot air balloon and the sun slowly rises, the savannah awakens below you: wildebeests, zebras and impalas graze on the undulating grasslands, impossibly graceful giraffes stride across the open plains and lions and cheetahs stalk their pray.

Get a birds eye view of Machu Picchu, Peru

Think of Machu Picchu and one image springs to mind: crumbling ruins poised atop a vivid-green terraced mountainside, with Huayna Picchu’s horn-shaped looming peak in the background. But there is another, equally impressive, yet far-less famous viewpoint: the one from Huayna Picchu itself. The trek up the mountain is hard but the view over the ruins below, the densely-forested mountains and the meandering Urubamba River are worth it.

See Fez’s Tanneries Chouwara, Morocco

Follow the stench of dye, leather and pigeon dung to one of the many shops that double up as vantage points over the ancient tanneries Chouwara. Brave the smell and the views are worth it. Below you, among the city’s rooftops, stretched out leathers bake in the sun and myriad dye-filled pits awash with colour make a striking mosaic of mustard-yellow, ochre, deep purple, indigo and teal.

Gaze down over the Grand Canyon, USA

You have to see the Grand Canyon from above. Yet even swotting up on the statistics (more than a mile deep and in places 18 miles wide) cannot prepare you for the experience of staring down into this vast abyss. How you decide to get your dose of vertigo is up to you: hike to a viewpoint, fly over it, or try the Skywalk, a glass-bottomed platform lets you glimpse the canyon between your feet – if you’re brave enough.

Trekking in Bac Son valley, Vietnam

Hike through the paddy fields of the Bac Son valley in northern Vietnam and you’ll see some of the country’s most stunning vistas. But the best views are from the mountains themselves. From here you can see the river lazily twist through a patchwork quilt of acid-yellow, bright-green and ochre fields, dotted with stilt houses and flanked by imposing mountains.

Sky dive over Dubai Islands, UAE

For the most extreme view of one of the world’s most extreme cities, you’ll need to fling yourself out of a plane. As the adrenalin rush hits you, prepare to be transfixed by the view: 13,000ft below you futuristic Dubai displays its wonders, soaring skyscrapers, harsh desert and the sandy-edged fronds of the Palm Jumeirah stretching out into the turquoise ocean.

Take in the view from The Peak, Hong Kong

There’s no shortage of places to get high in Hong Kong; in a city of soaring skyscrapers lofty views are a given. Yet one of the best has to be the view from The Peak, Hong Kong’s highest mountain. A circular walk around the wooded mountain offers the best views of the skyscraper-packed cityscape, as well as vistas of the bustling harbour and Outlying Islands.

Walk above the Amazon, Peru

In Peru, the vast selva covers over half the country. Walking the jungle floor is a must, but seeing the biggest rainforest in the world from above is also rather special. At over 35m above ground, and stretching for 50m, the Amazon Explorama Field Station is the jungle’s longest canopy walkway. Look out for jaguars prowling the undergrowth, monkeys swinging between the treetops and pink river dolphins playing in the Amazon.

Paraglide through Wengen, Switzerland

Ditch the skis for an exhilarating paragliding trip over Wengen, a mountainside village in Switzerland famed for its celestial views. This is picture-perfect alpine scenery: charming chocolate-box houses and frozen, glacial mountain tops. In summer the lush slopes contrast with the ice-capped tips of the Jungfrau massif; winter vistas are even more breathtaking, revealing an impossibly photogenic snow-dusted landscape.

See the Great Barrier Reef by helicopter, Australia

The only living thing on earth visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2900 individual reefs, 900 islands and countless sandy cays. Seeing it from space may be out of reach for most but helicopter flights give equally as impressive views of this natural wonder. Hop on a flight in Cairns, from where you’ll glide over the endless indigo-stained ocean and the Whitsunday’s dreamy swirls of golden sands.

Hiking rice terraces in Longji, China

In a country full of beautiful rice terraces, the Longji mountain range, or ‘Dragon’s Spine’ is perhaps the best example. Trekking here will take you to heights of around 880m, from where you can gaze down over the intricate terraces. Etched into the earth in ribbon-like layers of rice, soil and water, they mark the landscape like contours on a map.

