If you want to try eating snake in Vietnam, there’s one place to head – Le Mat snake village near Hanoi. The restaurants here specialise in the art of serving snake in an elaborate theatrical show. Feeling brave enough? Here’s what to expect. 

When the man bringing your meal to the table is missing most of his fingers and the main ingredient is not only still alive but also long and writhing and – hang on, is that a cobra? Well, that’s when you know this is no ordinary dining experience. Eating at one of Hanoi’s snake restaurants is as much a theatrical performance as a meal out.

The decor is way over the top. From a grungy side-street you enter a world of exuberant woodwork with mother-of-pearl inlay glowing in the lantern light. Bonsai plants are scattered artfully while off to the side glass jars containing snake wine hint at what’s to come.

snake wine/liqueurs. vietnam.

When everyone’s settled, the snake handler – he with very few fingers – presents the menu. He kicks off with cobra, the most expensive item on the menu (and a choice photo-op), then runs through the other options, all very much alive and hissing. Traditionally, your chosen snake is killed in front of you, though it will be dispatched off-stage if you ask. The guest of honour (lucky you?) then gets to eat the still-beating heart.

The Vietnamese say it contains a stimulant and that the meat is an aphrodisiac. The jury’s out on both counts, however, because of the copious amounts of alcohol everyone consumes. By way of an aperitif you get two small glasses of rice wine, one blood red, the other an almost fluorescent, bile-ish green… which is in fact exactly what they are.

Beer Hoi, (close up). Hanoi, vietnam.

Things get decidedly more palatable as the meal starts to arrive. In a matter of minutes your snake has been transformed into all manner of tasty dishes: snake soup, spring rolls, dumplings, fillets, even crispy-fried snake skin. Absolutely nothing is wasted. It’s washed down with more rice wine, or beer if you’d rather, and to round things off, some fresh fruit and green tea – with no snake sorbet forthcoming.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

If a guidebook tells you that something is “impossible to describe”, it usually means the writer can’t be bothered to describe it – with one exception. After pondering the views of the Grand Canyon for the first time, the most spectacular natural wonder on Earth, most visitors are stunned into silence. Committed travellers hike down to the canyon floor on foot or by mule, spending a night at Phantom Ranch, or hover above in a helicopter to get a better feeling for its dimensions. But it is still hard to grasp. The problem isn’t lack of words. It’s just that the canyon is so vast and so deep, that the vista stretches so far across your line of vision, up, down and across, giving the impression of hundreds of miles of space, that it’s a bit like looking at one of those puzzles in reverse – the more you stare, the more it becomes harder to work out what it is or where you are. Distance becomes meaningless, depth blurs, and your sense of time and space withers away.

The facts are similarly mind-boggling: the Grand Canyon is around 277 miles long and one mile deep. The South Rim, where most of the tourists go, averages 7000 feet, while the North Rim is over 8000 feet high – its alpine landscape only adding to the sense of the surreal. On the canyon floor flows the Colorado River, its waters carving out the gorge over five to six million years and exposing rocks that are up to two billion years old through vividly coloured strata. It’s this incredible chromatic element that stays with you almost as much as the canyon’s size, with the various layers of reds, ochres and yellows seemingly painted over the strangely shaped tower formations and broken cliffs. Think of it this way: the Grand Canyon is like a mountain range upside down. The country around the top is basically flat and all the rugged, craggy elements are below you. The abruptness of the drop is bizarre and, for some, unnerving. But the Grand Canyon is like that: it picks you up and takes you out of your comfort zone, dropping you back just that little bit changed.

The South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the North Rim from mid-May to mid-October. See www.nps.gov/grca for more information.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Stepping off the boat at Dalyan’s mud baths, you’ll be forgiven for wishing you hadn’t. But don’t be put off by the revolting rotten-egg stench of the sulphur pools – after a revitalizing day here, you’ll be gagging for more. The instructions are simple – roll in the mud, bake yourself in the sun till your mud cast cracks, shower off and then dunk yourself in the warm, therapeutic waters of the sulphur pool. Not only will your skin be baby-soft and deliciously tingly, you will also revert to behaving like a big kid: a huge mud bath can mean only one thing – a giant mud fight.

