Once voted one of the world’s most beautiful countries by Rough Guides readers, Wales has something for everyone. From the mountains to the stunning coastline, here are our top things not to miss in Wales.

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Are you a cartographic clever-clogs or due a geography refresher course? We’ve compiled the outlines of ten different countries – large and small – without any rivers, seas, mountains or cities to help you. Can you deduce the country from its shape alone? Take the quiz to find out…

Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Iceland might not be the first place that springs to mind when you’re planning a weekend away. The obvious cities like Paris, Berlin or Budapest would probably occur to you well before Reykjavík becomes an option. But after a four-night jaunt across some of Iceland’s impressive landscapes, including the Golden Circle and Reykjanes Peninsula, Lottie Gross discovers why Iceland’s capital is the perfect weekend break destination.

Why go for just a weekend?

Because it’s cheap to get there, and expensive to stay. Iceland is a notoriously expensive destination due to its small population and dependency on imports. It’s hard to stay in the country for a long time without breaking the bank, so a short trip is the most economical option for most travellers.

There are two different sides to Iceland – the capital and the countryside. Staying in Reykjavík makes it possible to enjoy the highlights of both the city and scenery in a short amount of time by taking day trips with tour companies to your chosen areas of interest. Reykjavík has charm and nightlife to rival cities even twice its size, while the surrounding countryside is too ethereal to miss.

Flights with WOW Air run from London Gatwick ten times a week and can set you back as little as £49 each way. Plus, new flights launching between London and the US (Washington DC and Boston) via Reykjavík this year, make Iceland the perfect place for a small adventure before reaching your final destination.

Image © Lottie Gross 2015

What should I see in Reykjavík?

On first impression Reykjavík – the country’s largest city with a population of just 120,000 people – is like a life-size model village. There are no skyscrapers, but instead a network of small, tin can-style houses with multicoloured corrugated iron walls and roofs. Thanks to this, the whole city has a somewhat temporary feel to it, as if each building could be taken down and reassembled as something else entirely next week – although in reality, the corrugated iron really protects against the relentless year-round winds.

Because of its small scale, Reykjavík can be explored on foot in a single day. A walk along the seafront past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager sculpture gives breathtaking views to the mountains on the tiny island of Viðey across the bay; a stroll along the main street, Laugavegur, introduces you to an independent shopping heaven; and a wander up Lækjargata past the pond, where locals feed ducks, swans and geese, takes you to Hallgrímskirkja – the famously sci-fi-looking church with a towering concrete steeple that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

For history you can visit the National Museum or the Saga Museum, while for an understanding of the country’s landscape – before you get out there yourself – see the huge relief map in City Hall. Finally, Perhaps for a bit of irreverent fun, have a giggle in the Reykjavík Phallological Museum where over 200 penises from a variety of animals (including humans) are preserved in jars.

What should I eat?

With an economy that depends heavily on the fishing industry – fish is Iceland’s biggest export – it comes as no surprise that seafood in Iceland is sublime. Head to Icelandic Fish & Chips on Tryggvagata for a deliciously fresh, healthy dinner, or to the weekend flea market by the harbour where you can buy a variety of fish almost straight from the boats.

For those with a sweet tooth in pursuit of authentic Icelandic treats, Café Loki, sitting on a corner opposite Hallgrímskirkja, is perfect for a spot of afternoon tea. Try the ‘bow’, a knot of donut dough, deep-fried and served with cream, and the skyr cake, a cheesecake-style sweet layered with yoghurt, rhubarb sauce and a sweet biscuit base.

Kex Hostel, Reykjavík

Where’s the party?

Reykjavík by night is a very different place. It’s famous for its Friday rúntur, or ‘round tour’, when hundreds of young Icelanders tank themselves up on vodka at home before hitting the streets around midnight to embark on an almost orgiastic pub crawl.

