Twilight ballooning in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Few sights are more magical than hundreds of tethered, glowing hot-air balloons illuminating a dusky night sky. For many this is the highlight of Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta, a week-long festival launched in 1972, which draws enthusiasts from all over the world. Festivities start after sunset and culminate with a spectacular fireworks display.

Take in Manhattan from the Empire State, New York, USA

Watch the city that never sleeps with panoramic views from the Observatory Deck of New York’s most famous skyscraper. Perched 86 floors up, Manhattan’s twinkling skyline can be seen teeming with celebrated landmarks and aglow with streams of weaving night traffic. Take advantage of the 2am closing time and have the midnight vista more or less to yourself.

Join the early risers at a London market

Open from 3am, arrive early to catch the crack-of-dawn butchers in full swing. Housed in a Victorian market hall with arched ceilings and a curious colour scheme, Smithfield’s smart appearance belies its grisly past as a popular site for public executions. By 7am carnivores can devour a full English at the nearby Fox & Anchor.

Take a night safari in Singapore zoo

The world’s first night zoo, this veteran is still high on Singapore’s must-see list, thanks to special lighting techniques and open-concept enclosures which allow up-close animal encounters. Hop on the 45-minute narrated tram or stroll the trails to snoop on the nocturnal activities of nine hundred creatures; hang out with bats, laze with lions or act aloof with leopards.

Watch the Symphony of Light show, Hong Kong

Escape the glitzy late-night malls and snazzy restaurants for one of Hong Kong’s best free thrills. At 8pm every night, forty or so of Central District’s glittering skyscrapers dance to a synchronised routine of sweeping lasers, neon flashing lights and futuristic tunes. Bizarre yet strangely endearing, this fifteen-minute extravaganza is best seen from Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon.

Feed hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

It’s not every night you come face to face with the snapping jaws of Africa’s second largest predator, yet in Harar this is an evening ritual. Just outside the ancient city walls these hulking beasts slink out of the shadows for dinner with the Hyena Man, sometimes snatching meat from a stick held between his, or if you’re brave enough, your teeth.

Admire the Northern Lights in Lapland, Finland

The Northern Lights may be elusive, but with 24 hours of darkness at the peak of winter here, at least time will be on your side. Embrace the long nights by heading out into the frozen darkness to try and catch this breathtaking spectacle. Streams of shimmering particles twist and twirl in a shifting, sweeping dance that illuminates the inky-black sky.

Lose yourself in Beijing’s hutongs, China

Once crisscrossing all of Beijing, now only a few hundred of these labyrinthine, narrow alleys remain. Dating back 800 years, old Beijing really comes to life at night here, as food carts and rickshaws weave past lively games of mah jong, pavement hairdressers and old men watching the world go by.

Night dive with Manta Rays, Hawaii, USA

Gathering in pools of light cast by divers’ torches, specks of glittering plankton draw in manta rays. Hot in pursuit of these microscopic organisms, the rays perform a mesmerising dance, swooping, spiralling, somersaulting and plunging as they weave effortlessly amongst each other and stretch their 13ft tapered wings within reach of the waiting divers.

Stuff yourself at Shilin night market, Taipei, Taiwan

Food is a big deal in Taiwan, something best understood when sampling xiaochi (“little eats”) at Taipei’s biggest night market. Brave the crowds and polyphonic tunes and you will experience some of Asia’s best cuisine: syrupy grass jelly soup, sweet and chewy bubble tea, artery-clogging deep-fried meatballs, and, for the really adventurous, the rather dubiously named yet delicious “stinky tofu”.

See Petra under the stars, Jordan

Thousands of small candles light the Siq, the narrow, hidden gorge that stretches up to the entrance of the ancient city, as a single-file procession arrives at the Treasury. A Bedouin piper breaks the silence as crowds gather behind a blanket of flickering candles that cast shadows, which flit across Petra’s iconic facade.

Watch Thai kickboxing, Bangkok, Thailand

Worlds away form the kickboxing you see in a Western gym class, Muay Thai is kickboxing in its most distilled, aggressive form. With two stadiums, Ratchadamnoen and Lumphini, you can catch the action any night in Bangkok, so prepare for furious exchanges, looming tension and clamouring crowds that will leave you buzzing all night.

Catch the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan

Take advantage of jetlag and register at 4am for this famous tuna auction. By 5am, the market is frenzied, with trucks and trolleys zipping around laden with man-sized fish and feverish bidders clamouring for the best buys. As the commotion dies down, brave the queues at Daiwa Sushi for a proper breakfast dining on some of the best sushi in town.

Set the town ablaze in Lewes, England

Blazing stakes, flaming crosses and fireworks; Bonfire Night here will certainly set a pyromaniac’s heart alight. This double whammy commemorates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and honours the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake here in 1555–7. As the festival is steeped in history, paraders don medieval garb, grasp burning staffs and light effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope.

Experience Hoi An’s full moon festival, Vietnam

Banish thoughts of glow paint ravers on crowded Thai beaches, Hoi An’s full moon festival is a much more sophisticated affair. Every month on the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar, the town switches off its street lights as glowing silk lanterns, performers and food stalls fill the cobbled streets and the Thu Bon River is lit up with beautiful floats.

Night skiing with vin chaud, France

Staying cosy beside a roaring log fire may seem tempting, but night skiing is an exhilarating end to a day out on the slopes. While some resorts offer floodlit runs, others embrace the frozen darkness with torchlight descents that are beautiful to watch as they snake down the hillside. Afterwards, reward your efforts as you defrost cradling a warming vin chaud.

