Taking a sabbatical often requires meticulous planning and a little bit of courage. In a new four-part series, Ros Walford draws on her own experience to explore why and how to take a sabbatical, and what to do with your career break.

The canoe slips silently upriver. Palms drape from the dense jungle along the banks into the tar-black water, leaves slicing through its silvery surface. With the sun sitting low, a red slash of high cloud burns across the sky and the only sounds are the lullaby of birdsong and monkey shrieks from high up in the tree canopy.

It’s a peaceful moment that ought to last forever but the vision is shattered by a babble of human voices and you’re back at your desk. Rain clouds are gathering outside the window. If only you could take a bit of time out: see the world, have the space to relax, collect your thoughts, and do the things you’ve always wanted to do. But the mortgage is lurking and the train prices keep rising, so the thought of giving up your job is way too risky.

Fortunately, there is a way to realise your dreams and have security. It’s called a sabbatical, ­or career break, and it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day.

A sabbatical is a kind of gap year for grown-ups who get to take their job back at the end of it. According to the dictionary, the word has a Biblical origin meaning a “Sabbath” time during which land is left fallow. It’s also a term for a period of leave traditionally granted every seven years to university lecturers to carry out research.

Today, it has come to mean an agreed period of – usually unpaid – leave for long-term employees for whatever purpose they choose, whether to travel, study, volunteer, spend time with family or otherwise. People who take career breaks tend to have a personal or professional aim because they appreciate that it’s a time-limited and probably one-off opportunity. However, the point of a sabbatical is that it’s a break – a rare moment in life when there is no pressure. The aim isn’t necessarily to achieve the goals but to have fun trying. It’s also an investment that may lead to future benefits.

In 2012, I jumped at the chance to take a sabbatical. I had served 9 years in the same company and felt that it was time to take a break from the routine and push myself in different ways. Once I’d plucked up the courage to ask my boss, the rest was easy. The boss agreed to my proposal and a few months later I packed up my belongings, headed off into the great unknown and didn’t look back until I was on the plane home a year later. The great unknown was South America, a place I’d fantasized about ever since school history lessons about the Incas and Aztecs put the continent onto my rudimentary world map. Sitting at my desk before my trip, I would never have imagined that I might find myself flying in a bi-plane over the Nazca lines, watching an avalanche at close range in Patagonia, or searching for anaconda in the Bolivian jungle.

I had some goals in mind: not simply to travel but to take my time and explore a region fully, to make a South American city my home, learn to speak Spanish fluently and acquire a new skill: teaching. For years, I had regretted not doing a TEFL course like several of my peers who had taught English abroad and this challenge would develop useful presentation skills and fine-tune my grammatical knowledge – all of which went down well with my company.

Sabbaticals are not just for the young and single. I met career-breakers of all types during my trip, including a French family with teenage children. They had taken advantage of a scheme offered in France to take their kids out of school for a year in order to travel. Their trip around South America was proving to be a bigger education than any classroom could offer, even though the children’s exam results that year may not have been as successful as usual. It was hard to tell if the moody teens were enjoying themselves as they moved from hostel to hostel, but it’s something they’ll probably look back on as a trip of a lifetime.

Ros at Machu Picchu

So what did I gain from my sabbatical experience? Well, I’ve learnt to appreciate what I have at home: my friends and family, a comfortable bed and good coffee. I have a host of new contacts and invitations to stay at homes around the world. I have thousands of beautiful photographs and happy memories. I feel slightly wiser and more self-sufficient, as I know I can get through demanding situations. I now know that I can teach, after all, and I understand some of the finer points of English grammar a little better. What I failed to achieve was total fluency in Spanish although I have improved. Ah well, as I said it’s the trying that counts…


Sabbaticals: the options >
Sabbaticals: testimonials >
For more help on planning your trip, use the 
Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Browse the Rough Guides ebook shop for guides to help you plan for trip.

Taking a sabbatical often requires meticulous planning and a little bit of courage. In the third of this four-part series, Ros Walford provides a little inspiration by giving the lowdown on just some of the many things you could do during a career break.