Start your evening in style at The Ten Drops, a tiny, basement-level speakeasy that feels like someone’s living room rather than a pub. There’s live acoustic guitar and a good selection of Icelandic beers (Einstok is the most popular choice, but the Myrkvi Porter is a great winter warmer if it’s cold out) to get you going before moving onto the more serious party at Reykjavík institution, Kaffibarrin. For up-to-date listings on what’s on in town, see the Reykjavík Grapevine.

Any budget-friendly accommodation?

Yes. Kex Hostel, set in an old biscuit factory on the seafront in downtown Reykjavík, has dorm rooms from £30 or private rooms from £40 per person per night. There’s a kitchen for self-caterers and a rather dark but very cool (read: hipster) gastropub serving everything from rich, juicy beef burgers to braised reindeer shank in batter.

How do I get into the wild?

A number of day-tours (pick-up from your hotel) on offer from Reykjavík Excursions take in the highlights of the surrounding countryside and dramatic coastline – the most popular of which is the Golden Circle. This takes you through the beautiful Þingvellir National Park and across the Assembly Plains (where the country’s first parliament, the oldest in the world, was founded in 930 AD). From here you reach the Geysir geothermal area, where the spectacular geyser that gave its name to all others thrusts hot water from underground up to 30 metres in the air every few minutes. The visitor centre’s free exhibition shows just how temperamental Iceland’s environment can be, detailing the science behind these geothermal surges, the frequent volcanic eruptions and showing, with a simulator, what it feels like to experience an earthquake.

Before heading back to Reykjavík, the tour visits Gullfoss (Golden Falls): an enormous waterfall viewed from above, which plummets thunderously into a 32 metre-deep rift created by the Hvítá river. A number of tours can be combined with a visit to the Blue Lagoon – the man-made geothermal pool and spa that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Explore more of Iceland’s natural beauty with the Rough Guide to Iceland. Compare flightsbook hostels, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Katmai Crater Lake, Alaska

Formed in 1912 after the eruption of the Novarupta Volcano, when the top of Mount Katmai caved in, Katmai Crater Lake is breathtakingly stunning. Sitting at around 4220 feet, and surrounded by impenetrable caldera peaks, the best – and only – way to see the lake’s otherworldly beauty is by plane.

Island Lake, Colorado

You have to put a bit of legwork in to get to the alpine Island Lake, scenically set at around 12,400ft in San Juan National Park. Surrounded by dramatic peaks, the lake’s sparkling blue waters are best seen in the summer months, when the surrounding landscape is carpeted in wildflowers.

Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada

Straddling the California/Nevada state line, Lake Tahoe’s deep, cold waters do nothing to deter the flocks of visitors who come here to make the most of its natural attractions – from stand-up paddling and rafting to sunbathing on its beautiful beaches – during the warmer months. In winter, the forested peaks that surround are the big draw, offering excellent skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing, or even dog sledding.

Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming

North America’s largest mountain lake that sits above 7000ft, staggeringly beautiful Yellowstone Lake is frozen for close to half the year – and the ice can be up to three feet thick. The southwest of the lake – which is set among the forests of Yellowstone National Park – is a geothermal area, where you’ll find geysers, fumaroles and hot springs.

Caddo Lake, Texas/Louisiana

There are few lakes as eerily atmospheric than Caddo Lake, which almost looks like something out of a gothic horror novel. A tangle of lush vegetation and cypress groves, in some places it more closely resembles a typical Louisiana swamp than a lake, twisting through the pine forests of Texas. The best way to experience the lake is undoubtedly in a canoe: paddling through the calm waters is the ultimate way to feel the dream-like, slow pace of life here.

Diablo Lake, Washington State

The most immediately striking thing about Diablo Lake is its colour – a turquoise of such intensity that it almost doesn’t look real – created by glacier sediment. Set within the wild and dramatic North Cascades National Park, the lake was created by the building of Diablo Dam in the first half of the twentieth century, and exploring by kayak remains one of the most popular ways to soak up its immense beauty.

