Even in a country as scenic as Scotland, you might not expect to combine travelling by train with classic views of the Scottish Highlands; the tracks are down in the glens, after all, tracing the lower contours of the steep-sided scenery.

But on the West Highland line, there’s a lot to take in. The scenery along this route is both epic in its breadth and compelling in its imagery.

West Coast Highland Railway by Michael Day (CC License

The trip starts at a very sedate pace in a fairly workaday train carriage from the centre of Glasgow and its bold Victorian buildings.

Then you head along the banks of the gleaming Clyde estuary, up the thickly wooded loch shores of Argyll, across the desolate heathery bogs of Rannoch Moor and deep into the grand natural architecture of the Central Highlands, their dappled birch forests fringing green slopes and mist-enveloped peaks.

You can always get out for a wander, too; some of the stations are so remote that no public road connects them, and at each stop, a handful of deerstalkers, hikers, mountain bikers, photographers or day-trippers might get on or off.

Mallaig to Fort William by Matt Sharpe (CC license)

After a couple of hours, the train judders gently into the first of its destinations, Fort William, set at the foot of Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis.

The second leg of the journey is a gradual pull towards the Hebrides. At Glenfinnan, the train glides over an impressive 21-arch viaduct, most famous these days for conveying Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express.

Glenfinnan Viaduct by 96tommy (CC license)

Not long afterwards, the line reaches the coast, where there are snatched glimpses of bumpy islands and silver sands, before you pull into the fishing port of Mallaig, with seagulls screeching overhead in the stiff, salty breeze, and the silhouette of Skye emerging from across the sea.

Train travel doesn’t get much better than this.

Trains run from Glasgow on the West Highland Line to Fort William and then onto Mallaig (5hr). For more information, see scotrail.co.uk. Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

From the sunny shores of Portugal to the darkest dungeons of Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, the following itineraries can be easily combined, shortened or altered to suit your wayfaring tastes. If you’ve got wheels, wanderlust and a spot of time, start your engines: these are the best road trips in Europe.

1. From the glamour and glitz of Paris to the glorious grit of Berlin

Alzette River, Luxembourg City by Wolfgang Staudt (CC license)

Leaving Paris, cruise through the gentle hills of Champagne and Reims to the quaint capital of Luxembourg City, and explore the country’s plethora of fairy-tale castles.

Trier, Germany’s oldest city, is less than an hour’s drive further north-east, where ancient Roman baths and basilicas stand marvellously intact.

Spend a night in the medieval village of Bacharach in Riesling wine country, before wandering the riverside streets of Heidelberg. Onward to Nuremberg, and then to Leipzig for a strong dose of hot caffeine with your Cold War history, classical music and cake.

Detour to Dresden, restored after ruinous bombing in WWII, before ending in one of Europe’s coolest cities: the creative paradise of Berlin.

Alternatively, try starting your engines in London and taking the ferry to France, transforming this road trip into a pilgrimage between Europe’s holy trinity of artistic hubs. 

Best for: Culture vultures looking for bragging rights.
How long: 1–2 weeks.
Insider tip: If you’re driving in France, you’ll legally need to keep safety equipment (a reflective vest and hazard signal). Additionally, keep spare Euros in your wallet to pay the occasional French road toll on the way.

2. Surf and sun in the Basque and beyond

Biarritz by BZ1028 (CC license)

The Basque roads beg a convertible – or better yet, a colourful camper van with surfboards strapped to the roof.

Begin in Bilbao, where the nearby villages boast some of the world’s best surf, and drive along the Atlantic to San Sebastian: watersports wonderland and foodie heaven. Then venture south through the rugged wilderness of the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Ascend onwards to the Roncesvalles Pass before looping back to the coast. Or continue along the Bay of Biscay to the attractive seaside resort of St-Jean-de-Luz.

Travellers with a little extra money lining their pockets will be happy to spend days lingering on boho beaches in Biarritz, while those looking for gargantuan swell can do no better than the surfer hangouts in Hossegor.

Finish the trip northward in Bordeaux, “the Pearl of the Aquitaine”, where café-strewn boulevards and world-class wines are your trophies at the finish line.

Best for: Sun-seeking surfers and foodies.
How long: 1 week.
Insider tip: Check seasonal surf forecasts before you go, and look into coastal campsites if you’re on a budget. 

