Say Senegal or mention West Africa and misinformed mutterings of ebola start to spread quicker than the virus itself. Sitting on the western shoulder of Africa, Senegal is frequently overlooked by travellers – but for little good reason.

While the excellent birding and beaching in The Gambia – the country that slices Senegal’s coastline in two – attract thousands of tourists on organised tours and package holidays, Senegal simmers in the African sun with stretches of often-empty beaches (around 500km of them, in fact), with few tourists to be seen.

And it’s not just about the coastline. There are near-untouched deserts, steamy cities and some fascinating islands with captivating stories to tell. So if you’ve got no idea what to expect, let us tell you a few things you didn’t know about Senegal…

Senegalese coastline © Lottie Gross 2015

1. The Senegalese seriously know how to bake

Waking to the waft of pastry in the morning or sighting women carrying bundles of freshly-baked baguettes after breakfast is something you’d associate with a holiday in France. But this isn’t France, it’s Senegal, and the bakeries fill the early morning air with the tantalising smell of pastry and bread. A legacy left by the French, warm croissants and pains au chocolat make up the breakfast spreads in many a hotel or resort, as well as Senegalese homes. Baguettes are served with almost every meal, and patisseries showcasing impressive-looking cakes will have your mouth watering as you stroll past.

2. You can camp under a sky full of stars in the desert

Lodge de Lompoul sits in the middle of the Senegalese desert and it’s a world away from the big, brash city of Dakar. As the sun sets, crack open a cool Flag (West African lager), sit back, relax and watch the dunes turn from yellow to orange before they’re silhouetted against the night’s sky.

Lodge de Lompoul © Lottie Gross 2015

Three hours north of the capital, the small village of Lompoul sits on the edge of a desert of the same name. This smattering of huts and concrete and corrugated iron structures is a gateway to a strangely empty patch of yellow sand dunes in the middle of the forested landscape that backs the Senegalese coastline.

Leave your vehicle in Lompoul and jump into the camp’s 4×4 truck to traverse the steeply undulating, foliage-clad dunes – an exhilarating adventure in itself – before arriving at your luxury tent to spend a night in the wild.

3. Senegal’s natural attractions include a vivid pink lake

Blue, crystal-clear waters are beautiful, but what about bright pink? Thanks to its high salt content (up to forty per cent in places) caused by an algae called dunaliella salina, Lake Retba looks more like cloudy pink lemonade than a refreshing cool-blue pool. Don’t try swimming in it though: the salt is terrible for your skin, and the workers who gather the mineral have to cover themselves in shea butter before jumping in. It’s brighter at certain times of year (the dry season, mainly) and is made even more striking where parts of its banks are made up of bright-white salt.

The lake is a hive of activity all year round: men dig for salt under the water and women in brightly-coloured dresses carry buckets full of it on their heads from the waters to the metres-high mounds on the shore.

The Pink Lake © Lottie Gross 2015

4. The country is a twitcher’s paradise

The Gambia gets most of the attention for birdwatching in West Africa, but Senegal also has its own haven for hundreds of winged creatures. The Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, at the southern end of a long, thin, sandy peninsula near the border with Mauritania, is a reserve for over 160 different species of birds, from all kinds of terns and gulls to pelicans and pink flamingoes. Hire a pirogue (traditional canoe) and glide through the calm waters all afternoon for some excellent ornithological observation.

5. You can visit an island made from millions of shells

In the south of Senegal, a hundred kilometres from Dakar, Ile de Fadiouth is one of Senegal’s many little islands, set in the ocean between a peninsula and a warren of lush mangroves. But it’s not like the others that dot the Atlantic coastline here – this one is made of shells. The streets are paved with them, the houses decorated with them and the adjoining mini island, housing only the Christian-Muslim cemetery, is entirely made up of them. Take a stroll to the top of the highest mound of shells in the cemetery for a glorious view over the mangroves and azure waters.

Ile de Fadiouth – © Lottie Gross 2015

6. Senegal hosts a famous jazz festival

Each year in May, the sleepy city of Saint Louis becomes overrun with strumming, scatting and singing musicians, ready to set the jazz standard high. The world-renowned Saint Louis Jazz festival has seen some of the biggest names in jazz take to the main stage in the city centre, and plenty of smaller acts performing in various venues around the city. Restaurants, hotels and bars are abuzz with musical excitement at this time of year; walk down the streets and you’ll hear jazz on every corner, whether it’s blaring out from a shop soundsystem or a jam session in someone’s back garden.