Look down on London from the Shard, England

Dramatically piercing the sky, the 1017ft Shard is London’s latest landmark and Western Europe’s tallest building. With viewing platforms at a lofty 800ft above the capital, the Shard easily trumps other vantage points in the city – in fact it’s almost twice as high as any other. And with dizzying heights come forty miles of jaw-dropping views – a panoramic sweep of London that ticks off its biggest sights, from Tower Bridge to the London Eye.

Admire Bagan from a hot air balloon, Myanmar

It is only from the air that you can truly grasp the sheer scale of this place; the ancient capital, now a copper-coloured, 26-mile-long stretch of dusty plain studded with 4000 temples. The dawn views from a hot air balloon – when the honey-coloured, ornately-sculpted stupas slowly shake off a low slung mist in the morning sun – are unforgettable.

Paraglide over Ölüdeniz, Turkey

Unsurprisingly sun-worshippers flock to the Turquoise Coast – but this area has more to offer than blissful beaches. The resort of Ölüdeniz has been consistently ranked as one of the top spots in the world for paragliding, with paragliders regularly launching from the 1960-metre-high Babadag (Father Mountain), swooping slowly down to the golden arc of sand that curves around the resort’s famous azure lagoon.

Climb across a stone forest, Madagascar

Remote and otherworldly, Tsingy de Bemaraha national park, the largest stone forest in the world, lies a five day journey from Madagascar’s capital. It’s worth it: a bizarre labyrinth of razor-sharp spires, narrow ravines and hidden caves await. This seemingly inhospitable landscape teems with wildlife, too: lemurs, parrots and lizards can be spotted amid the serrated rock towers.

Take a helicopter over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

If you’re feeling flush, take to the skies for one of the world’s most famous views: Rio de Janiero from the air. As well as admiring the concrete jungle squeezed between the mountains and Atlantic ocean, there’s plenty to look out for: the golden swathes of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the rounded hump of Sugar Loaf mountain, and possibly most famous of all, the glorious statue of Christ the Redeemer with arms outstretched over the city.

Fly over Angel Falls, Venezuela

Nineteen times the height of Niagara Falls, the 979m-high Angel Falls is the highest waterfall in the world. The cascade plunges from Auyán-tepui, one of the tepui (table top mountains) that dominate the jungle landscape here, and the best way to see it is undoubtedly from the air. Watching the Churun River surge over the mountain edge, its easy to see why locals call it the ‘falls from the deepest place’.

Fly over the Blue Hole, Belize

The world’s largest sinkhole lures many divers into its inky depths; this indigo abyss plunges to over 100m. However, it is from above that the Blue Hole really comes into its own. Flying over this natural phenomenon in a glass bottomed helicopter allows you to truly grasp the magnificence of the collapsed cavern.

Fly in a microlight over Victoria Falls, Zambia

An awe-inspiring tower of cascading water, the ‘Smoke That Thunders’ (as Victoria Falls is locally known) can be seen from 30 miles away. On the ground it can be hard to grasp its sheer size – a true giant at 1.7km wide and 110m deep – yet from above, soaring in a microlight, its true magnificence is unveiled. Below your dangling feet, torrents of water plunge over the precipice and iridescent rainbows form in the billowing spray.

Winter is coming. No, not an episode of Game of Thrones, just the perfect time to get excited about the white stuff. Of course, you could ski or snowboard… but why limit yourself? Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills heads to Paradiski in the French Alps to check out the top five winter activities off the slopes.

Ice climbing

Ice climbing is a hugely physically demanding activity, and hanging hundreds of feet in the air requires nerves (and legs) of steel. The 22-metre-high artificial ice tower in the Paradiski resort is a great place to learn; they’ve got initiation sessions for beginners a couple of times a week. Specialist equipment (including boots, crampons, harness, ice axes and a helmet) is provided and there are several routes to scale, including the one used by competitors in the annual Ice Climbing World Cup. The tower is reconstructed and re-iced – complete with 45-degree overhangs – each year as temperatures in the valley plummet at the start of winter.