What would you do if you had the opportunity to take a career break? Learn to hang-glide or speak Russian? Write a bestseller? Travel the world by boat? There are as many options as there are fish in the sea and deciding on an itinerary is all part of the fun. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Study abroad

Imagine swanning from lecture hall to classroom in a baroque centre of learning in Rome, notebook tucked under one arm. Each day after your Italian class, you hop onto your moped and scoot off. You meet your friends, Luigi and Maria, in a tiny trattoria around the corner from the Fontana di Trevi where you dine and parlare Italiano the whole night long before returning to your rooftop apartment. You have not a care in the world except for which form of subjunctive to use.

Ok, so this may be a romanticized picture of life as a foreign student, but it could be close to reality if you make the right choice. If enrolling at a university is too much commitment, check out study holidays run by tour companies. They offer everything from cooking classes in Thailand to jazz workshops in the south of France, photography courses in Kenya or art classes in northern Spain. Be sure to find out if the course is suitable before you book – for example, is it aimed at beginners? How big is the group? What is the ratio of students to teachers? You can search for holiday courses around the world on golearnto.com.

Achieve a long-held ambition

Sabbatical leave could be your chance to put the skills you already have to good use. How wonderful to have the time to write that novel that you’ve had burning inside you for years! Take yourself off to a remote Greek island, where the only distractions are the azure Mediterranean Sea and the lure of a local taverna.

For academic types, this is the opportunity to carry out a research project, such as examining family genealogy or carrying out scientific fieldwork (see the Royal Geographical Society vacancies bulletin for fieldwork opportunities).

Adventure challenge

If you’re seeking adrenalin, take an adventure challenge. Perhaps you have always wanted to climb Everest, join a polar expedition, or circumnavigate the globe by unicycle. Whatever challenge you aim for can be done, if you’ve got the determination to see through your convictions. Help others at the same time by raising money for charity. Check out charitychallenge.com for some inspiration.

Travel

The easy one: make a destination wish-list, buy your tickets, pack your bags – and go! Choosing where to go may be your only dilemma, but what a delightful problem that is. Should it be the clamouring souks of Marrakesh or a tranquil teahouse trail in the Himalayas? How about a steamy boat trip along the Amazon delta? Once you’ve figured out your itinerary, you could be wending your way slowly overland through Asia, following the backpacker trail around Australia and New Zealand, or embracing lively Latino culture in Central America.

Buying plane tickets will give a structure to your trip but don’t be afraid of keeping your options open. There’s nothing quite like choosing your next destination on a whim. Don’t be put off if you have to travel alone – you’ll meet far more people and feel a huge sense of freedom.

Volunteer

Giving something back to the world can be immensely satisfying. There are thousands of volunteering opportunities available, from development to conservation programs. It’s an exciting way to see the world, meet new people and to live among cultures that are different to your own. You might find yourself caring for orphans in Calcutta, helping to build a new school or hospital in Bolivia, providing IT training in Uganda, or monitoring Orang Utan populations of Borneo.

Long-term programs such as those run by the international development organisation VSO seek volunteers with professional skills and qualifications to work on projects for up to two years. There are also numerous organizations seeking short-term volunteering positions. Check the website of the charity that you are interested in for details of their own scheme, sign up to an agency such as Cross-Cultural Solutions or Projects Abroad, or browse the internet for independent projects.

Work abroad

If you plan to work abroad, you might find a professional placement before you go, perhaps in another of your company’s offices or partner organisation. Medical, engineering and IT professionals are in demand globally and anyone with a skilled trade, such as hairdressing or carpentry, shouldn’t have any trouble finding opportunities for work. Otherwise, depending on where you go, there are usually casual jobs to be found, such as bar or restaurant work, working in a hostel or other tourism-related jobs, such as on cruise ships or in ski resorts.

Many people use teaching as a means to travel and live abroad. It’s possible to get casual posts for just a few months (with or without a teaching qualification depending on the location), although most teaching posts require a commitment of a year or more. There is a massive demand for English teachers in China and South Korea, where the pay is fairly good. If you don’t have a teaching qualification, it is wise to obtain a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, either in the UK or at a language school abroad. This intensive crash course (one-month full time or three-months part-time) will train you in the basics of teaching English. The most globally respected qualifications are the Cambridge Celta and Trinity CertTesol. See the British Council website for a list of accredited colleges and certificates.

For more information, also see:
Sabbaticals: why take a career break? >
Sabbaticals: the logistics >
Sabbaticals: testimonials >
For more help on planning your trip, use the Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Browse the Rough Guides ebook shop for guides to help you plan for trip.

 A career break isn’t just for the lucky few. In the second part of this four-part series, Ros Walford looks at the finer details to help you make it happen.

Deciding whether to take a career break is the hardest part. After that, all you need to do is plan. There is a lot to think about, but give yourself enough time, break the logistical tasks down into sizeable chunks and before you know it you’ll be waving goodbye to your colleagues and letting the adventure begin.

How to afford it

Before you do anything, do your maths. Can you afford it? How long could you realistically be out of work for? Think about how you could receive an income. Unless you have huge savings or a grant, you will need to find work for at least a few months or find a way to live very cheaply to eke out your savings. Or perhaps you don’t mind going into debt if you know that you have a well-paid job to go back to.

In an ideal world, you’ll own a property that you can rent out to cover the mortgage and provide some travelling money. Be sure to set aside some savings in a separate bank account to cover unexpected house costs. If you don’t have someone trustworthy to look after your property while you’re away, consider paying an estate agent to manage your flat. Although they charge hefty fees of upwards of 15% of the rental value for a full service, it may be a price worth paying.

If you don’t have rental income, don’t let it stop you. You could save more before you go, plan to work for longer whilst away, and/or consider cheaper destinations. You’ll also be free to roam without worries about tenants or leaky pipes.

How to convince the boss

If you are confident about your finances, waste no time in asking your company for leave of absence. Not all companies offer a sabbatical scheme and those that do usually state that any offer is at the discretion of management. A courteous approach would be to email your immediate boss to arrange a meeting during which you can put forward your case. If they agree in principle, they will probably ask you to submit a formal application.

It will help your case if you can justify a period away and highlight how it could potentially benefit your company. Describe how the experience could directly improve your professional skills. For example, teaching or community volunteer work could increase your confidence at public-speaking and people management. When travelling, you would have to learn to get along with people from all backgrounds and cultures, which could improve your teamwork. Learning a language would enable you to communicate directly with colleagues based in other parts of the world.

Understand the terms and conditions

You will receive a formal offer of leave or a rejection letter. Before accepting an offer, it is important to find out the terms and conditions offered by your company. Companies will normally only consider applications if the employee has worked there for a specified number of years. It’s rare that companies will offer paid leave and they will probably grant a time-limited period, usually anything up to one year, and expect you to return to work on an agreed date. Benefits, such as pensions, and bonus schemes will probably cease for the duration but your continuous service should still accrue. It’s possible for companies to make you redundant while you’re away and you should be able to opt to resign if you wish, giving the usual notice period.

If you are happy with the terms and conditions, agree dates and sign on the dotted line. That’s it – you’re going!

Planning your travels

If you’ve got to this point, the hard part is over. It’s all fun and excitement from here on out – although while dreaming of your next destination, don’t forget to do some of the travel essentials. Book your flights early to save money, investigate visa requirements (check the Foreign Office website for entry requirements and safety advice), and arrange vaccinations necessary.

If renting out your home, you may need to store your lifetime of belongings somewhere else. There are different types of storage, and storage in a secure warehouse unit is more expensive. The advantage is that it’s accessible to a nominated person while you’re away. Crates or shipping containers are a cheaper option but they are sealed shut until you collect.

Finally, you have to think about packing. Take only the essentials and don’t underestimate how much technology can help you on your trip – whether it’s emailing home or using the GPS to help find your hotel. Use these packing tips to help you decide what to take, and learn a few of these travel hacks to make your journey that much smoother.

Once you’re fully prepared, there’s nothing left but to organise your farewell party and let the sabbatical countdown begin.

For more information, also see:
Sabbaticals: why take a career break? >
Sabbaticals: the options >
Sabbaticals: testimonials >
For more help on planning your trip, use the Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World.

Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Browse the Rough Guides ebook shop for guides to help you plan for trip.

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

Photography © 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

Photography © 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.

Photography © 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.

Photography © 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).

Photography © 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. 

Characterised by rolling views of green countryside and English pubs, hotels and shops, a trip to the Cotswolds shows off a delightfully relaxed side of Britain. It’s the perfect place to simmer down the pace of life and get close to nature, but it’s not just bracing country walks on offer. From kid-friendly farm centres to quirky theatres to the UK’s only crocodile zoo, here are ten great things to do in the Cotswolds. 