Stargaze from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

Boasting the world’s greatest collection of telescopes, the observatories at the summit of Hawaii’s highest peak draw space enthusiasts from around the world. However, while serious astronomers will be at home here, a free stargazing programme runs nightly at 6–10pm, introducing curious novices to an expanse of night sky wonders. Globular clusters, planets, double stars, galaxies and supernova remnants are all within reach.

Revel in the White Nights, St Petersburg, Russia

A must-see for all insomniacs, during St Petersburg’s Byele Nochy, or White Nights, from mid-June to mid-July, darkness never quite falls. Sun-filled, sticky days are followed by luminous, breezy nights that are alive with tsusovki (gatherings); vodka-fuelled revelry fills the bars, old friends stroll by the bustling canal, and the Summer Garden teems with lively, impromptu picnics.

Floodlit watering holes, Etosha, Namibia

The name of Namibia’s largest national park may mean “place of dry water”, but its watering holes offer great wildlife spotting opportunities. Okaukuejo Camp boasts a spotlit drinking oasis perfect for spying on nocturnal congregations. Safe on a raised platform you can watch as black rhinos, elephants, lions and giraffes emerge out of the darkness to head to their favourite local.

Join in Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, India

As dusk descends, the ghats teem with life as hordes of residents and saffron-clad pilgrims cluster on the banks of India’s holiest river for the nightly ceremony of Ganga Aarti. Lit by swinging torches, dancers trace slow steps to the rhythmic chanting of the crowds, while small twinkling diyas (candles) float on the dark waters.

Not far from the taxi horn-laden bustle of Shanghai, Moganshan is a bamboo-adorned retreat perfect for a weekend visit. Jamie Fullerton heads into the trees.

Exciting, exhilarating, intense, pungent – Shanghai is many things, but peaceful it is not. Those visiting the city who crave to crank down the ever-present car honks have few options beyond earplugs and small parks. Moganshan, about an hour’s drive from the city of Hangzhou, itself less than an hour by train from Shanghai, offers the ultimate sanctuary.

First populated in the late 1800s by missionaries looking for a shady break from the summer blaze of Shanghai (which reached record-breaking heat levels in summer 2013), the area now serves as a popular yet tranquil getaway for both tourists and city residents.

You can go high-end or budget. Expensive, luxurious yet eco-friendly places such as Naked Retreat offer detox treatments and massages. I was more interested in pummelling my calf muscles with hill walks than having my buttocks caressed by a pricey masseuse, so plumped for a £30-a-night room at the Forest Holiday House.

The hill-side house can sleep 20 people at any one time, and can be rented as a whole or by the room, so it can be pot luck as to who you’re sharing the space with. You could end up meeting your future spouse; you could end up with a gaggle of annoying children.

With leather sofas, dusty old DVDs and a worn-through pool table it’s basic but cosy, somewhere between a skiing chalet and a school trip. Attentive ayis (which translates to ‘aunt’, meaning a domestic worker who cleans as well as cooks) prepare delicious and vegetable-heavy local cuisine for £6 a meal and you can help yourself to tea and coffee, but be sure to bring a few snacks. At about 10pm on the first night, still hungry from walking, I started having visions of chocolate HobNobs and you wouldn’t want to go out in the dark searching for corner shops (mainly because the unlit experience is all a bit Blair Witch -and  there aren’t any shops nearby at all).

The lodge is mainly used for recuperating from the charming traipses the local area provides. Their in-house maps look more like toddler crayon scribbles than helpful area logs, but used as casual nudges in the right direction they’re useful. I tried Trail Three first, which quickly leads to stunning bamboo-traversing walkways and views of epic hill drops. There is history here – the paths take you past a derelict German-style villa built in 1898. It’s a relic of the period during the early twentieth century when Shanghai’s foreign elite would retreat to the area.

Photo by IceNineJon via Compfight cc

More of these often dilapidated mansions are found closer to civilization via some asphalt roads, near what can be considered the closest thing Moganshan has to a central busy area: the Yin Shan Jie strip. These buildings, visible by looking upwards through tree gatherings on the way towards the strip, were taken over by the Communists in the 1930s.

Moganshan Lodge, the one large restaurant in the Yin Shan Jie area, offers cold beer and flaunts its monopoly a touch with mildly overpriced western standard menu items. The road is also the access point to an impressive viewing platform-cum-café perfect for once-in-a-lifetime Facebook profile pictures with backgrounds of vast, ducking and diving green hillside.

On day two another dimension of Moganshan was revealed: the rolling tea plant hills where workers casually pluck leaves in the sunshine and wave ‘Nǐ hǎo’ at passers by. Somewhere between Teletubby land and Bilbo Baggins’ hometown The Shire, they’re picture book perfect to the extent that it’s easy to forget your map and lose track of your way back to the lodge. As was the case with me, as I ended up going ‘off piste’ and having to walk through a mile-long road tunnel while following vague iPhone map directions back up the mountain.

It didn’t matter. If you’re going to get lost somewhere, Moganshan is the perfect place to do it.

The famous poet and author of the Slovene national anthem France Prešeren once wrote this about the famous Lake Bled:

“No, Carniola has no prettier scene
Than this, resembling paradise serene.”