Lake Chelan, Washington State

This long, skinny lake sits in the north of Washington State, scenically set near vineyards, mountains and quaint little towns, which combine to make this a great escape. The southern end of the lake sits amid a surprisingly arid, desert-like landscape – in summer, visitors and locals alike crowd the lovely, if small, beaches here.

Lake Powell, Utah/Arizona

Don’t be fooled by its name – Lake Powell, straddling the Utah/Arizona border, is in fact a man-made reservoir. Extraordinary as it appears, it’s easy to see that this – with its turquoise waters contrasting against the red of the surrounding rocks – is not an entirely natural landscape. The lake is something of a tourist’s playground, and the best way to experience it is from the water itself, whether snorkelling, cruising or staying in a houseboat.

Lake Superior, Michigan/Wisconsin/Minnesota

More than 300 miles from east to west, Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes, stretching from Michigan and Wisconsin in the south to Minnesota in the west and north, and the Canadian province of Ontario in the east – in fact, it’s so large that at times you can’t actually see the other side. The lake, though beautiful throughout the year, is particularly resplendent during the autumn, when the surrounding trees burst into colour.

Skilak Lake, Alaska

It’s not hard to see why the area surrounding Skilak Lake is often referred to as “Alaska in miniature” – this glacial-clear lake is towered over by snow-capped mountains, and sits within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to black and brown bears, moose and wolves, among many other animals. A number of trails – some day-hikes, others longer – provide a great way to explore this fascinating section of Alaskan wilderness.

Lake Kabetogama, Minnesota

Set within Voyageurs National Park, along the Canadian border, Kabetogama was used in the eighteenth century by French-Canadian fur traders who transported their goods along the border lakes. These days, the lake is a great place to come for bird-watching, boasting osprey, pelicans and bald eagles among its residents, and the wide, open waters are perfect for leisurely exploration by kayak.

Echo Lake, New Hampshire

Nestled deep within lush green forest, Echo Lake is a particularly popular choice with families who come here to swim and picnic on the sandy beaches. Towering over the lake is sheer Cathedral Ledge, from where stunning views across the lake, as well as over the White Mountains and the Saco River Valley, can be enjoyed – the more adventurous can abseil down its steep face.

Todd Lake, Oregon

Originally boasting the much more exciting name of “Lost Lake” – reflecting the difficulty that people had in finding it – Todd Lake is these days named after one of the area’s earliest settlers. Situated in central Oregon, this peaceful expanse of water is watched over by brooding Mount Bachelor and surrounded by dense forest; in winter, the walking trails are great for cross-country skiing.

Hanging Lake, Colorado

You have to earn the breathtaking vista that is Hanging Lake, which can only be reached on foot. Though the hiking trail is only just over a mile long, its steepness can make it challenging at times, but there’s no doubt that this makes the appearance of the waterfall-fed lake, with its sparkling turquoise waters, all the more worthwhile.

Flathead Lake, Montana

The mountains of Glacier National Park loom over Flathead Lake, known for the cleanness and clarity of its waters. Named for the Native Americans tribe that live in the area, the lake is a particularly popular fishing destination, home to bull, cutthroat and lake trout, and bald eagles and osprey are prominent nesters nearby.

Mono Lake, California

Looking like something out of a science fiction film, the most striking thing about Mono Lake is the rather bizarre tufa formations that poke out of the water. These calcium-carbonate towers help to protect the lake, making it – and the surrounding area – a safe, natural habitat for the up to two million birds that rest and feed here, despite its position within a desert landscape.

Lake Santeetlah, North Carolina

The thing that strikes you immediately about Lake Santeetlah is just how quiet it is – much of its shoreline is protected national forest, set in the shadow of mountains, making this an incredibly peaceful setting. Soak up the silence by camping by the lakeside, before exploring the pristine waters by canoe or kayak.