7. You can spot enormous baobabs over 1200 years old

Baobabs are everywhere in Senegal: from the national coat of arms to the city centres and the arid countryside. They’re peculiar-looking trees with fat trunks – that can grow up to 25 metres in circumference – and short stubby branches, and they can live for well over a thousand years. They’re a symbol of wisdom and longevity, the fruit is used to make a sweet, deep-red juice drink called bui and the bark makes strong rope. Whether they look as if they’re bursting from the tarmac of a busy city road, or they’re just standing silhouetted against a burning red sunset, baobabs are a bizarrely beautiful sight to be seen throughout the country.

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A swimming pool lies empty, plants encroach through broken windows, hospital bed frames are red with rust and Soviet signs and murals are faded ruins of what was once art from another world. This is Pripyat, Ukraine, and it’s been abandoned since 1986.

This eerie video shot using a drone shows the near post-apocalyptic destruction caused by the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant. After an unexpected power surge created an enormous explosion in one of the plant’s reactors, Chernobyl and the entire city of Pripyat were evacuated in just three hours, and no one has returned since.

Gliding over concrete tower blocks, empty children’s playgrounds and a solemnly static Ferris wheel, Danny Cooke‘s drone captures the vast emptiness of Pripyat. “There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place,” he said on his return from Ukraine. “Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.”

His film is our pick of the week – watch it below to be transported into this desolate city.

Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl from Danny Cooke on Vimeo.

Featured image: 02710148 (Dana Sacchetti/IAEA) by IAEA Image Bank on Flickr (license)

Walking: just putting one foot in front of the other, right? How hard can that be? Yes, a walking trip is something that anyone can do, but it is also something that is widely misunderstood. Hiking boots that don’t fit, a water bottle that isn’t big enough, a phone battery that never lasts – these are the things that pass from mere annoyance to sheer torture – even abject danger – on a long walk. Don’t fall into these easy-to-avoid first-timer traps, stay on track with our top hiking tips.

1. Put your best foot forward

First things first: boots. Do. Not. Scrimp. This couldn’t be emphasized enough if we wrote it in neon and underlined it three times. Your boots are your best friend on the trail and you need to spend some time picking them out. Get help at your local outdoor store and test out as many pairs as it takes to find a comfortable fit.

Don’t ignore the faux mountain slopes in the store – have a walk up and down them, jump, wiggle your toes. The most common mistake is thinking boots will stretch out and a size too small is the surest way to a black toenail. Buy bigger if in doubt. And pick up spare laces too, if yours snap on the trail these will be worth their weight in Gore-Tex.

2. Stick to the path

Sounds simple, but taking a “shortcut” is how most people end up lost. It may look quicker to “cut a corner” but that corner could be hiding a swamp, thick jungle, a steep slope, anything. Follow the signs, stick to marked routes and accept that the person who marked out the trail probably really does know best.

3. Take a guide

Concerned about being alone out there? If you’re at all unsure about where you’re going or whether you can hack it, join a group. Numerous operators (Macs Adventure, Headwater, Ramblers) offer guided group walks around the UK, Europe, the USA and further afield and there is, after all, safety in numbers. Many also offer self-guided walking holidays, with all route notes provided.

4. Don’t descend into madness

Everything is flat on a map – but you and your muscles both know that this is far from reality. Learn to read the contours, the circular lines that join points of the same height together, on your map and you’ll be able to see the height change and prepare for – or avoid – steep ascents and descents. Remember that contour lines closer together mean the slope is steeper, and that downhill can be much harder on the muscles than uphill. Reduce the number of miles you plan to walk if the terrain is steep and you’ll avoid burning thigh muscles.

5. Wrap up

Clothing is your protection against the elements and thin layers are best. Pack a microfleece (the lightest you can find), good quality waterproofs (jacket and trousers) and a hat and gloves if you’re somewhere cold or at altitude, and don’t forget the suncream and a sun hat if it’s going to be hot. A thin scarf is great for covering up against the sun, sitting on, drying yourself off with and a number of other things that make it an essential.