Image courtesy of Paradiski

Hiking and snowshoeing

Admiring the scenery when you’re whooshing down the mountainside can be tricky, so there are plenty of marked trails where you can take it a little slower on a winter walk. Some routes are circular, but for others you can catch a bus or ski-lift home (free maps are available at the tourist office). Even better for a walk on the wild side is donning snowshoes and going cross-country in deep snow through the alpine forests and clearings of the Vanoise National Park. Along with beautiful panoramas, there’s a good chance of spotting wildlife such as mountain ibex, golden eagles and bearded vultures. You can hire snowshoes or join a guided tour.

Bobsleighing

Last winter 12,401 people hurtled down the Olympic bobsleigh track at La Plagne, including one very apprehensive Rough Guides editor. One of only seven European tracks, it was built for the Winter Games in 1992 and is still in demand for competitions (World Championship trials will take place here at the end of January 2015). Thrill-seeking tourists also come here in their droves to jump aboard a four-man bob raft, a self-driving, self-braking bob that descends the bone-shaking 1500m track in about one and a half minutes  – that’s around 80km/hr. Even bigger daredevils can choose bob racing, which is even closer to a real competition experience (with speeds of up to 130km/hr).

Image courtesy of Paradiski

Dog sledding

It’s difficult to deny the romance of gliding across the snow behind a pack of extraordinarily cute huskies. The part-dog, part-wolf breed has been used for centuries to pull sleds across inaccessible snowy landscapes, but that doesn’t mean that ‘mushing’ is easy. Sit back, wrap up warm and leave it to the professionals, or hang onto the handlebar (and your hat) and try steering yourself. Before you get going, the dogs are overexcited, yapping and jumping; the brakes are under your feet, and relaxing enough to get started is tough. Controlling the speed and trying not to tip over proves exhausting, especially as you know that if you fall out, you have to hang on tight or risk losing the huskies. Soon enough, though, the dogs begin to settle and after taking a few corners you slowly loosen up and start to enjoy the peace that comes with forging your own route across the wilderness.

Tobogganing

Although you’re advised to keep your hands and feet in the toboggan at all times, it’s hard to resist the urge to slow your rapid descent of Plagne Centre’s “Colorado Park” run. Panic and you’ll end up whooshing off course, with the added problem of kicking up a fog of ice. You’re then temporarily blinded, plummeting downhill, skidding on the hard, icy surface. There’s a night run you can take on the longer, 2.9km “Eldorado Park” in Plagne-Bellecôte, where you get a headlamp to go with the obligatory helmet. You’ll arrive at the bottom of the course battered and bruised, with an inexplicable desire to do it all over again.

Explore more of the French Alps with the Rough Guides Snapshot for the Alps and Franche-Comté. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Rough Guides editor Helen Abramson tried out the unusual extreme sport of buggy rollin, headfirst down the Olympic Bobsleigh Track in the French Alps resort of La Plagne.

The French Alps in summer are a wonderful sight. The mountains are lush and green after a wet few months, and Mont Blanc’s snowy cap twinkles in the distance. A two-hour hike took me from La Plagne Bellecote, at 1930m, up to the top of the Roche de Mio cable car, 2700m above sea level – high enough to notice the thinning air in my lungs. The bubble-shaped gondola was running all through the summer, so several people, especially families, opted for the easy route up to take a gentle stroll back down, past herds of cows clanging their bells.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the fern-covered slopes would be like to ski or snowboard down in winter, and what a dramatically different place it must be. But I was delighted to be experiencing such a different side of the Alps for the first time, and I wasn’t short of things to do, as during my weekend there in August, the annual late-summer events of Beton on Fire and its sister festival Urban Plagne were taking place.

Urban Plagne hosts the World Skate Cross Series and a pro/amateur BMX competition, but what really seemed to attract people was the range of events attendees could try their hand at for free, including skateboarding, capoeira, hip-hop dancing, graffiti, parkour, circus tricks and even DJing. The classes were aimed at children, so anyone above about the age of seven who joined a class stood out like a sore thumb (me very much included), but for those with kids bored of walking up mountains, it was the perfect place to keep them merrily occupied for a day.