Lake Michigan, Michigan

The only one of the Great Lakes that exists entirely in the US, Lake Michigan is particularly known for its beautiful beaches, including the city beaches of Chicago and the impressive, sheer-sided sands of Sleeping Bear Dunes, in the lake’s northeast. The 900-mile long Circle Tour is a fantastic driving route, following the lake in its entirety.

Crater Lake, Oregon

Sheer surrounding cliffs lead down to Crater Lake’s irresistible, deep blue waters, the result of the region’s volatile volcanic past. The best way to see the lake is to hike through the eponymous national park that it sits in, which will allow you astounding views over the water and the appealing islands that sit in it.

Hidden Lake, Montana

What makes Hidden Lake particularly striking is its position, with dramatic, often snow-covered, Bearhat Mountain looming over it. The lake is reached by an easy – and thus very popular – hike through alpine meadows, which are likely to either be covered in wildflowers or a snowfield, depending on the season; the best vantage point is just over a mile from the lake itself, allowing you to take in not just Bearhat but also Gunshot Mountain and Sperry Glacier.

With a whole host of new attractions opening this year, from world-record-beating skyscrapers to whacky amusement parks, there’s plenty to get your teeth into. To help you decide where to visit, we’ve picked the top 9 new tourist attractions around the world. 

Shanghai Tower, China

A better symbol of China’s continuing march forward would be harder to find than the new Shanghai Tower, at 632 metres the world’s second tallest building and muscling its way in to every shot of Shanghai like a giant robotic arm. Twisted from base to tip, at about one degree per floor, it is even designed to withstand typhoons. By the end of this year the tower will also have the world’s highest observation deck, at 557 metres above sea level. Lifts will reach this in under one minute – so prepare for some ear-popping.

Lincoln Castle, UK

Want to see the document that gave birth to democracy? We’re talking about the Magna Carta of course, which reaches its 800th birthday this year. You can find out why it’s so highly lauded at Lincoln Castle. This eleventh-century Norman castle reopens in April and promises a state-of-the-art underground vault to house the Magna Carta, an ‘in-the-round’ film explaining its importance and history, a complete circular walk around the castle’s ancient walls and access to both the Victorian male and female prisons for the first time.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

One of the great shames of the art world is the amount of exceptional artwork kept in storage and rarely seen by the public. What is the point, after all, of owning a large art collection if you don’t have the space to exhibit it? The Whitney finally solves its space problem in 2015, with the opening of its new building; at 18,000 square feet, the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City. A cantilevered entrance beneath the High Line sets the tone for a graceful, light-filled gallery with river views – and, of course, some of the world’s greatest artworks.

IceCave, Iceland

Ever wondered what the inside of a glacier looks like? White? Deepest blue? Both? Well, wonder no more. Book a trip to Iceland this year and you can visit the country’s latest attraction, the IceCave. Here you can venture into a series of tunnels and caves running inside Langjökull Glacier, which stretch as much as 300 metres into the solid ice about 30 metres below the surface. These mind-bending proportions make the IceCave one of the largest man-made ice structures in the world – and well worth donning multiple layers of clothing to see.

Lost and Found festival, Malta

In April 2015 Malta will make its debut on the electronic music scene. From the 3rd to the 5th DJ Annie Mac will host Lost and Found, a new festival in St Paul’s Bay on the north shore and Ta’ Qali National Park near Rabat. With a line-up of international dance DJs, Lost and Found promises daytime pool and boat dance parties against an ocean backdrop and nighttime open-air raves with a chilled out vibe. You won’t even have to camp either: packages including hotel accommodation start from £148/$225 per person.

Dreamland, Margate, UK

2015 is set to be a great year for Margate, as the seaside resort’s most famous attraction, Dreamland, finally reopens. The UK’s oldest amusement park is being reimagined as the world’s first heritage amusement park by designer Wayne Hemmingway, its centerpiece the Grade II listed Scenic Railway, Britain’s oldest rollercoaster. Numerous rides from other parks are being rebuilt around it, many of which are the only remaining examples of their type. Ride the 1950s Hurricane Jets and the 1940s Caterpillar that once stood at Pleasureland Southport, before strolling past the large Tiffany lamps donated from the Blackpool Illuminations collection.

