Drifting up the Niger, Mali

Boats have been ferrying people up and down the River Niger since 1964 and, although these days you are likely to see more goats than people on board, there is no better way to get close to Malian life as you slip past villages clinging to the cliff side and sand dunes reaching down to the water’s edge. It takes six days to drift from Koulikoro to Gao, a total of 1300km, but the benefit of taking a boat is the time spent with locals, sharing stories and exchanging views.

Exploring the Thar desert by camel, India

In defiance of its old name, Marusthali (Land of Death), the Thar is the most densely populated of the world’s great deserts. Yet the only way to reach the more isolated settlements is by camel: riding out into the scrub, two metres off the ground, the last citadel town behind, you enter another kind of India – one of shimmering vistas, blue skies and profound stillness.

Explore Dubai on a Dhow, United Arab Emirates

A cruise up Dubai’s historic Creek can reveal the history underneath the Vegas-style attractions of the modern city. In the past Stone, Bronze and Iron Age settlements sprang up on both sides of the river, followed by the famous mud and palm-frond huts of the early pearl divers. Now, amid the towering buildings of the oil-boom, are the low-rise sprawls with their temples, markets and teahouses. Drifting past the sights, smells and sounds you can explore real Dubai.

Taking the train across Australia

Flying is the quickest and cheapest way to get between the major cities of Australia, but take the train and you’ll see the wheat fields of Victoria, the dusty outback towns and kilometres of endless white-sand beaches. The Indian Pacific, from Sydney to Perth, is one of the world’s longest train journeys. It’s a three-day, 4352km trip, stopping along the way for you to spend an evening in the gold-rush town of Kalgoorlie and visit the remote outpost community of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain.

Joining a boat up the Mekong, laos

The boat journey between Luang Prabang and the Thai border passes through some of the most unspoilt passages of the Mekong River. Evidence of civilisation is scarce amid the endless jungle that lines the steep, cloud-topped hills, and you’ll probably see little more than rice paddies, small teak plantations or isolated wooden fishing villages. Certainly speedboat or bus will get you to your destination faster but travelling on the Luangsuay, a 34m river barge, is a more peaceful, leisurely way to appreciate life on the river.

Taking a mekoro through the Okavango Delta, Botswana

As your poler guides the traditional dugout canoe through the maze of islands and rivers, lilies and reeds, he’s also watching out for crocodiles and hippos. His vigilance means you can keep your binoculars trained on the bathing elephants and herds of antelope which seek sanctuary here, away from the barren Kalahari desert. Trips with the community-run Okavango Polers’ Trust last about three days, camping on islands and ensuring you leave no trace of your visit behind.

Pony trekking, Lesotho

The four-day horse-riding trip offered by Drakensberg Adventures begins with the Sani Pass in eastern Kwazulu Natal, a rubble strewn track and the highest pass in Southern Africa. Crossing the border at the top you reach The Sani Top Chalet where a sign lets you know that, at 3482m, you are sitting in the highest bar in Africa. Here the real journey begins: two days’ riding to reach Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest point south of Kilimanjaro, where you can stop for a well-earned lunch.

Rafting on Klaralven River, Sweden

Build your own timber raft from a dozen ropes and logs and float down the Klarälven, Sweden’s longest river. You can take your raft out for just one afternoon, but to get the most from your DIY achievement it’s best to go on a five – or eight – day trip to fully explore the river. There are periods of intense activity (rapids and whirlpools) but most of the journey is a slow meander so you can keep an eye out for beaver and moose, and bask in the success of your handmade raft.

Drifting down the Canal du Midi, France

Take a barge down the seventeenth century Canal du Midi and drift through Languedoc. The long hours of sunshine in this part of France power the boat’s hot water and electric motor, so the only complication you face is negotiating a “ladder” of seven lock gates before the final stretch of the 75km journey to Pont Neuf in Béziers. Your seven days begins in the medieval town of Carcassonne, and there’s plenty to do en route, or you could simply take it slow.

Taking the Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

Board the Caledonian sleeper train one evening and the following morning you’ll wake up in the heart of the Scottish Highlands – a slow, subconscious teleport out of the urban grit and grind into the mountainous fresh and wild. The train leaves Euston at 9:15, reaching Crewe around midnight from where it trundles up to Scotland. It arrives mid-morning at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, but if you wake early you can always take a peek out your window at the Central Highlands.

Going further, slower on a Keralan houseboat

In 1991 Tour India launched the first tourist houseboat, converted from an old kettuvallam barge. Today the company has six boats and offer long charters that allow you to explore more remote areas: little-visited waterways and genuine, workaday villages. For an even slower journey there’s Coco Houseboats. You don’t cover as much ground, but your journey is more peaceful, with time to enjoy the passing scenery.

Taking a trip on a Dhow, Mozambique

Just hoisting the sail of a dhow is hard work, but as soon as it catches a breeze they sail across the ocean as gracefully as any yacht. A plank of wood nailed across the hull is where you sit, while the captain tills the wooden rudder. There are organised trips, but by asking around you should be able to arrange a ride with a local fishermen.

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).

It’s one of the ultimate travel goals: how to well and truly get away from it all. Here’s ten trips, selected by the writers and editors at Rough Guides, that offer true isolation and recuperation. Share your own below.

Sleep out in a remote bothy

Britain may be one of the most crowded islands on earth, but it’s nevertheless still possible to trek for days through some truly remote areas, mainly in the north of Scotland and the Welsh hills. Scattered across these moors and valleys are old stone bothies, once lived in by farm workers and estate staff. Nowadays they lie empty except for a supply of firewood, awaiting the next walkers keen to rest and warm themselves at the end of a long day’s ramble.