3. The Arctic fjords from Bergen to Trondheim

Fjords Of Norway by Howard Ignatius (CC license)

Kick off in the city of Bergen, on Norway’s southwest coast, and make way past mighty fjords to Voss and the colossal Tvindefossen waterfall. Then check the world’s longest road tunnel off your to-do list, a cavernous 24.5km route under the mountains.

Catch a quick ferry across the Sognefjord and carry on to the Fjaler valleys, a land of glaciers and snowy mountain peaks, to the waterside towns of Stryn or the mountain village Videster.

Work your way northward to the well-touristed towns of Geiranger, down the death-defying hairpin turns of Trollstigen (literally “The Troll Path”).

After the descent, ferry across the Eresfjord to Molde and Kristiansund. For the final stretch, drive the iconic Atlantic Road with its rollercoaster style bridges, and conclude with some well-deserved downtime upon the still waters and stilted homes of Trondheim.

Best for: Thrill seekers and landscape junkies.
How long:
3–7 days.
Insider tip:
If you plan on road tripping during Norway’s winter months, be sure to check online ahead of time for road closures.

4. The unexplored east: Bucharest, Transylvania, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna

Romania by Michael Newman (CC license

Embark from Bucharest, travelling northward through the Carpathian mountains to Transylvania, and make a mandatory stop at Bran Castle (claimed to be the old stomping grounds of Dracula himself).

Take the Transfagarasan mountain road, one of the most incredibly beautiful routes in the world, towards the age-old cities and countless castles of Sibu, Brasov and Sighisoara. Then set course to the unexplored architectural gems of Timisoara.

Carry on towards the tranquil baths and hip ruin pubs of bustling Budapest, and be prepared to stay at least a few days. Depart for Bratislava – a capital full of surprises – from where it’s only an hour further to the coffeehouses and eclectic architecture of Vienna.

Best for: Anyone looking for a break from the conventional tourism of western Europe.
How long: 7–12 days.
Insider tip: Exercise caution when driving through tunnels. Though the weather outside may be fine, tunnels are often slippery.

5. To Portugal and beyond

Portugal by Chris Ford (CC license)

Start in Braga, before driving south to the medieval town of Guimarães, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then it’s onward to the breathtaking “second-city” of Porto, though it’s nothing less than first-rate.

Drive east to the vineyards and steep valleys of Penafiel and Amarante before hitting the coastal road to the vast white beaches of Figueira da Foz. From here it’s on to Peniche, Ericeira and then Lisbon: the country’s vibrant capital that’s on course to beat out Berlin for Europe’s coolest city.

Drive south to Sagres, Arrifana and Carrapateira. After soaking up the sun on the picturesque shores of the Algarve, wrap this road trip up in the Mediterranean dreamland otherwise known as Faro.

But if you’ve still got itchy feet when you reach Faro, take the ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Morocco. Imagine the satisfaction of parking your ride in the desert village of Merzouga, before exploring the Sahara – that’s right, it would feel awesome.

Best for: Beach bums and winos.
How long: At least 10–14 days.
Insider tip: As Portugal is among the more affordable destinations in Western Europe, this can be an especially great trip for travellers on a budget.

6. High-altitude adventure on Germany’s Alpine Road

Neuschwanstein Castle by Howard Ignatius (CC license)

The Alpenstrasse, or Alpine Road, is your ticket to a bonafide Bavarian odyssey: a safe route through the unforgettable vistas of Germany’s high-altitude meadows, mountains, crystal-clear lakes and cosy village restaurants. Start lakeside at Lindau and head to Oberstaufen if you fancy a therapeutic beauty treatment in the country’s “capital of wellness”.

Venture eastwards to the Breitachklamm gorge, where the river Breitach cuts through verdant cliffs and colossal boulders. Carry on to the town of Füssen – famous for its unparalleled violin makers – stopping along the way at any quaint Alpine villages you please. The iconic Neuschwanstein Castle, the same structure that inspired Walt Disney to build his own version for Cinderella, isn’t far off either.

Hit the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen if the season’s right. Stop at Benediktbeuern on your way to the medieval town of Bad Tölz, then up through the stunning wilderness scenes of the Chiemgau Alps before ending in the regional capital of Munich. If you’re missing the mountain roads already, carry on to Salzburg and stop in the ice caves of Werfen on the way.

Best for: Outdoorsy lederhosen aficionados.
How long: 3–8 days.

