With 30,000km of marked trails, Norway is the true home of cross-country skiing, the original and most effective means of getting yourself across snowbound winter landscapes. And it’s easier and less daunting to learn than the more popular downhill variety (well, more popular outside Scandinavia – here, everyone is a cross-country skier from the age of 2).

As your skills develop, you’ll soon want to take on more challenging hills (both up and down) and to test yourself a little more – there are different techniques for using cross-country skis on the flat, downhill and uphill.

And once you’ve mastered the basics, a truly beautiful winter world will open up. Popular ski resorts such as Voss, to the east of Bergen, offer a plethora of cross-country tracks, which snake their way under snow-shrouded forests and round lowland hills, while the Peer Gynt Ski Region, north of Lillehammer, has over 600km of marked trails winding through pine-scented forests, alongside frozen lakes and over huge whaleback mountains.

It may sound blindingly obvious, but try to go in the depths of winter, for in this season the low angle of the midwinter sun creates beautiful pastel shades of lilac, mauve and purple on the deep, expansive folds of hard-packed powder, especially at the start and end of the day.

Ski trails are graded for difficulty and length so you won’t bite off more than you can chew, and you’ll usually find various ski hütte (huts) along the way, where you can stop for a warming loganberry juice. As your skills develop, you may even want to take on a multiday tour, staying overnight at cosy mountain lodges and discovering the high country of Scandinavia in marvellously traditional fashion.

Most cross-country ski areas offer lessons and have skis and boots available for hire. For more information on Voss, see www.visitvoss.no.

 

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With festival season in full swing, August offers no end of opportunities to party, from the off-the-wall Burning Man to the arty Edinburgh Festival; but there are plenty of options for chilled-out breaks too. Here are our tips for the best places to visit in August.

Bike the Black Forest, Germany

The Black Forest may be best known for its cuckoo clocks and stickily indulgent gâteaux, but this lush mountain region is also growing in popularity as a haven for bikers and hikers. Crisscrossed with trails, it’s a fabulous spot for a ride in high summer, through an idyllic landscape of sun-soaked vineyards, tranquil lakes and quaint chalets (with echoes of those cuckoo clocks). You could even bike your way along the Badische Weinstraße, a route leading through the wine-growing Baden region, timing your visit to coincide with one of the many summer wine festivals.

Chow down on New England lobster, Maine, USA

Maine is justly proud of its lobster. The cold-water crustacean has been farmed along the coast here for generations, thriving in the chilly, clean water. There’s no shortage of places to dine on prime specimens, from fancy restaurants to casual lobster shacks, where you can enjoy your juicy tails and claws in the salty open air. Lobsters are farmed year-round but a good time to visit is during the annual Lobster Festival at the end of August, an old-school celebration of all things lobster, with fun and games, a big parade – and the world’s biggest lobster steamer.

Escape the crowds in Umbria, Italy

In August, when all of Italy is on holiday, the locals flock to the mountains and coast – to be avoided, unless you enjoy crowds, queues and general chaos. The landlocked region of Umbria shares many of the attributes of its bigger, glitzier neighbour, Tuscany – picture-perfect hill towns, sun-dappled olive groves, great food and wine – but it’s cheaper, more down-to-earth and refreshingly quiet in August. Hole up in a hilltop villa or get back to nature at an agriturismo, and spend your days exploring gorgeous medieval towns such as Perugia, Assisi and Todi, chilling out at tranquil Lake Trasimeno or sampling the earthy local cuisine.

Get your dose of culture at the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland

The biggest arts festival on the planet, the Edinburgh Festival sees the city transformed into a hive of cultural activity, its hugely varied line-up a mix of fresh new talent and world-famous acts. The best approach is to dive straight in without too many fixed ideas – inevitably, it’s the act you’ve never heard of that blows you away. Accommodation and tickets for the big names are in high demand, so book ahead.