The Mountain Bothy Association maintains around a hundred of them across the British Isles. They are very simple places: no water, perhaps a wood-burning stove and at best a platform upon which to roll out a mat to sleep. There’s no booking system, no room key and no charge – you simply turn up, sleep the night, tidy up and move on.

Bothies are only to be used for short stays and are too small for groups any larger than six. The Mountain Bothy Association (www.mountainbothies.org.uk) offers members details of where the various huts are located.

Get out into the wilds of Scotland at Alladale

On a clear day, standing on top of Glen Alladale, you can see the east and west coasts of Scotland. This is the narrowest point in Britain and also one of its most remote: an hour and a half from Inverness, itself the northernmost city in the UK. But then, you don’t come to stay in the lodge and cottages of the 93-square-kilometre Glen Alladale Wilderness Reserve for the nightlife.

Wildlife, however, is another matter. You can watch (or catch) salmon as they swim and leap their way upstream to spawn. The sky is patrolled by buzzards, peregrine falcons, ospreys and even golden eagles. And amid the heather and pine-covered terrain, along with the many deer, there are wild boars, pine martens, otters and a couple of elk.

For more information on rates and activities see www.alladale.com.

Get away from the trail in Alaska

The whole point of walking in the designated wilderness area of Alaska’s Denali National Park is that you can make it up as you go along. Unlike the smooth, well-managed paths around the park’s entrance area, the backcountry has no managed trails, so you have to rely on good old-fashioned navigation and nous.

Occasionally you’ll come across “social trails” of footprints where others have gone before you, but to limit your impact on the fragile ecosystem it’s best to avoid these and forge your own route; negotiating the boggy tundra, traversing ridgelines and following the many rivers in this spectacular heartland of Alaska – home to wolves, Dall sheep, moose, caribou and bears.

The challenge of negotiating your way across the trackless tundra, camping out in the wild and pitting your wits against Alaska’s elements requires determination, flexibility and ingenuity, but your reward is hiking in true wilderness with only wild animals and wildflowers for company.

Reservations (only available one day in advance) are made at the Backcountry Information Center at the park’s Riley Creek entrance area. For a checklist of equipment and advice on low-impact hiking in Denali see alaska.org/denali/advice-denali-backcountry.htm.

Explore the Commander Islands, Russia

When people talk about the edge of the world, they’re probably thinking of places like this. Sailing among the seventeen treeless Commander Islands in the icy Bering sea, where the only settlement has a population of 750 people, is a journey into an extreme wilderness of volcanic plateaux and legendary summer fogs which can blanket out all around for miles.

This wilderness is far from empty though. Around 200,000 northern fur seals spend their summer here to mate and give birth and a million sea birds, including fulmars, guillemots, puffins and kittiwakes form huge colonies atop the coastal cliffs.

Dr Vladimir Sevostianov, a marine biologist with more than 25 years’ experience of fieldwork in the region, leads two-week trips to discover the islands by sea and on foot. One day you might be bathing in a hot spring, the next following migrating whales or training your binoculars on colonies of sea birds on the cliffs above. Guests stay in simple cabins in Nickolskoe, the only town on the islands, or on board the research vessel, part-funded through tourist fees. As time is also spent meeting the local Aleut people you’ll leave with some insight into the culture of those who make this inhospitable place their home.

For more on the people, art and fauna of the Commander Islands see home.comcast.net/~mishkabear/island.

Discover the island of Olkhon, Russia

When Lake Baikal freezes over, it’s possible to drive from the mainland 12km over the ice to Olkhon, one of the world’s largest lakebound islands. As you reach it (with a sense of relief that you didn’t sink into the icy depths) you’ll see the road’s edge coloured with wooden poles tacked with fluttering ribbons: shamanic totems where it’s customary to stop and make an offering of a few coins.

Jack Sheremetoff – a native of the nearby city of Irkutsk, where you can stay at his Baikaler Hostel – takes visitors from the hostel to explore this island, where you’ll peer over precipitous cliffs and shine your torch into icicle-filled caves. Accommodation is in the wooden home of one of Jack’s friends, where instead of running water there is a banya (a Russian sauna) to get clean. Dinners include omul, the salmon-like fish found only in these waters.

Three-night or four-night tours start from Irkutsk, a major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, five days’ travel from Moscow. For more on Baikaler Hostel as well as tour details see www.baikaler.com.

Take the road least travelled in Bhutan

If any country in the world can lay claim to the word unique, it’s the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan. Where every other government in the world views economic growth, measured via Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as the indicator of its success, this landlocked region nestled between Tibet, Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim has declared that its yardstick is GNH, or Gross National Happiness.

Tourists are welcome as part of groups (or escorted individuals) and account for its second-largest industry – but they are still few and far between. All tourism must be approved by the government as being environmentally and socially sustainable, and as such the idyllic landscape – scattered villages surrounded by terraced paddy fields, soaring snow-covered peaks and stone mountain fortresses with foreboding iron doors – remains almost untouched by industrialization. The close familial bonds, religious devotion expressed publicly in an endless array of colourful festivals, and the shifting of the seasons all still define daily life for most of the people you’ll encounter.

Bhutan also has some of the best trekking in the world, from short visits to the villages in the sacred Bumthang Valley to the awesome Lunana Snowman trek – a 28-day high-altitude trek into the most inaccessible parts of the country, home to yaks, yeti legends and the vast mountain of Gangkar Punsum. Head off into the beautiful hills and you’ll probably come across more yaks than fellow walkers.

If you’re planning a trip, the national tourism website of Bhutan is a good place to start: www.tourism.gov.bt.