TreeTop Crazy Rider, New South Wales

Two words have never belonged together more than rollercoaster and zipline. Well, the crazy folks at Ourimbah State Forest on Australia’s Central Coast certainly think so. Their new 1km-long adventure must-do promises to combine the thrill and suspense of a rollercoaster with the flying sensation of a zipline. Strap in and swoop through the forest, twisting round corners and dropping into the bush. No special skills are required and it’s open to everyone over seven.

Musée des Confluences, Lyon, France

A new building has landed at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers – although we think it looks more like the giant foot of a crystal transformer. This is the new Musée des Confluences, a science centre and anthropology museum dedicated to pondering life’s big questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? And what do we do? No existential crisis needed though, there are said to be 2.2 million objects in the collection to answer these head scratchers, not to mention regular arts and crafts exhibitions.

Sa Pa cable car, Vietnam

Reaching the peak of Fansipan Mountain (3143m) used to mean a full-day hike at least. But from later this September the trek up will be reduced to a 20-minute flight by cable car. This will be the world’s longest and highest cable car, no less, running up from sleepy Sa Pa Town in Lao Cai Province to Indochina’s rooftop. Enjoy the view from the summit before exploring Sa Pa itself, an isolated community set to become firmly established on the tourist trail – the cable car will transport 2000 people per hour, the same number as reached the peak in an entire year previously.

For the best cities, countries, and best-value destinations to visit this year, check out the Rough Guide to 2015Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

View Sydney from the Harbour Bridge, Australia

The ‘coat hanger’, as it’s affectionately dubbed by locals, was the longest single span bridge in the world at the time of its construction. Those with a head for heights can climb the bridge’s 503-metre-long, 134-metre-high framework, scaling the steel arch to the summit – an excursion that’s rewarded with 360-degree views of the city, from the glittering harbour to the iconic white-fins of the Sydney Opera House.

Hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara, Kenya

No amount of documentary watching can prepare you for the view of the famous Maasai Mara at dawn. As you float up in a hot air balloon and the sun slowly rises, the savannah awakens below you: wildebeests, zebras and impalas graze on the undulating grasslands, impossibly graceful giraffes stride across the open plains and lions and cheetahs stalk their pray.

Get a birds eye view of Machu Picchu, Peru

Think of Machu Picchu and one image springs to mind: crumbling ruins poised atop a vivid-green terraced mountainside, with Huayna Picchu’s horn-shaped looming peak in the background. But there is another, equally impressive, yet far-less famous viewpoint: the one from Huayna Picchu itself. The trek up the mountain is hard but the view over the ruins below, the densely-forested mountains and the meandering Urubamba River are worth it.

See Fez’s Tanneries Chouwara, Morocco

Follow the stench of dye, leather and pigeon dung to one of the many shops that double up as vantage points over the ancient tanneries Chouwara. Brave the smell and the views are worth it. Below you, among the city’s rooftops, stretched out leathers bake in the sun and myriad dye-filled pits awash with colour make a striking mosaic of mustard-yellow, ochre, deep purple, indigo and teal.

Gaze down over the Grand Canyon, USA

You have to see the Grand Canyon from above. Yet even swotting up on the statistics (more than a mile deep and in places 18 miles wide) cannot prepare you for the experience of staring down into this vast abyss. How you decide to get your dose of vertigo is up to you: hike to a viewpoint, fly over it, or try the Skywalk, a glass-bottomed platform lets you glimpse the canyon between your feet – if you’re brave enough.