See the desert burst into bloom in Namaqualand, South Africa

For South Africans, the first glimpse of a Namaqualand daisy is a sure sign that spring has arrived. Four thousand floral species – a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth – burst into bloom in South Africa’s Northern Cape in August, creating a dazzling flower-carpet in day-glo shades of pink, purple, orange, yellow and white, that stretches across the veld for hundreds of kilometres. The vast swathes of colourful flowers are a breathtaking sight – especially when you consider that they’ll give way to arid desert within just two months.

Kick back on west coast of Sweden

Within striking distance of cosmopolitan Gothenburg lies the Bohuslän coast, a rugged, 10,000-island archipelago that makes an ideal summer escape. The islands vary widely in character: some are completely barren, others harbour timewarp fishing villages, while a few boast chic spas or fine-dining restaurants. Unsurprisingly, seafood is a big deal here, and lobster safaris and fishing excursions form the bulk of the local activities – crayfish are a speciality in August.

Go wild at the Burning Man Festival, Nevada, USA

Once a year in late August, fifty thousand people descend on a remote patch of desert in northwest Nevada to take part in the world’s ultimate counter-culture festival: Burning Man. With no big-name acts or programmed activities, the temporary residents of “Black Rock City” live by Burning Man rules: no commerce is allowed, and “Burners” must participate in the festivities in some way. Many construct huge, otherworldly sculptures, flashing with lights or flames, which contribute to the surreal atmosphere after dark, when the desert comes alive with all manner of surreal projections and anything-goes performances.

Go white-water rafting on the Soča River, Slovenia

Slovenia’s Soča River is world-renowned for its white-water rafting – the perfect way to cool off in the sweltering August heat. The so-called Emerald River lives up to its name: a dazzlingly bright green, it flows for 140km along the border with Italy through a craggy wooded valley. The river is suitable for all comers, from total beginners to hardcore rafters, as it offers both calm, easy stretches and fearsome, fast-flowing torrents.

As trekking goes, the beginning of the Besseggen Ridge is a breeze. Sitting on the bow of a little tug as it chugs along picturesque Lake Gjende in central Norway’s Jotunheimen Nasjonalpark, you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about – this is, after all, Norway’s best-known day hike, in the country’s most illustrious national park. But then the boat drops you off at a tiny jetty and you start the hike up the hill, knowing that each step takes you closer to the crest: a threadline precipice that’ll turn even the toughest mountaineer’s legs to jelly.

You’ll need a good head for heights, but it’s not a technically difficult walk: the path is generally wide and well marked by intermittent cairns, splashed with fading red “T”s. After the initial climb away from the jetty, the route levels out before ascending again across boulder-strewn terrain until, some 2.5 hours into the trek, you arrive at the base of the ridge itself.

The actual clamber up the ridge takes about half an hour, though the Norwegian youngsters who stride past, frighteningly upright, seem to do it much more quickly. It’s incredibly steep and requires a lot of heaving yourself up and over chest-high ledges; in places, the rock just drops away into thin air. But the views are some of the finest in Norway: a wide sweep of jagged peaks and rolling glaciers, and, far, far below, Lake Gjende, glinting green on sunny days but more often – thanks to the upredictably moody weather up here – resembling a menacing pool of cold, hard steel.

From there on, the going is comparatively easy, and you’ll probably scamper the remaining few kilometres back to Gjendesheim, your energy bolstered by the biggest adrenaline boost you’ll have had in a very long time.

Jotunheimen Nasjonalpark is accessed via Gjendesheim, 90km southwest of Otta. The Lake Gjende boat runs from late June to mid-Sept ( +44 (0) 6123 8509).

 

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The brakes grind then release and you’re off, squeaking and squealing down a roller-coaster-like track for what might just be the train ride of your life. This is the Flåmsbana, a shiny, pine-green pleasure train that plunges nearly a kilometre in a mere fifty minutes. The unforgettable ride takes you from the heady frozen heights of the Norwegian mountains in Myrdal right down to the edge of the icy-blue waters of the Aurlandsfjord in the picturesque village of Flåm.

On the train, the old-fashioned carriage interior is wood-panelled and fitted with wide, high-backed benches which transport you back to the 1920s when the train was first built; it took over four years to lay the 20km track which spirals and zigzags down around hairpin bends and through twenty hand-dug tunnels during the course of its short journey. As you might imagine the views are spectacular; to accommodate this, enormous, over-sized windows were fitted to ensure you don’t miss a thing, regardless of where you happen to be seated.

As it runs all year, the train is a lifeline in the winter months for fjord inhabitants who were previously cut off by the long frozen winters. But for the best views, stick to late spring and summer when the ice and snow-melt create majestic,
crashing waterfalls (don’t miss the close-range view of Kjosfossen) that seem to leap and spring from every crevice in the sheer, verdant cliffs.

The Flåmsbana offers an experience that’s at the same time glamorous, hair-raising and magical. The dizzy inclines and thunderous soundtrack of crashing waterfalls will give even the most seasoned rider a shiver of excitement, and if you can’t help but conjure up images of runaway trains, just remember there are five independent sets of brakes – a necessary precaution and a very reassuring feature.

To get to the Flåmsbana take the train from Bergen to Myrdal (via Voss). You can buy your ticket all the way through to Flåm at the Bergen train station, which means you’ll be able to jump right on the train when you arrive in Myrdal. Visit www.flaamsbana.no for more.

 

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Alpine tundra, barren volcanic craters, steaming springs and iridescent lakes – the sheer diversity on the Tongariro Crossing makes it probably the best one-day tramp in the country. The wonderfully long views are unimpeded by the dense bush that crowds most New Zealand tracks, and from the highest point you can look out over almost half the North Island with the lonely peak of Mount Taranaki dominating the western horizon.

The 16km hike crosses one corner of the Tongariro National Park – wild and bleak country, encompassing the icy tops of nearby Mount Ruapehu, which is, at 2797m, the North Island’s highest mountain. Catch the Crossing on a fine day and it is a hike of pure exhilaration. The steep slog up to the South Crater sorts out the genuinely fit from the aspirational, then just as the trail levels out, Mount Ngauruhoe (2291m) invites the keen for a two-hour side-trip up its scoria slopes. Ngauruhoe famously starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films, and you can live out all your hobbit fantasies as you look down its gently steaming crater. Getting back on track is a heart-pounding, hell-for-leather scree run back down the mountain – in just fifteen minutes you cover what took an hour and a half to ascend.

The gaping gashes and sizzling fissures around Red Crater make it a lively spot to tuck into your sandwiches and ponder the explosive genesis of this whole region. From here it is mostly downhill past Emerald Lake, its opaque waters a dramatic contrast to the shimmering surface of Blue Lake just ahead. With the knowledge that you’ve broken the back of the hike you can relax on the veranda of Ketetahi Hut gazing out over the tussock to glistening Lake Taupo in the distance. Rejuvenated, you pass the sulphurous Ketetahi Hot Springs on the final descent, down to the green forest and the welcome sight of your bus. Tired but elated you settle back in the seat dreaming of a good feed and the chance to relive the events of the day over a couple of beers.

The Tongariro Crossing typically takes 6–8hrs and requires a good level of fitness. See www.doc.govt.nz for updates on track conditions.

 

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If you like the idea of cycling, but would rather cut off both arms and legs than bike up a mountain, then perhaps The Netherlands is the perfect place for you – especially if you’re also scared of traffic. The most cycle-friendly country in the world, Holland has a fantastically well-integrated network of cycle paths that make it simple for even the rawest cycling greenhorns to get around by bike, and to enjoy its under-rated and sometimes swooningly beautiful vast skies, flat pastures and huge expanses of water. If you don’t want to go far, get hold of a Dutch-style bike, gearless and with back pedal brakes or bring your own and follow the country’s network of 26 well-signposted, long-distance or LF (landelijke fietroutes) paths, which connect up the whole country so you never have to go near a main road. The Netherlands is a small country and it’s easy to cover 50km or so a day, maybe more if you’re fit enough and have a decent bike – the sit-up-and-beg Dutch variety are only really suitable for short distances. The one thing holding you back may be the wind, which can whip across the Dutch dykes and polders. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of your first Heineken of the evening after a long day’s cycle. Tot ziens!