6. Stock up

If you’re walking in a remote area you’ll need to bring everything, including water and food, with you. Pack bread, ham and cheese to make sandwiches (don’t forget a knife), nuts and chocolate as energy-giving snacks and a Camelbak hydration pack filled with water. Soluble vitamin C tablets can be added to water for an extra burst of energy.

7. Get in shape

Think you can walk 15 miles in one day because it takes you 20 minutes to dash to the train station every day? Think again. Walking for a sustained period through rough terrain is an entirely different game. So if you’ve booked the Inca Trail start with a hike in your local park and work up to build your stamina.

8. Grab a pole

Walking poles split opinion but most serious walkers carry one – and swear by it. A pole gives you an extra limb, one that you can use for additional balance, or simply to check out the depth of puddles or just how thick that undergrowth is. Not a bad thing to have to hand if stray dogs approach either.

9. Respect the mountain

How often do we hear about someone being rescued from Ben Nevis or the Rockies? Never forget that the mountain is king and cares not a jot for you the hiker. Always check the weather locally before heading out and don’t start ascending those peaks if it’s closing in or a storm is en route. Wrap up warm, and take a whistle and a torch, these will be invaluable if for some reason you do need to attract attention.

10. Get appy

There are dozens of apps out there for hikers but one of our favourites is Endomondo. Tap the play button as you start walking and it will monitor how far you walk, what your elevation gain or loss is and log your route on a map. It will even tell you how much water you should drink and how many calories you’ve burned.

11. Bring batteries

For everything. That torch, your camera, your mobile phone. Check and charge everything fully before you head out and bring spares. For your phone, which could turn out to be your lifeline, pack the MiPow Power Tube 3000. It has an integral cable and can charge your phone more than once. It will also sync with your phone, making it beep if you accidentally leave it behind.

12. Get high safely

Some of the world’s best hikes (the Inca Trail, the Annapurna Circuit) take place at altitude and this is not something to take lightly. Altitude sickness can kill, and it may start with a simple headache or nausea. If you feel mildly hungover, short of breath even when resting, or dizzy seek help immediately and descend as far as possible. There is no cure apart from descending so never try to push on. Altitude sickness can usually be avoided by acclimatizing slowly, so spend a couple of days resting at altitude before walking. Drink plenty of water too and avoid alcohol too.

Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Tuscany harbours the classic landscapes of Italy, familiar from a thousand Renaissance paintings, with its backdrop of medieval hill-towns, rows of cypresses, vineyards and olive groves, and artfully sited villas and farmhouses. It’s a stereotype that has long held an irresistible attraction. Nowadays Tuscany is among Italy’s wealthiest regions, but it remains predominantly rural, with great tracts of land still looking much as they did half a millennium ago.

It’s not possible to see everything that Tuscany has to offer in one trip – but this selection of the region’s highlights is a great place to start. From the new Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria, this is our pick of the best things to do in Tuscany.

1. Taste truffles in San Miniato

Tuscany offers plenty of opportunities for sampling this perfumed and pricey fungus. San Miniato, a brisk little agricultural town more or less equidistant between Pisa and Florence, is particularly renowned throughout Italy for the white variety.

2. Take a day-trip to Cortona

The ancient hill-town of Cortona is the major attraction on the agricultural plain of the Valdichiana, its steep streets giving an unforgettable view over Lago Trasimeno and the Valdichiana. In the wake of the film of Under the Tuscan Sun, Cortona was briefly the second most popular Italian destination for US tourists after Venice, but although it still attracts busloads of tourists nowadays, its steep little streets have not yet lost their charm.

3. Go wild in the Monti dell’Uccellina

The protected environment of the Monti dell’Uccellina is one of Italy’s last pristine stretches of coastline. The Maremma region in which it lies was long Tuscany’s forgotten corner, its coastal plains, marshes, forest-covered hills and wild, empty upland interior having been a place of exile and fear for much of the last five hundred years, but in this regional park efforts have been made to preserve these natural treasures.

4. Make a pilgrimage to La Verna

St Francis’s mountaintop retreat, still a thriving Franciscan monastery commanding wonderful views of the Apennines, is Tuscany’s major pilgrimage site. Some come here to pay homage, others to stay in the guesthouse adjoining the monks’ quarters and some merely out of curiosity. Unlike at the basilica at Assisi, however, sightseers rarely obscure the purpose of the place.

