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.

Buggy rollin, La Plagne, France

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.

IMG_0047By 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. 

Rough Guides editor Helen Abramson does what she loves most, seeking out adrenalin sports in the stunning Pyrenees region around the town of Sort, Catalunya.

The Pyrenees lend themselves well to outdoor activities. Sort, on the northwest tip of Catalunya, has a reputation as a handy base, where you’re never far from some of the best adventure sports this alpine region has to offer. I’m there with a mixed-ability group and immensely enthusiastic and well-informed guide, Isi, with a week to try out a selection of the best activities: hiking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning and mountain biking.

Taking a hike

Forty kilometres from Sort, I’m peering down from a viewpoint high above Sant Maurici lake, bright turquoise and shimmering in the autumnal afternoon sunlight. From here you can make out part of the treacherous route escapees from Nazi-occupied France took seventy-odd years ago, as they headed into Spain through the mountains. Now part of Aigues Tortes National Park, this region is popular for hiking, and it’s obvious why. The lake is enclosed by lush foliage, its verdancy deepened by an unusually wet summer, and slopes lead up to craggy domineering peaks. A relatively easy circular 3.5–4hr route involving a few scrambles, some narrow hillside traverses and a pleasant forest walk takes us past a gushing waterfall and offers breathtaking views. A pretty good start.

Pyrenees, Sort, Catalonia, SpainImage by Helen Abramson

Hitting the white waters

Our next activity takes us to the Noguera Pallaresa River for whitewater rafting with Roc Roi: 40km, grade 3 rapids, six happy paddlers and one guide. The river is dammed, and water is released at specific times each day throughout the year – ideal for rafting and kayaking. There are plenty of rapids to keep us occupied, including “the washing machine”, and one particularly wild section that knocks one of our crew out (mercifully, not me).

With everyone back on-board and the raft now in calm waters, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Order is barely restored, however, when the guide, Seori (who happens to be a Scot living in Sort), calmly announces that the boat appears to be deflating. We’ve got a puncture. Fortunately, this is a slick, well-organised operation, and Seori and his colleague, who’s been following us all day in a minibus, swiftly extract the offending article: an enormous concrete boulder with rusty, vicious-looking metal poles sticking out of it. The boys put their training into practice, patching up the hole in just a few minutes, and we’re being ordered back on the boat with barely enough time for me to answer a call of nature behind the bushes. Half an hour later, and our vessel is swapped for a non-ruptured one. Everyone seems to have rather enjoyed the drama, and the scenery is, once again, jaw-droppingly lovely; in the quieter sections of the journey, there are plenty of contemplative, peaceful moments in which to savour it all.

The last section of the rafting route, with slightly gentler rapids, is where the kayaking takes place the following day. The 2014 Freestyle World Cup was held in July in Sort; as we’re not quite at that level, our group is given inflatable open kayaks, which are far less likely to capsize than regular ones. The guides use arm signals (imagine someone guiding an aeroplane on a runway) and whistles to point us in the right direction for a safe run down, and I spend the majority of the session struggling to get my boat in line and cursing my fellow paddlers for turning this into something very reminiscent of bumper-cars. It’s quite exhausting, but an entertaining ride nonetheless, and the adrenalin stakes are upped with a 15m jump into the water from the rocky shore above.

Abseiling through a canyon

Hell’s Canyon is next on the agenda. Not one for the faint hearted, this ninety-minute descent through luminous white limestone walls – with only one way in and one way out – is a non-stop rollercoaster ride involving several abseils and jumps into cool, crystal-clear water. Heavy rain in recent months means there’s more water gushing through the canyon than normal, so, as the ever-charismatic Isi puts it, with a huge grin on his face, the conditions are ripe for “the most fun”. The first abseil is small and swift, over a relatively gentle incline, and ends in a refreshing pool.

Things heat up with an 18m abseil from where this canyon gets its name: a descent into a black hole in absolute darkness, down through water cascading so loudly I can’t hear myself think. For a moment I’m not sure how I’m going to get my next breath, but then I’m down and standing in the pool below, looking up at the shaft of ethereal light streaming in at the top, and it’s just magical. After several more descents and a thrilling 10m jump, it’s time to be reborn: an awkward abseil leads to a water-filled hole, through which Isi has to pull each one of us out, head first. It’s not elegant. We are spat out at the river, and there are cries of protest at not being allowed to do the whole thing again.

Cycling in the Pyrenees, Sort, Catalonia, SpainImage by Helen Abramson

Traversing on two wheels

For a change, we’re out of our wetsuits the following day and on dry land, as downhill mountain biking is our final activity. The route starts 1800m above sea level, in the Baqueira / Beret ski resort, one of the top – arguably the best – in Spain, yet for some reason somewhat under-the-radar for foreigners. The 35km cycling trail descends 1200m, with a few small uphill sections thrown in, so it’s not a complete free ride for the legs. The landscape is as picturesque as it gets: grazing cows jangling their bells, distant peaks looming through a gentle haze, bright greenery all around, and a rest-stop at a tiny mountain hamlet, with a ninth-century church, a single cobbled street and a collection of ramshackle houses that look as if they may crumble at any moment. With such intoxicating views and exhilarating trails, it seems a shame for this journey, and the whole trip, to end.