Visit Maria Island, Tasmania

“No cars, no shops, no worries” was how the flyer for Maria Island National Park read a few years ago. But it forgot to mention no people. If part of the park’s appeal is casting yourself adrift on an island that has barely changed since Europeans first waded through its aquamarine shallows around 250 years ago, another is that most tourists haven’t yet cottoned on that it’s there.

Because it’s 14km offshore – and only accessible by a small ferry – Maria (pronounced “Ma-rye-a”) remains a hauntingly beautiful Treasure Island while the much-lauded Freycinet National Park just up the coast is besieged by coach tours. And it is the isolation that saw it swing from convict sink of the British Empire to Victorian health retreat, preserving the wildlife in the eucalyptus rainforest and making it Tasmania’s very own Noah’s Ark for endangered species.

Take to any number of paths and Forester kangaroo, pademelons and Bennetts wallabies can be seen bouncing away into the bush. Cape Barren geese, a breed near extinction in the 1950s, trim the grass by the jetty – just one from a spotter’s book of rare birdlife – while in a marine park you can see dolphins, seals or even whales in season. Of course, you can also just loaf about on some spectacular sands such as Reidle Beach, the sort of improbably perfect arc you ache to tell friends about. Or on second thoughts, maybe not.

Maria Island Walk (www.mariaislandwalk.com.au provides four-day luxury treks on the island from October to April.

Walk the wild Tarkine, Tasmania

The little known Tarkine region in the remote northwest of Tasmania is almost certainly the next big thing in Australian wilderness. In 2004 the Worldwide Fund for Nature described the state’s last frontier as “a world beyond human memory, a living link to the primeval supercontinent of Gondwana”. Three years later Australian TV’s Channel Nine called it “the last unknown wilderness in Australia”.

Only on foot do you appreciate the epic quality of the Tarkine. To traverse the southern hemisphere’s largest temperate rainforest, camping beneath moss-bearded myrtles and bathing in waterfalls of chilled spring water, is to timewarp into a world of myth forged when mankind was just a glint in evolution’s eye. To hike 30km up its empty coastline is to be humbled, whether by evidence of tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal existence or by waves that travel unopposed from Patagonia.

Everyone loves a travel secret. Yet after a moratorium on logging was lifted in 2003, the Tarkine is “still wild, still threatened”, as the conservation slogan puts it. This may be one secret to shout about.

Tarkine Trails (www.tarkinetrails.com.au  operates the six-day Rainforest Track and five-day Wild Coast trip from November to April.

Experience New Zealand’s best wilderness lodges

Tucked away in the middle of the 27,000-square-kilometre New Zealand World Heritage Area, 300km from Queenstown, Lake Moeraki Lodge is one of the great places to get away from it all. The light, airy rooms have views out to the surrounding rainforest, while four more luxurious suites overlook the churning rapids of the Moeraki River. From here you can kayak through orchid-filled rainforests, go on nocturnal hikes to look for glow-worms or make the short trek to Robinson Crusoe beach, a suitably deserted stretch of tree-fringed sand.

The lodge is one of two established by the former director of New Zealand’s Royal Forest and Bird Society – the other, Arthur’s Pass Wilderness Lodge, is 130km from Christchurch. Perched between the Waimakariri River Valley and the Southern Alps, the accommodation here has panoramas that are hard to beat. During the day guests can have a picnic on mountain meadows carpeted in subalpine flowers, or trek to the many waterfalls that cascade down Mount Arthur. The lodge even has a working merino-wool sheep farm, and depending on the time of year you can help out with the lambing, weaning or shearing.

Both lodges are open Aug–May; for rates, reservations and activities see www.wildernesslodge.co.nz.

Visit an uninhabited Solomon Island

The Solomon Islands is one of the least-visited nations in the world: as a consequence there is barely any tourism infrastructure and what exists is basic. But those adventurous enough to visit this scattering of tropical islands are guaranteed a memorable trip: with hardly anyone else around you can paddle in dug-out canoes, hike through virgin rainforest, dive some of the most spectacular reefs in the world and stay in simple village guesthouses, such as those built on stilts above the waters of the world’s longest lagoon, Marovo. Conservation organizations, such as WWF, have been working with village landowners to encourage them to start small tourism enterprises based around these activities, rather than give way to foreign logging companies intent on taking valuable and rare timber.

One of the islands under threat, Tetepare, is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Over 150 years ago its residents fled, for reasons unknown, but their descendants continue to visit the island to hunt and fish. Rare skinks, turtles and birds nest on this safe haven, where, so far, the loggers have not been welcome. Small numbers of hardy tourists can visit and stay overnight in a handful of simple palm-and-wood chalets, with visitor fees used to create jobs and provide improved healthcare for Solomon Islanders. You must be accompanied by a guide at all times, who will come across with you in the boat.

You can help the island’s wardens (who are also the resident chefs, making simple fish and rice suppers for guests) with scientific research like counting coconut crabs or monitoring turtles; snorkel over giant clams and coral gardens or hike through one of Earth’s last untouched island wildernesses. If you like your experiences removed from urban life, then this may be the perfect getaway.

For directions from Honiara, reservations, a list of what to bring and prices see www.tetepare.org.

Where do you head when you want to get away from it all? Share your top tips below.

 

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Camping in the UK can be a gruelling affair, what with the high chance of rain and often low temperatures – not to mention the rocket science-like fiasco of constructing your nylon home for the night. So, we’ve teamed up with Forest Holidays to offer you a night off (actually, four nights off) to enjoy the freedoms of the forest without the effort.

From bike rides and pony trekking in Yorkshire to zip wires and walking trails in Cornwall, there’s so much to see and do in the UK’s beautiful countryside. If you want to win a four-night stay in a luxury forest cabin – complete with hot tub and panoramic forest view – at any one of the eight spectacular Forest Holidays sites in England and Scotland, follow the instructions below.