5. Get lost in The Uffizi

Italy’s finest collection of art and the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings in Florence has recently doubled in size. There are so many masterpieces collected here that you can only skate over the surface in a single visit – set aside at least half a day to explore.

6. Go walking in the Alpi Apuane

Famous for their marble quarries, the Alpi Apuane of Northern Tuscany are also something of a botanical wonderland, with vast forests of beech and chestnut, and a profusion of wildflowers in spring. A network of clearly marked footpaths and longer trails thread the steep forested valleys, and there are some three hundred species of birds to spot as you hike – including the golden eagle, kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks.

7. Visit the Piero della Francesca masterpieces in Arezzo

Exquisite Renaissance works adorn almost every place of any size in Tuscany, but the stunning fresco cycles in Arezzo by Piero della Francesca are some of the finest of the region’s riches. Only 25 people are allowed into the choir of San Francesco at a time, so to be sure of getting in at the hour you want, check the Rough Guide for details of how to book a place in advance.

8. Wander the streets of San Gimignano

San Gimignano – “delle Belle Torri” – is famed for its amazing skyline which is dominated by fifteen medieval towers. The beautifully persevered streets are a vision of medieval perfection, but visit out of season if you can; the town’s magic can be compromised in summer by huge numbers of day-trippers.

9. Be a tourist in Pisa

It might be the subject of millions of postcards, but the Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa is still worth visiting. There’s a breathtaking array of buildings here: the Leaning Tower, Italy’s signature building saved from collapse in the nick of time, the vast Romanesque cathedral, the magnificent baptistery and the Camposanto with its beautiful frescoes and impressive tombs.

10. Walk the city walls in Lucca

Lucca has some of the most handsome Romanesque buildings in Europe, but tourism here is very much a secondary consideration. Get to know the town by walking or cycling the fortifications that still completely encircle the old city – the mid-afternoon shutdown is perhaps the best time to follow the 4km circuit, which is lined with plane, lime, ilex and chestnut trees.

11. Wine down in Chianti

Some of Italy’s finest vintages are produced in these celebrated vineyards between Florence and Siena. The region can seem like a place where every aspect of life is in perfect balance: the undulating landscape is harmoniously varied; the climate for most of the year is balmy; and on top of all this there’s some serious wine tasting to get stuck into…

12. Embrace open-air art

Located 5km southeast of Capalbio is one of Italy’s oddest collections of modern art, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden), a whimsical sculpture garden of prodigious works by Niki de Saint Phalle. The brightly coloured, Gaudí-esque opus took the artist almost seventeen years to complete and the result is a truly staggering sight – sheer fun that children love and adults marvel at.

13. Sample island life on Giglio

Out in the Tuscan archipelago, Giglio is relatively unspoilt by the sort of tourist development that has infiltrated – though certainly not ruined – nearby Elba. This little jewel of an island boasts citadels, stone villages and panoramic mountain hikes, as well as beaches and watersports.

14. Hit the spa

Tuscany has some of the swankiest spa towns in all of Italy, but at Bagno Vignoni you can soak without paying a cent. This tiny and atmospheric village has a wonderful natural hot spring and Medici-era pool in place of a central piazza – sadly this is now out of bounds, but you can take a dip in the free outdoor sulphur pools nearby.

15. Go rural

Staying in Tuscany’s hill-towns obviously makes sightseeing easier, but the quality and variety of the region’s rural accommodation is outstanding. If you want to splash out, try a top-price hotel in a sublime setting such as the Castello di Velona. This twelfth-century “castle” 10km south of Montalcino is now a superb 46-room five-star hotel, set in lovely open countryside on its own hill and ringed by cypresses.

 Get the complete guide to Tuscany with the Rough Guide to Tuscany and UmbriaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Everybody knows the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Skye. But what about the other 6000-odd British Isles? Yes, we did say 6000. From the chunky Shetland Islands in Scotland’s far north to the sunny Isles of Scilly slung out from the coast of Cornwall, the British Isles are made up of islands of all shapes and sizes. Pick the right one and you could even have it all to yourself.

For a royal welcome: Piel Island

It’s probably fair to say that this Cumbrian island is the archipelago’s quirkiest, with its very own King and Queen. That’s Sheila and Steve, who own the island’s Ship Inn and welcome visitors to their kingdom with real ales and pub meals. This low-lying isle may be just 50 acres, but Piel has its own castle – and for the princely sum of £5 you can pitch your tent just about anywhere you like. The pub also has accommodation, and the royal family can organize seal watching and fishing trips. Take the ferry across from Roa Island, which confusingly is actually part of mainland England, for £5.

