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

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

What makes the Metéora so special?

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

Image by Mark Dozier/Visit Metéora

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

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

Monastic mountaineers

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

Image by George Kourelis/Visit Metéora

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

Blind faith at 400 metres

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

Image by George Kourelis/Visit Metéora

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

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

Image by Nikolaos Ziogas/Visit Metéora

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

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

Kiki Deere, co-author of the Rough Guide to the Philippines, heads off the tourist trail to Batanes. This cluster of islands, located almost 150km off the northernmost tip of Luzon in the Philippines, sees just thirty or so foreign visitors a year.

“Batanes? Batanes? Up there?” was the reaction of most Filipinos when I told them I was catching a plane north to the remotest province of the country. This was coupled with a puzzled expression, followed by a long “Oooooooh”.

Only 190km south of Taiwan, the islands of Batanes are closer to the Taiwanese coast than to the Philippine mainland. The archipelago was created following a series of volcanic activities when Mount Iraya erupted around 325 BC – today a dormant volcano that stands 1517m above sea level.

The province comprises ten islands of which only three are inhabited: Batan Island, the largest in the group; peaceful Sabtang Island; and the less accessible Itbayat. Their isolation has resulted in a unique culture and distinct traditions; the language, cuisine and climate have little in common with the rest of the country.

Image by Kiki Deere

Rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs

Our little six-seater plane rocked back and forth as we struggled to land on wind-swept Batan Island, whose capital, Basco, is named after Governor José Basco y Vargas who brought the islands under the Spanish Crown in 1782.

Below us stretched verdant rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs rising 70m above sea level. The topography of the islands varies dramatically from the mainland – with grazing cows, undulating hills and strong winds. I felt I could have easily been in Ireland, not in the tropical Philippine archipelago I had extensively travelled, with its powdery, white-sand beaches shaded by coconut trees.

“Today we will visit Marlboro County, and then on to Sabtang Island” my guide announced as soon as I’d settled into Fundación Pacita, the former home of artist Pacita Abad today a surprisingly upmarket hotel. His voice was calm and composed; he spoke in musical tones, rolling his “r” in a pleasant lilt.

Like Filipino, the Ivatan language is peppered with pidgin Spanish words. The Ivatan are the native inhabitants of these islands, and trace their roots back to Formosan (Taiwanese) immigrants as well as Spaniards who travelled here in the sixteenth century.

Image by Kiki Deere

A testament to the trusting nature of the locals

We drove up and down the island’s many hills, the engine of our little car calling out as it climbed a slope, letting out a groaning sigh of relief as we reached the top and zoomed down the other side, only to grate again as we clambered up the next.

As we came over the brow of the first hill, there before us were green pastures being grazed by horses and bulls, with Mount Iraya and the roaring Pacific Ocean as backdrop.

Locals make a living by raising goats and cows, and plant root crops that are able to cope with the islands’ harsh environment, including yam, garlic, sweet potato and onion. Fish, livestock and root vegetables form the mainstay of the islands’ cuisine. During most of the year provisions are flown in or shipped over from the mainland, but during typhoon season ships and planes are often unable to reach the islands.

We continued south along the coastal road to the Honesty Café, an unmanned coffee shop selling t-shirts, beverages and snacks where customers drop payment in designated boxes, serving as a testament to the trusting nature of the island’s inhabitants.

Image by Kiki Deere

Life has changed little over the last few centuries

A rocky thirty-minute boat ride across the treacherous waters of the Balintang Channel took us to Sabtang Island, home to steep mountains and deep canyons where life has changed little over the last few centuries.

This peaceful island is peppered with Ivatan stone villages, and the picture-perfect town of Chavayan is home to some of the best-preserved traditional homes in the Philippines. Unlike in the rest of the country where nipa huts are a common sight, the houses in Batanes are made of limestone to withstand the destructive force of typhoons that so often strike the islands.

I strolled along the town’s streets, my guide encouraging me to occasionally pop my head into the stone houses, whose wooden floors are traditionally polished with banana leaves. Their cogon-thatched roofs are sturdily built, lasting up to two or three decades. Street names are chiselled in stone plaques.

At the Sabtang Weavers’ Association, women sold small artefacts and offered me homemade biscuits that they had lovingly prepared in their humble homes. Intrigued and surprised at the sight of a foreigner, they questioned me as to my provenance, proudly showing me the small trinkets they had painstakingly made.

Image by Kiki Deere

An elderly lady with a mustard yellow cardigan wore a rain cape called vakul, traditional Ivatan headgear made from stripped leaves of voyavoy palm to protect her from the strong sun and frequent rainstorms that so often hit the islands. Her coarse hands fingered a small hand-woven souvenir that she encouraged me to buy.

When I flew back to the province of Luzon a few days later, where thick jungles and bustling beach resorts justifiably attract their fair share of tourists, the far-flung islands of Batanes, with their thirty or so foreign visitors a year, suddenly seemed like a distant dream.