The Dutch motoring organization, the ANWB, publishes a series of cycle maps that covers the whole country. Bike rental costs around €32 a week.

 

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When the English naturalist Joseph Arnold smelt rotting flesh during an 1821 expedition to the steamy jungles of Sumatra, he must have feared the worst. Back then, this was cannibal country. Blood-thirsty local tribes were known to capture their most hated enemies, tie them to a stake, and start feasting on their roasted body parts. So imagine his surprise when he learnt that the stench was coming not from a dead explorer, but a plant that produces the world’s biggest flower. Rafflesia arnoldii (named after Arnold and Sir Stamford Raffles, who led the expedition) can produce blooms up to one metre across – and they carry the stink of death.

No surprise then, that Arnold’s find has been nicknamed the “corpse flower” by those who’ve caught a whiff of it. There aren’t many who can say they have, though – this is one of Southeast Asia’s most endangered species. And despite each flower weighing in at around 11kg, they’re notoriously difficult to come across. They’re parasitic, for one thing, and can only take root beneath the dark green tendrils of undisturbed grape vines. And even when a plant does begin to thrive, its meaty-red flower lasts just days. If you want to see one in bloom, you’ll have to learn to follow your nose.

But why would a plant evolve to smell like rotting meat? Well here in Sumatra, where the race for survival is tough, it pays to be ingenious. Flies are lured into the corpse flower’s spongy interior by the promise of somewhere to lay their eggs, only to find they’ve been deceived.

When they eventually get bored, they’ll take off in search of somewhere better. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll drop pollen from one plant onto another. When you consider how unlikely this is to happen, you’ll realize that your chances of seeing the corpse flower are pretty slim. But what better excuse to go sniffing around one of the last great rainforests?

Tourists can hire a guide to point out the corpse flower from the office at the Batang Palapuh reserve, 12km north of Bukittinggi.

 

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On the drive up through the Imlil Valley into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, you have a sense that you’re going somewhere special. The road passes rose-coloured adobe villages and fields terraced with ancient irrigation channels that nourish apple, cherry and walnut orchards. Mules trot along the road carrying children, women return from the fields with sacks of wheat, and men congregate in small groups by the roadside. As you swing around steep-sided bends, you get glimpses of the looming massif at the head of the valley, and by the time you reach the mountain village of Imlil – just 65km from Marrakesh – you know you’re in another world. The light is brighter, the air thinner, the streets empty and the jagged peaks resplendent against the sky.

No wonder Martin Scorsese chose this setting for Kundun, his film about the life of the Dalai Lama. The grandeur and remoteness of the Atlas Mountains is every bit as magnificent as the Himalayas. Here, the Kasbah du Toubkal, the former summer home of local ruler Caid Souktani, is perched at 1800m in the shadow of Morocco’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal.

Run and staffed by Berbers, the Kasbah calls itself a “hospitality centre”, so expect pots of mint tea on your arrival, and jellabahs (long-sleeved robes) and leather babouches (traditional leather slippers) to slip into. The rooms have been furnished by Berber craftsmen using local materials and range from basic communal salons (often used by school groups) to comfortable private double rooms and one lavish, three-bedroom apartment.

Guests come on day-trips from the capital to dine on tagines on the large rooftop terrace, from where there are sweeping views of the valley. But you’ll need to stay here for a few days to make the most of the spectacular setting. You can hire a guide and climb Mount Toubkal in a day, then return to the hammam (steam bath) and dine in the Kasbah’s restaurant. Or try a four-hour trek to Toubkal Lodge in the Berber village of Idissa. Its three double rooms are similar in style to the plush apartment at the Kasbah, and are designed for just a handful of guests to use as a base for day-hikes in the mountains or as part of an overnight circular walking route from the Kasbah du Toubkal. And if you don’t fancy the four-hour trek over the mountain pass from the Kasbah to the village, you can ride in on horseback or go by mountain bike.

Take a shared taxi or local bus from Marrakesh to Asni then a local taxi from Asni to Imli (about 2hr in total). Alternatively, book a 90min transfer with the Kasbah (€85 per car). From Imlil it’s a steep 15min walk (a mule will carry your bags). The Kasbah does not stock alcohol, though you can bring your own. For prices, room reservations and booking transfers at both the Kasbah and Toubkal Lodge see www.kasbahdutoubkal.com; +33 (0) 545 715 204. A five percent tax on hotel invoices goes to the Imlilillage Association, which funds local community projects.

 

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Early morning in the mountains of Michoacán. There’s a stillness in the wooded glades and a delicate scent of piny resin in the air. Mostly oyamel firs, the trees are oddly coated in a scrunched orange blanket – some kind of fungus? Diseased bark? Then the sun breaks through the mist and thousands of butterflies swoop from the branches to bathe in the sunlight, their patterned orange and black wings looking like stained-glass windows or Turkish rugs – the original Mexican wave. The forest floor is carpeted with them. Branches buckle and snap under their weight. And there’s a faint noise, a pitter-patter like gentle rain – the rarely heard sound of massed butterflies flapping their wings.

The annual migration of hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies from North America to this small area of central Mexico – no more than 96 square kilometres – is one of the last mysteries of the scientific world. For years, their winter home was known only to the locals, but in 1975, two determined American biologists finally pinpointed the location, and now visitors (mainly Mexican) flock here during the season to witness one of nature’s most impressive spectacles. In the silence of the forest sanctuary, people stand stock-still for hours at a time, almost afraid to breathe as millions of butterflies fill the air, brushing delicately against faces and alighting briefly on hands.

No one is entirely clear why the butterflies have chosen this area. Some say it’s the oyamel’s needle-like leaves, ideal for the monarch’s hooked legs to cling onto; or that the cool highland climate slows down their metabolism and allows them to rest and lay down fat before their arduous mating season. The Aztecs, however, had other ideas, believing that the butterflies – which arrive in Mexico shortly after the Day of the Dead on November 1 – were the returning souls of their fallen warriors, clad in the bright colours of battle.

The best place to see the butterflies is in the butterfly sanctuary near the village of El Rosario (mid-Nov to late March daily 9am–4pm; www.mariposamonarca.semarnat.gob.mx).

 

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Pine forests, wild mushrooms and a sunrise above clouds: not what you might associate with Mexico, better known for beaches, colonial cities and Aztec ruins. The mountains of the Sierra Norte, two hours’ bus journey north of Oaxaca, are home to a cluster of villages, a semi-autonomous community known as “Pueblos Mancomunados” (meaning “united villages”), where you can stay in simple adobe cabañas called “tourist yu’u” (pronounced “you”). This tourist accommodation is a community business venture that has provided an alternative to logging and helped develop schools, roads and health posts in the region.

Here, at nearly 3000m altitude, it is cool but often sunny and, if abundant growth of lichen is proof, the air is exceptionally clean. After resting in a hammock, admiring the alpine scenery, you’ll probably want to head off for an adventure. A guide from one of the villages will lead you through dappled groves on mountain bikes, horses or on foot, across kilometres of trails through pine forests, villages and valleys up to rocky viewpoints. The flora and fauna ranges by altitude and includes several endangered mammals, such as jaguar, spider monkey and tapir. In summer, you can pick baskets of wild shiitake or cep mushrooms.

Afterwards, sweat it out in a herb-scented temazcal – a Mexican sauna – before heading off to a kitchen-café in a villager’s home. While donkeys bray and smoke curls into the crisp mountain air, you can tuck into soft tortillas, peppers stuffed with goat’s cheese and refried beans, all washed down with herb and orange-peel liqueur.

You can get to the Sierra Norte by bus from Oaxaca City (2hr). For details of excursions  and rates see www.sierranorte.org; +52 951 514 8271. Cabañas sleep up to two adults and two children.

 

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