For an Art Deco stay: Burgh Island

You can walk to this island off Bigbury on Sea – assuming the tide is out, that is. At low tide the waters reveal a wide sandy beach, which acts as a 250-metre-long road for the Burgh Island Hotel’s Landrover, as well as anyone who wants to stroll across and have a pint in the ancient Pilchard Inn. At other times the hotel operates what could claim to be Britain’s oddest ferry: a “sea tractor” (£2 to non-residents) – essentially a raised platform 7ft above some very sturdy tractor wheels. Stay overnight in the Art Deco hotel and you’ll be in good company, previous guests have included Noel Coward and Agatha Christie, who set two of her mysteries here.

Off to sea by Ben Salter (license)

For complete rule of the roost: Towan

Here’s your chance to get an island all to yourself simply by booking a holiday cottage. That cottage is The House, perched atop Towan island on the eponymous beach in Newquay. Approach by private suspension bridge and enjoy the Atlantic views from your bar room, complete with bar billiards table, 3D TV and – of course – fully equipped bar. There’s even a flag you can raise to signal that you’re in residence. It sleeps six, so bring some friends for a game of snooker.

For adventure and activity: St Martin’s

Who wouldn’t want to visit Bread and Cheese cove? That’s the name of one of this unknown Scilly Isle’s superlative beaches, all fine, white sand and (usually) gently lapping seas. The population of St Martin’s is around 120 but don’t expect things to be quiet, there’s a pub, an art gallery, a diving school and even a vineyard. You could snorkel with seals, go rockpooling, learn to scuba or simply order a traditional Cornish pasty from the Island Bakery and enjoy a picnic on the beach. There’s plenty of accommodation, including camping, and Tresco Boat Services can ferry you to and from the other Scilly Isles.

Crossing to Little Sark by Brian Fagan (license)

For peace and quiet: Little Sark

Still – just about – joined to its sibling Sark by a very narrow isthmus known as La Coupée, Little Sark will one day be its very own island. Until then, hire a bike (there are no cars on Sark) and cycle across the 3-metre-wide concrete road to reach this rugged land of granite cliffs and ancient tin mines. Book ahead for a room at the delightfully chintzy La Sablonnerie Hotel, whose cooks will source your dinner from its own gardens and the sea that surrounds this tiny island (lobsters are a speciality).

For northernmost claims: Unst

Considered remote even by Shetlanders, Unst is the northernmost inhabited island in the UK and here you can collect “northernmost” experiences from the post office to the gin distillery, home to Shetland Reel gin, made with local botanicals. You have to stay at the northernmost hotel of course, and that’s Saxa Vord Resort, an ex-RAF base now offering hostel and self-catering accommodation – and plenty of that gin. Don’t miss a walk out to the northernmost point, at the far end of Hermaness nature reserve and overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson and said to have inspired his son’s Treasure Island map. The island’s network of inter-island ferries will get you out here from the mainland of Shetland.

Tilly on lookout duty by Pete + Lynn (license)

For a short flight and long history: Papa Westray

The world’s shortest scheduled flight takes just two minutes, usually less, and carries people to Papa Westray from Westray in the Orkney Islands, dropping them off at an airport that is little more than a shed. You may even get a chance to play co-pilot, sitting up front next to Colin McAlistair as he operates a flight that covers less distance than the length of the main runway at Heathrow. Once here you can explore almost sixty archaeological sites, including the oldest known northern European house, the Knap of Howar, which predates the Pyramids.

For extreme living: St Kilda

Nobody has lived on St Kilda since 1930 when the population requested evacuation – and you’ll see why immediately. This dramatic scattering of granite rocks in the midst of the Atlantic is the most remote part of the British Isles, lying some 40 miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and life here was hard. Today no crossing from the Hebrides is guaranteed, with landings on the main island of Hirta only possible for a few months in summer. Take a chance though and you could be richly rewarded, with a hike to the top of the UK’s highest sea cliffs and a sail past the world’s largest northern gannet colony and Britain’s greatest population of puffins. Head out here on a cruise with Hebrides Cruises for the chance to moor overnight in Village Bay.