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

About two hours east of Los Angeles awaits a landscape so starkly foreign, it’s like landing on another planet. The 3000-square-kilometre Joshua Tree National Park sits at the meeting of two deserts, the Colorado to the east and the Mojave to the west, and those two ecosystems are home to a wide array of curious animals and unusual plants.

Tarantulas and spiny cacti aside, it’s likely the park’s giant rocks that will take your breath away first. Ponderously large boulders crop up from the arid landscape and ask to be explored, climbed, and picnicked beneath by visitors of all ages. Winding paved roads take visitors past these rock piles, the result of long-ago volcanic activity that pushed molten monzogranite up through the earth’s layers. A process of cooling, cracking, chemical weathering, and soil erosion produced the awe-inspiring formations seen today.

Top Park Sites

The beauty of a national park like Joshua Tree is in the unfettered exploration, so pull over and scout wherever the landscape strikes as long as it’s safe to park. You’ll encounter the namesake Joshua trees on the western half, and the craggy-limbed yucca with its spikey evergreen leaves makes for poignant photo-ops.

Apart from the trees, there are several park highlights, including Keys View at an elevation of over 1500 metres. To reach the summit, take a 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard to be rewarded with a 365-degree view that includes the Salton Sea, Santa Rosa Mountains, San Andreas Fault, and Coachella Valley.

Of all the park’s rock formations, Skull Rock is the crowd-pleaser for its towering granite rock that has eroded to resemble a human skull. On temperate weekends, the warren of rocks, crevices, and tiny trails around the formation will be crawling with park visitors trying to get a leg up on nature.

For an easy but interesting hike for all ages, take the two-kilometre Barker Dam trail, which was built around 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining. Due to the drought, there’s not much water, but the hike still offers ample time for lizard and bird spotting (be on the lookout for hummingbirds and the cactus wren).

For yet another otherworldly experience, head to the Cholla Cactus Garden nestled between the two deserts. The short, spikey, furry-looking cacti (nicknamed “teddy bear” cholla) spread as far as the eye can see, and there’s a quarter-mile trail that loops you through them.

Where to eat and drink

Most of the best places to eat and drink in Joshua Tree are clustered on Twentynine Palms Highway near Sunset Road. For a casual sit-down meal, the charmingly eclectic Crossroads Café is the epitome of a small-town café. It’s open seven days a week for breakfast (until 2pm), lunch, and dinner and is as friendly to carnivores (try the corned beef hash or the BLT) as it is to vegans (soy-rizo hash, seitan tacos).

Across the street is Pie for the People, a counter-service pizza joint with tables inside and out on a shaded back patio. While you can get your pie plain, it’s best to get into the shop’s funky spirit and order something like the David Bowie, a pizza topped with mozzarella, bacon, roasted pineapple, jalapeños, and caramelized onions that’s surprisingly good. Connected to the patio is the Joshua Tree Coffee Company, which roasts its own beans, and sells them alongside cold-brew and pour-over coffee and espresso drinks.

Where to Stay

For those who want to experience the magic of Joshua Tree by moonlight, camping is the answer. There are nine campgrounds at the park. Only two have water and flushing toilets (Black Rock and Cottonwood), and none have showers. Reservations up to six months in advance are available at Black Rock and Indian Cove, October through May, while the rest are first-come, first-served. Visitors without reservations arriving on Friday or Saturday will likely not find an open spot.

The towns of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms are dotted with local motels and national chain hotels. The Best Western Gardens Hotel at Joshua Tree National Park has suites available with a separate bedroom and kitchenettes, as well as a pool. 29 Palms Inn on 70 acres next to the park books up fast, and room options include a 1930s adobe bungalow and a 1920s wood frame cabin. There’s an on-site pool and a restaurant that makes take-away picnic lunches.

Explore the surrounding area

Squeeze in a Hollywood sideshow at Pioneertown, a 30-minute drive from the town of Joshua Tree. The replica 1880s Old West town was built in 1946 as a place to film Westerns, among them The Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley. Don’t be surprised if you run into Wild West reenactments on Mane Street on weekend afternoons. For entertainment in Pioneertown, head to Pappy & Harriet’s, a famous all-ages honky-tonk with live music, pool tables, and a steakhouse-style menu.

To experience the quirkier side of the area, make a reservation in nearby Landers for a private or group sound bath at the Integratron, a self-described “resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex in the magical Mojave Desert.” And don’t let the sun set without checking out the World Famous Crochet Museum, created by artist Shari Elf. The lime-green ode to everything crochet is behind the Art Queen sign on Twentynine Palms Highway in Joshua Tree.

Need to know
The harsh landscape mimics the weather, which can be brutally hot June through September, while dipping into the 30s (Fahrenheit) at night December through February. Bringing plenty of water, dressing in layers, and liberally applying sunscreen are all musts. As well, be sure to stop by one of the park’s three visitor centers – Joshua Tree Visitor Center and Oasis Visitor Center on the north side and Cottonwood Visitor Center on the south – to check out exhibits, attend ranger-guided programs, and get park maps. Kids can grab a Junior Ranger booklet; upon completion, youngsters get sworn in as rangers and receive a badge. Admission for non-commercial vehicles is $15 for a 7-day pass or $30 for an annual pass.