Sort has proved itself a more than worthy base for rambling through the mountains, floating downriver on inflatable vessels, squeezing through canyons and speeding downhill on a bike – all in beautiful surrounds. Plus if the dozens of spider-like people clambering up craggy overhangs are anything to go by, it’s not bad for climbing, too.

NEED TO KNOW

Helen travelled on Explore’s eight-day Active Pyrenees tour. The tour costs from £1097 per person, to include return flights; hotel accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis; some other meals; transport and the services of a tour leader and driver. For further information, or to book, visit www.explore.co.uk or call 0844 499 0901. 2015 tours depart June–September.

This year marks the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on board his ship Endurance to Antarctica. In an age when most people found a trip to Blackpool thrilling enough, he was setting off for Antarctica in a wooden schooner – not once, but four times. What bravery, madness and skills are required to explore Earth’s greatest southern wilderness? Emma Thomson boarded the Oceanwide Expedition-owned Ortelius for a ‘Basecamp Adventure’ to find out. 

After three days barreling through seesaw seas I made a key discovery that put a minor dent in my mission to be a Shackleton-esque explorer: I hated boats. Well, my stomach did.

Things had been ropey as we cruised out of Argentina’s Beagle Channel, but by the time we reached the foaming high seas of the Drake Passage – the 500 mile-wide channel separating South America from Antarctica – my sea legs were quivering columns that clung to my bunk bed like a monkey; the waves that washed our porthole windows meagre in comparison to the swells of nausea that rose in my throat.

Ernest Shackleton's Ship Endurance Trapped in Ice, AntarcticaShackleton’s ship, Endurance, trapped in ice

Still, when we reached the relative calm of the Antarctic Peninsula my belly settled a little and the sight of the snow-clad mountains reinvigorated my bravado.

Our motley crew of novice adventurers gathered in the theatre for our first lecture: penguin etiquette. Shackleton would have scoffed slightly – he and his crew ate most of flightless birds they encountered – but attitudes have understandably changed since 1914.

“Give them a five-metre berth and disinfect your boots every time you get on and off the ship, so we don’t spread potentially fatal diseases. Any questions?” finished our French expedition leader Delphine, scanning the crowd. A hand shot up at the front of the theatre. “How do you disengage a penguin?” asked the hand. We all craned to see Samer – a softly spoken computer analyst from St Louis, Missouri – slinking down in his seat as laughter erupted around the room. “Disengage?” Delphine echoed, perplexedly. “Er, I mean, what do you do if it approaches you?”  “Ah! That’s fine; just stay still and don’t touch.

Gentoo penguin and tourist, Antarctic Peninsula, ArgentinaGentoo penguin and tourist, by Emma Thomson

With the rules for penguin engagement clear, we embarked on a slightly more modern activity – kayaking. We were all quietly confident having had some prior experience, but out here a quick flip into the freezing water can be deadly. “Stay close to me at all times,” warned Louise our instructor.

Plugged into the small boats we started to wend our way through the bergs, their icy mass glowing beneath the water’s surface. “Wait for me,” called out Sam, a British Indian with a superb handlebar moustache. He powered his paddle into the water, but ripples from another kayak sent him rocking. “Whoaaaa!” he yelped, as he sploshed sideways into the waves. “Capsize!” yelled his cabin buddy. The zodiac on standby whizzed over, hauled him out of the water and sped him back to the ship to warm up. He was fine, but his moustache drooped sadly.

Kayaking, Port Lockroy, Antarctica, ArgentinaKayaking in Antarctica, by Emma Thomson

That night, Delphine decided the weather was good enough for us to camp wild on the snow. When the Endurance finally succumbed to the crushing weight of the ice that surrounded her, Shackleton and his men only had a few provisions and the fur gloves and chunky fishermen’s jumpers they wore to protect them from the elements. We, on the other hand, were given a roll mat, an inflatable Therm-a-Rest mattress, two sleeping bags, a cotton liner, and a waterproof cover each. But the wind still whistled around us and, as night fell, snowflakes began to fall from the sky. This was getting closer to following in the great man’s footsteps.

Finally came the mountaineering. Our beginner group hiked safely up the mist-covered mountain, but drama unfolded among the intermediates. Jorden – an Aussie from Perth – was peering over the side of a 40ft mint-blue crevasse when the ice gave way. Only the rope around his waist and a swing of his axe into the wall saved him from plummeting into the chasm. He dug his toes in, scrambled over the ledge and lay on the snow panting and shivering with nerves.

This glimpse into Shackleton’s beloved “frozen south” had given me even more respect for him and his team – surviving in Antarctica takes skills we’d never learn in a few days, but it had been the trip of a lifetime trying.

For more information about the 12-day Basecamp Adventure visit www.keadventure.com. To get there, Air Europa flies daily from London Gatwick to Buenos Aires via Madrid. Connecting flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia are offered by Aerolineas Argentinas.
Explore more of Argentina with the Rough Guide to Argentina. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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.