But after five days, over 400km, countless wine tastings and an ungodly amount of food, I have concluded that he was wrong. During my short time in Slovenia, I found plenty of places in this small but intoxicating country that will take more breaths away than Bled ever could. Of course I’m not saying don’t visit Lake Bled, it is indeed the fairy tale setting we see in brochures and on adverts, but venture further afield (which isn’t far at all in this compact country) and you’ll find sprawling vineyards in Ljutomer-Ormož, Slovenia’s answer to Tuscany, small cities flooded by culture and interesting art by local sculptors, a Roman legacy and more outdoor sports and adventure activities than you’ll have time for. And what’s more, in spring time, it’ll feel like you’ve got the entire country all to yourself. Here are five things to do in Slovenia in spring:

Cycling and paragliding in Logarska Dolina

Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

If there is anywhere to rival Bled’s beauty it’s here. Cutting through the Savinja Alps near the Austrian border, Logarska Dolina is one of three impressive valleys. Driving into the valley is probably the most impressive part; having navigated the tight, winding mountain roads and followed a small bright-blue river for miles, we turned into Logarska and were dumbfounded by the view that opened up before us. An expanse of green grass, bordered by tall, pine-blanketed mountains, and an enormous grey cliff face baring down on us from the southern end – and no people in sight.

Once you’re over the view (if you can ever get over it), there’s a wealth of sports and activities to keep you occupied. After a lunch of trout, caught fresh from the Soca river, and locally-picked mushrooms at the Rinka visitor centre – just a ten minute drive north of Logarska – we hopped onto an electric bike to find the waterfall at the end of the valley. We cycled along the tarmac track, which in summer is usually littered with other cyclists, walkers and cars, completely alone except for two other walkers. It was peaceful, the sun was shining, the air was fragrant with pine and the ride was easy (thanks to the electric motor in my bike, of course – I dread to think how I’d have fared without it).

See more of Lottie’s pictures:

We left the bikes at the road to continue on foot, and fifteen minutes later we stood in the refreshing spray of a 90-metre-high waterfall – just what I needed. The ride back down to the rental hut was fast and cool, and while I’d been won over by the dizzying heights of the Savinja Alps towering over me, I had heard the view from above was unrivalled: it was time for some paragliding. Somewhere along the Panoramic Road, which snakes along the side of the valley, I strapped myself to a stranger and his parachute, and together we ran off the side of the mountains to glide over trees, a small scattering of farm houses and a lone church. I decided that paragliding was most definitely the best way to see Logarska Dolina.

Drink wine in the Drava Valley

The Drava Valley is the largest of Slovenia’s wine regions, producing mainly white grapes, and in pursuit of the region’s finest tipples we visited Jeruzalem, a small village in the Ljutomer-Ormož district. On the drive south from Ptuj, this renowned wine country rose out of the flat plains into undulous green hills, covered with newly-planted grapevines. We drove past small farmhouses teetering on the top of mounds, overlooking the elegant swirling lines of the vineyards beneath like a protective mother, and eventually we found our way to the Jeruzalem Ormož winery.

After standing in the fresh, sweet, grassy-smelling air, admiring the alluring view, we retired to the cellar to drink some of the finest wine I’ve ever tasted. Now I’m no wine expert, but there was something truly special about tasting a €250, 42-year-old bottle of Pinot while standing beneath an enormous old wooden wine press.

But of course that wasn’t our first tasting of the day – we’d spent the morning in Ptuj at the Pullus wine cellar where they keep enormous barrels of the stuff, some up to ten thousand litres in capacity. After six tastings of incredibly different but equally delicious wines, we packed four of their bottles into the car and went to lunch with a light head and a large appetite.

Overindulge in Ljubljana

Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

With such a small country comes a tiny capital; Ljubljana is home to only ten per cent of the Slovenia’s population of two million, but by no means is it short of culture, history or a good night out.

This year Ljubljana celebrates 2000 years since it became an important Roman settlement along a trade route from the Mediterranean coast. So in a bid to explore all-things-Roman and stuff our faces with great cake, we took a food tour around the city with Top Ljubljana Foods – and we came away with far more than just a full stomach. Five restaurants and eight tastings later we found ourselves towering above the city at Neboticnik (which means “skyscraper”), mapping our route on the streets below over some excellent Prekmurska Gibanica (a layered fruit cake), and admiring the snow-topped alps beckoning us from beyond.

We’d eaten seafood from the Slovenian coast in a restaurant by the fish market, sipped a rich red from the western wine regions in a famous bar, sampled a protected Carniolan sausage in a shop run by a watchmaker, eaten Bosnian barbequed meat and sipped Turkish coffee by the river. It was just a small taster of the 24 wildly different cuisines available in Slovenia and a history lesson in the city’s people and politics. We walked down the two most important streets in Roman Ljubljana, stood in squares where market traders used to be punished for cheating their customers and passed all kinds of architecture from classical houses in the old town, to the much-debated modern extension of the Opera house near Park Tivoli. Some of the buildings, simple as they were, spoke volumes about the country’s political discourse: we noted how TR3, an enormous, ugly grey tower block home to Slovenia’s banks, stood threateningly tall above the understated Parliament building.

Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

Later that evening, despite the plethora of rock gigs and club nights at our disposal, we opted to enjoy a bottle of Slovenian red by the river (thanks to the city’s trusting open-bottle policy) and admire the illuminated medieval hill-top castle from below.