7. Godly beaches and ancient highways in Greece

The view from Cape Sounion, Greece by Nikos Patsiouris (CC license)

Start in Athens and take the coastal roads south through the Athenian Riviera to Sounion, situated at the tip the Attic peninsula. Watch a sunset at the Temple of Posseidon, then drive northward through mythic mountains to the fortress of Kórinthos before posting up in the legendary city of Mycenae (home of Homeric heroes).

If you’re craving a luxurious seaside stay, look no further than the resort town of Náfplio. If not, carry onwards through the unforgiving landscapes to Mystra, the cultural and political capital of Byzantium.

Feet still itching? Then it’s on to Olympia, sporting grounds of the ancients, and the mystic ruins of Delphi. Loop back towards Athens, approaching the city from the north.

Best for: Sun-worshipers, and anyone who’s ever read Homer or watched overly action-packed flicks like Troy and 300.
How long: 5–10 days, though it’s easy to trim a version of this road trip down to a long weekend.

8. London to Edinburgh and the Highlands

Stormy Calton Hill, Edinburgh by Andy Smith (CC license)

Leave the hectic pace of England’s capital behind. Make for Oxford, home of the world’s oldest English language university, and a place of storied pubs where the likes of J.R.R Tolkien and Lewis Carrol regularly wrote and wet their whistles.

If you’ve got the time, it’s a quick drive to the cottages of the Cotswolds. If not, cruise up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s old stomping grounds.

Take the two-and-a-half-hour drive north to Manchester for a city fix and watch a football match, then head to the quirky medieval lanes of York, walled-in by the ancient romans nearly 2000 years ago.

Press on to the Lake District National Park. Drink in the scenery that inspired England’s finest romantics, before making your way past tiny villages to the majestic wonders of Edinburgh. If you’re craving the rugged comforts of the highlands go to Stirling, Inverness, or the Western Isles – worth the drive indeed.

Best for: Locals that want to feel like foreigners, and foreigners that want to feel like locals.
How long: 5–10 days.

9. The secret shores of Sicily and Calabria

Catania and Mt Etna by Bob Travis (CC license)

Hit the gas in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the biggest historic centre in Italy after Rome and arguably the country’s most chaotic metropolis.

Adventure onwards along the Tyrrhenian coast to the golden sands of Cefalù – a great holiday spot for families, with a mellow medieval town centre to boot.

Get to the island’s heartland and the ancient city of Enna. Surrounded by cliffs on all sides, and built atop a massive hill, you’ll feel as though you’ve walked on the set of Game of Thrones. Head south-east to the shores of the Ionian Sea and dock in Siracusa, once the most important in the western world while under ancient Greek rule with much of its historic architecture intact.

Then it’s up to Catania for a trip to molten Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the entire European continent.

Finish the trip in Messina, or ferry across into the Italian province of Calabria where rustic mountain villages, friendly locals and the idyllic sands of Tropea and Pizzo await – refreshingly void of foreigners.

Best for: Anyone looking for a truly authentic Italian experience, and of course, hardcore foodies. 
How long: 
6–12 days.

 For more information about travelling through Europe, check out The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.

Staying the night in a treehouse – everyone’s favourite childhood fantasy – has now become a reality. Treehouse hotels have sprung up around the world, with mystical woodland hideaways now found everywhere everywhere from Costa Rica to Thailand. Here are 8 of our favourites.

1. Treehotel, Sweden

Sweden’s Treehotel, built by some of the country’s finest architects, takes the humble treehouse to new levels. Its six, strikingly modern “treerooms” range from the futuristic glass Mirrorcube to the alien-like UFO. And if a night here wasn’t unforgettable enough, there’s even a sauna suspended from the pines.

Peter Lundstrom, WDO – www.treehotel.se (top, right and featured image); Fredrik Broman, Human Spectra – www.treehotel.se (left)

2. Tree House Lodge, Costa Rica 

In 10 acres behind Punta Uva beach in the province of Limón lies a treehouse that owners Edsart Besier & Pamela Rodriguez promise will take you back to your childhood. Surrounded by a tropical garden and accessed via a wooden suspension bridge, it’s the perfect place to unwind.

Image courtesy of Tree House Lodge Costa Rica

3. Garden Village, Slovenia

A short walk from the banks of Slovenia’s famous Lake Bled, Garden Village is a fairytale come to life. Neat rows of luxury glamping tents are staggered down the hillside, while six treehouses hide in the woods alongside, connected by wooden platforms and short suspension bridges. Romantic escapes don’t come much better than this.

Garden Village / Jost Gantar (top); Jonathan Smith / Dorling Kindersley (left); Tim Draper / Rough Guides (right)

4. Chewton Glen, England

You’ll find the ultimate in treehouse luxury at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. Four luxury treehouse cabins are squirrelled away in a wooded valley here and the extras are fittingly decadent: spa treatments, golf buggies to take you to the main hotel and gourmet hampers delivered through a secret hatch.

Images courtesy of Chewton Glen

5. Tongabezi Lodge, Zambia

It’s hard to imagine waking up to the crashing of Victoria Falls. but when you stay at Tongabezi Lodge’s Tree House, this becomes a reality. Hidden away on the banks of the Zambezi river, along the cliff face past the pool, this ground-level treehouse offers a tranquil situated away from the main lodge. Staying here is a way to “experience the beauty and majesty of Zambia without setting a foot outside”, they say.

Image courtesy of Tongabezi Safari Lodge – www.tongabezi.com

6. Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica, Peru

Deep in the Peruvian Rainforest, a stay at Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica plunges you into jungle life. Set within a 17,000 hectare private reserve, this luxury resort offers the likes of spa treatments, jungle treks and bird watching expeditions. Best of all, however, is their Canopy Tree House – although at 90-ft above the jungle floor, a night here is not for the faint hearted.

Images courtesy of Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica

7. Milandes Treehouse, France

Ever wondered what it would be like to have your own private castle? Well now you can find out with a night at Milandes Treehouse. This extravagant construction has been built in the style of a traditional French châteaux, and as you admire the panoramic views you are guaranteed to feel like royalty.

Image courtesy of www.canopyandstars.co.uk 

8. Free Spirit Spheres, Canada

The gently rocking Free Spirit Spheres on Vancouver Island in Canada might look childlike, but these treehouses are strictly for adults only. The experience is designed to conjure mystery, magic and a connection with the forest – maybe even thoughts of elves and fairies, they say.

Free Spirit Spheres by Kyle Greenberg via Flickr (CC license) [top]; Treehouses 2010 by chillbay via Flickr (CC license) [left and right, with small crop]

The southernmost territory of SpainAndalucía is the part of the Iberian peninsula that is most quintessentially Spanish. The popular image of Spain as a land of flamenco, sherry and ruined castles derives from this spectacularly beautiful region.

Andalucía’s manageable size also makes it easy to take in something of each of its elements – inland cities, extensive coastline and mountainous sierras – even on a brief visit. Plus the proliferation of dramatic historic buildings mean there are plenty of unforgettable places to stay. From humble family-run pensiones and hostales to five-star luxury hotels, these are some of our favourites from the new Rough Guide to Andalucía.

1. Convento la Almoraima, Castellar de la Frontera

Just above the Bay of Algeciras, this is a magical hotel is housed inside a renovated seventeenth-century convent with a stunning patio and imposing Florentine tower. The rooms are elegantly furnished to four-star standard and there’s a pool and tennis court. The hotel is also surrounded by vast tracts of wooded walking country in the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, making it hard to imagine a more serene stopover.

P1010005 by Antonio via Flickr (CC license) / cropped

2. La Casa del Califa, Vejer de la Frontera

This enchanting hotel, created inside a refurbished, part-Moorish house (reflecting the town’s Moorish origins), has magnificent views towards the coast far below. Individually styled rooms are decorated with Moroccan lamps and fittings, and guests have use of two patios, a terrace and a library.

3. La Seguiriya, Alhama de Granada

A charming hospedería rural and restaurant in an eighteenth-century house with fine views over the tajo from its back garden. The amiable proprietors – he a former flamenco singer, she a wonderful chef – make a stay here very special – the perfect end to any Andalucía trip.

Casas Blancas in Vejer de la Frontera by Li-Mette via Flickr (CC license)

4. Hospedería La Cartuja, Cazalla de la Sierra

A former Carthusian monastery transformed into a charming hotel surrounded by rolling hill country. As well as eight elegantly styled rooms in what was formerly the monastery’s gatehouse, the evocative ruin of the fifteenth-century monastery behind contains an art gallery.

5. La Casa Grande, Arcos de la Frontera

Perched on a clifftop, this former casa señorial has a spectacular columned patio and sensational views across the vega from a terrace bar. Some of the beautiful rooms (and more expensive suites) come with their own terrace, too.