Explore the world from your chair with the Rough Guides YouTube Channel. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

During a wet weekend in Wales, Lottie Gross is bowled over by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s natural beauty and learns how to enjoy this coastline’s many adventures in a responsible and sustainable way.

The rain is like a thousand tiny pins attacking my face with brute force. There’s a small stream making its way down my brow, culminating in a mini waterfall at the end of my nose and the relentless wind trying to throw me to my death as the waves batter the black rocks below. Conditions are far less than ideal, yet I’m still voluntarily standing here, staring out to sea, marvelling in the blue-green waters and spellbound by the view across Pembrokeshire’s Blue Lagoon, after an adrenaline-cocktail of cliff jumping, coastal walking and kayaking.

This isn’t the first time today that I’ve stood, soaked to the bone, in awe of the sheer black cliffs and astonishingly blue seas along this 186 mile-stretch of coastline, and I’m not the only one to have ever done such a thing. A staggering 4.2 million tourists visit Pembrokeshire Coast National Park each year and the attraction is obvious. Not only do the lichen-covered black, brown and yellow hued cliffs make for a spectacularly dramatic backdrop to the beaches, but the array of wildlife – hundreds of bird species, seals and even orcas – and quaint fishing villages nestling within the bays are a huge draw for holidaymakers. And then there are the adventure sports.

Strumble HeadPhoto courtesy of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

This entire coastal expanse is like a gigantic playground for adults and children alike, and especially for those with an adrenaline addiction. I’ve spent my weekend at Preseli Venture, an eco-lodge near the small ferry port town of Fishguard. I’ve donned a borrowed neoprene wetsuit and hesitantly jumped into the 10ºC (50ºF) waters to see the rocks and sea life up close. I’ve nervously scrambled across crags and up small cliffs – without ropes and harnesses, might I add – to launch myself from the top just for the thrill of it, and I’ve kayaked into caves that could serve as the perfect setting for Mordor in Lord of the Rings (while one does not simply walk into Mordor, it seems a kayak does the job just fine here).

There’s opportunity for wind, kite and conventional surfing, and even the coastal walks offer a slightly more manageable adrenaline fix as the excellently maintained paths often stray a little too close to the edge of a 40ft drop for comfort. This place is so unsurpassable as an adventure sports hub that Red Bull chose the Blue Lagoon, where I’m standing now watching a group of young coasteerers navigate the sharp rocks in pursuit of a platform to jump off, as one of seven prime locations for the World Cliff Diving Championships in 2012.

But while this booming adventure tourism industry does wonders for the local economy, it has its downsides too. The natural landscapes and wildlife habitats are in danger of being destroyed, and tourism increase and development is one of the two major contributing factors.

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is home to the smallest city in the UK; the quaint village-like St Davids with its impressive ruined Bishop’s Palace and hill-side cathedral has remained pleasantly small, much like many of the towns and villages in the area, thanks to strict planning rules imposed by the park authorities. But as they stave off any unwanted and damaging development to help keep the environment as natural as possible, Park Ranger Ian Meopham explains to me how visitor numbers pose another challenge.

“Coasteering is becoming more and more popular, our sea kayaking is right up there; it’s one of the best in the world. So, when you come to do to those activities you don’t expect to be part of a herd, you don’t expect to arrive and have to queue because that’s not what you’re paying for.

DCF 1.0Photo courtesy of Preseli Venture

“So there’s pressure from private landowners and the National Trust to maintain an experience for everybody. It’s about making sure that everybody gets a fair cut of the pie.”

The National Park works with the Outdoor Charter to regulate the local adventure tourism industry. They monitor everything, from licensing, safety and quality of instructors, to restricting numbers of people in certain areas that are at risk at particular times of year. The Blue Lagoon is one of those areas as seal pups are born here from August to December, meaning there are some months when no one can have the pleasure of exploring this striking physical environment at sea level – a necessary sacrifice nonetheless.

Just around the corner from this cliff diving hotspot, Ian shows me another stark reality facing the Pembrokeshire coast on Abereiddi beach. As we turn the corner, men in high-vis jackets are milling about on the beach and an enormous digger is poised, ready to demolish the remains of a seawall that’s been standing here for forty years – “an experiment that went wrong” according to Ian.

WhitesandsPhotograph courtesy of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Climate change is helping the sea reclaim the land; water-levels are rising at a rate of 2mm per year here, cottages overlooking the beach have been abandoned since the 1940s and a 200-vehicle car park on the seafront has now been destroyed thanks to extreme storms in the last few months.

Ian told me how locals were outraged and disappointed at the final destruction of the car park by the county council, as such easy accessibility had opened the bay to all ages: “It was great for granny and granddad who could sit and watch the sunset over the seafront in comfort, or for families with kids who wanted to park up and explore on foot.” But I couldn’t help thinking it was a good thing – it’s returning the bay to its wild, original form and allowing the sea to take a natural course. Perhaps I’m defeatist, but I wonder if there is any use in trying to fend off the ocean’s design.

Of course, there is no quick fix to eliminate climate change, but Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is trying to encourage responsible living and holidaying to better preserve the area’s future. Preseli Venture, my home for the last few days, is the first eco-friendly accommodation in the park. Using Ecotricity (electricity from wind turbines), a ground source heat pump (which takes the natural warmth from the earth and uses it towards the building’s central heating) and solar panels, the lodge itself is entirely sustainable.