Taste the simple life on a tourist farm

Agriculture is a huge part of life in Slovenia; in 2005 there were over 70,000 farms across the country, producing some of the essential ingredients for their 176 traditional dishes, such as pumpkins for pumpkin seed oil and pork for dried meats. Hundreds of these estates open up their doors to tourists nowadays, giving people the opportunity to stay on working farm and experience the back-to-basic nature of agricultural life.

Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

At Firbas Tourist Farm – run by Bojan and his parents – we ate only foods that were produced on their land and drank wine only from small local vineyard. As we stood, after dark, drinking a 22-year-old Pinot in his neighbour’s tiny eight-barrel cellar, we toasted with the farm boys, who’d just rocked up in a giant John Deere tractor (complete with bright lights and a booming sound system) after a hard day on the fields. They spoke little English, and my knowledge of Slovenian was too simple, but we communicated through our wine with a simple “cheers”, or “na zdravje”.

Have it all in Maribor

This small city of just 100,000 people really packs a punch. If you haven’t got time to get active in Logarska or drink wine in Jeruzalem, then spent your days in Maribor. It promises culture on par with the capital, with its jazz cafes and art exhibitions, and beauty to challenge even Bled’s picturesque landscapes. In just one day we ate a traditional Slovenian lunch of štefani pečenka (a beef meatloaf stuffed with a boiled egg), took a walking tour through the city to learn some of its history and politics, and visited the world’s oldest grapevine at 400 years old, from which grapes are harvested once a year during a festival and whose wine is given only to influential guests of the city (it’s rumoured that Pope John Paul II received two small bottles during his visit to the cellar).

Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

But the main surprise in Maribor is the city’s close connection with nature. Over the river sits Pohorje, a ski-resort-turned-adventure-playground in spring, where you can get the adrenaline going on two wheels at the Bike Park in the forest, or try your hand at the single track PohorJet which sends you hurtling down the ski slope at up to 30mph.

Just a five minute drive from central Maribor is the Drava Center, an eco-centre, built mainly from timber and chestnut wood from the surrounding forests, that offers water-based activities for children and adults along the Drava River. We spent the late afternoon watching the changeable April weather from grass-covered loungers on the Drava café balcony, sipping coffee and eating gibanica (a sweet cake made from pastry and cottage cheese), before venturing onto the waters in a canoe. The surrounding green hills made a perfect backdrop to the wonderfully blue waters around us, and for a brief moment the sun came out to warm us and I forgot we were anywhere near a major city at all.

For more information go to Slovenia.info. Explore more of Slovenia with the Rough Guides Slovenia destination page. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Yangzi, China

River cruises down China’s most important and largest river, the Yangzi, are an increasingly popular tourist attraction. Highlights on the route include the breathtakingly scenic Three Gorges area, now also known for its huge hydroelectric dam, which generates a staggering amount of electricity each year.

Cahabón, Guatemala

Transparent, turquoise water, bubbling cascades and pretty waterfalls are the trademarks of the Cahabón River in eastern Guatemala. But it also has a more active trick up its sleeve – it’s a great spot for whitewater rafting, with punchy rapids and drops churning the water into creamy torrents and challenging even the most experienced of rafters.

Loire, France

A justly deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Loire valley in central France is blanketed in prestigious vineyards, blossoming orchards and spectacular châteaux. It’s also carved by the longest river in France, the lovely Loire, which sweeps its way past tumbledown villages and glorious cities like Angers and Blois, beneath lofty bridges and alongside rolling fields.

Kenai, Alaska

A pristine meltwater river in southern Alaska, the Kenai is a paradise for fishermen – and particularly those who like their fish big, in the form of Chinook (aka King) salmon or Rainbow Trout. September is the best month to catch large silver salmon, while red beauties are typically hooked in the summer months and pink ones are abundant every other year.

Zambezi, Africa

Thundering down from a height of 108m, Victoria Falls is the honey-pot portion of Africa’s fourth largest river, the Zambezi. As well as providing fish for the 32 million-strong population who live in the region, the river is a lifeline for an enormous variety of wildlife such as hippopotamuses, crocodiles, giraffes and elephants.

Mississippi, USA

The good ol’ Mississippi has long been a vital commercial waterway, and from 1820–50, was chock-a-block with tiered steamboats chugging cotton, food, tobacco and timber down its sleepy flow. These old boats have now been replaced with more modern vessels, but the river continues to be a major commercial focus, servicing the important port of New Orleans.

Yarra, Australia

Australia’s Yarra River is in the southeastern state of Victoria, and the buzzing metropolis of Melbourne was established upon its banks in 1835. Victim of logging, widening and manipulating – not to mention extensive mining during the Victorian Gold Rush – the river takes on a brown, silty hue once it hits Melbourne, however in its origins north and east of the city, the water is clearer and the surroundings decidedly more bucolic.

Nile, Egypt

Say the word, “Nile”, and images of the Egyptian desert, pyramids, and pharaohs come to mind. And indeed, the ancient Egyptians owe their remarkable civilization to the mighty river and its fertile basin. But in actual fact, only 22 percent of the Nile flows through the country, the rest covers 10 others including Tanzania and Kenya.

Thames, United Kingdom

England’s second longest river, the Thames flows through the capital, London, as well as smaller towns such as Oxford, Henley and Windsor. It provides drinking water for much of southern England, and is a focal point for recreation, dotted with houseboats, fishermen and rowers, and hosts the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Amazon, South America

The Amazon River dominates a large portion of South America, spreading its thick tentacles through Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Often called “The River Sea”, it can reach up to around 48km wide in the wet season, and at the Atlantic Ocean mouth it’s a staggering 240km across. The most famous fishy resident is the carnivorous piranha; the nasty Red-Bellied species is known to attack humans.