Explore more of the British Isles with the Rough Guide to BritainCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The allure of Istanbul is hard to beat. This thrilling city bridges two continents with a history spanning more than 2000 years. And with Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport hitting an all-time record for flight traffic this July, its status as a top city-break destination has been further cemented.

But what about the rest of the country? “More often than not, people spend all their time in Turkey mostly in Istanbul”, says entrepreneur and filmmaker Pete R, “but Turkey has much more to offer”. 

In this film, our pick of the week, he heads out across the country, paragliding in Pamukkale, hiking in Cappadocia and swimming in Lake Van. “Turkey is definitely one of its kind”, he says, and “I [encourage] you to go further east to see the real Turkey!”

Inspired? Check out our list of 20 things not to miss in Turkey and our “wild east” itinerary to kick-start your trip planning.


More to Turkey than Istanbul from Pete R. on Vimeo.

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

Yorkshire, it has been said, is “a country in a county”. The very name brings countless images to mind – wild moors, headlands and cliffs; rugged dales and enormous beaches; medieval cities, churches and monasteries; formal estates and vast steelworks; coal mines and woollen mills.

This diversity is part of the county’s appeal – its countryside and coast can compete with anywhere in Britain for beauty, its cities with any in the UK for shopping and dining and clubbing. And its pubs and breweries aren’t half bad, either.

But never let it be said that Yorkshire doesn’t also have an eccentric side. In addition to mainstream and outdoor sports, there are a number of unusual things to do in Yorkshire. To mark the release of the new Rough Guide, we’re sharing five of our favourites.

1. Cable waterskiing

An electric cable instead of a boat drags you around the water at Rother Valley Country Park near Rotherham – the park is one of the few places in the country to offer it. Imagine a ski-lift that goes around a lake instead of up a mountain pulling up to eight waterskiers or wakeboarders at intervals around a shallow lake; speeds can be varied from 16 miles/hr (beginners) to 36 miles/hr (experts). It’s environmentally friendly, and costs a fraction of what you’d pay for speedboat-towed skiing.


NORTHERNLINES from Sheffield Cable Waterski on Vimeo.

2. Husky-trekking

You don’t need snow for this husky-trekking – you can become a “musher” on grass at Pesky Husky in Staintondale between Scarborough and Whitby.

3. Via Ferrata

Invented by the Italians to move troops around the Alps, Via Ferrata – meaning “iron road” – centres have spread across the world. In Yorkshire, the Via Ferrata at How Stean Gorge is the place for adrenalin junkies. One of just two in England, it offers a lengthy scramble along the chasm using fixed beams, cables and ladders. “Iron Way” courses that are put on in the gorge involve expert-accompanied wading through waterfalls, rock traversing, abseiling, scrambling up ladders and along beams, with, at the end, your very own DVD of the experience recorded on the guide’s head-cam. Invigorating or insane, depending on your point of view.

How Stean Gorge from RC Heli Cam on Vimeo.

4. Mountain boarding

This is snowboarding, but not as we know it. This version uses boards with four wheels to whizz up and over the rocks. Try it at Another World Mountain boarding centre in the hills above Ogden Reservoir north of Halifax.

5. Petanque

Near City Square in Leeds is a little area called Bond Court where you’ll find the delightful, if little heralded, Leeds Petanque Court which allows you to indulge in the quintessentially French, and extremely civilized game of boules. And it’s absolutely free. The wedge of gravel is overlooked by a noticeboard bearing the rules and there are tables and chairs around the court for spectators.

Petanque pitch, Leeds by Simon Jerram via Flickr (CC license)

 Get the complete guide to Yorkshire with the Rough Guide to YorkshireCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

So you’ve gawked at the guards of Buckingham Palace, hiked up Snowdon and hit the beach – what next? From lethal motorcycle races to mountain towns that look like something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, here are 8 unconventional things to do in the UK.

1. Horse about at Scotland’s Common Ridings

The Common Ridings of the Scottish border towns of Hawick, Selkirk, Jedburgh and Lauder are an equestrian extravaganza that combines the danger of Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermin and the drinking of Munich’s Oktoberfest. At dawn on each day of the ridings, a colourful and incredibly noisy drum and fife band marches around the streets to shake people from their sleep. It’s a signal: everyone get down to the pub – they open at 6am – and stock up on the traditional breakfast of “Curds and Cream” (rum and milk). Suitably fortified, over two hundred riders then mount their horses and gallop at breakneck speed around the ancient lanes and narrow streets of town, before heading out into the fields to race again.

By early evening, the spectators and riders stagger back into Hawick to reacquaint themselves with the town’s pubs. Stumbling out onto the street at well past midnight, you should have just enough time for an hour or two of shuteye before the fife band strikes up once more and it’s time to do it all over again.

2. Find Middle Earth in Northern Ireland

The mountains rise above the seaside town of Newcastle like green giants, with Slieve Donard the highest, almost 3000ft above the sandy strand of Dundrum Bay. Donard is just one of more than twenty peaks in County Down’s Mourne, with a dozen of them towering over 2000ft.

Conveniently grouped together in a range that is just seven miles broad and about fourteen miles long, they are surprisingly overlooked. On foot, in a landscape with no interior roads, you feel as if you have reached a magical oasis of high ground, a pure space that is part Finian’s Rainbow and part Middle Earth. This is ancient land and prehistoric cairns and stone graves – said to mark the resting place of Irish chiefs – dot the hills, peering through the mist to meet you.

3. Mountain bike on world-class trails in Wales

It’s not often that the modest mountains of Wales can compete with giants like the Alps or the Rockies, but when it comes to mountain biking, the trails that run through the craggy peaks of Snowdonia, the high moorlands of the Cambrian Mountains, and the deep, green valleys of South Wales are more than a match for their loftier counterparts. Indeed, the International Mountain Biking Association has long rated Wales as one of the planet’s top destinations.

Over the last decade or so, a series of purpose-built mountain-biking centres has been created throughout the country, providing world-class riding for everyone from rank beginner through to potential-world-cup downhiller. From easy, gently undulating trails along former rail lines that once served the heavy industry of the South Wales valleys, to the steep, rooty, rocky single tracks that run through the cloud-shadowed hills of North Wales, this is mountain biking at its finest.

_MTB1662 by Dai Williams (license)

4. Explore Britain’s most mysterious beach in Scotland

Cape Wrath is a name that epitomizes nature at its harshest, land and sea at their most unforgiving. In fact, the name Wrath denotes a “turning point” in Old Norse, and the Vikings regarded this stockade of vertical rock in the most northwesterly corner of Scotland as a milestone in their ocean-going voyages. As such, they were surely among the first travellers to come under the spell of Sandwood Bay, the Cape’s most elemental stretch of coastline.

Here blow Britain’s most remote sands, flanked by epic dunes and a slither of shimmering loch; a beach of such austere and unexpected elegance, scoured so relentlessly by the Atlantic and located in such relative isolation, that it scarcely seems part of the Scottish mainland at all. Even on the clearest of summer days, when shoals of cumuli race shadows across the foreshore, you are unlikely to encounter other visitors save for the odd sandpiper. You might not be entirely alone, though; whole galleons are said to be buried in the sand, and a cast of mermaids, ghostly pirates and grumbling sailors has filled accounts of the place for as long as people have frequented it.

5. Discover heaven on Earth in Cornwall

A disused clay pit may seem like an odd location for Britain’s very own ecological paradise, but then everything about Cornwall’s Eden Project is far from conventional. From the concept of creating a unique ecosystem that could showcase the diversity of the world’s plant life, through to the execution – a set of bulbous, alien-like, geodesic biomes wedged into the hillside of a crater – the designers have never been less than innovative.

The gigantic humid Rainforest Biome, the largest conservatory in the world, is kept at a constant temperature of 30°c. Besides housing lofty trees and creepers that scale its full 160ft height, it takes visitors on a journey through tropical agriculture from coffee growing to the banana trade, to rice production and finding a cure for leukaemia. There’s even a life-size replica of a bamboo Malaysian jungle home, and a spectacular treetop Canopy Walkway.

6. Call in the heavies at the Highland Games

Throughout Scotland, not just in the Highlands, summer signals the onset of the Highland Games, from the smallest village get-togethers to the Giant Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, which draws a crowd of around 20,000. Urbanites might blanch at the idea of alfresco Scottish country dancing, but with dog trials, tractors, fudge stalls and more cute animals than you could toss a caber (tree trunk) at, the Highland Games are a guaranteed paradise for kids.