How to enter

For your chance to win, all you have to do is log in or sign up to the Rough Guides Community and write your answer to the question, “What is your worst camping disaster?”, posted here, in no more than 80 words.

The prize is for a four-night mid-week stay (Monday to Friday) for up to four people at any Forest Holidays location in the UK. The prize does not include travel costs, meals, spending money or any incidental expenses and it must be taken by 31 October 2014, excluding all school holidays and bank holidays (see Terms & Conditions for specific dates). All dates and locations are subject to availability. The winner will be chosen at random and will be notified by email by 31 December 2013. See a full list of Terms & Conditions here.

Special offer for Rough Guides readers: Save 10% on cabins at Forest Holidays for holidays in 2014. Simply quote ROUGH13 when booking at www.forestholidays.co.uk (0845 130 8223). Offer expires 31 December 2013. Forest Holidays’ timber and glass cabins come in a variety of sizes suitable for families, couples and groups of friends (from one to four bedrooms).

As dawn breaks in India’s largest and noisiest city, there’s a hubbub on Chowpatty beach that sounds altogether stranger than the car horns, bus engines and tinny radios that provide the usual rush-hour soundtrack. Standing in a circle on the pale yellow sands of the beach, a group of men and women are twirling their arms in the air like portly birds trying to take off. Dressed in a mix of saris, t-shirts and punjabis, they take their cue from Kishore Kuvavala, a man with a smile as wide as the Ganges, and the leader of the Chowpatty Beach Laughter Yoga Club.

Invented by Indian doctor Madan Kataria in the mid-Nineties, laughter yoga now has thousands of devotees. Many sessions, such as Kuvavala’s, are free for anybody to join, providing newcomers don’t mind an early start. Propelled by the philosophy that laughter gives humans huge spiritual and medical benefits, the session is book-ended by prayer and breathing sessions, and its main objective couldn’t be simpler – to set your giggling, howling, chortling and smirking instincts free.

Kataria soon found out after starting his original group that simple joke-telling wasn’t enough – not least because his devotees ran out of gags. So these days, laughter yoga clubs rely on physical comedy: stirring an imaginary bowl of lassi, laughing at yourself in an imaginary mirror, pretending to be an aeroplane and doing a giant hokey-cokey are all part of the forty-five minute Chowpatty beach session, which ends with a huge call and response shout-a-thon. It’s hard to let yourself go, but look around at the hordes of men and women roaring without restraint and soon you’ll be producing laughter of a volume and tone that would get you thrown out of most bars.

It certainly seems to be working. Laughter yoga clubs have now sprung up across the USA and Europe. The smiles on the faces of our motley crew of policemen, pensioners, students and office workers as they leave for work tell their own story. As Kishore explains at the end of the giggle-fest. “No need for lie-ins – but every need for laughter!”

The Chowpatty beach laughter club meets every morning at 7am at the eastern end of Chowpatty beach in South Mumbai. For more information on Kishore Kuvavala, see www.essenceoflaughter.com.

 

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The Yucatán Peninsula can be unpleasantly muggy in the summer. At the same time, the low-lying region’s unique geography holds the perfect antidote to hot afternoons: the limestone shelf that forms the peninsula is riddled with underground rivers, accessible at sinkholes called cenotes – a geological phenomenon found only here.

Nature’s perfect swimming spots, cenotes are filled with cool fresh water year-round, and they’re so plentiful that you’re bound to find one nearby when you need a refreshing dip. Some are unremarkable holes in the middle of a farmer’s field, while others, like Cenote Azul near Laguna Bacalar, are enormous, deep wells complete with diving platforms and on-site restaurants.

The most visited and photographed cenotes are set in dramatic caverns in and around the old colonial city of Valladolid. Cenote Zací, in the centre of town, occupies a full city block. Half-covered by a shell of rock, the pool exudes a chill that becomes downright cold as you descend the access stairs. Just outside town, Dzitnup and neighbouring Samula are almost completely underground. Shinny down some rickety stairs, and you’ll find yourself in cathedral-like spaces, where sound and light bounce off the walls. Both cenotes are beautifully illuminated by the sun, which shines through a hole in the ceiling, forming a glowing spotlight on the turquoise water.

Even more remarkable, however, is that these caverns extend under water. Strap on a snorkel or scuba gear, and drop below the surface to spy a still world of delicate stalagmites. Exploring these ghostly spaces, it’s easy to see why the Maya considered cenotes gateways to the underworld. The liminal sensation is heightened by the clarity of the water, which makes you feel as if you’re suspended in air.

Cenote Zací in Valladolid is in the block formed by calles 34, 36, 37 and 39. Dzitnup and Samula are 7km west of Valladolid on Hwy-180. There are also cenotes along the Caribbean coast.

 

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As autumn looms in the north and spring is blossoming in the south, October is a beautiful month around the world. From the last of that European sunshine, to the wacky festivities of Halloween in the USA, here are the best places to visit in October.

Watch nature’s giants, Península Valdés, Argentina

Every year, between mid-June and mid-December, majestic southern right whales come to breed in the waters surrounding Península Valdés in northeastern Patagonia. Weighing up to 50 tonnes and measuring up to 18m in length, these cetaceans were once a favoured target for whalers – they were the “right” whales to harpoon because they are slow, float when killed and yield lots of oil – but are now protected from the moment they enter Argentine waters. October is an ideal time to spot them, as well as elephant seals, penguins and orcas (killer whales).