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

Anita Isalska explores the frozen surface of the epic Lake Baikal in Russia. 

During Siberian winters, the mercury drops as low as minus 35ºC (minus 95ºF). Brightly painted houses in central Russia’s villages groan under the weight of snow. The surface of vast Lake Baikal freezes. But as I stand its shore, I see an adventure playground rather than an icy desert.

Hovercraft are thundering over the ice, spinning in figures of eight while bystanders cheer. A fleet of ice bikes and converted bumper cars race across the surface. Meanwhile a breeze carries the sound of chattering market vendors along with the scent of smoked fish.

At Listvyanka, one of Lake Baikal’s most picturesque villages, the number of visitors dips with the temperature. But visiting Baikal between November and March reveals the lake in all its wintry magnificence, with plenty of wild ways to experience Russia’s deep freeze.

Baikal, Russia’s record-breaking lake

It’s impossible to describe Lake Baikal without superlatives. It’s the world’s deepest freshwater lake (at more than 1.6km) as well as the most ancient (a whopping 25 million years young). It’s a favourite summertime destination for Russians, who seize fishing rods and sunhats and clamour to Baikal’s shores.

Lake Baikal is also one of the most cherished stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway – the world’s longest railway line, its 9289 km of tracks connect Russian capital Moscow with Vladivostock in the far east. Many travellers take the Trans-Mongolian route to China instead; but whatever the route, a stop at Baikal is a highlight.

I have reached Baikal in a rattling marshrutka (minibus) from Irkutsk, the closest major city to the lake, during winter to see a different side to this 3.15 million hectare expanse.

Natural wonders of the “sacred sea”

On a dry day, frozen Baikal looks dark and glassy. Cracks spider across its surface. The shifting, cracking and resealing of icy layers create small crevices. Blades of ice prick upwards like dragon scales.

Where the surface is polished smooth by footfall and passing hovercraft, the ice resembles black marble. But after snowfall, pillowy snowdrifts amass on the surface. The lake looks like a cloudscape.

Russians refer to Baikal as the country’s “sacred sea”, because of both its beauty and its size. To scientists, it’s “Russia’s Galápagos”: much of the fauna here is found nowhere else on Earth.

Most famous are the bulging-eyed nerpas, Baikal seals. But there’s one endemic species you’ll smell long before you see it: the omul fish.

Omul is an economic cornerstone for this part of Russia, with crates of the succulent fish shipped across the country as a delicacy. In Listvyanka’s fish market – a social hub for this small village – omul fill the stalls. Locals and travellers amble past leather-dry omul, dangling from strings, and appraise the day’s fresh catch. But the best stuff is hot smoked: market vendors snap open tupperware boxes to reveal iridescent omul, cloaked in steam.

Venturing out onto the ice

A feast of omul and hot tea is essential in this brutal cold, especially if I want to take to the ice. Locals step out fearlessly, knowing the spring thaw is a long way off. But I tread gingerly, thinking about the yawning depths under my feet.

I’m the only one worried. Children are skidding in the snow and holding aloft diamond-shaped shards of ice, while their parents sip from thermos flasks. Before long, my nightmare of being swallowed into a gaping icy crevasse has faded and I’m negotiating the fare for a ride on a hovercraft.

Once inside, the grinning driver sets the hovercraft buzzing across the ice at speed. He turns sharply and lets the craft careen across the lake. My grip on a feeble safety handle tightens as he slams the accelerator. The icy crevasse is starting to loom in my imagination again…

After a few minutes of white-knuckle driving, the hovercraft shudders to a halt. The driver waves his passengers out, and we stand at the shore to watch the sunset. The ice glows a warm copper before darkening to navy.

The temperature plummets with the dying light; people trudge away from the ice. Music starts to trill at shoreside taverns and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet bubbly) is being poured.

It may be a bitter Siberian winter, but between the remarkable scenery and the pop of champagne corks, hibernation is unthinkable.

Need to know:

If you’re planning a Lake Baikal excursion as part of your Trans-Siberian Railway journey, plan to stop at Irkutsk for a few days. From Irkutsk bus station, catch a marshrutka to Listvyanka village (1.5 hours). Atmospheric guesthouses in Listvyanka have double rooms from around 3000RUB (50EUR) per night. One of the best is Usadba Demidova (Ulitsa Sudzilovskogo 2) with communal lounges, sauna and breakfast with a Baikal view (3,940RUB per night). Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Looking through the Rough Guides photography archive, one kind of shot stands out again and again: pictures captured at sunrise. Sure, there’s nothing more tempting than sleeping in until noon while you’re on holiday. But if you can bring yourself to brave the odd early morning, you’ll discover a magical world as dawn breaks. From misty views atop Victoria Peak in Hong Kong to dreamy sunrise reflections on Ko Samui in Thailand, these are some of our favourite images.

Dawn breaks over the horizon pool at The Tongsai Bay Hotel, Ko Samui, Thailand

Morning mist on the Mae Hong Son loop, Thailand

An early morning in Hong Kong, as seen from Victoria Peak

Dawn breaks over Monument Valley, Arizona, USA

Sunrise reflections on Naknek Lake in Alaska’s Katmai National Park

Spectacular colours on Playa Lucia at sunrise, Puerto Rico

Chinese fishing nets silhouetted as the sun rises, Kochi, Kerala, India

A peaceful Grand Canyon, as seen from Bright Angel Point, Arizona, USA

Early morning cloudscape over Puerto Viejo, Limon Province, Costa Rica

Sunrise at Kazan Gorge (Cazanele Dunarii) on the Danube River, Romania

Looking out over the water at dawn, Copenhagen, Denmark

A calm start to the day in Mariehamn, Åland, Finland

Gulls circle a life guard post on South Beach, Miami

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Picturesque Wales has long drawn holidaymakers to its unspoilt countryside, rugged mountainous terrain and long, lonely coastline. Whether you’re after a dream-like hike or scenic drive, beautiful views aren’t hard to find. Here are some of our authors’ favourites – walks, nature reserves, beaches, railway journeys and much more – taken from new Rough Guide to Wales.

Wye Valley wonder

Walking or driving through the Wye Valley, especially near Tintern’s towering ruins, it’s easy to see why Wordsworth was so inspired.

photo credit: tintern abbey hdr arty via photopin (license)

Styles and starry skies

A vast area of rocky moors, Brecon Beacons National Park is not just perfect walking country – it’s also one of the world’s first “dark sky reserves”.

photo credit: IMG_7253 via photopin (license)

The end of the world

The Llŷn Peninsula excels in escapism, whether the panorama from the summit of Tre’r Ceiri or the lovely seaside village of Aberdaron.

photo credit: Sun going down over the Llyn Peninsula, North Wales via photopin (license)

Snowdonia’s finest scramble

Snowdon’s splendid, but the north ridge of Tryfan gives wonderful exposure and views, and the scramble up borders on rock-climbing.

photo credit: SANY0400.JPG via photopin (license)

Coastal escapes

You can’t beat the glorious views of Worms Head and Rhossili Bay from the head of the Gower Peninsula.

photo credit: Rhossili via photopin (license)

On the rails

Hop aboard Ffestiniog Railway, the finest of Wales’s narrow-gauge railways, which climbs 13 miles from the coast into the heart of the mountains.

photo credit: Ffestiniog Railway at Ddaullt via photopin (license)

Wales at its wildest

Covering 240 square miles, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park encompasses wooded estuaries, rocky cliffs and isolated beaches

photo credit: Wooltack Point – Pembrokeshire via photopin (license)

Skeletal grandeur

Newport’s Transporter Bridge, a remarkable feat of engineering, was described as “A giant with the might of Hercules and the grace of Apollo when it opened in 1906.

photo credit: Transporter Bridge via photopin (license)

Small-town splendour

There’s a superb view across the Menai Strait to the Snowdonian mountains in Beaumaris, plus a picture-postcard castle and lovely Georgian townscape.

photo credit: nature-trail-lighthouse-110.jpg via photopin (license)

Flocks away

Gigrin Farm is one of the best places in Europe to watch red kites feeding. As many as five hundred of the magnificent birds descend at any one time – a fantastic sight.

photo credit: Red Kites – Gigrin Farm via photopin (license)

A pass to the past

An ancient drovers’ road, the magnificent Abergwesyn Pass twists its way through the forests and valleys of the Cambrian Mountains.

photo credit: Llyn Brianne via photopin (license)

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

Tasmania has shaken off its reputation as a sleepy backwater. Australia’s smallest state is buzzing with art, nurturing an exciting foodie scene and cutting the ribbon on new hiking trails – all against a backdrop of rich history and remarkable wildlife. Here, Anita Isalska gives ten reasons why you should give in to the island’s lure. 

1. To be awed and appalled at MONA in Hobart

A ferry ride up the peaceful Derwent River doesn’t seem like the obvious start to explore your dark side. But in the subterranean galleries of Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art you’ll find some of the most confronting creations in Australia. Passion, death and decay are explored in unflinching detail in this controversial museum in the northern suburbs of Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. Test your limits with maggot ridden installations, X-rated sculptures and obese automobiles, all from the private collections of arty eccentric David Walsh.

2. To raft the Franklin River

Quicken your pulse in Tasmania’s wild west on a white water rafting adventure. In this glacier carved terrain, thick with Huon pine forests, experienced guides will navigate you down the frothing Franklin River. You’ll stop to cook on open fires and pitch a tent under the stars. There’s nothing like being part of a crew paddling a raft through the Franklin’s thunderous rapids to instil a lasting respect for Tasmania’s formidable wilderness.