Trekking in Bac Son valley, Vietnam

Hike through the paddy fields of the Bac Son valley in northern Vietnam and you’ll see some of the country’s most stunning vistas. But the best views are from the mountains themselves. From here you can see the river lazily twist through a patchwork quilt of acid-yellow, bright-green and ochre fields, dotted with stilt houses and flanked by imposing mountains.

Sky dive over Dubai Islands, UAE

For the most extreme view of one of the world’s most extreme cities, you’ll need to fling yourself out of a plane. As the adrenalin rush hits you, prepare to be transfixed by the view: 13,000ft below you futuristic Dubai displays its wonders, soaring skyscrapers, harsh desert and the sandy-edged fronds of the Palm Jumeirah stretching out into the turquoise ocean.

Take in the view from The Peak, Hong Kong

There’s no shortage of places to get high in Hong Kong; in a city of soaring skyscrapers lofty views are a given. Yet one of the best has to be the view from The Peak, Hong Kong’s highest mountain. A circular walk around the wooded mountain offers the best views of the skyscraper-packed cityscape, as well as vistas of the bustling harbour and Outlying Islands.

Walk above the Amazon, Peru

In Peru, the vast selva covers over half the country. Walking the jungle floor is a must, but seeing the biggest rainforest in the world from above is also rather special. At over 35m above ground, and stretching for 50m, the Amazon Explorama Field Station is the jungle’s longest canopy walkway. Look out for jaguars prowling the undergrowth, monkeys swinging between the treetops and pink river dolphins playing in the Amazon.

Paraglide through Wengen, Switzerland

Ditch the skis for an exhilarating paragliding trip over Wengen, a mountainside village in Switzerland famed for its celestial views. This is picture-perfect alpine scenery: charming chocolate-box houses and frozen, glacial mountain tops. In summer the lush slopes contrast with the ice-capped tips of the Jungfrau massif; winter vistas are even more breathtaking, revealing an impossibly photogenic snow-dusted landscape.

See the Great Barrier Reef by helicopter, Australia

The only living thing on earth visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2900 individual reefs, 900 islands and countless sandy cays. Seeing it from space may be out of reach for most but helicopter flights give equally as impressive views of this natural wonder. Hop on a flight in Cairns, from where you’ll glide over the endless indigo-stained ocean and the Whitsunday’s dreamy swirls of golden sands.

Hiking rice terraces in Longji, China

In a country full of beautiful rice terraces, the Longji mountain range, or ‘Dragon’s Spine’ is perhaps the best example. Trekking here will take you to heights of around 880m, from where you can gaze down over the intricate terraces. Etched into the earth in ribbon-like layers of rice, soil and water, they mark the landscape like contours on a map.

Look down on London from the Shard, England

Dramatically piercing the sky, the 1017ft Shard is London’s latest landmark and Western Europe’s tallest building. With viewing platforms at a lofty 800ft above the capital, the Shard easily trumps other vantage points in the city – in fact it’s almost twice as high as any other. And with dizzying heights come forty miles of jaw-dropping views – a panoramic sweep of London that ticks off its biggest sights, from Tower Bridge to the London Eye.

Admire Bagan from a hot air balloon, Myanmar

It is only from the air that you can truly grasp the sheer scale of this place; the ancient capital, now a copper-coloured, 26-mile-long stretch of dusty plain studded with 4000 temples. The dawn views from a hot air balloon – when the honey-coloured, ornately-sculpted stupas slowly shake off a low slung mist in the morning sun – are unforgettable.

Paraglide over Ölüdeniz, Turkey

Unsurprisingly sun-worshippers flock to the Turquoise Coast – but this area has more to offer than blissful beaches. The resort of Ölüdeniz has been consistently ranked as one of the top spots in the world for paragliding, with paragliders regularly launching from the 1960-metre-high Babadag (Father Mountain), swooping slowly down to the golden arc of sand that curves around the resort’s famous azure lagoon.