Get some late summer sun, Crete, Greece

While autumn may be setting in across Europe, it is still possible to catch some late summer sun if you head south. Crete has the longest summers in Greece, and you can still swim in the sea and lounge on the beach well into October. If you’re feeling a bit more energetic then October is also a great time to hike through Crete’s dramatic Samariá Gorge – the arduous but rewarding 16km route takes you past pine forests, abandoned villages, and sheer rock faces.

Party hard, Ibiza, Spain

The start of October heralds the end of Ibiza’s elongated summer season and as the hedonists prepare to head home, the clubs like to sign off in style. Highlights of Ibiza’s epic closing parties can be spent with the top resident DJs at the world famous Pacha, with its five rooms of various musical mayhem, and the converted airport hangar club DC10, where 1500 revellers can dance the night (and following morning) away.

Go white-water rafting, Nepal

Nepal is one of the best places in the world to go white-water rafting, with an array of options from easy half-day trips for first-timers to epic, week-long adventures to challenge even expert paddlers. The peak rafting (and kayaking) season is from mid-October to November, when the rapids are exciting but more manageable than during the monsoon. Two highlights are the Bhote Koshi, the steepest and hardest of the country’s raftable rivers, and the Upper Kali Gandaki descent, an exciting route that can easily be added on to a trek in the Annapurna region.

Browse and buy leading art, London, UK

The annual October Frieze Art Festival (one-day tickets from £32) in London is the UK’s leading contemporary art fair. Visitors can view – and, if their budgets allow, buy – works by over 1,000 leading artists from around the world. The event, which also features debates, lectures, film screenings and musical performances, coincides with Frieze Masters, a linked event that showcases artworks made before the turn of the year 2000.

See Desierto florido, Chile

Most of the time the semi-desert plains between the town of Vallenar and the city of Copiapó in northern Chile are covered by little more than cacti, sparse patches of shrubs and little else. However, every four to five years or so a transformation takes place and the landscape is briefly covered by an immense carpet of multi-coloured flowers. The phenomenon, known as the desierto florido (“flowering desert”), varies greatly in intensity and is nigh on impossible to predict: it generally takes place from early September to late October in years when there has been an unusually high level of rainfall during the winter.

Dress up for Halloween, USA

Halloween isn’t just for kids. The biggest event in New York is in Greenwich Village, with a parade involving tens of thousands of participants in wildly imaginative costumes, plus puppets, circus performers, artists, dancers, and music from around the world. As you might expect, New Orleans also celebrates Halloween with some style – expect raucous parades, ghost tours, huge street parties, costume competitions, and a late, late night.

Celebrate Durga Puja, Kolkata, India

Known elsewhere in India as Dussehra, Durga Puja is the most important festival of the year for Bengali Hindus, and nowhere is it more spectacularly celebrated than Kolkata. It marks the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisasura by the ten-armed goddess Durga, symbolising more generally the victory of good over evil. The festival climaxes at the end of the fortnight, with thousands of lavish papier-mâché Durga idols parading through the city’s streets before being immersed in the Hooghly River.

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

From Kinross to Kent, Britain is home to all manner of beautiful gardens, ranging from wild and sprawling estates to compact, tidy arrangements. Here’s a few of our favourites, taken from Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

Aberglasney Gardens

Once a grand Carmarthenshire estate, Aberglasney fell on hard times during the twentieth century and by the mid-1990s the house was totally derelict: its windows empty sockets, its masonry crumbling and its gardens choked with weeds. Just when it seemed doomed to collapse, a Restoration Trust stepped in, led by a team of experts who were determined to patch up the damage and perhaps reveal some of the glories of the past. The gardens (pictured above) were the main focus of their interest: they were known to date back well over 500 years, making them a perfect candidate for research. Their hunch has already paid off: little by little they have made some astonishing discoveries.

One of the earliest revelations was a real breakthrough. Carefully, the team excavated the stone-walled cloisters immediately west of the mansion, digging down through the centuries to discover a formal garden dating back to late Tudor or early Stuart times. Even more astonishingly, coins dating back to 1288 were found among the debris. Now that a re-creation of the early seventeenth-century layout is in place, you can wander the raised stone path that tops the cloister walls to admire its geometric lawns and think yourself back to the grandeur of the era.

On the south side of the house is another superb development: the ruined masonry of an ancient courtyard has been shrouded in glass, creating a subtropical hothouse. Named the Ninfarium after the glorious Italian gardens of Ninfa, there’s a Zen-like calm to its shady, orderly pathways.

Aberglasney Gardens, Llangathen, Carmarthenshire, www.aberglasney.org

Drummond Castle Gardens

The long beech-enclosed drive that leads to Drummond Castle has a sense of drama, but gives no inkling of the exotic vision ahead. The castle itself is a bluff medieval keep surrounded by turreted domestic buildings, all heavily restored in the nineteenth century. You pass through a courtyard to access a wide stone terrace, and the garden is suddenly revealed: a symmetrical and stately Italianate vision in the shape of Scotland’s flag, a St Andrew’s Cross. The lines of the cross are punctuated by urns and Classical statues, and at their centre is a seventeenth-century obelisk sundial. It’s an artful garden in every sense: steep steps lead down to the sundial, and beyond the topiary and the neat flower beds a wide avenue cuts though dense woodland, continuing the line of the parterre’s central path but making a visual connection between the formal garden and wider, wilder estate.

The first Lord Drummond began building the castle in the late fifteenth century, and in 1508 there is evidence that the estate supplied cherries to James IV when he was on a hunting trip. The sundial created by Charles I’s master mason was put in place in 1630; in the following century the family was more preoccupied with assisting the Jacobite uprising than pruning the roses, but in calmer times in 1842 Queen Victoria planted two copper beeches here, and enjoyed walks in the garden with Albert.

It remains in feel very much a courtly garden. The paths seem tailor-made for stately strolling, giving you the space and time to admire the marble statuary, snooty peacocks and neatly clipped foliage. And when you’ve explored the parterre, don’t miss the abundant blooms in the glasshouses, and the impressive kitchen garden.

Drummond Castle Gardens, near Muthill in Crieff, Perth & Kinross, www.drummondcastlegardens.co.uk

Mottisfont Abbey

Before you even get to the roses at Mottisfont Abbey – which is, after all, the point of the visit – you encounter some sensuous temptations. First you cross the River Test, arguably the finest chalk stream in England, which runs clear and shallow through gentle meadows fringed by grassy downland. This is the place for walks (the Test Way passes by here), or quiet sitting – or trout fishing, if you can afford it.

You then walk through Mottisfont’s lovely grounds, a grassy haven bordered by chalk streams and studded with old oaks, sweet chestnuts and the improbably massive great plane. Then there’s the Abbey itself, a mellow pile with Tudor wings and Georgian frontages and a stately drawing room whose eccentric trompe l’oeil decor – all painted swags and smoking stoves sketched in grisaille – was created by the English prewar artist, Rex Whistler.

But beyond the river and the house and the grounds lies Mottisfont’s heart: its twin walled rose gardens. They are fabulous, harbouring one of the finest collections of old roses in the world. Among the six-hundred-odd varieties you’ll find names that hint at exotic beauty, such as Reine de Violette, Tuscany Superb and Ispahan, and names that suggest a more blushing Englishness, such as Eglantine and the Common Moss Rose. Climbers, noisettes and ramblers trace glorious patterns on the high brick walls, cross pergolas or spill up into apple and pear trees. The shrub roses, meanwhile, crowd noisily between the box hedges and lawns and lavender pathways, jostling among the hosts of bulbs and perennials. There is something to see, then, right through spring and summer.

Mottisfont, five miles north of Romsey, Hampshire www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Alnwick Garden

It makes sense to lock up dangerous criminals and wild animals, perhaps – but plants? Well, yes, when we’re talking about these plants. Within the 40-acre Alnwick Garden, the botanical annexe to Alwnick Castle, lies a sullen little plot of deadly flowers and bushes deemed so dangerous that they too are kept behind bars. Visitors to this cultivated collection of botanical death should be wary. Don’t sniff too hard, perhaps… Though one suspects their deadly pollen and spores could permeate even the ominous wrought-iron gates, fronted with skull and bone signs, that declare: “These plants can kill”.

Unlike the rest of Alnwick Garden, the poison garden can only be visited on a guided tour. The heavy iron gates are locked behind you. This is serious stuff. Flame-shaped beds are planted with tobacco, mandrake, hemlock – and innocent-looking rhubarb, the stalks of which make lovely crumble, but whose lush green leaves can kill. Maximum security is applied to coca (for cocaine), cannabis plants and poppies, the heads of which contain all that’s required to make opium, heroin and morphine.

Weaving through the garden, guides debunk myths, tell old wives’ tales and impart ancient wisdom. Learn here about Old Man’s Beard, rubbed by professional beggars into sores to make them weep piteously. Or the hallucinogenic properties of Deadly Nightshade. Chewing a humble laburnum leaf, you are told, will lead you to froth at the mouth and wildly convulse.

Alnwick Garden, Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland www.alnwickgarden.com

RHS Garden Wisley

As you walk through the brick entrance arch at Wisley, you’re hit by scented air wafting through from the flourishing acres beyond. And there really are acres and acres here – 240 of them, to be exact, all lovingly, scrupulously, passionately tended. Ahead lies the serene canal and walled garden; beyond, secretive paths lead through the Wild Garden’s woodlands to the staggering new glasshouse, which rises out of an entire lake. The preternaturally heated interior heaves with tropical ferns and palms and creepers, all fighting their way towards the glass. There’s even an indoor waterfall.

But why go straight on? A left turn takes you up a breathtaking avenue of lawn, between 20ft-deep mixed borders from which English cottage garden flowers dance and nod in coloured ranks. Beyond, there’s the elegant rose garden, and beyond again what seems like an entire ecosystem of rhododendrons and magnolias on Battleston Hill. And beyond that, the Jubilee Arboretum rises back up towards the Fruit Field, which is really an entire hillside combed with 450 types of apple, plum and pear, many of them rare and rich varieties. It’s not exactly encouraged, but on an early autumn day you could even quietly taste a windfall pear or two – or buy them in the shop later.

Wisley isn’t all about loveliness, though, or even drama. Instead, it’s alive with passion and energy. The Royal Horticultural Society is dedicated to research and education, so you’ll see guided tours pausing to consider a fine clematis, enthusiasts gleaning tips from the model allotment, or maybe volunteers weeding through a host of experimental pumpkins.

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey www.rhs.org.uk/wisley

Highgrove Gardens

It’s amazing what a few words of encouragement can do. When the Prince of Wales bought Highgrove House, his family home near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, the estate didn’t even have a lawn. Some thirty years later, what was once an empty landscape is now one of the most innovative gardens in Britain. Clearly, Charles has spent a lot of time talking to these plants.

Tours start at Highgrove House itself, surrounded by scented plants such as wisteria, honeysuckle, jasmine, holboellia and thyme, and meander for two miles through a series of interlinked gardens, from the immaculate Sundial Garden, fronting the house, to the Arboretum. Most eye-catching in its marriage of form and function is the Prince’s Islamic-style Carpet Garden, a medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, whose colour and appearance – which includes fountains decked in elaborate zelij tiling – were based on the patterns of Persian carpets within the house.