The mud baths are accessible by boat only, with mixed bathing 11am–6pm. The pools can get busy in high season (roughly June–Aug), although there are quieter, outlying pools – ask your skipper.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

They appear as shimmering arcs and waves of light, often blue or green in colour, which seem to sweep their way across the dark skies. During the darkest months of the year, the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are visible in the night sky all across northern Sweden. Until you see the light displays yourself, it’s hard to describe the spectacle in mere words – try to imagine, though, someone waving a fantastically coloured curtain through the air and you’ve pretty much got the idea.

What makes the northern lights so elusive is that it’s impossible to predict when they’re going to make an appearance. The displays are caused by solar wind, or streams of particles charged by the sun, hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. Different elements produce different colours, blue for nitrogen, for example, and yellow-green for oxygen.

The best place to view these mystical performances is north of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures are well below freezing and the sky is often at its clearest – two conditions that are believed to produce some of the most spectacular sightings.

For the quintessential northern lights experience, pack a couple of open sandwiches topped with smoked reindeer meat and a thermos of hot coffee to keep out the chill, then take a snow-scooter tour deep into the forests of Lapland – Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, is the best base. Park up beside a frozen lake and train your eyes on the sky. Try this between mid-December and mid-January, when there’s 24-hour darkness north of the Arctic Circle, and the chances are you won’t have to wait too long for your celestial fix.

In Kiruna, stay at the comfortable Vinterpalatset (www.vinterpalatset.se).

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Deep in the Swedish birch forest your mind can begin to play tricks. As the shadows lengthen and a chill creeps into the pine-scented air you’re reminded of the folk tales that originated here, from gnomes and trolls to the siren call of the Tallemaja or “Lady of the Woods”. But there is one much-mythologized creature very much alive in the forest – the varg or wolf.

Once thought to be in league with the Devil and all but wiped out across Scandinavia by the 1960s, wolves have staged a remarkable comeback. There are now around two hundred spread across the wilds of central and southern Sweden, all descendants of a single pack from Finland. Your best chance of encountering them is in the forests of Bergslagen, just a couple of hours from Stockholm, and home to the country’s predator research centre. Here you can track wolves with local experts, spending the night in a cosy tipi or lavvu, lulled to sleep (or not) by the howling of the pack.

The camp’s location depends on where wolves have been spotted in recent days – they can cover up to 60km in a day so it’s crucial to find the best spot. After a short lecture by scientists at the research centre, it’s time to head out on the prowl. Close encounters are rare, as wolves are notoriously shy and can smell humans from 3km away, but you are almost guaranteed to find fresh paw prints and experience the eerie sense of being watched. As dusk descends it’s time to hike back to the warmth of the tipi in time to hear the wolves howl. Clambering into your sleeping bag, it’s hard not to feel a shiver as this bizarre aria begins – a mournful yet comforting sound, once heard across Europe and now, perhaps, set to return.

The “Howling with wolves” two-day tour is offered by www.naturetravels.co.uk, with regular dates in summer and others available on request.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Whether you fancy an Aussie music festival, a literary break in England or sake and sakura in Japan, March is an excellent month to travel. Spring breathes new life into the northern hemisphere, while riotous festivals take place everywhere from Ireland to Brazil. Here are our tips on the best places to visit in March.

See the start of the cherry blossom season on Honshu, Japan

Japan blushes at the start of each year when its cherry trees blossom. The subtropical province of Okinawa takes the lead, turning pinkish-white like candyfloss at some point in early January. But it usually takes until the end of March for cities like Tokyo and Kyoto to follow suit. Take your camera with you for some seriously kawaii (“cute”) photos, and make the most of the sweet-smelling air; within a few short weeks, the blossoms will have disappeared altogether.

Learn the ropes on quiet slopes in Åre, Sweden

For downhill thrills, there’s nowhere in Europe that can compete with the Alps. But if you’re just getting to grips with skiing or snowboarding and want to avoid the crowds, why not try SwedenÅre, a top-class resort tucked away near Norway on the edge of an ice-white lake, has had a chance to warm up slightly by March – and there’s a good mix of short runs to get you progressing quickly. Even if you end up too bruised to keep skiing after the first few days, there are off-piste activities like ice fishing and dogsledding to keep you entertained.