Arcos de la Frontera by Joan Sorolla via Flickr (CC license)

 6. Los Pinos, Andújar

Secreted away in the densely wooded Parque Natural Sierra de Andújar – home to the threatened Iberian lynx – this is a very pleasant hotel with cosy en-suite rooms, apartamentos rurales and cottages arranged around a pool. There’s plenty of good hiking nearby.

7. Palacio de la Rambla, Ubeda

In Ubeda’s old quarter, this upmarket casa palacio owned by the Marquesa de la Rambla is the last word in understated taste. The lavish interior – with eight palatial rooms set around a stunning renaissance patio designed by Vandelvira – contains valuable furnishings and artworks.

Palacio de la Rambla by Cayetano via Flickr (CC license)

8. Alquería de Morayma, Cadiar

The cortijo (farmhouse) of an extensive estate is now a superb hotel set in 86 acres of farmland. Rooms are rustic and traditionally styled, plus there’s a pool, mountain biking and horse-riding on offer. You can even watch its organic farm in action, producing the wine, cheese and olive oil served in its restaurant.

9. Hotel Rodalquilar, Rodalquilar

In a former gold-mining village in Almería’s desert, this modern spa-inn with lofty palms and makes a great base to explore a dramatic gulch-riven landscape. Rooms are arranged around a sunken courtyard; a restaurant, pool, spa, sauna and gym plus free loan of mountain bikes are just a few of the facilities on offer.

Hotel de Naturaleza Rodalquilar by Toprural via Flickr (CC license

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

You’ve dug a moat, successfully sculpted a mound higher than your knees and managed to drizzle a viscous mixture of sand and salt water over the château spires (for that drippy je ne sais quoi) – then some rogue child bulldozes your beach creation back to oblivion. Well, it was never as good as it could have been, because you didn’t have a professional Sandcastle Butler to help you.

This is no joke. Oliver’s Travels, a family travel company that prides itself on the quirky, exquisite and extraordinary, is currently training the world’s first fleet of “Beach Butlers” to help families transform loose sand into their wildest dreams.

From securing a premium plot of shoreline, to concocting the perfect water-to-sand ratio, this new breed of VIP concierge will be grand masters in the art of sand-sculpting. No construction is too extreme. They’ll help you brainstorm, draft actual blueprints, find the right spot, and create something with a structural integrity you can be proud of along the beaches of the UKSpainFranceItaly and Greece.

Of course, this bespoke service does come at a cost. Prices are listed at £500 for a full day, and £300 for a half. Thankfully, Beach Butlers will also be fully trained in childcare before receiving their artisanal qualifications, so you don’t have to worry about them subjecting your youngsters to the same rigorous training that they’re probably undergoing right now.

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

Gilly Pickup discovers the enduring allure of Cuba’s bright and breezy capital, Havana, the island’s cultural heart.

Havana’s effervescence is palpable. The city is reminiscent of an old picture postcard come to life – awash with faded grandeur and crumbling ice-cream coloured buildings. Bartenders mix up mojitos in time to the hip-swaying, hypnotic sounds of salsa and straw-hatted, cigar-puffing men driving vividly coloured vintage Cadillacs, Pontiacs and Buicks.

Habana Vieja and beyond

Havana’s UNESCO listed Habana Vieja or Old Town, almost an open air museum, was once the Caribbean’s main Spanish settlement. With a glut of castles and baroque churches it has more old colonial buildings than any other city in the New World. Head to the Camera Obscura in the Plaza Vieja for the best views.

Of course there are countless museums to explore, too. The most famous is probably the Museum of the Revolution in Centro Habana. This big blast from the past is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, headquarters of the Cuban government for forty years. Besides plenty of rusty revolvers and a life size wax figure of Che Guevara, it contains maps tracing the war’s progress, innumerable photos of Fidel Castro and some blood-stained uniforms.

Behind the museum are parts of a plane shot down during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, a surface-to-air missile and the yacht that brought Guevara and Castro together with eighty plus revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956 – today rather incongruously kept in a glass enclosure.

Another important landmark is the Capitolio Nacional. Once Cuba’s seat of government, the building is similar in appearance to the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. It is home to the National Library and Academy of Sciences and houses a planetarium and museum. Under the dome, a 24-carat diamond – an imitation – is set into the floor. This is where distances between Havana and other sites in the country are measured.

A cigar stop-off

No trip to Cuba would be complete without a cigar, and close by the Capitolio is one of the city’s most famous cigar factories, Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas.

Here, a reader is employed to entertain workers while they make the cigars – the reason why some cigars are named after literary characters. Tours allow visitors to see how cigars are made and, of course, there is the opportunity to buy some from the little shop at the end.