Congo, Africa

The deepest river in the world, Africa’s Congo River (previously known as the Zaire) is generally acknowledged to be the backdrop to Joseph Conrad’s dark and disturbing novella, The Heart of Darkness. Cutting through thick rainforest, the river is home to a varied wildlife including crocodiles and turtles.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Dubbed the “River of Five Colours”, Colombia’s Caño Cristales is reckoned to be the most beautiful river in the world. Once a year (September–November), the moss-like macarenia clavígera plant flowers a deep and brilliant red on the riverbed, and is mesmerizingly offset by the sandy yellows, blues, blacks and greens of the river’s rocks, banks and foliage.

Colorado, USA

The arid Arizona desert is ruthlessly sliced by the magnificent Colorado River, which wiggles its way in a series of dramatic sweeps and bends from its source in the Rockies through to its end in the Baja California delta. Rust-red canyons, yawning gorges, roaring whitewater rapids and thundering waterfalls make up the incredible scenery on the river’s course.

Danube, Europe

So famous it’s got a waltz named after it, the “Blue Danube” has long been Europe’s main waterway, linking west to east from Germany via Austria and Hungary to Romania and Ukraine. It’s a favourite for cruises, passing quaint chocolate-box villages, magnificent cities like Budapest, and ubiquitous rolling green countryside.

Mekong, Southeast Asia

Framed with lush jungle vegetation and soft mountains, the Mekong runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Taking a slow boat from Houayxai to Luang Prabang in Laos is the ultimate Mekong experience; the gentle two-day journey enables travellers to absorb the stunning landscapes and local culture.

Verzasca, Switzerland

Scuba divers just love the Swiss Verzasca river in Italian-speaking Ticino for its intensely clear, emerald-green water. Trickling over striated rocks in the upper reaches, the river soon reaches the Verzasca Dam (aka Contra Dam), a favourite bungee jumping site that appeared in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye.

Volga, Russia

The Big Momma of Europe’s rivers, the Volga zips through central Russia and is claimed by its occupants as a national symbol. Dotted with huge reservoirs, crossed by colossal bridges and home to pelicans and flamingos in some stretches, it flows north of Russia’s magnificent capital city, Moscow.

Futaleufú, Argentina and Chile

Glacier till makes up the Futaleufú river, which is why it’s so gorgeously clear and gorgeously blue. Starting in Argentina and traversing the Andes into Chile, the river is currently a hotspot for whitewater rafting and kayaking, though a hydroelectric dam has been proposed by the Chilean government, which may put paid to those incredible frothy rapids.

River Ganges, India

The most famous Indian river with the most densely populated basin in the world, the Ganges is also sacred within the Hindu religion, worshipped as the goddess Ganga. Hindus honour their ancestors by dousing their backs with the river water, and float offerings such as rose petals, flowers and oil. To bathe in the Ganges is a fulfillment of purity in many Hindus religious life.

Our writer Steve Vickers brings you the latest from the world of travel, including news of direct flights from Europe to Indonesia and an update on the surf park that’s making waves in northern Spain.

Pirate films inspire Chinese theme park

More details are beginning to emerge about the new Shanghai Disney Resort, and there’s some good news for film fans. The vast park, which opens in December 2015, will feature an entire zone themed around the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – a series of films which was actually originally inspired by a ride at Disneyland in California.

Disney says ‘Treasure Cove’ will include a state-of-the-art boat ride with characters and scenes “derived directly from the movies”. Ironically, many Chinese visitors will never have had the chance to see every film in the series; the second movie – Dead Man’s Chest – was buried by Chinese censors.

Europe to Jakarta non-stop

Indonesia’s national airline – once banned from landing within the EU because of safety concerns – is about to launch direct flights from Jakarta to Amsterdam. The reinvented Garuda Indonesia, which joined the Skyteam airline alliance earlier this month, will start operating non-stop flights between the two capitals on the 30th May using its fleet of brand-new Boeing 777s. The same planes will eventually continue to London Gatwick before returning to Jakarta (again via Amsterdam), but if you want to fly that stretch you’ll have to wait until September.

Scotland and the “joy of missing out”

A few years back, while researching a book for Rough Guides on the Isle of Mull, I had a head-on crash with another car. No one was hurt, but both cars were wrecked and it was miles to the nearest village. We looked to our mobile phones for help. No signal.

It’s a common problem in rural Scotland, where the infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the mobile revolution. But now the PR folks at Visit Scotland are hoping that this lack of connectivity – which they’re calling JOMO, or the “joy of missing out” – will attract tourists, rather than scaring them away. According to a recent trends report released by the tourist board, Scotland’s off-grid locations give visitors the chance to reject technology and seek ‘meaningful and emotional experiences’.

Though as the report itself admits, the majority of tourists would not see a forced digital detox as something desirable. And for as long as sites like Facebook and Tripadvisor remain a part of the modern travel experience – not to mention unfortunate mishaps like my car crash – that looks unlikely to change.

Airbus A380 feeling the squeeze

When the A380 superjumbo first took to the skies, much of the publicity centred on how spacious its economy class felt, compared with smaller planes. That could be about to change. According to a report on Runway Girl Network, Airbus is planning to raise the floor of the aircraft’s cabin slightly, giving airlines the opportunity to squeeze another seat into each row, increasing the total number from ten to 11. The change would leave enough room for 18-inch-wide seats (with a block of five in the middle) and make it possible for airlines to sell around 40 extra economy tickets per flight. Will the temptation be too much?