Pasifika festival, Auckland, New Zealand

Meet the Pacific in Auckland, New Zealand

Each March, in a flurry of hula skirts and floral garlands, islanders from across the Pacific converge on Auckland for Pasifika Festival. At the huge two-day cultural extravaganza, held in Western Springs, you can wander through markets full of intricate carvings, watch live bands, or eat pork that’s been roasted over hot rocks, Samoan style. Islanders wanting a lasting reminder of the event aren’t disappointed, either; traditional Polynesian tattoos are also available.

Beat the rush in Recife, Brazil

Everyone knows about Rio, but Recife, more than 1,000 miles to the northeast, remains a relative unknown – for now, at least. This coastal city, once controlled by Dutch sugar traders, will be one of the places hosting games during the 2014 World Cup, attracting international attention to its sweeping tropical beaches and gleaming glass towers. Our tip is to go before the rush. Early March is the perfect time of year to visit; it’s the tail end of the region’s dry season and the city’s carnival – a sweaty four-day cacophony of dancing, drums and whistles – will just be kicking off.

Bath, England

Bathe yourself in books in Bath, England

Writers have long been drawn to the city of Bath. Jane Austen needed no persuasion to set a couple of her books in the spa city, and Charles Dickens picked it for parts of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The Bath Literature Festival, which began in 1995, marks a new chapter in the city’s bookish history. Held annually at the beginning of March, the event has attracted some of modern Britain’s most successful poets and authors, including JK Rowling, Andrew Motion and Terry Pratchett. Join them for a couple of live debates and readings, and then hear stories from days gone by on a literary tour of the city.

Head south (by southwest) to Austin, USA

If you’ve never been to the Texan capital then SXSW – a ten-day celebration of music, film and interactive arts – provides the perfect excuse to give it a try. Buying a pass for the mid-March festival won’t leave you with much money for beer and tacos (even the cheapest music pass costs more than $600). But there are literally hundreds of unofficial events taking part on the festival’s periphery, from impromptu gigs in bars to free parties run by rebellious local record labels. The only difficult part is choosing which ones to go to.

St Patrick's Day, Dublin, Ireland

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland

New York does St Patrick’s Day bigger, but Dublin will always be the festival’s spiritual home. And apart from swilling Guinness and wearing silly leprechaun hats (both considered noble pursuits in these parts), there’s plenty to get involved with. On guided walking tours of the city you can learn more about the life and legacy of the fifth-century bishop called Patrick who, legend has it, banished all of the serpents from Ireland. Dozens of historic landmarks are bathed in green light for the party that’s held in his honour, and as with New York, a musical parade snakes its way through the city.

For more ideas on where to go, check out the Inspire Me page. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

If, along with rest and relaxation, your idea of the perfect holiday hideaway involves cooking up your own meals with fresh ingredients, then a self-catering stay at Samakanda Guesthouse might be just what you’re looking for.

Tucked away in the hills above the town of Galle, Samakanda comprises two comfortable, solar-powered cottages: one a restored planter’s hut, the other a small bungalow overlooking lush terraced fields. As well as being an idyllic spot to cook your own food, it’s a great place to pick it – guests are welcome to take what they need from the organic spice, herb and vegetable gardens that enclose each property, from fresh salad greens to delicious fruits such as papayas, coconuts, passion fruits and bananas. The estate even grows its own rare strain of red rice, while local markets can supply fresh fish.

Should you fancy a night off from cooking, call on gourmet chef, Rory, the owner and founder of Samakanda, to show you how the stone pizza-oven works, or help you prepare some of his own favourites. With all the meals you and he can rustle up, you’ll also need a way to work it off; walk some of the trails laid out through the surrounding fields and forests, amble down to the river to cool off, or for the more energetic, try an exhilarating 40km cycle ride down through the jungle to the beach…and back.

For directions, accommodation details, rates and reservations visit www.samakanda.org

 

For hundreds more unforgettable travel experiences, grab a copy of Great Escapes.

Emperor Penguins breeding, Antarctica

As the Antarctic winter draws in at the end of April, Emperor Penguins begin the long march inland to their breeding grounds. There, they mate, before taking turns to insulate the egg while their partner travels up to 80km to fish. Back in the colony the penguins huddle together to protect the eggs from temperatures below -50 degrees celsius; only a small fraction of chicks survive each year.