In the footsteps of Hemingway

While in Habana Vieja, it makes sense to pay a visit to El Floridita, one of the bars where Ernest Hemingway liked to have a bite to eat and down daiquiris.

Nothing much seems to have changed here since the thirties, when he was sometimes snapped at the bar with Errol Flynn or Gary Cooper, though it was a favourite meeting place for expat Americans before Hemingway made it famous.

Hemingway’s celebrity status has never dimmed in the eyes of the locals and his favourite stool is cordoned off almost as if he is expected to walk back in at any minute. The bar even created a daiquiri in his name, ‘The Papa Hemingway Special’. One story goes that he once sank 13 doubles in one visit. Who knows for sure, but if he did, he must have had a serious hangover next morning.

Fans of Hemingway can also visit his home, Finca Vigia, which lies just outside town. Now also a museum, it is kept just as it was when the man himself lived there. This is where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and today visitors can see his huge book collection and his typewriter.

Along the sea spangled waterfront

And speaking of the sea, every visitor to Havana should head to the Malecón, the eight kilometre sea spangled waterfront promenade popular with locals and tourists, swimmers, joggers and musicians.

Although it was built in 1901 to protect the city from rough seas, today a party atmosphere abounds, especially during evenings and weekends.

Feisty bands and fizzing nightlife

You’ll learn to expect continual music here. It emanates round the clock from the city’s shady squares and cobbled streets. Havana is a feisty rainbow explosion of live bands. They’re everywhere: in the airport, restaurants, bars and on the streets – and at night the experience is out of this world.

Many local musicians play the ‘tres guitar’, a rhythm instrument with three double strings, while the pulsing African ‘son’ music and Timbal drum beats are bound to get your feet tapping.

Nightlife is full on and fizzing – and there are plenty of clubs and bars where visitors can party like a local. Dress to impress, as the locals do, and head to open-air cabaret Tropicana, a great place to soak up the sounds and shake that booty. This is no ordinary cabaret, complete with a 32-piece orchestra.

Festivals galore

It’s also an idea to plan a visit to Havana to coincide with some of the popular celebrations and festivals. These include the cigar festival in February, Carnival in July, the ballet festival in October and film and jazz festivals are in December.

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

If you’re after some rejuvenation on your next break but still fancy a bit of an adventure, there are a whole host of alternative therapies offered around the world. From snail facials to a spot of sauna whipping, you can invigorate your body and soul with a smorgasbord of weird but wonderful wellness treatments. Here we’ve rounded up ten of the best.

Soak in sake in Japan

Sake isn’t just the steamy accompaniment to a plate of tempura. This fermented rice drink is also a tonic for the skin. In Hakone’Yunessun Spa, an enormous cask drips sake straight into a pool. Believers swear that a soak prevents age spots forming, and others get a kick out of the heady fumes. Not to your taste? Take the plunge in Yunessun’s coffee, red wine or green tea baths instead.

Get whipped in a Russian banya

The grime you acquire riding the Trans-Siberian Railway won’t steam itself out. In a Russian banya (steam room) birch twigs and leaves are bundled up and moistened with hot water, then swished against the skin in between steaming sessions. Light whipping with branches is thought to encourage circulation, so banyas are especially popular in Siberia where temperatures dip below -35°C. Plenty of hostels and hotels have them on site; check out Belka on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Enter the deep freeze in Finland

Scandinavians are known for indulging in (or enduring) a plunge into ice-topped lakes in between sauna visits. But cryotherapy turns the temperature gauge even lower… right down to -110°C. Less than three minutes in the chill chamber at Finland’s Haikko Spa is all it takes, and if the promised benefits of pain relief and glowing skin don’t appear, the feeling of sheer exhilaration – that you survived – should suffice.

Relax with a pinch of salt in Poland

Wieliczka Caves are an eye-boggling series of subterranean grottoes, 90 minutes from Krakow, and today they’re bedecked with glitzy chandeliers and intricate statues – all carved out of salt. Hundreds of years ago, locals noticed a lower incidence of lung disease in salt mine workers which began a vogue for salt cave pampering; supposed benefits include improvements to asthma and allergies. Descend 135m down into Wieliczka’s Lake Wessel Chamber to try for yourself.