3. To meet Tasmanian devils

Tas’ most famous critter is most often experienced through its nocturnal scream. But Tasmanian devils can be seen up close at sanctuaries across the state, like Bonorong. Don’t be fooled by their puppy-like appearance and lolloping gait. Time your visit for feeding time and you’ll see these marsupials screech, squabble and chomp straight through wallaby bones. On a more serious note, make sure you spare some time to learn about the devastating facial tumour disease threatening these Tassie natives.

4. To feast your way around Bruny Island

Mainland Aussies flock to the annual Taste Festival in Hobart. But you can undertake a year-round gastronomic extravaganza on Bruny Island, an easy day-trip by ferry from Hobart. Start by slurping fresh oysters at Get Shucked, before perusing the unctuous delights of Bruny Island Cheese Company. You’ll want a bottle or two to accompany those garlic-marinated, vine leaf-wrapped delights, so stop for pinot noir at Bruny Island Premium Wines. Finish off with jams and ice creams at the berry farm.

5. To explore the wilderness at Cradle Mountain

The silhouette of Cradle Mountain, reflected in mirror-clear Dove Lake, is one of Tasmania’s greatest natural icons. Lace up your hiking boots in Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and discover Pencil Pine Falls or the neck-craning Ballroom Forest. Some are easy wooden walking trails that spiral around picnic spots like Wombat Pool; others vertiginous hikes that require experience. For hardened adventurers, there’s the six-day Overland Track.

6. To pace the brand-new Three Capes Track

One of Australia’s most hotly-tipped new attractions for 2015 is the Three Capes Track. Due to open in November 2015, this 82km coastal trail promises a touch of luxury for bushwalkers. Instead of stooping under the weight of your camping gear, you’ll be able to bed down in furnished huts at three different spots along the track and make use of on-site cooking facilities. That leaves more time to focus on what’s really important: jaw-dislocatingly good views of Australia’s tallest sea cliffs.

7. To see pint-sized penguins in Bicheno

Each night at dusk, a parade of little penguins pops out of the waters of Bicheno Bay and waddles ashore to their burrows. A guided walk is the best way to admire these dainty seabirds without disturbing them. They’ll hop between your legs, preen their inky black coats and jab their beaks at toes (don’t wear open-toed shoes).

8. To admire gorge-ous views near Launceston

Stomach-plummeting views await at Cataract Gorge, just 15 minutes’ drive from Tasmania’s second city, Launceston. Tiptoe over the suspension bridge or enjoy a bird’s-eye view of forested hillsides from the longest single-span chairlift in the southern hemisphere. Picnic spots are scattered around the gorge’s First Basin (and stalked by curious peacocks), ideal for you to soak up some rays and the tranquil atmosphere.

9. To explore dark history at Port Arthur

Two centuries ago, a ticket to Australia was a terrible fate. The most harrowing final destination was Tasmania’s Port Arthur, one of Australia’s 11 penal colony sites. Port Arthur was thought inescapable: only a narrow band of land, Eaglehawk Neck, connected it to the rest of the island, and this was fiercely guarded by dogs. Today, Port Arthur has been conserved as an open-air museum. You can explore the former prison wings and convict-built chapel, board a boat to the lonely graveyards on Isle of the Dead and linger for a ghost tour if you dare.

10. To bliss out at Wineglass Bay

There’s an unforgettable reward for taking a steep forested trail on the Freycinet Peninsula on Tasmania’s east coast. At the Wineglass Bay overlook, you’ll see a perfect arc of sand glowing against the vibrant turquoise of the Tasman Sea. Cool off from all that bushwalking with a dip or kayaking trip, or simply gaze out over the dusky pink granite boulders dappled with lichen, one of Tasmania’s most surreally beautiful sights.

Explore more of Tasmania with the Rough Guide to Australia or our Tasmania Snapshot. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

New Orleans might hog the limelight, but there’s no end of things to do in Louisiana. Here, Rough Guides author Charles Hodgkins takes us on a tour of the state’s beguiling south.

While it’s easy to understand why New Orleans dominates most discussions of southern Louisiana, there’s much more to the lower areas of the Pelican State than the Big Easy. It’s a storied region that exists apart from the rest of the United States, a heady mix of cultures – most notably Cajun, but also a bit of Creole – happily sequestered on its own terms in a waterlogged place south of the actual South.

Whether you’re cruising the swamps of Acadiana in a crawfish skiff, standing reflectively on the porch of a slave cabin on a 200-year-old sugarcane plantation, or driving over countless bridges to a sandy barrier island at the end of the highway, there’s nowhere else quite like southern Louisiana.

Culture and crawfish in Cajun Country

At the heart of Louisiana’s Francophone Cajun country lies Lafayette, the state’s fourth-most populous city and one of its greatest cultural hubs. It’s the all-but-official capital of the state’s Acadiana region. Although English is the dominant language in and around Lafayette, it’s hardly uncommon to overhear Acadian French – especially each Wednesday night at Lafayette’s Blue Moon Saloon’s weekly Cajun jam.

Within about 15 miles of Lafayette are a day’s worth (at least) of historically significant literary locations, worthwhile museums, nature excursions and small-town Acadiana charms.

St Martinville, a 25-minute drive southeast of Lafayette, is home not only to the Evangeline Oak, immortalised in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” and still standing sentinel on the west bank of Bayou Teche, but also a waterside complex housing the African American Museum and the Museum of the Acadian Memorial. Each museum relates moving tales from involuntary migrations of the eighteenth century that forever impacted this region: the former interprets stories gathered from over 300 years of African–American history in southern Louisiana, while the latter describes the deportation of the Acadians from eastern Canada and their eventual resettlement in present-day Acadiana.

Another small Cajun town worthy of a few hours’ lingering is Breaux Bridge, the self-anointed “Crawfish Capital of the World”, where a handful of excellent restaurants vie for visitors’ palates. Try airy and pleasant Café des Amis, known equally for its delectable gumbo and Saturday zydeco breakfasts.

Naturally, no visit to southern Louisiana is complete without embarking on a swamp tour, and with wildlife-rich Lake Martin a mere ten-minute drive from Breaux Bridge, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason (poor weather notwithstading) to not enjoy an outing on the lake’s murky waters. The area’s top guiding outfit is Cajun Country Swamp Tours, operated by father-and-son duo Butch and Shawn Guchereau, extra-knowledgeable locals who interpret the lake’s signature botany and teeming birdlife (cormorants, ibis, egrets, herons) in velvety Cajun drawls. Odds are strong you’ll also spot an alligator or two throughout the two-hour tour.

History and politics in Baton Rouge

Abutting the east bank of the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s state government centre, a major shipping port and home to the state’s largest university, Louisiana State. The city’s odd name, which translates to “Red Stick” in English, stems from an early French explorer who, upon arrival, spotted a wooden pole draped with bloody carcasses that marked a boundary between tribal hunting grounds. Intervening centuries have seen the city under French, British, and Spanish rule, as well as the Confederacy during the US Civil War.

It’s no surprise, then, that Baton Rouge’s colourful political past makes for its most uniquely compelling attraction. Louisiana’s Museum of Political History, housed in the Old State Capitol – dubbed “that monstrosity on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain – takes a refreshingly no-holds-barred approach to the state’s notorious history of corruption. Check out the extensive permanent exhibition on infamous Governor/Senator Huey “the Kingfish” Long, who ruled Louisiana politics with an iron fist from the late 1920s until his 1935 death at the hands of an assailant.

Ten minutes away by foot from the Old State Capitol, Long’s highest-profile construction project (and the site of his assassination), the current State Capitol, is free to visit and also worth an extended look. The 1932 building and tower (at 450 feet, the tallest capitol in the US) is a lovely piece of Art Deco showmanship, flanked by 30 acres of landscaped gardens. Ascend to the 27th floor observation deck for commanding views of the ever-growing city, the muddy Mississippi and beyond.

Along River Road

Twisting out of metropolitan Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River southeasterly toward New Orleans, the so-called River Road penetrates Creole-influenced areas of southern Louisiana, winding its way through a peculiar medley of inviting historic plantations and eyesore petrochemical plants. The small town of Donaldsonville is a good stop-off for wandering among huge live oaks that stretch over quiet backstreets like spindly arms; Charles Street boasts a particularly lovely canopy of these trees.

The best of the area’s plantation tours is offered at Laura Plantation on the edge of Vacherie, an hour’s-plus drive from Baton Rouge. Here, longtime-local guides relate tales of the sugarcane plantation’s heyday, when it was one of the few woman-run sugarcane operations in the nineteenth century. Hour-long tours lead through the recently restored “Big House”, adjacent gardens, and, soberingly, into an austere slave cabin.

Laura Plantation-8485 via photopin (license)

Off the beaten track in Grand Isle

Ambitious road-trippers will want to continue their southern Louisiana adventure by trekking out to the end-of-the-road community of Grand Isle, a pancake-flat, storm-prone place set on a wafer-thin barrier island bang against the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly every structure in sight here is built one storey above ground.

With a year-round population of just over 1000 (although tens of thousands of seasonal visitors can descend on the town during summer), Grand Isle is an assuredly sleepy place more often than not; it’s best-known as a main embarkation point for deep-sea fishing trips. Be sure to drive toward the far eastern end of the island to remote Grand Isle State Park, where nature trails invite quiet exploration and a lengthy pier extends over Gulf waters for excellent bird-watching, as well as fishing for tarpon, speckled trout and redfish.

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

1. Spotted Lake, British Columbia, Canada

Spotted Lake has long been revered by the native Okanagan (Syilx) people and it’s easy to see why they think of it as sacred. In the summer the water of the lake evaporates and small mineral pools are left behind, each one different in colour to the next. The unique lake can be viewed on Highway 3, northwest of the small town of Osoyoos, although visitors are asked not to trespass on tribal land.