Climb across a stone forest, Madagascar

Remote and otherworldly, Tsingy de Bemaraha national park, the largest stone forest in the world, lies a five day journey from Madagascar’s capital. It’s worth it: a bizarre labyrinth of razor-sharp spires, narrow ravines and hidden caves await. This seemingly inhospitable landscape teems with wildlife, too: lemurs, parrots and lizards can be spotted amid the serrated rock towers.

Take a helicopter over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

If you’re feeling flush, take to the skies for one of the world’s most famous views: Rio de Janiero from the air. As well as admiring the concrete jungle squeezed between the mountains and Atlantic ocean, there’s plenty to look out for: the golden swathes of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the rounded hump of Sugar Loaf mountain, and possibly most famous of all, the glorious statue of Christ the Redeemer with arms outstretched over the city.

Fly over Angel Falls, Venezuela

Nineteen times the height of Niagara Falls, the 979m-high Angel Falls is the highest waterfall in the world. The cascade plunges from Auyán-tepui, one of the tepui (table top mountains) that dominate the jungle landscape here, and the best way to see it is undoubtedly from the air. Watching the Churun River surge over the mountain edge, its easy to see why locals call it the ‘falls from the deepest place’.

Fly over the Blue Hole, Belize

The world’s largest sinkhole lures many divers into its inky depths; this indigo abyss plunges to over 100m. However, it is from above that the Blue Hole really comes into its own. Flying over this natural phenomenon in a glass bottomed helicopter allows you to truly grasp the magnificence of the collapsed cavern.

Fly in a microlight over Victoria Falls, Zambia

An awe-inspiring tower of cascading water, the ‘Smoke That Thunders’ (as Victoria Falls is locally known) can be seen from 30 miles away. On the ground it can be hard to grasp its sheer size – a true giant at 1.7km wide and 110m deep – yet from above, soaring in a microlight, its true magnificence is unveiled. Below your dangling feet, torrents of water plunge over the precipice and iridescent rainbows form in the billowing spray.

Sandwiched between Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, Slovenia might be small but it’s a surprisingly diverse country. Venture just an hour or so from the compact capital, Ljubljana, and you’ll find nearly 50 kilometres of sunny Adriatic coastline, tranquil wine regions and the stunning Lake Bled, backed by the soaring Julian Alps. Travel a little further and you’ll hit the dramatic Logarska Dolina, karst plateaus riddled with cave systems and Maribor, the country’s engaging second city. It’s no wonder Rough Guides readers voted Slovenia as one of the world’s most beautiful countries. To find out more, this year we’ve explored the country season by season. 

Winter

In winter, our adventure travel expert Helen Abramson took to the slopes in the Julian Alps. Trying her hand at cross-country skiing, snow-biking and a couple of black runs, she found out why Slovenia is one of the most affordable and accessible European ski destinations.

Spring

Spring saw Lottie Gross explore the country out of season. Over five days she cycled and paraglided without the summer crowds in Logarska Dolina, overindulged on a food tour in Ljubljana and sampled a taste of traditional life on a tourist farm.

Photograph © Lottie Gross 2014

Summer

Over a sunny summer weekend in late August, Tim Chester hit the coast on a short tour of the Slovene Riviera. Never straying far from the Adriatic, he scouted out the seaside city of Piran, Izola’s fish festival and salty spa treatments at Sečovlje.

Autumn

To round off the year, this autumn Eleanor Aldridge travelled to Slovenia’s far west. Visiting the Vipava Valley and Goriška Brda at harvest time, she met some of the country’s pioneering orange winemakers and discovered the natural beauty of these rural regions.

nejcbole via Compfight cc

Discover more about Slovenia with our online guideBook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Header image © Lottie Gross 2014

The stunning karst pinnacles of Ha Long Bay are one of the jewels in Vietnam’s crown, but as Ron Emmons discovers, nearby Bai Tu Long Bay boasts the same beguiling scenery – without the crowds.