Image courtesy of Wieliczka Salt Mine

Be buffed by Lithuania’s mermaid amber

When you spy the glint of amber on Baltic beaches, don’t dismiss it as hardened tree resin. Amber has a powerful place in Lithuanian legend, infusing it with ritual significance when worn as jewellery or used in beauty products. Lithuanian folk tales tell of a mermaid queen, Jūratė, and how her passionate affair with a mortal enraged the thunder god Perkūnas, who then smashed her amber palace to pieces. You can be scrubbed, polished and wrapped in the tragic siren’s amber in spas across Lithuania, like Vanagupe in Palanga, a seaside town in the northwest.

Bathe like an emperor in Rome

Modern spas owe a great deal to the Roman Empire. Cleansing with oils, scraping off dirt with a strigil, and alternating between a caldarium (steam room) and frigidarium (cold plunge bath) remain the blueprint for modern wellness rituals. Imperial baths (thermae) were much more than spas though: lingering amid clouds of fragrant steam was the perfect atmosphere for gossiping, poetry recitals and a round of political debate. Wellness centres across Rome still offer this timeless experience; visit Rome Cavalieri.

Cook like an egg in a Korean kiln

Consider yourself a sauna connoisseur? A Korean han-jeung-mak might test your limits. In between steam rooms and a punishing round of exfoliation, break a sweat in the ‘kiln sauna’ – alarmingly similar to an oven in appearance, this intensely heated dome uses burning wood and charcoal to heat the room, the style of which has barely changed style in 500 years. Eggs are a popular in-spa snack in Korea; you might spot a bowl of them inside the kiln, slow-cooking (just like you). Public bathhouses (jjimjilbang) around Korea have kiln rooms; try Dragonhillspa in Seoul.

Enjoy a snail’s pace across your face in Japan

How far would you go to get bright, clear skin? Centuries ago, geisha used uguisu no fun (nightingale droppings) to remove makeup and polish their skin. Nightingale faeces still makes its way into some beauty treatments and products, but the new vogue in Japan is for snails slithering across the skin. Brave the moisturising properties of molluscs at Clinical-Salon Ci:z.Labo in Tokyo (17F Ebisu Prime Square Plaza, 1-1-40 Hiro’o, Shibuya-ku).

Experience blind massage in China

The heightened tactile senses of blind masseurs are thought especially effective at targeting aches and pains. The number of blind massage therapists exploded with the foundation of the Chinese Massage Association of Blind Practitioners nearly 20 years ago. Around 100,000 are now thought to practise throughout China; take a local recommendation if you can, or ask a taxi driver to look out for mangren anmo. Be aware that massage parlours with pink or blue lights might be offering a different ‘treatment’ altogether.

Get some reptile therapy in Israel

If you thought fish pedicures were a little tame, what about a few dozen snakes writhing over your skin? At Ada Barak’s Carnivorous Plant Farm in Israel (Talmei El’azar), snakes are released to crawl over the shoulders, neck and scalp of a patient (or victim). The snakes’ rhythmic movements are thought to be highly therapeutic. After surviving a faceful of snakes, routine treatments like waxing will never phase you again.

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

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

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

Matangi Island Resort

Best for romance: Matangi Island Resort

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

www.matangi island.com; from US$950

Best for luxury: Vatulele Island Resort

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

www.vatulele.com; from US$1800

Image courtesy of Fiji Beachhouse

Best for backpackers: Fiji Beachouse

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

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

Best for divers: Dolphin Bay Divers Retreat

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

www.dolphinbaydivers.com; from F$65

Plantation Island Resort

Best for families: Plantation Island Resort

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

www.plantationisland.com; from F$465

Best for eco-adventure: Tui Tai Adventure Cruise

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

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

 

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

Until the 1990s, Laos remained shut off from the outside world, and largely unknown to Western travellers. Since then, more and more visitors have come to discover that this landlocked country offers some of Southeast Asia’s most enchanting natural landscapes and a fascinating diversity of cultures.

Although Laos still much less developed than neighbouring Thailand, the country’s accommodation options have expanded considerably in recent years, whether you want to splash out on a plush resort or discover a peaceful budget getaway. To celebrate the release of the new Rough Guide to Laos, we’re sharing six of our favourites.