2. The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

Sixty million years ago a huge volcanic eruption spewed out a mass of molten basalt, which then solidified and contracted as it cooled, creating the cracks that can be seen today. There are an estimated 37,000 polygon columns at this World Heritage Site, so geometrically perfect that local legend has it they were created by a giant.

3. Thor’s Well, Oregon, USA

In rough conditions at Thor’s Well, also known as Spouting Horn, the surf rushes into the gaping sinkhole and then shoots upwards with great force. It can be viewed by taking the Captain Cook Trail from the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area visitor centre, but for your own safety stay well back, especially at high tide or during winter storms.

4. Pamukkale, Turkey

A remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site in southwest Turkey, a visit to Pamukkale (Cotton Palace) also takes in the ancient ruins of Hierapolis, the once great city that was built around it. Water cascades from natural springs and down the white travertine terraces and forms stunning thermal pools perfect for a quick dip.

5. Lake Hillier, Western Australia

This remarkable lake was discovered in 1802 on the largest of the islands in Western Australia’s Recherche Archipelago. The lake keeps its deep pink colour year-round, which some scientists say it’s down to high salinity combined with the presence of a salt-loving algae species known as Dunaliella salina and pink bacteria known as halobacteria.

6. Badab-e-Surt, Iran

These beautiful travertine terraces in northern Iran are an incredible natural phenomenon that developed over thousands of years. Travertine is a type of limestone formed from the calcium deposit in flowing water, and in this case it’s two hot springs with different mineral properties. The unusual reddish colour of the terraces is down to the high content of iron oxide in one of the springs.

7. The Tianzi mountains, China

Found in the northwest of Hunan Province in China, these staggering limestone pinnacles are covered in lush greenery and often shrouded in mist. A cable car goes as far as Huangshi village and from here there are plenty of trails to take in the breathtaking views of Tianzi (‘son of heaven’); unsurprisingly the inspiration for the floating mountains in the blockbuster movie Avatar.

8. The Nasca Lines, Peru

The animal figures and geometric shapes etched by the ancient Nasca into Peru’s barren Pampa de San José are one of South America’s great mysteries. Visible only from the air or from a metal viewing tower beside the highway, some of the unexplained shapes are up to 200m in length and each one is executed in a single continuous line.

9. The Bermuda Triangle, North Atlantic Ocean

Long shrouded in myth and mystery, the infamous 500,000 square miles also dubbed the Devil’s Triangle is roughly the area between Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico. Although the US Coastguard disputes any such area exists, conspiracy theories thrive on stories about unusual magnetic readings and ships, planes and people who have disappeared here without a trace.

10. Socotra Island, Yemen

Separated from mainland Africa more than six million years ago, this remote island looks like the set of a sci-fi film. Socotra’s incredible and unique biodiversity means that there are plants and trees here not found anywhere else in the world – particularly bizarre are the ancient and twisted dragon’s blood tree and the bulbous bottle tree.

11. The Hand in the Desert, Chile

Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal is responsible for this very weird work of art rising out of the sand in the middle of Chile’s Atacama desert, 46 miles south of the city of Antofagasta. Irarrázabal is known for his works associated with human suffering and this huge unnerving sculpture captures a feeling of loneliness, exacerbated by its desolate and secluded location.

12. Chocolate Hills of Bohol Island, the Philippines

Bohol’s 1700-odd conical hills dot the middle of the island; they range in height but are so regular in shape that they could be mistaken for being man-made. However, according to UNESCO they are the uplift of coral deposits and a result of rainwater erosion. The hills only earn their ‘chocolate’ nickname in the dry season when the foliage goes from lush green to brown.

13. Red Beach, Panjin, China

Very cool and very weird, this beach is covered in a type of seaweed called Sueda, which turns bright red in autumn. Thirty kilometres southwest of Panjin, these tidal wetlands are an important nature reserve for migrating birds. Only a small section of the beach is open to the public, but it can be explored via a wooden walkway that stretches out to sea.

14. Plain of Jars, Laos

Shrouded in myth, megalithic stone jars are scattered across Xieng Khouang Province in groups from one to one hundred. A working theory is that the huge cylindrical jars were used in ancient funeral ceremonies, though local legend has it that the jars were used to brew rice wine for giants. In the 1960s Northern Laos was subject to a massive aerial bombardment by the USA and it’s only been relatively recently that some areas have been cleared and declared safe for visitors.

15. Goblin Valley State Park, Utah, USA

No, this is not Mars but an uninhabited valley 216 miles southeast of Salt Lake City in Utah. Soft sandstone has for many years been eroded by wind and water to form strange pinnacles or hoodoos that some think resemble goblins. The eerie landscape is only about a mile across and two miles long and it’s well worth exploring the marked trails to get up close to the bizarre formations.