The participants at Beton on Fire, on the other hand, were certainly not little children. In-line skating, luge and longboard downhill bobsleigh races took place – and, for the first time, buggy rollin. (Who needs that final “g” anyway? It’s so conformist.) This bizarre extreme sport involves wearing body armour, covered in dozens of little wheels, and travelling headfirst down a slope, or, in this case, La Plagne’s Olympic Bobsleigh Track. In previous years, Jean Yves Blondeau, the buggy rollin creator, wowed the crowd with show-runs; showing off is something he seemed (justifiably) more than comfortable with. He explained to me that in some ways he prefers these “aesthetic” runs to the timed ones, as he likes to create fluid wave patterns by taking high curves down the track. Jean Yves won the timed race that day though – his three competitors didn’t stand a chance – and he did a show-run afterwards as well. The spectators loved it.

But then it was my turn. When I was little, I didn’t exactly excel at standing up on my older brother’s skateboard, so I gave up on that method and chose to lie down on the board on my front, at the top of the driveway, and roll down into the street, pushing my hands along the road surface every now and then to keep up my momentum. Rather than focus on the huge levels of stupidity and risk involved in this hobby, I’d like to highlight the (almost certainly sole) positive outcome: excellent buggy rollin practice.

I was trained by Jean Yves himself. He created this sport twenty years ago and designed and built the suits – which sell for several thousands of euros – so it’s an understatement to say he knows what he’s talking about. I felt pretty lucky, as it’s not the kind of sport you can try all that easily; his pupils are mostly film stunt performers. His speed is intimidating: on the day I met him, he travelled at 91km/hr down the bobsleigh track, and his record for street speed is 112km/hr. We practised on a gentle slope in a deserted car park and I got a girl’s suit that was used in a film for someone much smaller than me. It had oversized rounded breasts, fake corset frontage and a wheel right in between the legs.

By the time I was ready to begin, I was sweating profusely, from a mixture of nerves, overheating and severe embarrassment. The men’s suits mainly differed between them in the number and arrangement of wheels on their chest, and they all looked like a cross between Power Rangers, Transformers and Robocop, with added wheels. Mine made me look like a desperate, confused fembot.

I had wheels attached to all my joints and on my chest, stoppers on my arms (an extra feature not usually added) and in-line skates on my feet with wheels further forward than normal, so they ended in front of the toes. I hadn’t skated since I was a child, so I was a bit wobbly on my feet at first, but soon got used to it. We began by trying to move around on all fours, and progressed to lying down. It was actually fairly simple to get the hang of turning and stopping. Being able to roll down a hill using every part of my body to manoeuvre myself felt like I was cheating the world somehow – it shouldn’t be allowed.

It gave me a great buzz, and I realised I was no longer nervous about the bobsleigh, just excited. Jean Yves didn’t fancy my chances of 1.5km of increasing speed down the track (and nor did I), so I started about halfway down.

“Allez, allez!” I got a push and was off, gritting my teeth. As instructed, I tried to stay at bottom of the track rather than climb the curvy side. Everything was quite slow at first, and then I turned a corner into a dip and suddenly concrete was rushing past my face and everything was shaking. I needed to hold all my limbs firm. I plucked up the courage to put my arms behind me, by my sides, and just let go.

In the last dip I knew if I did anything to upset my balance I could really injure myself, and then before I knew it I was moving uphill and slowing to a stop. I was just a fraction of the way up the incline compared to where the racers finished; I couldn’t imagine how fast it must feel for them at 90km/hr – I felt like the world was about to explode all around me, and I was travelling at a tortoise-like pace by comparison. “One more time?” “Bien sûr!”

NEED TO KNOW

Beton on Fire is a free event over three days during the third or fourth weekend of August at La Plagne Olympic Bobsleigh Track, with in-line skating, luge, longboard downhill and buggy rollin’ races. Urban Plagne immediately follows Beton on Fire, with 3 days of events including the World Skate Cross Series, BMX, skate and trottinette competitions. Visitors can try skateboarding, capoeira, hip-hop dancing, graffiti, parkour, circus tricks, DJing, pedal go-karting, freestyle BMX and more. Email FaceJean Yves on [email protected] if you’re interested in trying buggy rollin’. He teaches people at Beton on Fire, and is based near La Plagne.

Explore more of France with this Rough Guides SnapshotBook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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