The military origins of the games are recalled in displays of muscle-power by bulky bekilted local men, from tossing the caber to hurling hammers and stones, and pitching bales of straw over a raised pole. Music and dance are also integral to the games, with pipe bands and young girls – kitted out in waistcoats, kilts and long woolly socks – performing reels and sword dances. A truly Scottish sight to behold.

7. Take bonfire night to extremes in Lewes

The first week of November sees one of the eccentric English’s most irresponsible, unruly and downright dangerous festivals – Bonfire Night. Up and down the country, human effigies are burned in back gardens and fireworks are set off – all in the name of Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – but in the otherwise peaceful market town of Lewes, things are taken to extremes. Imagine a head-on collision between Halloween and Mardi Gras and you’re well on your way to picturing Bonfire Night, Lewes-style.

Throughout the evening, smoke fills the Lewes air, giving the steep and narrow streets an eerie, almost medieval feel. As the evening draws on, rowdy torch-lit processions make their way through the streets, pausing to hurl barrels of burning tar into the River Ouse before dispersing to their own part of town to stoke up their bonfires.

Forget the limp burgers of mainstream displays and lame sparklers suitable for use at home – for a real pyrotechnic party, Lewes is king.

8. Browse one of England’s oldest markets in Birmingham

There’s enough chaos and colour to rival any frenetic southeast-Asian market here, as a stroll around Birmingham’s Bull Ring markets is an overdose for the senses. The pungent aromas of fresh seafood; the jewel colours and silken textures of miles and miles of rolled fabrics; the racket from hundreds of vendors bellowing news of their latest offerings in hopes of making a sale.

Around 850 years ago Birmingham became one of the first towns in medieval England to hold a legitimate weekly market, selling wares from leather to metal to meat at a site they named the Bull Ring, and cementing the Anglo-Saxon settlement on the map for centuries to come. But while Birmingham has much-changed since medieval times, the noise, excitement and commotion of its Bull Ring markets have barely changed at all – only now you can buy almost anything from neon mobile phone cases and knock-off superhero outfits to fresh meat, fruit and veg.


Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

The break-up of the Soviet Union gave the world an impressive array of new capitals. Some have since become familiar fodder on travel itineraries – think Tallinn’s Baltic charm, Kiev’s bulbous cathedrals and Riga’s drunken Brits. Others, for better or worse, remain something of a mystery.

Step forward Yerevan, capital of Armenia, a city swaggering into a new era, and making a mockery of the usual Soviet stereotypes of drab, grey skies and drab, grey architecture.

by debs-eye via Flickr (creative commons license)

Lofty and landlocked, Yerevan is one of the sunniest of the ex-Soviet capitals, and for most of the year the azure-blue firmament is punctuated only by the awe-inspiring shape of Mount Ararat. This fabled 5137m peak is where Noah’s floating zoo is said to have come to rest after the floods, and although it now lies just across the border in Turkish territory, the fact that it can be seen from so many parts of Yerevan makes it one of the main symbols of the city.

One other unmissable feature here is the liberal, almost ubiquitous use of duf, a sumptuously coloured stone used in the construction of the vast majority of Yerevan’s buildings. Its precise hue shifts from peach to pink to rose depending upon the weather and time of day, though the fiery tones that emerge under the rising and setting sun are particularly magnificent.

by Forbes Johnston via Flickr (creative commons license)

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Northern Avenue, a sleek pedestrianized thoroughfare in the very centre of the city. Half a kilometre of soft, pinkish stone regularly inset with the cafés and boutiques of a burgeoning middle class, it would look stylish in any European city.

The street makes a grand place to people-watch over a coffee, served Turkish-style from a conical metal pot. The same could be said of most of Yerevan – indeed, on a summer afternoon it can seem as if the whole city is out, dressed for a fashion shoot, getting a caffeine fix.

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The fabled Pacific Crest Trail guides adventuresome hikers from the borders of Mexico to Canada, blazing across the deserts, mountain ranges and dense forests that make up America’s breathtaking Western States (California, Oregon, and Washington). It usually takes five months for thru-hikers to complete, but you’re about to make the 4286km journey in less than three minutes.

This film’s creator, Halfway Anywhere, says he quit his job to make the trip after “finally realizing that what you grow up thinking you are supposed to do and what you can actually do are two entirely different things”.

When you see the stunning clips in this video, you might just want to do the same:

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