16. Whale Bone Alley, Siberia

A stretch of the northern shore on remote Yttygran Island, 82km off the coast of Alaska, has become a macabre tourist destination. Massive whale jawbones, ribs and vertebrae stand horizontal in the ground forming an eerie alleyway. It’s generally agreed that the site dates back to the fourteenth or fifteenth century, but whether it was a sacred spot for native tribes to meet or simply a gathering place for mass slaughter, no one knows.

17. Glass Beach, California, USA

This glittering sea glass beach in California is a remarkable side effect of years of rubbish being dumped on the beach; it wasn’t until the 1960s that this was stopped and by then the sea was full of everything from electrical appliances to bottles and cans. Over time, the waves broke everything down into colourful pebbles and the beach became a major tourist attraction – now ironically under threat because visitors are taking home the glass.

18. The Catacombs, Paris, France

The deeply creepy catacombs are a network of old quarry tunnels beneath Paris and the final resting place of around six million Parisians. Most are anonymous, skulls and bones taken from the city’s overcrowded graveyards during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it wasn’t until the authorities realized its potential as a tourist attraction that the bones were arranged in the macabre displays seen today.

19. Fly Geyser, Nevada, USA

This otherworldly geyser is on private land on the edge of Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Created accidentally in 1964 after an energy company drilled down into geothermal waters, today a scalding fountain erupts up to five feet high and the resulting mineral build up means the cone is growing by several inches each year. The brilliant hues of red and green are down to thermophilic algae.

20. Cat Island, Japan

A short ferry ride from Japan’s east coast, Tashirojima has a population of one hundred humans who are vastly outnumbered by their furry friends. Originally the cats were encouraged as the island produced silk and mice are a natural predator of silkworms. Local fishermen regarded them as good luck and the island even has a cat shrine, along with newly built cat shaped cabins for tourists to stay in. It goes without saying that there are no dogs allowed.

Tim Chester joins a group of friends for a restorative mini-break at the historic New Inn in Peasenhall in the heart of Suffolk. 

It’s easy to fall into a reverie at the New Inn. Between the crackling log fire, the huge sofas and the sedative aftereffect of an immense feast at the late medieval hall’s huge trestle table, you can find yourself slipping away into daydreams.

Under wide wooden beams and with a hefty history folder in your lap, thoughts are conjured of the thousands of weary travellers who must have laid their heads between these walls in the half millennium since it became an inn in 1478.

Every inch of the New Inn has a story to tell, and the Landmark Trust – who took over the property in 1971 – regales visitors with tales of fifteenth century abbots, horses and mules stabled in the courtyard, and strangers sharing beds upstairs while hosts brew ale in the basement.

On a chilly evening with a glass of robust red in hand you can almost hear the echoes of conviviality dating back 500 years. On second thoughts, it might just be a baby mewing.

As epic meanderings go we hadn’t come far – home was just three hours on the train away in London – but we were nevertheless in need of some hospitality and R&R, and the New Inn delivered in spades.

Like all the best rental homes, the New Inn is somewhere you could spend your entire trip: reading, dozing, chucking another log into the stove, preparing huge meals of ham, eggs and cheese from the local Emmett’s deli, or, as one quote on their website brilliantly has it, “spending hours studying the beautiful carpentry of the building’s oak frame.”

However, there’s plenty to be done in the area including a host of simple pleasures that have been enjoyed for time immemorial: tramping through crusty brown fields under a wide, bright blue sky; capturing images of dewy sparkles on deep furrows; dodging the peacocks who strut through the village of Peasenhall like they own the place.

The area holds as many historic secrets as the building, much of them deep underground. The sunken village of Dunwich, “Britain’s Atlantis”, and Sutton Hoo, a 225 acre estate of ancient Anglo-Saxon burial mounds, are both short drives away and will fire the imagination.

The Martello Tower, meanwhile, is another Landmark Trust property on the beach at Aldeburgh that was originally built to repel Napoleon but has now been invaded by a sculpture created by Antony Gormley. The Scallop sculpture, a tribute to Benjamin Britten, and Framlington Castle, which was once the refuge of Mary Tudor, are other sights worth a detour.

More recently, a madcap inventor has been paying homage to the history of arcade machines by building a series of bizarre contraptions that are collected halfway along Southwold Pier – a truly British display of eccentricity.

The pier has plenty of other attractions, including a more modern collection of shoot-em-ups, any number of ways to lose a pile of 2p pieces, and a rather odd depiction of George Orwell, who grew up here when he was known as plain old Eric Blair and before he left for Burma and the travels that would inspire his first novel, Burmese Days (which he actually completed here).

Southwold itself demands at least half a day, a quaint warren of windy streets harbouring boutiques, foodie shops and friendly pubs, and walks along the beach and to nearby Walberswick for fish and chips at the huge Anchor pub are great ways to while away an afternoon.

Before long, though, you’ll feel the pull of the New Inn and find yourself heading home, with a boot full of local produce and Adnams ale from the town’s brewery shop, to fire up the hearth and settle in to a Chaucerian bacchanal under the oak beams – or perhaps just a good book.

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

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