GO ANTIQUE SHOPPING IN BURFORD

Known as the ‘gateway to the Cotswolds’ and mentioned in the Domesday book, the town of Burford is a postcard-perfect entry point. For food or accommodation try The Lamb Inn (not to be confused with the Crawley venue mentioned below), with its snug fire in the front area, or The Bay Tree. The local architecture is stunning, plus it’s a rich place for antique hunting. Start at the Burford Antique Centre and Gateway Antiques, both found on the Burford Roundabout, plus venues such as The George on the main high street.

GO TO THE UK’S ONLY CROCODILE ZOO

The sleepy, leafy village of Crawley, found in the heart of David Cameron’s home constituency, doesn’t seem like an obvious location for the country’s only crocodile zoo. Yet Crocodiles Of The World opens every Saturday and Sunday here from 10am-5pm. It’s home to over 80 crocs, boasting a glass underwater viewing section and opportunities to handle some of the baby animals. It’s a fairly small set-up so doesn’t take long to enjoy – The Lamb Inn nearby offers a charming stop-off for lunch and the town of Witney, featuring shopping centres and a cinema, is a short drive up the road.

CATCH A SHOW AT ONE OF BRITAIN’S SMALLEST THEATRES

A hub of inclusive artistry, the Theatre in market town Chipping Norton is a pleasure to visit, whatever happens to be showing there. Opened by former Dr Who actor Tom Baker in 1975, with 213 seats the theatre is one of the smallest and most charming in the country. A wide variety of plays are shown as well as films, comedy gigs and live music, while their non-starry Christmas pantomime is a Cotswolds institution. They also put on affordable workshops and hold art exhibitions in the building, so check the website for what’s on.

GET COSY AT A COUNTRY PUB

The Cotswolds is swimming in fantastic country inns perfect for sunny Sunday lunches in gardens or cosy winter sessions. Many of these are the only eating and drinking venues in Oxfordshire’s plethora of charming villages, such as The Royal Oak in Ramsden (try the smoked haddock “smokies” dish) and The Plough in neighbouring Finstock. Go to the latter on Christmas Eve and you’ve got a good chance of catching the Finstock Mummers: a group of local men who act out a traffic-stopping comedic seasonal tale in the street out front. Be sure to try some local real ales. Offerings from Hook Norton Brewery are wonderful and most pubs will have special local guest beers.

STROLL THE GROUNDS AT BLENHEIM PALACE

Picture-perfect in the summer, bracingly beautiful in the autumn and unforgettably atmospheric in the pouring rain, a walk in the grounds of Blenheim Palace always feels special. Tourists usually head near the palace where there are exhibitions, a butterfly house, eateries, a maze and the lovely Formal Garden. It’s a great destination, but much of the joy of Blenheim is taking a walk on the outskirts of the estate. From the centre of Combe village take Park Road and park in the layby at Combe Lodge. Go through the “kissing gate” and turn either right or left for a touch more than an hour’s walk round the grounds.

DISCOVER THE MAIZE MAZE

Boasting over four miles of path and shaped as a dragon and a wizard in past years, the ‘maize maze’ at Hidcote Manor Farm is a memorable day out. Every summer the venue opens an eight-acre maze in a different shape, with customers walking around bearing flags and attempting to find their way out. Created by American horticulturist Major Lawrence Johnston, the farm is worth a visit even when the maze isn’t up and running, with its secret gardens and beautiful picnic spots.

SAMPLE FARM LIFE

A taste of farm life is essential for anyone wanting insight into the Cotswolds and Cotswold Farm Park, run by farmer and TV presenter Adam Henson, offers just that. It’s a working farm where guests can see rare cattle breeds plus it has a conservation area, viewing tower and a barn where you can touch some of the animals. There are further child-friendly activities such as driving electric tractors and a zip wire.

MEET ANIMALS AT COTSWOLD WILDLIFE PARK

A cut above many of the UK’s zoo-style venues and found two miles south of Burford, this park showcases some incredible creatures as well as the Cotswold’s natural green beauty. Strolling around the park feels at times like perusing the grounds of a stately home rather than a zoo. There are big cats, camels, penguins, rhinos and the usual creepy crawlies you’d expect, plus a kid-friendly children’s farmyard and adventure playground. Another popular activity for kids is the brass rubbing in the park’s manor house.

SEE NAGS TRADING AT THE STOW ON THE WOLD HORSE FAIR

Another picturesque Cotswold market town, Gloucester’s Stow On The Wold is worth visiting for an afternoon with no particular plan. The market square found in the centre of town is a great starting point from which to explore the inviting pubs, pretty streets with endearingly quirky shops and restaurants. However, plan your timing well and you could experience one of the area’s most impressive spectacles: the horse fair. Taking place twice a year, the event is a huge meet and greet for the travelling community, with many heading to the town from all over the country to buy and sell horses. It takes place on the nearest Thursdays to May 12 and October 24 each year.

GET CLOSE TO NATURE ON A CORNBURY PARK WALK

While the Cotswolds boasts many fantastic farms and park areas geared up for tourists, enjoying the simple pleasures of a country walk there is just as enjoyable. One of the most beautiful such walks takes you through the 1700-acre grounds of Cornbury Park that surround the manor that’s home to Lord and Lady Rotherwick. A stroll from the village of Finstock through the grounds to Charlbury takes in views of deer and the river, with a wealth of country pubs in the latter town where you reward yourself with lunch.

To explore more of the Cotswolds and surrounding areas, use the Rough Guide to BritainBook hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

May is the perfect time to travel in the northern hemisphere. With the weather warming up, fewer tourists and lower prices than the peak summer months, the beaches of the Caribbean and the Med are prime targets, but there’s plenty going on elsewhere. From New Orleans jazz to a whale shark festival in Australia, here are our suggestions for the best places to visit in May.

Hike the Inca Trail, Peru

May is one of the best months to visit Peru and especially Machu Picchu – the rainy season has ended, but the valleys are still green and lush and the big crowds don’t arrive until June. Hiking the Inca Trail is the best way to see the “Lost City of the Incas”, though you’ll still need to plan ahead for a May visit; no more than 500 people (including support staff) per day are allowed on the trail, so you need to get permits months in advance. Anyone moderately fit can handle the route – most guided walks cover just 26 miles (42km) in four days, though there are some steep sections and you’ll be sleeping at over 3000 metres. Still, few sights in the world can match that first glimpse of the mist-shrouded ruins at dawn.

Meet bushrangers and whale sharks in Western Australia

May is the beginning of winter, or the dry season, in most of Western Australia, with long days of sunshine and clear blue skies. It’s a fun time to visit the northern coast, where the annual Whaleshark Festival in Exmouth marks the return of these gentle marine giants to Ningaloo Reef. Parties, live music and a float parade are enhanced by discounted tours to see the whale sharks themselves as they bask over the reef. Further south, the Moondyne Festival celebrates the life of Moondyne Joe, Western Australia’s legendary bushranger who had an uncanny ability to slip out of his prison cell. Held annually on the first Sunday in May, you’ll witness reenactments of Joe and his gang running around town robbing stores, as well as plenty of coppers, spirited floozies and swaggies.

Celebrate crickets, crossbows and candles in Tuscany and Umbria, Italy

Tuscany is another hugely popular summer destination best experienced in May, before things really start getting busy. The weather is perfect, and the region hosts a series of whimsical, raucous festivals with roots in the distant past. In Florence, the attention (briefly) moves off the Renaissance and onto real live crickets at the Festa del Grillo in Cascine Park, where vendors sell the jumpy bugs in decorated cages before they are released, en masse, into the grass. The Middle Ages are recreated at several crossbow festivals and competitions, the best of which are the Giostra dell’Archidado in gorgeous Cortona, and the Balestro del Girifalco in Massa Marittima. Across in equally enticing Umbria, the Corso dei Ceri in Gubbio is one of Italy’s most spectacular and oldest festivals, where competing teams from the city’s three districts race up the mountain carrying 9m-high wooden “candles”.

Explore Crete without the crowds, Greece

Part of Greece, the island of Crete is a beguiling destination, virtually a country apart basking in the eastern Mediterranean. May is a great time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds; you can expect discounted room rates and warm, comfortable days and cool evenings, with more rain in the first half of the month. For the longest sandy beaches head to the north coast, or hike the spectacular Samariá Gorge in the south.  You should also spend a few days soaking up Crete’s incredibly rich culture, the Minoan palaces of Knossos and Phaistos, old towns like Chaniá and the poignant Arkadi Monastery.

Sample Czech beer and classical concerts in Prague, Czech Republic

One of Europe’s most beautiful cities all year round, Prague truly dazzles in May when its gardens and hanging baskets are full of blooms, its magnolia trees blossom and the tantalising Prague Spring Music Festival delivers three weeks of high-quality symphony, opera and chamber concerts. Attending one of them is the best way to appreciate the magnificent Smetana Hall, inside the Municipal House. If all that culture wears you down, you can take solace at the Czech Beer Festival, seventeen days of sampling seventy brands of Czech beer, hearty food from Czech chefs, butchers and bakers and live music every day – rock, not classical.

Be a beach bum in the Bahamas

May is the best time of the year to visit the Caribbean, especially the Bahamas. Around this time rates start to drop, the weather is still good, the water is warm and there is no chance of a hurricane. It’s hot, but not yet the burning heat of summer and, more importantly, humidity is low and there are virtually no bugs or mozzies. Basically, it’s perfect beach weather, with islands such as Eleuthera prime hunting ground for idyllic strips of sand: Pink Sands Beach on nearby Harbour Island is one of the most spectacular beaches in the world.

Binge on the arts in Brighton, UK

Brighton’s beaches may not be in the same league as the Bahamas, but the trendy seaside town springs to life in May for its annual arts festival, one of England’s largest. The Brighton Fringe Festival and the Great Escape (Europe’s leading festival for new music) run at the same time, adding to the artsy atmosphere, and you can even peek inside over two hundred normally closed venues, houses and studios owned by local artists thanks to the Artists Open House concept, which runs at weekends throughout the festival.

Jive at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, USA

New Orleans is a fabulous city to visit any time, but early May is especially good for two reasons: it’s warm and sunny, but not humid and sticky as in the peak summer months; and Jazz Fest, a ten-day cultural extravaganza which takes place every year April–May, is at its height. In addition to a huge array of live performances in genres that range from jazz and blues to R&B, folk, rock and rap, the festival also includes the Louisiana Heritage Fair, featuring Cajun cuisine and arts and crafts from around the region.

Soak up the sun in Morocco

Just before the onset of the country’s sweltering summer heat waves, May is an ideal month to explore Morocco. Though the Mediterranean coast is warm enough to sunbathe on, cities like Marrakesh and Essaouira enjoy warm spring days and refreshingly cool nights, while temperatures in the Sahara are still tolerable. Alternatively, head to El-Kelaâ M’Gouna, a small town in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, for the Rose Festival. Three days of traditional song, dance, sword-fighting, feasting and even a beauty pageant of sorts celebrate the end of the rose harvest season in the nearby Vallée des Roses – a region blanketed in pink flowers every spring.

Pixabay / CC0

Tackle a trek in Nepal

If you’ve ever wanted to trek the Himalayas, May is one of the better months to do it. June’s rains have yet to pick-up and visibility from the altitudes you’ve endeavoured to climb is usually clear. Some of the tourist hotspots do get busy this month, but that’s all the more reason to veer off the beaten path. Buddha’s birthday falls around mid-May and while it is celebrated across Nepal, each region and minority group often has it’s own special way of celebrating – allowing for a completely unique cultural experience wherever you decide to venture.

This feature was updated in March 2016.

Sri Lanka has many unexpected sights, but few are as surreal as early morning in Haputale. As dawn breaks, the mists that blanket the town for much of the year slowly dissipate, revealing the huddled shapes of dark-skinned Tamils, insulated against the cold in woolly hats and padded jackets, hawking great bundles of English vegetables – radishes, swedes, cabbages and marrows – while the workaday Sri Lankan town slowly comes to life in the background, with its hooting buses and cluttered bazaars.

As the mists clear and the sun rises, the tangled ridges of the island’s hill country come slowly into view to the north, while to the south the land falls dramatically away to the lowlands below, with the far-off view of the coast and its sweltering Indian Ocean beaches faintly visible in the distance. As an image of Sri Lanka’s unexpected juxtapositions, Haputale has few peers, and to stand shivering on a hilltop within a few degrees of the equator, watching a scene reminiscent of an English market town crazily displaced in time and space, is to understand something of the cultural and physical contradictions of this fascinatingly diverse island.

The contradictions continue in the countryside beyond Haputale, as the road twists and turns up into the sprawling British-era plantations of the Dambatenne Tea Estate, whose antiquated factory is filled with the ingenious Victorian mechanical contraptions which are still used to process the leaves brought in from the surrounding estates. For the British visitor particularly, there is always the faint, strange nostalgia of seeing the legacy of one’s great-great-grandparents preserved in a distant and exotic tropical island. But there is also the subversive awareness that the hillsides of Haputale, once colonized by the British, have now reached out and quietly conquered distant parts of the world in their turn, filling the teabags and chai shops of countries as varied as England, Iran and India, with a taste that is purely and uniquely Sri Lankan.

Haputale can be reached by train from Colombo (9hr) and Kandy (5hr 30min). Accommodation is limited to a handful of guesthouses: try the excellent Amarasinghe Guest House ( +91 (0) 57 2268175).

 

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You’ve had a satisfying day or two’s heavy sightseeing in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. You’re culturally replete – but have a nagging feeling that you’ve missed something. The locals. Just what the hell do they do in this metropolis of fifteen million souls?

To find out, head across the Golden Horn to Independence Street (İstiklal Caddesi), the nation’s liveliest thoroughfare. Lined with nineteenth-century apartment blocks and churches, and with a cute red turn-of-the-twentieth-century tramway, it was the fashionable centre of Istanbul’s European quarter before independence, and it is now where young Istanbulites (it has the youngest population of any European city) come to shop, eat, drink, take in a film, club, gig and gawk, 24/7.

By day, bare-shouldered girls in Benetton vests, miniskirts and Converse All Stars mingle with Armani-clad businessmen riding the city’s financial boom, and music stores and fashion boutiques blare out the latest club sounds onto the shopper-thronged street. At night the alleyways off the main drag come to life. Cheerful tavernas serve noisy diners (the Turks are great talkers) wonderful meze, fish and lethal raki. Later, blues, jazz and rock venues, pubs and clubs burst into life – with the streets even busier than in daylight hours. You won’t see many head-scarved women here, and the call to prayer will be drowned by thumping Western sounds. But though Islam may have lost its grip on Istanbul’s westernized youth, traditional Turkish hospitality survives even on Independence Street, and you may find yourself being offered a free beer or two. This is Istanbul’s happening European heart; no wonder it has been heralded as “Europe’s Hippest City”.

From Sultanahmet take a tram to Karaköy then the Tünel funicular railway to the bottom of Independence Street; both close at around 9pm. Return to Sultanahmet by taxi after midnight.

 

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Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.

 

Convertibles sell better in Britain than in much of the Mediterranean. That might make it sound like the inhabitants of this damp island are stupid. A kinder explanation is that they just enjoy the sunshine when it comes – an impression that will have struck anyone who’s attended a pop festival in the UK with the force of a stage diver. The tales of the rains that swallowed tents at Glastonbury in 2005 and turned 2008’s Bestival into a treacherous mudbath rapidly acquired legendary proportions. When the sun shines and the right band are onstage, people tell fewer stories, but the smiles are as broad as they come. And Green Man, which has had its share of blissful warmth and endless drizzle, is the pick of the festive crop.

Sat between Abergavenny and the Brecon Beacons, its estate location feels classically picturesque, but hills including the iconic Sugar Loaf rear around the site, giving that touch of the wilderness. Its capacity (10,000 at last count) is big enough to bestow a sense of occasion but small enough to mean you might manage to find your tent and friends, which will prove a relief to anyone who’s spent hours trekking Glastonbury’s acres. There’s no big branding here, and the staff spend more time helping you out than telling you what you can’t do – even the toilets are decidedly bearable. Green Man also manages the neat trick of being family- and hedonist-friendly – the DJ tent booms through the witching hours, but kids will enjoy the stalls, gardens and children’s parades.

Indeed, while many festivals that try to be all things to all people end up tying themselves in knots, Green Man pulls out some crackers. There aren’t many stadium headliners here, but the intriguing assortment of folk veterans, psychedelic hipsters and bluesy rockers have been picked by organisers who care deeply about their music. They’ve seen Animal Collective get the crowd frugging to swelling math-rock, Richard Thompson play nimble songs of love and loss, Bon Iver bring his Vermont laments to a sunny Saturday and Spiritualized rock out in the downpour. Worth the risk of rain? You bet.

Green Man takes place every year, generally in late August. See www.greenman.net for more details.

 

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