Settha Palace Hotel, Vientiane

Set on a broad curve of the Mekong, Vientiane, the low-rise capital of Laos is a quaint and easy-going place. In the two decades since Laos became accessible to foreign visitors, the city has evolved remarkably quickly. Today, with foreign investment continuing to pour in, Vientiane is growing fast. And along with new shopping malls and luxurious high-rise developments, the city has some excellent places to stay. The Settha Palace Hotel, a palatial 1932 building close to the centre of Vientiane, is our pick. This carefully restored relic of the colonial-era is filled with French period furniture. Its 29 rooms have all the mod cons, including mini-bar and safe, while outside you’ll find an outstanding pool and beautiful landscaped gardens.

Doubles from $200; www.setthapalace.com.

Settha Palace Hotel

Ban Pako (Lao Pako) Eco Lodge

Head 50km northeast of the capital, Vientiane, and you’ll reach Ban Pako, where the rustic Ban Pako Eco Lodge is atmospherically sited on a curve in the Nam Ngum River. Opened in 1993, they claim to be the first eco-lodge in the country. There’s room for just 22 guests here, but if you manage to bag a bed, you could easily while away a couple of days soaking up the laidback atmosphere. Besides lounging in your detached river-view bungalow or in the open-air restaurant overlooking the river, there are a slew of outdoor activities: tubing, swimming, birdwatching and hiking to nearby villages to name a few. Self-guided nature trails also fan out from the resort, on one of which is a herbal sauna near a refreshingly cool spring.

Doubles from $25; www.banpako.net.

Wat Mixai, Vientiane

Luang Say Residence, Luang Prabang

Intersected by the mighty Mekong and Khan rivers and surrounded by lofty mountains, UNESCO-listed Luang Prabang is northern Laos’s major tourist draw for good reason. Yet for all its undeniable beauty and charm, there’s no doubt that Luang Prabang has been transformed by its ever-growing popularity with Western visitors, with almost every property in the historic centre now serving the travel industry in some form or another. Venture just to the south of the centre to find respite. Here this exquisite luxury hotel is set in gorgeous colonial-style villas amid palm and banana-leaf gardens, summoning all the spirit and exotic mystery of imperial Indochina – despite only dating back to 2010. The huge, light suites, with columns and big bay windows, are irresistibly decadent, and highlights include top-class French cuisine at the Belle-Epoque restaurant and afternoon tea in the Henri Mouhot-dedicated 1861 Bar.

Doubles from $530; www.luangsayresidence.com.

Luang Say Residence

Muang La Resort, Muang La

Set in lush tropical gardens in a peerless position by the Nam Phak River in Muang La, this blissful retreat is one of the most luxurious places to stay in northern Laos. The huge, naga-themed suites, in half-timbered villas, are exquisitely furnished and feature acres of polished wood. Guests can soak up the river views from private hot tubs, drawn from the 43°C local hot springs and raised off the ground. Most visitors stay as part of a two- or three-night package, which includes a choice of well-thought-out activities and trips.

Doubles from $331; www.muangla.com.

Muang La Resort

The River Resort, near Champasak

The charming small town of Champasak is a popular base for touring the atmospheric ruins of Wat Phou, one of the most important Khmer temples outside Cambodia. And for a luxury base from which to visit the sites, this riverside hideaway is without rival in southern Laos. The twenty lao–Japanese-style rooms, with outdoor showers and fan-cooled terraces, occupy an incredibly serene stretch of the Mekong’s western edge, and are separated from one another by lush gardens of banana plants, organic rice paddies and majestically tall trees. The resort even has its own spa and a panoramic restaurant overseen by a Thai chef.

Doubles from $119; www.theriverresortlaos.com.

The River Resort

The Last Resort, Don Det

The tropical islands of Don Khon and Don Det, 15km downstream from Don Khong and planted with
 jade- and emerald-coloured rice paddies, are a picturesque haven for backpackers who come here in ever-increasing numbers. Yet despite the explosion of travellers’ cafés, parts of Don Det still maintain a rustic charm. On the west side of the island, around 750m from town, is this self-styled travellers’ community started by a former banker from the UK. Thatched wigwams sleeping two to four people are set around a sociable garden that’s home to a fire pit and an open-air cinema, and the organic herbs and vegetables grown on site are used in communal meals each night.

Doubles from $8; www.facebook.com/lastresortdondet.

Don Det

 

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

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: “BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP” goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is “jetblasting” whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury “salt palace” or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The “windy” of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s “blackout” option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the “Blue Lagoon” in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

“I couldn’t survive without my phone.” If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word “survive” – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: “Antarctica Broadband” is on the horizon, promising “fast internet from the bottom of the earth”. At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, “Ultima Thule” harks back to the early, “here be dragons” days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

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