New waves on the horizon

Huge artificial wave pools could soon be appearing across Europe, making it possible for surfers to hang ten year-round, even in places hundreds of miles from the nearest natural break. The first Wavegarden is currently being tested at a lagoon in northern Spain, and is kicking out consistently clean waves that peel for more than 200m. Similar centres are already being planned for Bristol in England and Varberg in southern Sweden, and there are rumours of wave parks opening in Portugal and France: two nations with no shortage of natural waves.

Russian visa rules could be relaxed

Western nations reacted to the tense situation in Crimea by imposing travel bans on high-profile Russians. Then, with impeccable timing, Russia announced it would be moving in the opposite direction – relaxing its visa rules in a bid to attract more visitors, including tourists from Europe and the USA. According to the Russian political newspaper Pravda, government officials will soon start reviewing a bill that proposes to streamline the visa application process and increase the maximum stay from 30 days to six months – which is, let’s face it, a much more practical amount of time exploring the world’s biggest country.

Final call

This month’s steaming slice of travel inspiration comes from Chris Arnold, who captures Vietnam’s tourist hotspots through a soft haze of rain, smog and lantern light.

V I E T from Chris Arnold on Vimeo.

See the ultimate travel inspiration here. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

In search of more than just sun, sea and sand, Rough Guides writer Helen Ochyra takes a hike in Gran Canaria.

You know a place sees a lot of sun when the slightest whiff of rain brings the locals out in joyous dance. On this first morning in Gran Canaria we woke to a cloudy sky and by the time I wandered out onto the terrace for breakfast, that cloud had turned to rain. It was warm rain, but rain nonetheless.

While the locals call out to each other in sweet relief at this first rain in months, we chomp on omelettes and look out disconsolately at the drizzle. Today is our first day of walking in the island’s interior and we are due to reach 1715m. Normally, this would yield spectacular volcanic views, but today we will be walking in a cloud.

Our itinerary has been put together by Macs Adventure and the scheduled transfer to El Sao – quite literally the end of the road and where we will begin walking – will take our luggage on to the next hotel in Tejeda, a remote village clinging to the volcanic slopes that surround it, some 16km away. We are told it will take over seven hours to hike and so we waste no time in setting off, waterproofs at the ready.

This turns out to be a good move; the route is tough, with steep ascents on rocky slopes and near-vertical paths covered in lava grit. We walk across barrancos (ravines), through ancient evergreen forests and along grassy plateaus before reaching a gigantic lava field at some sixteen hundred metres. The black gravel beneath my walking boots reminds me of the black sand beaches the Canaries are perhaps best known for, but we couldn’t be further from those tourist hotspots, not just miles away at the island’s coast but seemingly worlds away in an entirely different destination.

As the mists swirl around us we walk on across the lava flow guided by well-placed stone markers. These are some of the very few visible signs of human contact with the landscape and they bring home how unspoiled this volcanic island really is. There are some dry-stone walls and fences that nod to the island’s agricultural economy, but all else around us is wild. That is, until we reach Tejeda.

Arriving in this tourist town comes as something of a shock after hours of wilderness but it is not an unpleasant one. The white towers of the traditional Canarian church poke their heads above the terracotta roofs of diminutive buildings, made to appear all the smaller by the soaring volcanic cliffs that rise above them.

This pre-Hispanic town is to be our base for the next three nights, and we settle in to our apartment at Hotel Fonda de la Tea to plan our next few walks. Tejeda is ideally located for walking up to Roque Nublo, the island’s most famous peak. This chunky monolith can be seen from most places on the island – but not today. I peer through the clouds in vain from the apartment balcony and wonder what else I have missed seeing today. What have those clouds been hiding?

The next morning the island hides from me no more – the scenery rushes to meet me as soon as I open my eyes. A brilliant blue sky has pushed the clouds aside and I am surrounded by volcanic splendour. I cannot wait to get out there and am on the trail within minutes, starting the ascent up to Roque Nublo with a spring in my step.

The climb is tough but the path is well-maintained, running through grassland and later woodland, with views back over Tejeda. The scenery is unlike any I have ever seen before. Bowl-like valleys thick with armies of pine trees run between craggy peaks that retain the violent beauty of the eruption that formed them. Beneath our feet are petrified lava flows, above our heads soaring eagles and in the distance a cloud-cloaked Atlantic Ocean with the peak of Tenerife’s Teide floating above it.

Squint and you might make out a coastal resort but from Roque Nublo most of the island’s mass-market infrastructure is hidden – and it remains hidden to us for the rest of our week. We pick our way along the Altavista ridge on an extinct volcanic caldera and compare the island’s barren south to its fertile north with a walk along the ridge between Tejeda and Pico de las Nieves, the island’s watershed. We see Roque Nublo from every angle, lose ourselves in vast pine forests and stand on what feels like the roof of the world, with craggy slopes running down from our feet to the ocean in all directions.

At the end of our week we will make it to that ocean. But we will look back at the peaks up which we have walked and smile at the memories of our discovery – that the Canary Islands are so much more than beaches and bars.

Macs Adventure offer seven-night walking trips to Gran Canaria from £625 per person, including accommodation, breakfasts, two dinners, baggage transfers and a detailed info pack.
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Browse the Rough Guides ebook shop for guides to help you plan for trip.

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

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

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

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

 

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Join an elephant patrol in Indonesia

Wildlife lovers have plenty of reasons to head up to Gunung Leuser, but for many the big draw is the chance to see one of the world’s rarest animals, the orang-utan, whose existence is threatened by the continued felling of its habitat. There are only three places to stay, but you’re free to explore the jungle by boat, foot, or on the back of one of the seven elephants who are used to patrol the area and deter loggers. Whether you see an orang-utan or not, it’s a world few get to experience.

Meet a moose in Algonquin, Canada

Just four hours from Toronto, by direct train, and you’re in 7600 square kilometres of maple hills, forests, rocky ridges, spruce bogs, and thousands of lakes and streams. There are plenty of activities all year round, from dog-sledding exhibitions in the winter to canoe trips in the summer, and Algonquin is one of the best places in the world to hear a wolf howling, or see moose and beaver from the comfort of your canoe.

Come face to face with alligators, Florida

Considered one of the most important wetlands in the world, the Everglades is a vast sodden expanse at the southernmost tip of Florida. You’ll be convinced grasses in the water are snakes and you’ll probably jump the first time your foot hits a branch underwater, but the sensation will quickly become less noticeable as the magnificent wildlife monopolises your attention – plus there’s a great lunch of fresh seafood and locally grown salad to look forward to once you return to dry land.

Track bears in British Columbia

On a Great Bear Nature Tour on the northwest coast of British Columbia, you’ll have an excellent chance of witnessing the grizzly bear’s natural feeding frenzy. Tours are based at Great Bear Lodge, a small floating cabin in Smith Inlet and, from late August to October, bears are drawn to the salmon-spawning streams. There may be as many as thirty bears at any one time, and this is also the best time of year to see the beguilingly cute cubs.

Watch the zebra migration, Botswana

For millennia one of the largest wildlife migrations in Southern Africa was the return from the Botswana saltpans to the Boteti River, but because of drought the river has not run since 1991 and the last pool dried up in 1995. To combat this, a camp called Meno a Kwena has built pumps that fill three water holes in the river bed. Sleeping in tents at night and studying tracks in the morning, the elevated position of the camp affords a great view of the thousands of animals which come to the pool to drink.

Visit Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa

For centuries elephants roamed freely across Maputuland, the region that straddles the border of South Africa and Mozambique, but their numbers collapsed during the Mozambique civil war. Now, after twenty years, the Tembe Elephant park is thriving, and close encounters are not uncommon for visitors. The safari camp’s facilities are standard for South Africa, but what sets Tembe apart are the thrilling game drive in the experienced hands of local guides.

See the rare sitatunga deer, Zambia

The best time and place to spot a sitatunga, Africa’s elusive swamp-dwelling deer, is at dawn and up a tree – more specifically the Fibwe tree hide in Kasanka Park. As the morning mists clear across the papyrus swamps below the hide, visitors watch the sitatunga taking to the water early to avoid leopards and other predators. Yet the water also has dangers, and some visitors to the hide can spot the snouts of crocodiles floating log-like amid the reeds.

Save the chimpanzees, South Africa

You can drop in for an hour-long tour or stay for a week or more at the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden, helping to monitor behaviour or record the sounds the chimpanzees make when communicating. Experts reckon our closest relative will be extinct within their natural habitats in as little as a decade, so spend some time here and help prevent this from happening.

Track wild dogs in the Limpopo, South Africa

The Endangered Wildlife Trust is a non-profit organization in the Limpopo region that has worked to ensure wild dogs’ survival for over three decades. One of their successes has been to show farmers that wild dog-tracking is a viable form of ecotourism that can protect the dogs while benefiting local communities. During the day guests are led by a trained conservationist on 4WD tours that allow them to observe the dogs roaming in their natural habitat and nights are spent in the thatched Little Muck Lodge.

Track red foxes in Vålådalen Nature Reserve, Sweden

From the Vålådalen mountain station at the foot of Ottfjället, two Swedish biologists run shoeing tours through the hilly, pristine forests of the Vålådalen nature reserve. Covering 6-10km a day and camping out at night, you’ll investigate tracks of red fox, moose, reindeer, otter, and mountain hare and learn about survival techniques in the wild.

Become a game ranger in South Africa

Few jobs have as romantic an image as being a game ranger. If you’ve got a few weeks or more to spare, then stay at a former farmhouse at Kwa Madwala Game Reserve, looking out over a small lake with resident hippos and crocodiles and see if you’ve got what it takes to be a ranger: tracking lions and hyenas on foot, tagging and releasing birds of prey, or counting antelope populations from a microlight.

Walk with the Chacma baboons, South Africa

Most of us would imagine that going for a stroll among baboons would be about as sane as going for a swim with a crocodile – yet the charity Baboon Matters propose just this. They believe that if people develop a better understanding of baboons then they will be less likely to consider them as pests, and so they take tourists up into the hills where they can observe around thirty individuals, who, far from aggressive, regard their visitors with curiosity or just carry on as if you weren’t there.

Join the Sami Reindeer Migration, Norway

The unique opportunity offered by Norwegian tour operator Turgleder is definitely not a made-for-tourism experience. The Sami use one or two snowmobiles to carry equipment but otherwise their technique for herding reindeer has not changed for centuries, so expect to eat and sleep like them in their lavvus (Sami tipis), cook over an open fire, and go ice-fishing for food.

Wake up with meerkats, South Africa

Meerkats are normally shy creatures, yet thanks to Grant McIlrath (know as “Meerkat Man”) there is a spot just outside Oudsthoorn where an insight into their world is possible. The meerkats are used to McIlrath and so if you drive out with him before dawn you’ll have the opportunity to see the meerkats bobbing up and down, sunning themselves and foraging for food – all before your stomach has rumbled for breakfast.

Track cheetahs on foot, Namibia

Based on the 223-square-kilometre Okonjima guest farm, Africat funds a programme to rescue cheetahs captured by farmers. They then care for them with a view to possible reintroduction to the wild. Guests stay in luxurious thatched chalets, and thanks to the radio collars used to monitor the shy and endangered big cats, the cheetahs are easy to find. In some places the guides will even take you to around ten metres to watch a pair of cheetahs devour a kill.

Meet mountain gorillas, Rwanda

Finding a mountain gorilla in the wild takes patience and skill as there are only about 680 left in the world, yet one of the best places to have a go is the Parc National des Volcans in the far northwest of Rwanda. This is home to half of the entire population of mountain gorillas and Rwanda Ecotours organise trips to see the gorillas, so all you need to do is decide between a one-day trek or a six-day hike.

Go dog-sledding in Svalbard, Norway

In Arctic conditions it’s difficult to get quickly from A to B without some form of assisted transport, yet the noise and air pollution caused by snowmobiles hardly does the fragile environment any favours. Dog-sledding, instead, is the answer – a green, viable alternative which allows you the chance to protect the Arctic wilderness while keeping an eye out for polar bears, seals, polar foxes and the northern lights.

See wildlife in Gabon

The jungles in Gabon not only have the highest diversity of tree and bird species anywhere in Africa but are also where wildlife of the equatorial rainforests tumbles out onto its Atlantic beaches: you’re just as likely to see hippos playing in the surf as you are elephants and buffalo roaming along the beach or humpback whales cavorting offshore.

Koala spotting, Brisbane

One of the best places to spot koalas is in the eucalyptus forest surrounding Brisbane. The only catch is that these animals are notoriously shy and very well camouflaged – so if you’re with a guide who knows their hangouts your odds of seeing one will be much improved. They’ll soon have you peering through binoculars, looking for freshly stripped branches and tell-tale claw marks, and with luck you’ll spot the culprit diligently chomping its way through the forest canopy or dozing way up above.

Watch wildlife in bed, Sri Lanka

The Heritance Kandalama lies surrounded by thickly forested hills and a shimmering lake, looking as if it is on the verge of being reclaimed by the forces of nature. So seamlessly does it blend into the rock face into which it is built that you can hardly see it from the other side of the lake. There’s plenty of wildlife to see and guests can take part in a nocturnal snake hike – although if you’d rather see snakes during the day you can check out the hotel’s own animal rehabilitation centre.

It’s not the most famous, the most active or the biggest volcano in the world, but Indonesia’s 2392m-high Mount Bromo is one of the most picturesque – in a dusty, post-apocalyptic sort of way. The still-smoking and apparently perfectly symmetrical cone rises precipitously out of a vast, windswept, sandy plain. This is the Sea of Sand, actually the floor of an ancient crater (or caldera), stretching up to 10km in diameter and with walls towering some 300m high.

Though the locals will try to persuade you to take their horse, it’s an easy enough walk to the summit, with no climbing ability required. Setting off an hour before sunrise, you follow a path across the Sea of Sand to the foot of Bromo’s vertiginous cone. A small matter of 249 concrete steps up past crowds of others with the same idea – it’s one of Java’s most popular attractions – leads to the crater rim and a view down onto the fumaroles belching noxious sulphuric fumes. But the rewards of climbing Bromo are not olfactory, but visual: if the gods of climate and cloud-cover are on your side, a flamboyant golden sunrise awaits, casting its orange glow over the vast emptiness of the sandy basin, with Java’s lush green landscape stretching to the horizon beyond.

Mount Bromo is the main attraction of East Java’s Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. Most people stay in the nearby village of Cemoro Lawang, a 2hr bus drive from Probolinggo on Java’s north coast.

 

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You have to keep your head down. Despite the spray-laden wind, it’s tempting to lift it above the rim of the boat and look ahead, so you can see the foam-capped waves racing past as the Zodiac inflatable roars upstream. Soon, in the distance, a towering peak of rock rises up. As you get closer you see shattering precipices and giant towers dusted with snow.

This is Torres del Paine, the citadel of Chile’s epic south and one of the wildest national parks in the world. When the inboard of the Zodiac inflatable is finally switched off, all you can hear is the fury of the wind. The waves die down and the water reflects the massif in a pool as perfect as you could imagine, fringed by gnarled trees and blasted by bitter winds. Close by is a huge glacier, an offshoot of one of the largest ice fields in the world.

Then you set off walking, shifting the weight of your pack to get comfortable. There are other hikers around you, too – this isn’t deserted wilderness by any means – but the largeness of the landscape can more than accommodate everyone. High up to the east, and overlooking the scrub and blasted forest, are the unnaturally sculpted Paine Towers themselves, and in front of you, dark-capped, are weird sculptures of the peaks of the Cuernos del Paine. If you’re lucky you’ll stumble across some guanacos, wild relations of the llama, or even a shy ñandú, the South American ostrich. But perhaps the best experience to be had here is simply to inhale the air, which is so crisp and thin that breathing is like drinking iced water.

Guided treks run to Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales, or you can travel to the park by bus or Zodiac.

 

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