After three days cruising through the jaw-dropping scenery of Bai Tu Long Bay, and taking about 5000 photos of rugged limestone outcrops jutting from the emerald waters, I felt totally karst out. Yet many magical moments of this trip had burned themselves into my brain – I knew it was a journey I’d never forget.

Bai Tu Long Bay is located some 30km to the east of Vietnam’s number one attraction, Ha Long Bay, but is less visited thanks to its harder-to-reach location and fewer accessible caves. The rewards, however, are worth the little extra effort it takes to get here. Visiting Bai Tu Long Bay is a more peaceful experience, with extra time for kayaking and swimming among the awesome rock formations that assume all manner of fanciful shapes across this ocean landscape. Some of the larger islands also feature forest reserves sheltering rare species, while dugong swim in the surrounding waters

I was to spend my trip on the Dragon’s Pearl, a large wooden junk-come-cruise boat painted white with enormous red sails. Boarding set the tone for the trip: shortly after stepping aboard, I suddenly realised we were under way, though I hadn’t even heard the engine start or felt any rolling movement. Things continued just as smoothly for the next few days, as we glided away from the workaday world and into a dream realm of towering cliffs, gaping caves, lush growth sprouting from limestone peaks and hawks soaring on air currents above.

Image by Ron Emmons

My shipmates were an intriguing bunch of global travellers, including a pair of cashew nut importers from the Czech Republic, a mountain guide from the USA and a graphic designer from Mexico. Most of them, like myself, had left this experience until the end of their travels: the icing on the cake after exploring this beautiful and welcoming land. Thus our talk over the five- and six-course lunches and dinners of delectable Vietnamese cuisine ranged from the floating markets of the Mekong Delta to the glowing lanterns of ancient Hoi An. We waxed lyrical about the stunning landscapes of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark in the country’s extreme north, and shared stories of dangerous road crossings in Hanoi and Saigon.

Our guide, Phuc, ran a tight ship. As well as being fluent in English and French, she turned out to be an expert kayaker, leading us into hidden caves and to deserted beaches, where we were free to float on our backs in secluded bays sheltered by towering limestone cliffs. On one occasion, she needed to step in to stop a game of beach football, which was being fiercely contested between crew members and passengers (of which there was about a one to one ratio), in order to get us back to the Dragon’s Pearl in time for one of our memorable meals.

Sadly there was a reminder of the world we had escaped: flotsam (debris), consisting mostly of Styrofoam and plastic bottles, which washed onto these beaches. I was pleased to see members of our crew collecting as much as they could, but such sights made most passengers voice concern for the future of this fragile environment, where birds and aquatic wildlife can die if they accidentally eat man-made rubbish.

Image by Andrea Schaffer on Flickr creative commons

On the second day a side trip took us to a floating village of families who lived by fishing and pearl farming, and though their simple houses consisted of a single room with a hammock swinging in front and in some cases a dog on the porch, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in envying the tranquillity and contentment that emanated from this waterborne community.

All too soon our voyage was coming to an end, but on the last evening, Phuc suggested we dress in our best as the crew had prepared a surprise. Instead of sitting on deck for our meal, we were taken to a cool, candle-lit cave, where a table decorated with vegetable and fruit carvings was set for dinner. An excited babble echoed around as we devoured grilled shrimps, tender strips of marinated beef and a tangy salad. The evening’s finale came when a cake was produced to celebrate the honeymoon couples on the boat. We ended the night with a toast to future travel discoveries as magnificent as this one.

While Bai Tu Long Bay is a great place to visit, it gets pretty cold from December to February, and from August to October the bay is subject to occasional typhoons, when trips are cancelled. Also bear in mind that two-day, one-night trips include only an afternoon and a morning in the bay, so three-day, two-night trips are preferable if you have the time. A reliable operator for a customised itinerary is Buffalo Tours, while the fleet of boats that includes the Dragon’s Pearl is managed by Indochina Junk.
Explore more of Vietnam with the Rough Guide to Vietnam, book 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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