Emperor Penguins breeding, Antarctica

The salmon run, North America

From October to December each year, millions of adult salmon will travel thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean to the place of their birth: mountain streams across British Columbia and Alaska, where they themselves will spawn. Fighting their way against the current, up waterfalls and through rapids, their astounding migration attracts hordes of grizzlies, eagles and wolves.

The salmon run, North America

Turtles nesting, Trinidad and Tobago

An estimated fifteen percent of the world’s leatherback turtles drag themselves out of the sea to nest on Trinidad’s beaches in May and June. Females come to the beaches to nest several times during the season, laying up to one hundred eggs at a time; night patrols are just one of the conservation efforts now in place to ensure the survival of this endangered species.

Turtles nesting, Trinidad and Tobago

Bower birds nest building, Papua New Guinea

To win a mate, the male bower bird takes home-making to the extreme. Each year, between September and February, they go about constructing an elaborate nest. Twigs form the basic structure, but these showoffs like to add colourful flowers and shells; they even incorporate discarded, cans, coins and plastic if they can find them.

Bower birds nest building, Papua New Guinea

Flamingos, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Recently the levels of algae in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru have been declining, making the astonishing number of flamingoes who arrive to feed on it a rare spectacle. These graceful birds use their long legs to paddle out into the lake, feeding off the alage and other small organisms; they get their pink colouring from pigments in crustaceans.

Flamingos, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Bluebells, UK

Come April, shady woodland floors across the UK burst into colour. This cobalt blue and lilac carpet is a classic image of British springtime, and it’s estimated that over half of the world’s bluebells are found in the country. There’s just a short window of a month or so to see them; most displays are over by the end of May.

Bluebells, UK

The sardine run, South Africa

Picture, if you can, a billion sardines, their skin glinting as huge shoals swish through the ocean. Diving, lunging and charging through them are whales, sharks and seabirds, eager to make the most of the glut. You can catch the spectacle from May to July, as the sardines move north into the sub-tropical seas off South Africa’s Wild Coast.

The sardine run, South Africa

Autumn colours, New England, USA

The start of October heralds the arrival of New England’s glorious autumn foliage. Leaves throughout the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont gradually turn from green to gold and amber, covering the low-lying hills with a medley of rich colours. This seasonal wonder now attracts hordes of visitors, jokingly referred to as “leaf peepers”.

Autumn colours, New England, USA

The Severn bore, UK

The River Severn has the second greatest tidal range in the world, and as the highest tides surge inland they’re funneled into wave by the narrow river channel. The largest bore waves coincide with the spring and autumn tides; the highest have reached nearly three metres and surfers regularly gather to ride as much of the 25-mile stretch as they can.

The Severn bore, UK

Monarch Butterfly migration, Mexico

Monarch butterflies start to leave the USA each year in October, flying south in their millions to hibernate. Each generation somehow manages to return to the same tree used by their parents, covering Mexico’s Oyamel Fir forests in a magical blanket of black and orange. You can watch them at the El Rosario Sanctuary in Michoacán, but many of their natural habitats are now under threat.

Monarch Butterfly migration, Mexico

Northern lights, Scandinavia

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are caused as solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere: each element produces a different colour. You can spot them in the skies above Sweden, Finland and Norway from October to March, where they illuminate the sky in a magical display of flickering, smokey colours. There’s no way to predict when they will occur: seeing them is all down to luck.

Northern lights, Scandinavia

Desierto florido, Atacama Desert, Chile

Once every few years around September, Chile’s barren Atacama Desert bursts into flower. It’s a natural marvel known as the desierto florido, or flowering desert. The spectacle only occurs in years when there has been an unusually high level of rainfall, which awakens dormant bulbs, and is thought to be connected to El Niño.

Desierto florido, Atacama Desert, Chile

Starling murmurations, Somerset Levels, UK

The Somerset Levels are home to an impressive range of UK birdlife, but come autumn, the humble starlings are the most remarkable. At dawn and dusk thousands of birds congregate in swirling mass known as murmurations, ducking and diving in a giant, rippling cloud as they fly to and from their roost.

Starling murmurations, Somerset Levels, UK

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Variously known as the liquid rainbow, river from paradise or river of five colours, Caño Cristales in Colombia’s Serranéa de la Macarena national park is one of the world’s most unusual waterways. From July to December (between the wet and dry seasons) the river is awash with pink, green, yellow, blue and red hues caused by the plant Macarenia clavigera, which flourishes on the river floor.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Wildebeest migration, Tanzania and Kenya

Perhaps the best-known migration on the globe, the sight of over a million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles charging across the Serengeti is deserving of the title “the greatest show on Earth”. The wildebeest cover nearly two thousand miles in total, dodging lions and crocodiles as they go. A good time to see them is in June or July as they cross the Mara River.