Arguably the most interesting sections, though, are the Wildflower Meadow and the Walled Kitchen Garden. The former was co-designed with one of the UK’s leading biodiversity experts, and – as an organically sustained initiative that also helps preserve the country’s native flora and fauna – is a living example of the philosophy that underlines much of Highgrove and the Prince’s nearby Duchy Home Farm. The meadow features more than thirty varieties of British wildflowers – ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and ragged robin among them – and is home to some of the National Collection of Beech Trees, part of a conservation programme that safeguards the diversity of the country’s plant heritage.

Highgrove House, Doughton, Tetbury, Gloucestershire www.highgrovegardens.com

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Edinburgh’s famous Botanic Garden may get the royal seal and most of the press, yet a mere 45-minute drive south stands what is arguably the world’s most exquisite arboretum. Sequestered in one of the most scenic corners of the Scottish Borders, Dawyck is a veritable masterpiece of horticultural passion and creativity, matured over three centuries into a stunning sixty acres of botanic forest.

The secret of this place lies in its range of species from climatically similar corners of the globe. One of the best times to visit is in spring, when you’re welcomed by the Himalayan feast that is the Azalea Walk in full bloom. Over the brow of the hill, 300-year-old giant redwoods tower next to a rustling brook. Incredibly, these are actually infant trees, just a tenth of the way through their lives, and mere striplings compared to their 300ft-tall Californian forebears.

Just beyond the upward curve of the burn another giant hoves into view: the rhubarb-like gunnera plant feels truly exotic, even tropical, a South American specimen with foliage as big as a golf umbrella.

Atmospheric features like the old chapel, the stone humpback bridge or Dawyck House, relics of the garden’s heritage as part of the Dawyck estate, give purpose to those panoramic shots, or you could zoom in to the striking snakeskin bark of the Manchurian striped maple, possibly an evolutionary disguise to protect saplings. Even if you forget your camera, Dawyck will imprint itself on your grey matter anyway, a humbling lesson in the glorious potential of landscape.

Dawyck Botanic Garden, Stobo, near Peebles, Borders www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/dawyck

Sissinghurst Castle

The famous White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle is equally fascinating both at a distance and close up. There are several angles from which to admire it – framed by a shady arch, for example, or backed by the weathered walls of the Priest’s House – and there’s fresh beauty in every white iris, lupin and sunny-centred daisy.

It’s one of a series of room-like areas of planting with which the poet Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, a diplomat-turned-politician, adorned the grounds of Sissinghurst. When they arrived in 1930, the site was derelict, but Vita, who had an ancestral connection with the castle, saw in it an opportunity to shake off some of the sadness she felt at being shut out of the inheritance of her childhood home, Knole, simply because she was a woman.

The couple had different approaches to gardening: Harold enjoyed the discipline of orderly spaces separated by brick walls, yew trees and box hedges, while Vita was a romantic who enjoyed creating mysteries and surprises. In 1938, they opened the garden for an entrance fee of a shilling. The romantic-looking Elizabethan Tower that dominates the estate was originally a lookout; for the Nicolsons, it was the perfect vantage from which to survey their leafy domain. Climb up to its highest windows and you can see how beautifully the gardens, orchards and vegetable plots nestle within the Wealden countryside, complementing it just as they intended.

The garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Biddenden Road, near Cranbrook, Kent www.nationaltrust.org.uk

 

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The Dutch are on a roll this year with a newly crowned king, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum reopening after a decade of restoration and even a long-lost Van Gogh painting unearthed this autumn. Local hoteliers have not been slacking and you will find a great range of charmingly individual places to stay, from luxurious heritage conversions to quaint lakeside campsites and (how Dutch can you get?) a converted brothel. Here are our favourites:

Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam

The ingenious Lloyd Hotel has almost single-handedly transformed Amsterdam’s eastern docklands into a hip, artistic quarter. A listed building from 1921 built to accommodate migrants bound for South America has morphed, Grand Designs style, into a stunning, light-filled hotel and “cultural embassy”. Creative types are made particularly welcome (there’s often an artist in residence in the exhibition space). Rooms grow in size and personality from chic little one-star cells to palatial five-stars, one of which has a bed sleeping up to eight people. Rooms €100–500.

Cocomama, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s first “boutique” hostel, Cocomama has a dirty little secret – it was once a high-class brothel. The only hint at its former incarnation are the curiously small private rooms (with circular beds) and some racy wall art, though apparently the occasional “gentlemen caller” still rings the doorbell. Today it’s a hugely popular hostel with spacious dorms, themed en suites (try the Queen Beatrix room on the top floor) and a great communal kitchen where you’ll usually find Joop the cat (something of a star on the hostel’s facebook page). Dorms from €30, rooms €80–90.

MiscEatDrinkSleep, Amsterdam

You might not expect one of Amsterdam’s most romantic hotels to pop up in the middle of the Red Light District yet here it is – the curiously named misceatdrinksleep. Each of its half dozen rooms has a theme (from the canalside Rembrandt room to a Baroque vision that stays just the right side of kitsch) and come packed with thoughtful little features such as Nespresso machines, welcome bottles of fizz and luxury cosmetics. All this and a knockout yet surprisingly quiet location in the middle of Sin City. Rooms from €140 per night.

Lucky Lake, near Amsterdam

If Amsterdam’s nightlife has left you a little frazzled (and if it hasn’t, why not?), a stay at the idyllic Lucky Lake might well be in order. Located by the Vinkeveen lakes 15km southeast of the capital, it offers a mixture of brightly decorated caravans, cabins, four-bed dorms and a small campsite. Rent a bike, take to the water in kayak or chill out in a hammock. You’ll soon want to stay longer than you booked. Dorms €26, cabins/caravans from €29 per person. Open March to September.

Mary K, Utrecht

Boutique in the best sense of the word – small, stylish and welcoming – Mary K is somewhere you’d like to wake up every day. This eighteenth-century Utrecht townhouse has lovely canal views and just nine tastefully decorated yet quirky rooms (you might find a frog sculpture in the rainforest shower or a spider design on your pillow case). Utrecht itself is a vastly underrated place – a kind of Dutch Cambridge with a world-class university, gothic architecture and plenty of students splashing about on the canals in summer. Rooms from €130.

Hotel Bazar, Rotterdam

A study in Moorish opulence, Hotel Bazar is the antidote to Holiday Inn or Travelodge, and something of a surprise find in downtown Rotterdam. Its 27 wildly decorated rooms offer a kind of “through the keyhole” travel experience. You can almost imagine Ernest Hemingway kicking back in the luxurious Africa room with its zebra-skin wallpaper and zulu shields. Next-door, the hotel’s Middle Eastern restaurant is always packed with locals and expats drawn in by the aroma of saffron and tamarind-infused dishes and the best kebabs in town. Doubles from €75.

Hotel New York, Rotterdam

In a city renowned for its edgy modern architecture, Hotel New York stands out like a elegant Art Deco liner. Once the headquarters of the Holland-America line and known as the “Grand Old Lady”, it has been beautifully converted into a hip “destination” hotel/restaurant with plenty of nautical features (vintage signal lamps, bedside tables fashioned from luggage trunks) and panoramic harbour-side views. The beds are ridiculously comfortable, too, so much so that guests regularly ask to buy the linen when checking out. Doubles from €155.

Hello I’m Local, Haarlem

Shhhhh! don’t tell anyone but this might just be the best deal in the country. Though it sounds like something from BBC comedy The League of Gentlemen, Haarlem hostel/guesthouse Hello I’m Local is not in the least bit “local”. Instead you’ll find wonderfully comfortable dorms (with proper sprung mattresses), cool communal areas and a range of private doubles, triples and quads themed around subjects such as The Dutch East India Company and Haarlem’s own art superstar Frans Hals. Great website, too. Dorms from €27, doubles from €75.

FAST, Scheveningen

Tongue-twisting Dutch resort Scheveningen becomes a kind of mini Ibiza in summer thanks to its beachside bars and surfers tackling the chilly North Sea swells. To soak up the surfy vibe stay at FAST, a unique “surfer village” with beach-facing dorms fashioned out of recycled shipping containers. Perhaps not a honeymoon spot but it goes to show what a bit of can-do spirit will achieve. Another way to experience Scheveningen’s dunes is to take the Fatbike tour offered by Lola Bikes in nearby Den Haag. Dorms from €20.

Hotel Mozaic, Den Haag

Often skipped by visitors, Den Haag (The Hague) offers the best Dutch art outside Amsterdam – you’ll find Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring here as well as a museum devoted to the surrealist visions of MC Escher. The city has a wonderfully urbane continental feel, full of pretty squares lined with plane trees and one of the country’s finest small hotels in Hotel Mozaic. A mixture of contemporary design and high-ceilinged 1880s architecture, it boasts 27 classy double rooms, a capacious loft, a grand suite, plus an amazingly good breakfast. Rooms from €120.

Townhouse Designhotel, Maastricht

Cool, contemporary yet with a heart, Maastricht’s Townhouse Designhotel offers stylish rooms that will appeal to interiors junkies – an oversized anglepoise lamp here, a Banksy-esque scrawling there. The staff are exceptionally friendly and you often feel like simply hanging out in the restaurant/breakfast area (with its free, piping-hot soup available all day). With a youthful university feel and a pretty riverside setting Maastricht makes for a perfect weekend-break: get your bearings and get fit on one of these excellent running tours. Rooms from €98

People have looked to the mountains for spiritual consolation for millennia. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” say the Psalms, “from whence cometh my help.” For Nepalis, the link is especially powerful. The Himalayas are where the Hindu gods go to meditate and replenish their tapas, or spiritual “heat”, and the Buddhist peoples of Nepal’s Himalayan regions regard many of the highest peaks and lakes as sacred.

Many trekkers come to Nepal to make personal pilgrimages. When you stand on a ridge festooned with colourful prayer flags torn ragged by the wind, or look down on the luminous, glacial blue of a Himalayan lake, or when with aching lungs, cracked lips and a spinning head you come to the top of the highest pass yet, it’s hard not to feel your own spiritual store hasn’t been warmed just a little. Of course, you can always just emulate the gods: find a high place, fix your eyes on the Himalayas, breathe and begin the search for mindfulness.

For spiritual discipline, perhaps the richest possibilities are found in the Kathmandu valley, Nepal’s heartland in the Himalayan foothills. The valley has been described as a living mandala, or spiritual diagram – its very geography mapped out by temples, devotional stupas and holy caves and gorges. Pashupatinath, where Kathmandu’s dead are burned by the river, attracts pilgrims from across India. Many Western travellers make for neighbouring Boudha, the vibrant Tibetan quarter, where the painted Buddha eyes on the great white dome look out across throngs of Buddhist monasteries and where, at dawn and dusk, the violet air echoes with the sounds of horns and bells, and the murmured mantras of the faithful.

Gompas (monasteries) such as Boudha’s Shedrub, the “White Monastery” (www.shedrub.org), and nearby Kopan (www.kopan-monastery.com) run teachings on Tibetan Buddhism in English, as well as meditation courses. For serious Hindu meditation, try the Osho Tapoban Forest Retreat Centre (www.tapoban.com) and Nepal Vipassana Centre (www.dhamma.org).

 

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