Looking South from PenberryPhotograph courtesy of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Excited by all things eco, they urged me to come from London by the First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales – a surprisingly efficient way of getting to Wales from the capital – and fed me only locally-sourced meat (and booze – their selection of Welsh beers and spirits was a sure bonus; I’d recommend the Tomos Watkin’s ale or Brecon Gin).

A resolve for the preservation of this environment is evident throughout local businesses; the Sloop Inn is like a small museum to its Porthgain location with various photographs and keepsakes from the surrounding areas on display, and serves up a mean locally caught crab sandwich – the council even runs a shuttle bus service along the coastal back roads, making responsible car-free holidays an easy option.

I’m watching history unfold before my eyes as the workmen prepare to dismantle the old seawall and as the crystal clear waves lap over the slate-and-pebble beach, I understand why this is such a popular holiday destination, and why it must be preserved so carefully by Ian and his colleagues at the National Park and Trust. If it’s this beautiful and spellbinding now, in such dreary and harsh conditions, then I wonder what it looks like with sunshine and blue skies. I’ll have to come back in summer.

For more information on how to explore this striking coastline go to visitpembrokeshire.com. Explore more of Wales with the Rough Guide to Wales. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. For the best value train tickets and offers buy before you board at www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk, telephone 03457 000125 or download their free mobile app. Advance single fares from London Paddington to Cardiff are available from £18.30 each way. The remainder of the journey to Pembrokeshire can be booked with Arriva Trains Wales www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk  

The famous poet and author of the Slovene national anthem France Prešeren once wrote this about the famous Lake Bled:

“No, Carniola has no prettier scene
Than this, resembling paradise serene.”

But after five days, over 400km, countless wine tastings and an ungodly amount of food, I have concluded that he was wrong. During my short time in Slovenia, I found plenty of places in this small but intoxicating country that will take more breaths away than Bled ever could. Of course I’m not saying don’t visit Lake Bled, it is indeed the fairy tale setting we see in brochures and on adverts, but venture further afield (which isn’t far at all in this compact country) and you’ll find sprawling vineyards in Ljutomer-Ormož, Slovenia’s answer to Tuscany, small cities flooded by culture and interesting art by local sculptors, a Roman legacy and more outdoor sports and adventure activities than you’ll have time for. And what’s more, in spring time, it’ll feel like you’ve got the entire country all to yourself. Here are five things to do in Slovenia in spring:

Cycling and paragliding in Logarska Dolina

Logarska Dolina, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

If there is anywhere to rival Bled’s beauty it’s here. Cutting through the Savinja Alps near the Austrian border, Logarska Dolina is one of three impressive valleys. Driving into the valley is probably the most impressive part; having navigated the tight, winding mountain roads and followed a small bright-blue river for miles, we turned into Logarska and were dumbfounded by the view that opened up before us. An expanse of green grass, bordered by tall, pine-blanketed mountains, and an enormous grey cliff face baring down on us from the southern end – and no people in sight.

Once you’re over the view (if you can ever get over it), there’s a wealth of sports and activities to keep you occupied. After a lunch of trout, caught fresh from the Soca river, and locally-picked mushrooms at the Rinka visitor centre – just a ten minute drive north of Logarska – we hopped onto an electric bike to find the waterfall at the end of the valley. We cycled along the tarmac track, which in summer is usually littered with other cyclists, walkers and cars, completely alone except for two other walkers. It was peaceful, the sun was shining, the air was fragrant with pine and the ride was easy (thanks to the electric motor in my bike, of course – I dread to think how I’d have fared without it).

See more of Lottie’s pictures:

We left the bikes at the road to continue on foot, and fifteen minutes later we stood in the refreshing spray of a 90-metre-high waterfall – just what I needed. The ride back down to the rental hut was fast and cool, and while I’d been won over by the dizzying heights of the Savinja Alps towering over me, I had heard the view from above was unrivalled: it was time for some paragliding. Somewhere along the Panoramic Road, which snakes along the side of the valley, I strapped myself to a stranger and his parachute, and together we ran off the side of the mountains to glide over trees, a small scattering of farm houses and a lone church. I decided that paragliding was most definitely the best way to see Logarska Dolina.

Drink wine in the Drava Valley

The Drava Valley is the largest of Slovenia’s wine regions, producing mainly white grapes, and in pursuit of the region’s finest tipples we visited Jeruzalem, a small village in the Ljutomer-Ormož district. On the drive south from Ptuj, this renowned wine country rose out of the flat plains into undulous green hills, covered with newly-planted grapevines. We drove past small farmhouses teetering on the top of mounds, overlooking the elegant swirling lines of the vineyards beneath like a protective mother, and eventually we found our way to the Jeruzalem Ormož winery.

After standing in the fresh, sweet, grassy-smelling air, admiring the alluring view, we retired to the cellar to drink some of the finest wine I’ve ever tasted. Now I’m no wine expert, but there was something truly special about tasting a €250, 42-year-old bottle of Pinot while standing beneath an enormous old wooden wine press.

But of course that wasn’t our first tasting of the day – we’d spent the morning in Ptuj at the Pullus wine cellar where they keep enormous barrels of the stuff, some up to ten thousand litres in capacity. After six tastings of incredibly different but equally delicious wines, we packed four of their bottles into the car and went to lunch with a light head and a large appetite.

Overindulge in Ljubljana

Ljubljana, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

With such a small country comes a tiny capital; Ljubljana is home to only ten per cent of the Slovenia’s population of two million, but by no means is it short of culture, history or a good night out.

This year Ljubljana celebrates 2000 years since it became an important Roman settlement along a trade route from the Mediterranean coast. So in a bid to explore all-things-Roman and stuff our faces with great cake, we took a food tour around the city with Top Ljubljana Foods – and we came away with far more than just a full stomach. Five restaurants and eight tastings later we found ourselves towering above the city at Neboticnik (which means “skyscraper”), mapping our route on the streets below over some excellent Prekmurska Gibanica (a layered fruit cake), and admiring the snow-topped alps beckoning us from beyond.

We’d eaten seafood from the Slovenian coast in a restaurant by the fish market, sipped a rich red from the western wine regions in a famous bar, sampled a protected Carniolan sausage in a shop run by a watchmaker, eaten Bosnian barbequed meat and sipped Turkish coffee by the river. It was just a small taster of the 24 wildly different cuisines available in Slovenia and a history lesson in the city’s people and politics. We walked down the two most important streets in Roman Ljubljana, stood in squares where market traders used to be punished for cheating their customers and passed all kinds of architecture from classical houses in the old town, to the much-debated modern extension of the Opera house near Park Tivoli. Some of the buildings, simple as they were, spoke volumes about the country’s political discourse: we noted how TR3, an enormous, ugly grey tower block home to Slovenia’s banks, stood threateningly tall above the understated Parliament building.

Ljubljanica river, Ljubljana, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

Later that evening, despite the plethora of rock gigs and club nights at our disposal, we opted to enjoy a bottle of Slovenian red by the river (thanks to the city’s trusting open-bottle policy) and admire the illuminated medieval hill-top castle from below.

Taste the simple life on a tourist farm

Agriculture is a huge part of life in Slovenia; in 2005 there were over 70,000 farms across the country, producing some of the essential ingredients for their 176 traditional dishes, such as pumpkins for pumpkin seed oil and pork for dried meats. Hundreds of these estates open up their doors to tourists nowadays, giving people the opportunity to stay on working farm and experience the back-to-basic nature of agricultural life.

Firbas Tourist Farm, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

At Firbas Tourist Farm – run by Bojan and his parents – we ate only foods that were produced on their land and drank wine only from small local vineyard. As we stood, after dark, drinking a 22-year-old Pinot in his neighbour’s tiny eight-barrel cellar, we toasted with the farm boys, who’d just rocked up in a giant John Deere tractor (complete with bright lights and a booming sound system) after a hard day on the fields. They spoke little English, and my knowledge of Slovenian was too simple, but we communicated through our wine with a simple “cheers”, or “na zdravje”.

Have it all in Maribor

This small city of just 100,000 people really packs a punch. If you haven’t got time to get active in Logarska or drink wine in Jeruzalem, then spent your days in Maribor. It promises culture on par with the capital, with its jazz cafes and art exhibitions, and beauty to challenge even Bled’s picturesque landscapes. In just one day we ate a traditional Slovenian lunch of štefani pečenka (a beef meatloaf stuffed with a boiled egg), took a walking tour through the city to learn some of its history and politics, and visited the world’s oldest grapevine at 400 years old, from which grapes are harvested once a year during a festival and whose wine is given only to influential guests of the city (it’s rumoured that Pope John Paul II received two small bottles during his visit to the cellar).

World's oldest vine, Maribor, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

But the main surprise in Maribor is the city’s close connection with nature. Over the river sits Pohorje, a ski-resort-turned-adventure-playground in spring, where you can get the adrenaline going on two wheels at the Bike Park in the forest, or try your hand at the single track PohorJet which sends you hurtling down the ski slope at up to 30mph.

Just a five minute drive from central Maribor is the Drava Center, an eco-centre, built mainly from timber and chestnut wood from the surrounding forests, that offers water-based activities for children and adults along the Drava River. We spent the late afternoon watching the changeable April weather from grass-covered loungers on the Drava café balcony, sipping coffee and eating gibanica (a sweet cake made from pastry and cottage cheese), before venturing onto the waters in a canoe. The surrounding green hills made a perfect backdrop to the wonderfully blue waters around us, and for a brief moment the sun came out to warm us and I forgot we were anywhere near a major city at all.

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

Our writer Steve Vickers brings you the latest from the world of travel, including news of direct flights from Europe to Indonesia and an update on the surf park that’s making waves in northern Spain.

Pirate films inspire Chinese theme park

More details are beginning to emerge about the new Shanghai Disney Resort, and there’s some good news for film fans. The vast park, which opens in December 2015, will feature an entire zone themed around the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – a series of films which was actually originally inspired by a ride at Disneyland in California.

Disney says ‘Treasure Cove’ will include a state-of-the-art boat ride with characters and scenes “derived directly from the movies”. Ironically, many Chinese visitors will never have had the chance to see every film in the series; the second movie – Dead Man’s Chest – was buried by Chinese censors.

Jakarta, Indonesia

Europe to Jakarta non-stop

Indonesia’s national airline – once banned from landing within the EU because of safety concerns – is about to launch direct flights from Jakarta to Amsterdam. The reinvented Garuda Indonesia, which joined the Skyteam airline alliance earlier this month, will start operating non-stop flights between the two capitals on the 30th May using its fleet of brand-new Boeing 777s. The same planes will eventually continue to London Gatwick before returning to Jakarta (again via Amsterdam), but if you want to fly that stretch you’ll have to wait until September.

Scotland and the “joy of missing out”

A few years back, while researching a book for Rough Guides on the Isle of Mull, I had a head-on crash with another car. No one was hurt, but both cars were wrecked and it was miles to the nearest village. We looked to our mobile phones for help. No signal.

Rural road in Scotland

It’s a common problem in rural Scotland, where the infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the mobile revolution. But now the PR folks at Visit Scotland are hoping that this lack of connectivity – which they’re calling JOMO, or the “joy of missing out” – will attract tourists, rather than scaring them away. According to a recent trends report released by the tourist board, Scotland’s off-grid locations give visitors the chance to reject technology and seek ‘meaningful and emotional experiences’.

Though as the report itself admits, the majority of tourists would not see a forced digital detox as something desirable. And for as long as sites like Facebook and Tripadvisor remain a part of the modern travel experience – not to mention unfortunate mishaps like my car crash – that looks unlikely to change.

Airbus A380 feeling the squeeze

When the A380 superjumbo first took to the skies, much of the publicity centred on how spacious its economy class felt, compared with smaller planes. That could be about to change. According to a report on Runway Girl Network, Airbus is planning to raise the floor of the aircraft’s cabin slightly, giving airlines the opportunity to squeeze another seat into each row, increasing the total number from ten to 11. The change would leave enough room for 18-inch-wide seats (with a block of five in the middle) and make it possible for airlines to sell around 40 extra economy tickets per flight. Will the temptation be too much?

Wavegarden, Spain

New waves on the horizon

Huge artificial wave pools could soon be appearing across Europe, making it possible for surfers to hang ten year-round, even in places hundreds of miles from the nearest natural break. The first Wavegarden is currently being tested at a lagoon in northern Spain, and is kicking out consistently clean waves that peel for more than 200m. Similar centres are already being planned for Bristol in England and Varberg in southern Sweden, and there are rumours of wave parks opening in Portugal and France: two nations with no shortage of natural waves.

Russian visa rules could be relaxed

Western nations reacted to the tense situation in Crimea by imposing travel bans on high-profile Russians. Then, with impeccable timing, Russia announced it would be moving in the opposite direction – relaxing its visa rules in a bid to attract more visitors, including tourists from Europe and the USA. According to the Russian political newspaper Pravda, government officials will soon start reviewing a bill that proposes to streamline the visa application process and increase the maximum stay from 30 days to six months – which is, let’s face it, a much more practical amount of time exploring the world’s biggest country.

Final call

This month’s steaming slice of travel inspiration comes from Chris Arnold, who captures Vietnam’s tourist hotspots through a soft haze of rain, smog and lantern light.

V I E T from Chris Arnold on Vimeo.

See the ultimate travel inspiration here. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Cliff diving, Wales

Among the world’s most dangerous adrenaline sports, cliff diving sees athletes tumble, somersault and twist from insane heights of over 25m. One of the more nerve-jangling challenges can be found at the Blue Lagoon in Wales. This stop on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series requires divers to launch themselves from a narrow platform into the rocky cove below.

Cliff diving, Wales

Big-wave surfing, Hawaii

Pros flock to Hawaii every winter to surf the Pacific’s monster waves. One of the most famous breaks is Jaws, or Peahi, on the northern coast of Maui. Fearless riders are towed in to the 40ft-plus waves by jet ski, reaching speeds of 50mph as they race along the barrel. Wipe-outs are dangerous: a breaking wave can sometimes push surfers 30ft below the surface.

Big-wave surfing, Hawaii

Slacklining, USA

A team of ingenious climbers invented the sport of slacklining in Yosemite National Park over twenty years ago. In contrast to a stiff tightrope wire, the 5cm-wide slack rope moves and sways, making balance crucial. Those with nerves of steel walk thousands of feet above gullies held just by a small harness.

Slacklining, USA

Zorbing, UK

It might have been invented in New Zealand, but Brits really have fallen head-over-heels for this wacky sport. First you’ll need to zip yourself into an inflatable hamster ball – whether you’re harnessed, free to bounce around like a lottery ball or swishing about in water (hydro zorbing) – then you’re ready to throw yourself down a hill.

Zorbing, UK

Bull running, Spain

If the chance of being gored by a raging bull sounds like a reasonable risk, then the encierro at Pamplona’s Fiestas de San Fermín is the adrenaline activity for you. Each morning for nine days runners from around the world make a mad dash ahead of six bulls, racing for over 800m. The dangers are real: fifteen people have been killed in the past hundred years.

Bull running, Spain

Shark-cage diving, Australia

Fancy coming face-to-face with the gnashing jaws of a great white? Get yourself to the Neptune Islands, where you can be submerged for up to forty-five minutes with nothing but a metal cage to protect you from this fearsome, endangered predator. Expect a disquieting soundtrack of AC/DC; operators have found the vibrations attract the sharks.

Shark-cage diving, Australia

Luge, Germany

Nothing had us glued to the Winter Olympics like the drama on the perilously icy luge track, where fearsome athletes slid downhill at up to 80mph. Germany undoubtedly dominated the podium and you can follow in the team’s footsteps at the Königssee Luge Track with a small taste of the thrill on a “bobraft”.

Luge, Germany

White-water rafting, Nepal

Some of the world’s best white-water is found on Nepal’s ferocious ice-melt rivers. Challenges range from the comparatively gentle Trisuli to the grade four surf of the mighty Karnali. Experienced rafters might brave the “river of gold”, the Sun Koshi, whose worst rapids have gained the monikers “Meat Grinder” and “High Anxiety”.

White-water rafting, Nepal

Flyboarding, France

Thrill-seekers will never be satisfied. Unfulfilled as a jet-ski champion, Frenchman Franky Zapata decided to invent a new sport in 2011. The result was the flyboard, a water-powered jetpack that turns the wearer into a kind of dystopian superhero, firing them several metres skywards out of sea.

Flyboarding, France

Hang-gliding, South Africa

Table Mountain might be one of the world’s most-ascended peaks, but only the brave have soared from its 1000m-high summit, held up by nothing but thermals and a creaky hang-glider. If your nerves can stand it, the rewards are fantastic: views of the ocean and the Cape Peninsula set against the sapphire-blue South African sky.

 Hang-gliding, South Africa

Skydiving, New Zealand

While most of us will never reach the dizzying heights of Felix Baumgartner, plenty of aerial challenges remain. The 16,000ft drop over the Fox Glacier, New Zealand, has been voted one of the world’s most scenic skydives, second only to Everest, offering up to 65 seconds of awe-inducing free-fall above the dazzling Southern Alps.

Skydiving, New Zealand

Extreme kayaking, Chile

Thrill-seeking kayakers have literally taken the sport to new heights. Forget about tackling the odd eddy, the bravest paddlers now hurl themselves off waterfalls. White-water enthusiasts already flock to Chile for the Río Futaleufú’s foamy rapids, but Puma Falls on the Río Fuy offer a more terrifying challenge: a heart-stopping 100ft-plunge into a small, rocky pool below.

Extreme kayaking, Chile

Freediving, Indonesia

The crystal-clear waters off the paradise islands of Bali and Lombok offer the perfect conditions for freediving. Originally a technique used by spear-fishers and pearl-hunters, it’s now an extreme sport. Brave souls plunge underwater for several minutes on a single breath ­– down to depths of 200m – without an oxygen supply.

Freediving, Indonesia

Thai boxing, Thailand

There’s nowhere better to try your hand muay thai, otherwise known as thai boxing, than its home country. Referred to as “the art of eight limbs”, this vicious contact sport has been around since the nineteenth century. Little protection is allowed and elbows, knees and feet are all fair game; fighters often leave the ring on a stretcher.

Thai boxing, Thailand

Bungee-jumping, Macau, China

The futuristic Macau Tower holds the official Guinness World Record for the world’s highest commercial bungee jump and adrenaline junkies have been queuing up to make this terrifying 233m plummet since 2006. During the five-second freefall you can reach speeds of 200km/h, while for the ultimate rush, you can even take the plunge at night.

Bungee-jumping, Macau, China

Parkour, France

Parkour, or the art of movement, is credited to David Belle in 1990s France. Based on navy exercises and his love of martial arts, it involves leaping across roofs, scaling walls and somersaulting off balconies. A “traceur” or “traceuse” sees the urban environment as a playground: nothing gets in the way.

Parkour, France

Ice climbing, Norway

Ice climbing is the new challenge for the vertigo-unhindered. Norway has taken the edge with a yearly ice climbing festival in Rjukan, where there are over 150 frozen waterfalls and scores more artificially created structures to tackle. Get your pickaxe and crampons at the ready.

Ice climbing, Norway

Wingsuit base-jumping, China

The spectacular Tianmen Mountain in Hunan province provided the setting for last year’s World Wingsuit League. These flying-squirrel-like suits take base-jumping to the extreme, pushing the limit of how late the wearer can open their parachute. The British Parachute Association require over 200 skydives in 18 months to even qualify for this dangerous sport.

 Wingsuit base-jumping, China

Rodeo, Canada

Hold your horses! When the rodeo’s in town you’ll need nerves of steel before mounting a steed. Calgary’s annual stampede brings over a million spectators to the city and there’s seemingly no end to the dust-churning feats of endurance. Chaps and cowboy hats, naturally, are expected.

Rodeo, Canada

Wife carrying, Finland

Admittedly wife carrying doesn’t really qualify as an extreme sport, but we think this barmy 250m-long assault course is worth an honorary mention. The first annual Wife Carrying World Championship took place in Sonkajärvi, Finland, in the 90s and couples have been put to the test every summer since.

Wife carrying, Finland

Yes, Paris has the elegance of the Seine. Fine, London has the bustling Thames. And OK, Rome has the historic Tiber. Great waterways all, no doubt about it – but none of them is a match for what you can do on the ribbon of snow and ice that is Ottawa’s Rideau Canal in winter.

Because when the chill hits, an 8km stretch of water running through the heart of the city freezes and becomes the world’s largest natural ice-skating surface, the size of ninety Olympic-sized ice rinks. This is the signal for hearty Ottawans to bundle up, strap on their skates and head out onto the ice to play, glide past the sights of the nation’s capital and even commute to work. It’s all part of an annual ritual that has become a favourite winter pastime.

Completed in 1832, the whole of the Rideau Canal is actually much longer than the segment you can skate on in Ottawa. Its 202km-length connects the capital with Kingston, to the southwest, via a series of canals, rivers, lakes. In winter, though, the canal is best experienced in Ottawa during the annual Winterlude Festival, held during the first three weekends of February.

In the crisp bright of a Canadian winter the canal is a hive of activity. Thousands glide – and sometimes totter – about, a quick game of pond hockey breaks out on a more isolated stretch, figure skaters spin, speedskaters skim by, all metronome-like consistency, and everybody vies for a glimpse of world-renowned sculptors carving masterpieces from blocks of snow and ice.

As daylight gives way to an even chillier darkness, floodlights light up the canal and the icy spectacle becomes cosier and even more magical. Children – overbalanced either by lack of practice or thick winter clothing – zip precariously along, steaming cups of hot chocolate are sipped, kisses are exchanged and BeaverTails (don’t worry – they’re the fried, sweet pastry variety) are eaten. Everyone, it seems, is totally oblivious to the subzero temperatures. Who needs a beach when you can have this much fun on ice?

The National Capital Commission (613 239 5234 or 613 239 5000, www.canadascapital.gc.ca) maintains the Rideau Canal and has information on ice conditions and events; the canal is usually open for skating from mid-January. You can rent skates at kiosks along the canal.

 

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My favourite spot in Rio isn’t lying on Ipanema beach or watching the world go by sitting in the Copacabana Palace terrace. Nor does it involve hiking in the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, or snaking around the islands on a boat trip in Guanabara Bay. My favourite spot is unfamiliar to the casual tourist, because it’s difficult to find. You can’t even spot it from high up in the favelas or from the statue of Christ the Redeemer. In fact I’d really have to give you directions there.

Arpoador Beach is so central, it’s ridiculous to even call it out-of-the-way; it lies at the promontory junction of Ipanema and Copacabana. Yet the Copacabana Fort hides it from the east, while beachside hotels and shopping centres hide it from the west. You have to know it’s there rather than discover it casually, for you have to go to the eastern end of Ipanema and trustingly walk on.

What you’ll find there is Rio’s great social leveller: surfing. While the favela kids play football on cracked concrete and the middle classes compete in footvolley on the sandy beaches, everyone is equal when carving the surf of Arpoador. You can see the odd board in Ipanema – the word, after all, means something along the lines of ‘bad, disturbed water’ in Tupi-Guaraní ­–  where there are some easier breaks, but these are for the newbies. It’s in the rocky point of Arpoador where the elite come to ride the most powerful waves that regularly reach five or seven feet, especially in September and October.

Riding the waves in Rio

Like all gringos, I didn’t find this place for myself; I was taken there by a Brazilian. Edson wasn’t a Carioca local – he came from São Paulo – but he did surf. And one day he took me to Arpoador where I sat on a rock among many others and watched. It was there I acquired one of my insights into Brazilian culture: nothing you do is fully real, unless performed in public with panache. Did the surfers choose choppy Arpoador rather then the Praia do Diabo next door, because of its exceptional point breaks or because there is also a convenient rocky slope opposite, perfectly set for an audience?

Never mind, I was hooked. I still remember learning those surfing terms from Edson. “Look, they’re all firing now!” “Now, this is a cross-step and that was a cut-back.” “Boy, what a mullering.” I thought Edson’s English was funny but his surf talk was up there with  the pros; he’d competed abroad, in the States. During a lull he dived in, and I admired him for his kickflips, his skill and his foolhardiness.

I wanted to follow him, too. “Stay here a while, I’ll teach you,” he’d said. But you know how it is. I’d already spent one week in Rio. I wanted to see more of Brazil. I didn’t want to spend all my money on a sport I was unlikely to practice again.

Edson has now moved to Sydney, because the breakers are better there. I did visit him there once, but we eventually lost touch. During my travels I’ve visited other great surfing spots, from Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa to Biarritz in France. The sport even took off in Newquay nearer home. But I never learned to surf. So every time I end up in Rio, I make a point in returning to Arpoador, my favourite spot, to sit on the rocks and watch the surfers ride the breaks. Not only does it count as free entertainment, but for me it’s also half a day’s contemplation on how different things might have been for me.

Surfer in Rio

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