Wildebeest migration, Tanzania and Kenya

Blue-footed boobies mating, Galapagos Islands

Vying for the title of the Galapagos’ most adorable creature, the iconic blue-footed boobies put on an enchanting display as they breed between June and August. Lifting each bright-blue foot in turn, the males strut around in a bizarre dance routine, making a whistling sound to gain their chosen female’s attention.

Blue-footed boobies mating, Galapagos Islands

Red Crab migration, Christmas Island, Australia

Thought to number over 100 million, Christmas Island’s land-lubbing crabs take over the island in October and November as they migrate up to five miles to the coast to breed; they’re so numerous that roads are closed to let them cross. Around two weeks after mating, each female will release tens of thousands of tiny eggs into the ocean.

Red Crab migration, Christmas Island, Australia

Spotted Lake, Canada

Near Osoyoos in British Columbia, the mineral-rich Spotted Lake undergoes a transformation each summer. As the water evaporates, minerals are left behind in a strange lilly-pad-like pattern of concentric circles. Each one is a different colour, reflecting mineral deposits which range from magnesium sulphate to titanium.

Spotted Lake, Canada

Orcas carousel feeding, Norway

Up to nine hundred orcas, better known as killer whales, arrive in Lofoten’s fjords between October and January to feast on herring. They’ve developed an ingenious way of hunting, known as carousel feeding, where they herd the herring into a ball by releasing a “net” of bubbles before slapping them with their tail, stunning or killing up to fifteen fish at a time.

Orcas carousel feeding, Norway

Red tides, Florida, USA

These ominous blood-red tides are caused by a large accumulation of algae in coastal waters and are especially common along the coast of Florida. While disconcerting, only some are harmful to marine life: these are known as HABs, harmful algal blooms, and can even pose a risk to humans.

Red tides, Florida, USA

Sacred sites are easily accessible in Sri Lanka; you can barely move a step without tripping over giant Buddha statues, temples and rock paintings. But the most rewarding of all requires a night-time expedition to a pilgrim’s mountain.

At 2243m, Adam’s Peak is far from the highest place on the island, but as the holiest it draws thousands of pilgrims each year, all of whom pant their way up 4800 stone steps to worship at the indentation in the rock at the top. Most of the pilgrims are Buddhists, who believe it is the footprint of the Buddha. However, this is an all-purpose religious peak: Muslims attribute the footprint to Adam, Hindus to Shiva and Christians to St Thomas. In fact, pilgrimages here pre-date all the religions and have been taking place for thousands of years.

It’s a 7km path from Dalhousie up through the cloudforest where leopards are said to prowl. Rock steps and handrails guide pilgrims up the steepest sections although none of it is especially scary. From May to November you may well have the mountain to yourself, and the averagely fit take around four hours for the climb. In the pilgrimage season from December to April, when the weather is also at its best, the path is illuminated by a necklace of lights and endless tea stalls offer refreshment along the way.

At the top offer a prayer in the tiny temple around the footprint, ogle the sunrise and then head across to the opposite side of the summit to take in a remarkable phenomenon – if you are lucky. The ethereal sight of The Shadow of the Peak occurs when the rising sun casts the perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain onto the clouds below for a few short minutes. It’s a magical view to carry in your mind through the pain of the next few hours, when knees and thighs howl in protest throughout the descent, and during the next couple of days – when your gait becomes an inelegant waddle.

Dalhousie is 30km southwest of Hatton, which is on the main rail line from Colombo and Kandy.

 

For hundreds more ultimate travel experiences, get Rough Guides’ Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth

Despite its natural beauty and vast array of historical sites, Jordan welcomes only a fraction of the visitors to the Middle East. When many think of Jordan, they picture camels and deserts – which admittedly make up 85 percent of its land mass – but this is also a country of mountains, beaches, castles and churches, with a welcoming population and a rich culture. These are our top things to do in Jordan:


Music: Ya Mo by Dozan (with thanks to worldmusic.net).

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook