“Isn’t it dangerous?”, “Isn’t there a war going on there?”, and “Aren’t there better places to spend your holiday?” are questions you may have to field when telling people you’re off to Rwanda. Even typing the country’s name into Google will instantly bring up the term “genocide”. The horrific events of 1994 cannot, and should not, ever be forgotten, but growing numbers of travellers are now heading to this stunning, mountainous land that is increasingly proving itself the epitome of misunderstood Africa – safe, calm, and full of tremendous things to see and do.

Kigali

For an African capital, Kigali is strangely orderly. Its traffic- and pothole-free roads are fringed with neat black-and-white kerbs, while locals, expats and visitors tuck into sushi, burritos and rounds of the delectable local coffee by day, then hit the bars and clubs by night. Even the slums seem almost entirely safe, and they’re up there with the best places to meet locals and take the pulse of their city. As with much of East Africa, the temperature is perfect throughout the year – up to 29 degrees in the daytime, down to 19 degrees at night. I found it all quite wonderful, though there are visitors who find the city too clean, too well-organised, and perhaps not “African” enough.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room. A visit to the Genocide Memorial is more or less obligatory for a first-time visitor, and heart-wrenching though the experience may be, most people agree that the information is relayed in a thoughtful manner.

Volcanoes and gorillas

For those accustomed to travelling in Africa, leaving Kigali can feel a bit strange. Travel is generally conducted by minibus, and while this is a sweaty, sardine-like experience in Kenya, Uganda and other neighbouring countries, Rwanda’s rules of the road are a little better. You’re almost certain to get a seat to yourself, and since services run to set schedules (a true rarity in this part of the world) there may even be a seat or two free.

My destination was Musanze, a likeable town on the cusp of a volcanic mountain range known as the Virungas – one of the only remaining habitats of the highly endangered mountain gorilla. Tracking these wonderful beasts is big business here, though doing so is no walk in the park. First, you’ve got to arrange a permit – slots can be booked up weeks, even months in advance, and each costs a princely $750. Then there’s the 5am wake-up call, and a mountain walk to your target gorilla group – think mud, dense vegetation, stinging nettles, regular rain showers, and potential altitude sickness. These walks can take up to five hours and head over 3000m above sea level, but when you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with the gentle giants, all thoughts of the money, time and energy expended on the way up suddenly evaporate into the mountain air.

 

War over a latte

The next day, another minibus ride brought me to Gisenyi, a town on the shore of Lake Kivu and practically joined to Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had planned to head across the Congolese border during my trip, and spend a night camping by the lava-filled crater of the nearby Nyiragongo volcano. However, those plans were scotched by civil war in the Goma area, and I instead settled for a coffee at one of Gisenyi’s lakeside hotels. At one point, a military vessel full of victory-V-ing soldiers raced by; shortly afterwards, attack helicopters could be seen chopping their way towards the Congolese side of the Virunga mountains. Sipping a latte with war going on just beyond was a surreal experience.

The next day I headed south down the lake to Kibuye – a jarring, bruising journey that lasted from sunlight to sunset. The town has a traumatic history, as evidenced by the skulls of genocide victims peering out from the local church, but its modern incarnation is a delight – a charming little town with bucolic surroundings, super-friendly locals, and plenty of twisting, flower-scented paths. Most of Kibuye’s attractions revolve around Lake Kivu in one way or another – swimming in the lake, drinking beer on the shore, or even taking a short boat-ride to Napoleon Island – given that name because, from a distance, it resembles Monsieur Bonaparte’s famous cap. The island is easily scaled and boasts caves full of bats which emerge to feed in the evening, turning the local sky dark with their sheer numbers.

A peek back in time

My final destination was the southern town of Nyanza. Though initially unassuming, Nyanza has historical pedigree, serving as the Rwandan capital at various points from 1899 to 1962. The kings resided in simple, though beautiful, thatched structures that were, effectively, larger versions of those lived in by village folk throughout the land; it’s possible to peek inside a stunning replica of the former regal abodes, behind which lies a field of Angkole cows, creatures sporting horns of quite preposterous length – occasionally more than 2m long. From here, the surrounding countryside simply begs to be explored, and I spent the whole day wandering from village to village, immersing myself one last time in the charm of today’s Rwanda.

Check the FCO (or your local department) for the latest travel advice on Rwanda.

Few travel moments illicit such a thrill as catching sight of a rare or beautiful bird emerging from its natural habitat. Here are a few of our favourite birdwatching holidays, from pigeons in Mauritius, to birds of paradise in New Guinea.

Live among the birds of prey at Dadia, Greece

As you begin the hour-long walk from Dadia village to the bird hide, griffon vultures circle slowly overhead in the clear sky. According to the local guides accompanying you, nine in the morning is the best time to see the various birds that live around this medieval settlement, 50km from Alexandropolis in northern Greece. It’s best to leave for the hide well before eight though, since as all but two of Europe’s 38 raptor species inhabit these woodlands, you’re bound to get waylaid trying to spot some of them – such as the black vulture and the sea eagle – en route.

To make sure you get there on time you can stay at the ecotourism centre in Dadia, which has simple rooms in single-storey white stone buildings surrounded by forest. It also means that when your eyes aren’t trained on the birds, there’s plenty of time to soak up the gentle pace of life in the neighbouring villages and sample home-cooked meals made by the local women’s co-operative.

For more on ecotours and rates see www.ecoclub.com/dadia.

Enjoy birdwatching at Celestún Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

Bird Island (Isla de Pájaros) in the Yucatán’s Celestún Biosphere Reserve is the venue for one of Mexico’s best-attended bird parties. It rocks the most in winter, when flocks of the main host – the impressive pink American flamingo – come in their droves to this protected wetland. They are joined by numerous other guests – warblers and sandpipers, along with herons, cormorants, great egrets and pelicans.

You’re very welcome to join in the party, though only from a distance. Local boatmen (lancheros) run boat tours from the dock at Celestún through the mangroves to the island. There can be as many as eighteen thousand flamingos congregating at once, but if they’re disturbed then there’s a risk that they will leave this area in search of quieter places.

Just 10km north of Celestún, on the coastal road towards Sisal, is Eco Paraíso Xixim, a small hotel nestled among a vast plantation of coconut palms on a private reserve overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The resort is made up of fifteen spacious, thatched cabañas – for prices, reservations and directions see www.ecoparaiso.com.

Marvel at birds in Trinidad

Bananaquits and chachalacas might sound like trendy cocktails you’d order at a beach resort, but in fact they’re just two of the hundreds of exotic birds native to Trinidad, the most biodiverse of the Caribbean islands. The best place to view the birdlife is from the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a reserve dedicated to wildlife conservation perched in the heights of the spectacular Northern Range. The centre’s graceful terrace, hung with countless feeders, is a regular stop for squirrel cuckoos, toucans and parrots – and the vervain plant by reception attracts a plethora of hummingbirds. Various engaging bird trails have been cut into the surrounding dense rainforest, which you can follow accompanied by naturalist guides.

But it’s not just birders who flock to see what wildlife can be found here. As Trinidad is the southernmost of the West Indies – at its nearest point it is just 11km from Venezuela – its flora and fauna is more typical of South America than the Caribbean. Despite being just 80km long, the island is home to more than two thousand species of flowering plant and over six hundred different butterflies. To really appreciate this diversity it’s worth spending a night or two either in the main house or in one of the simple but comfortable cottages hidden away in the grounds.

For directions, opening hours, admission rates, details of accommodation and birding packages visit www.asawright.org.

See the cock-of-the-rock, Peru

Few birdwatching trips can be as easy as this. Just twenty minutes’ walk from your cabin in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, you’re treated to a daily appearance (at dawn and dusk) of Peru’s national bird – the male cock-of-the-rock – as it performs an elaborate mating dance to attract females, dipping its prominent fan-shaped crested head while extending its wings.

Such a dependable sighting is due in no small part to the conservation status of this elegant bird’s home, the Pampa Hermosa Reserve in the heart of the Peruvian cloud forest, where a ban on tree-felling has meant its numbers are flourishing. The ten cabins at the lodge are built with local materials in the traditional style of the Asháninca jungle tribe. The reserve is also home to a variety of unusual animals from armadillos to porcupines, as well as a 600-year-old cedar tree. If you like wildlife-watching made easy, come to this successful example of where conservation is breeding convenience.

The best time for viewing the cock-of-the-rock is September to November. For details of bus companies and directions by car from San Ramón, prices and reservations see www.pampahermosalodge.com.

Better birdwatching at Kingfisher Ecolodge, Laos

Situated in the fertile northern wetlands of a conservation area in Champasak Province, Kingfisher Ecolodge blends perfectly with the natural environment. Standing high on stilts, its six bungalows’ spiky wooden roofs are enveloped in lush foliage. Each is simply equipped and solar-powered, but their best feature is the enormous glass windows: peering out over the emerald expanse from your little wooden island, the sense of space and distance is almost overwhelming.

Close to the vibrant town of Pakse, the spectacular waterfalls of the Bolaven Plateau and the Khmer ruins of Wat Phou, Kingfisher is a good base for excursions. And with opportunities nearby to go mountain biking and birdwatching, there’s little time to be bored. Although it would be completely understandable if you’d rather tuck into the home-made cakes in the lodge’s restaurant, sit back and soak up the peace and quiet.

Kingfisher Ecolodge can be reached by taxi or public bus from Pakse’s southern bus station (Lak Pet station), around 60km away. For details of accommodation, activities, rates and booking see www.kingfisherecolodge.com.

Spot a giant ibis in Cambodia

With only a hundred breeding pairs left in the world, the giant ibis is a twitcher’s dream sighting. But as the population is confined largely to the wetlands of northern Cambodia, the only realistic prospect of sighting this elusive creature is on a birdwatching tour to the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. At this remote spot, the government and the Sam Veasna Centre (an ecotourism and wildlife conservation body) have established an award-winning programme that aims to link tourism, species preservation and community development harmoniously.

Four-day tours from Siam Reap to Tmatboey, a village within the wildlife sanctuary, are run exclusively through the Centre. Once in the sanctuary visitors are led by guides from the village through wetlands and deciduous forest, all the while on the lookout for the giant ibis or the white-shouldered ibis, which only nests here. A fee is paid to the village conservation fund (which goes towards schools and building fish ponds) only if you spy one of these two birds while out walking with the guides. Rather than limit the amount of funds going to conservation, this provides a clear economic incentive to the villagers – who also provide lodging and meals – to protect their prized asset.

To book a birdwatching trip offered by the Sam Veasna Centre see www.samveasna.org.

See Birds of Paradise in New Guinea

Birds of paradise are the holy grail for birdwatchers, yet most of them live in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, one of the least-explored regions on Earth. Though tourism here is still in its infancy, birdwatching tours are relatively well-established and there are plenty of operators that will take you to reliable spots to see birds of paradise.

Local expert Samuel Kepuknai leads one of the best tours (typically six days) to Kiunga, Ekame and Tabubil in the lush virgin forests of Western Province. His Kiunga nature tours begin in a region known as KM17, where you can see the Greater and Raggianna birds of paradise performing their mating rituals on the same tree. The tour then moves on to several other well-known watching spots in the jungle, such as Frame Bower Bird Hill and the Elevara River – where you take a boat trip to see a variety of other birds, such as the azure kingfisher, great-billed heron and channel-billed cuckoo.

The best time to see the birds displaying is Aug–Sept. For Kiunga Nature Tours call +675 548 1366 or email [email protected]

Take a trip to the sewage works, Jordan

Jordan is a birder’s paradise. Bang in the middle of the migratory route of millions of birds from Europe, northwest Asia and Africa, you can tick off pages of elusive species by heading to Aqaba, and in particular, to the home of a favourite avian stopover: the Aqaba sewage works. This marshy habitat is proving to be so reliably good for birdwatching that an observatory is being established overlooking the works’ large lagoons; though by exploring on foot around the pools, bushes and trees you will also come across a huge variety of species, including common cranes pausing on migration, pipits, gulls and sedge-warblers…we could go on but you get the drift. Hold your nose and get ticking.

For details of activities and trails, directions, prices and reservations see www.naturetrek.co.uk.

Spot Kiwis at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, New Zealand

The kiwi is New Zealand’s national icon, yet there are few places in the country where you can see this elusive, flightless bird. The remote Stewart Island in the far south is one location where you have a good chance of seeing a kiwi, while Karori Wildlife Sanctuary – just minutes from downtown Wellington – is virtually the only place on the mainland where you’re likely to get a glimpse of one.

The sanctuary is an ambitious project to restore native bush and provide a safe haven for endangered birds. As well as restocking the area with indigenous trees, the sanctuary’s managing trust has introduced the little-spotted kiwi, brown teal, stichbird, kaka bush parrot, North Island robin and tuatara reptile, as well as New Zealand’s only native land mammal – the long-tailed bat.

During the day you can walk along 35km of paths and listen to the kind of birdsong that’s not often heard elsewhere on the mainland. But kiwi are shy, nocturnal creatures, so your best bet if you want to hear their short whistle (and maybe even see one) is to go on a guided night-boat trip, where you can also watch kaka bush parrots feeding, see banks of glow-worms and experience genuine conservation in action.

For prices and admission times see www.sanctuary.org.nz.

See the pink pigeons of Mauritius

As well as its five-star hotels and idyllic sandy beaches, Mauritius is best known for once being the home of the dodo. The extinct flightless bird has bought the island international recognition, but ironically, some of the island’s other endemic species have meanwhile been sliding towards the brink of eradication. Much of the island’s vegetation has been replaced by sugar-cane plantations and sprawling development, and what wildlife remains is under threat.

The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) has for the last twenty years championed the conservation of the island’s flora and fauna. To help raise funds for its work, it organizes guided trips to the small islet reserve of Ile aux Aigrettes, which is home to giant tortoises and the pink pigeon, one of the organization’s success stories. Numbers of this endemic bird have recovered from only ten individuals in the early 1990s to over 360 today, about 75 of which live on Ile aux Aigrettes. Visitors tour the reserve by boat and then go on a guided walk around the island to see the native wildlife, the diversity of which gives an insight into how Mauritius once was.

The two-hour tour (www.ile-aux-aigrettes.com) departs six times a day from the Old Sand Jetty at Pointe Jerome on the southeast coast. MWF also takes on conservation volunteers; see www.mauritian-wildlife.org.

 

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Go on a safari in a 4WD and you have the best of best worlds: a safe, secure vantage point from which to spot wildlife, and the mobility to whizz off as soon as the news comes over the radio of where to go for the best action. Go on walking or horse-riding safaris and the pace is much slower, but you are able to follow tracks off-road, catch the scent of animals, hear birdsong more clearly and get a closer connection to the bush. And if you’re lucky, you may just have that once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with an elephant or a lion. Below are our five favourite slow safari experiences.

Go on a horse-riding safari in Kenya

At Borana Lodge, a working ranch with two thousand cattle at the edge of the Samangua Valley in Kenya’s remote Laikipia region, guests can combine the thrill of horse-riding with game viewing. Choose between rides over grassland among giraffes, hartebeest and impala, or explore the forest at the foot of Mount Kenya. You’ll spend between four and seven hours in the saddle every day, camping out overnight in the bush if you wish. The lodge is luxurious yet was built using only local building materials and dead wood from the ranch. Each of the eight cottages has its own veranda and shares the wonderfully well-sited pool that overlooks a watering hole popular with elephants. This is safari tourism made easy.

The ranch caters for all riding abilities and there are a few smaller bush ponies for children. For more information about Borana Lodge see www.borana.co.ke. For prices and bookings of horse-riding trips based at Borana see www.aardvarksafaris.co.uk.

Trek through the roof of the world, Kenya

Follow an ancient game trail on foot up to the Losiolo escarpment to one of the best viewpoints of the Great Rift Valley, then tackle a 3000m descent to a riverside camp in the beautiful Lerachi gorge. And that’s just day one. Donkeys will carry all the equipment as you follow a guide from one of the Ndorobo tribes – accompanied by ten Samburu warriors – among the isolated mountain ranges of Samburu that are home to leopards, hyenas and mountain reedbucks. Choose between a five-day trip or a more strenuous eight-day trek into the Rift Valley, including three days in the private wildlife reserve of Mugie. En route you’ll explore several flat-topped peaks with views of the arid plains below, swim in natural pools and visit traditional Samburu villages in this ancient, volcanic land.

For further details, info about the Samburu region, prices and reservations see www.samburutrails.com.

Walk on the wild side, Tanzania

Watching the annual mass migration of wildebeest and zebra as they move from the Serengeti back to the Maasai Mara is impressive enough on any game drive, but on a walking safari you feel even closer to the action. On this unique trip, walking no more than 15km per day, Maasai guides will lead you to safe vantage points on rocky mounds where you’ll feel the ground tremble as thousands of animals roam across the plains. Each night, you’ll camp out next to waterholes or small tributaries in lightweight fly camps, and you’ll eat dinner around a camp fire wondering if there are as many wildebeest in the Serengeti as there are stars in the African night.

Trips depart January to March. For itineraries, prices and bookings see www.wildernessjourneys.com.

 

 

 

Walk with camels in Kenya

Don’t want to carry your bags on a walking safari? Then let the camels do it. On a tour with Karisia Walking Safaris you’ll follow game tracks with Maasai warriors across the Laikipia Plateau in northern Kenya. Walking itineraries vary from a few days to a seven-night hike along the Ewaso River. En route you’ll camp at various spots along the river, pass a nesting site for a pair of Verreaux eagles, and see elephants and hippos at the water’s edge. The trip ends at Ol Malo, a luxury lodge on the edge of the Laikipia Plateau where you can swim in a pool and enjoy wonderful views of Mount Kenya.

For prices, itineraries and reservations see www.karisia.com.

Set out on foot in the Serengeti, Tanzania

It’s back to basics on this walking safari in the Serengeti National Park. Walking in the mornings only and in small groups of two to eight people, the three-day to five-day treks begin in the Longossa Hills and then follow ancient riverbeds to the Orangi River, where you’re likely to see elephants, buffalo and hyenas. You’ll camp in the bush in canvas-dome tents, before returning on the final day to Serengeti Wilderness Camp, where there are several permanent water sources that attract lots of game. This seasonal camp has eight tents and a large dining area, but no permanent structures (lighting is solar and there are compost toilets) so that it can be transported easily to follow wildlife.

The operators are one of only a few granted a permit to lead treks in the Serengeti. The walking and camp teams have radios, mobile phones and a GPS, and you are accompanied throughout by an armed Tanzania National Parks guide. For dates, prices and reservations see www.rainbowtours.co.uk.

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Banish boredom and the are-we-nearly-home-yet blues with five of our favourite British experiences for children, including safari parks,underwater adventures, and a healthy dollop of monkey business.

Africa Alive!, Suffolk

It turns out the UK’s Sunrise Coast isn’t as far from Africa as you thought. You need a good imagination to picture the African savannah in Lowestoft, but you can spot rhinos, giraffes and ostriches roaming here. Walk with lemurs and ride the Safari Roadtrain, while for a special treat over-14s can feed the lions, or even be a keeper for the day.

www.africa-alive.co.uk. Daily from 10am. “Meet the lions” costs £110 for 1hr; “Keeper for the day” costs £99 per half-day.

Monkey World, Dorset

Few animals have the capacity to mesmerize children like primates, and at this superb rescue centre you can meet the largest group of chimpanzees outside of Africa. Alongside the resident chimps, orangutans, gibbons and monkeys, there’s plenty of rope ladders and climbing frames to keep kids amused. Be prepared to fall in love so much you might adopt your own primate.

www.monkeyworld.org. July & Aug 10am–6pm; Sept–June 10am–5pm. Adults £11, children £7.75

The Deep, Hull

Seeing a shark swim past your ear you might think your time had come. Yet as you stroll through the deepest underwater viewing tunnel in Europe, and ride in the glass elevator, a close encounter with sharks and rays is just part of the experience. The Deep’s oceanic odyssey will take you into a deep-sea research station and to the ice-cold Polar Gallery, but don’t miss the feeding in the lagoon or the daily dive presentation.

www.thedeep.co.uk. Daily 10am–6pm. Adults £10.50, children £8.50.

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Jersey

Set up to save endangered species from extinction, the Trust uses its Jersey Wildlife Park to provide a window into its global conservation work, showcasing some of the planet’s most exotic – and at-risk – species in habitats ranging from Madagascan dry forest to the Discovery Desert. As well as visiting the animals, kids can get involved in numerous other ways, from half-term workshops to three-day courses for older children considering wildlife conservation as a career.

www.durrell.org/wildlife-park. Daily: summer 9.30am–6pm; winter 9.30am–5pm. Adults £12.90, children aged 4–16 £9.90.

Longleat Safari Park, Wiltshire

Longleat invariably crops up amongst the UK’s top tourist haunts; after all, its combination of exquisite country house, Capability Brown gardens and full-blown safari park is pretty irresistible. Vast in acreage, the grounds have plenty of space for giraffes and zebras, rhinos and hippos, and the drive-through safari, a world first when it opened in the 1960s, is still one of the country’s wildest and most exciting. Alight in Wallaby Walkthough but you’ll want the windows firmly shut in Tiger Territory and Lion Country.

www.longleat.co.uk. Safari Park open Feb–Oct. Adults £12.50, children £8.50

 

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With over 5000 miles of coastline on mainline Britain alone, it’s no wonder the nation has an almost endless array of watery destinations to explore. Here’s twelve spectacular spots that are very much worth a detour.

The North Norfolk coast

The North Norfolk Coastal Path allows you to explore an unusual semi-watery landscape, and to access some of the quirkiest settlements in the country. At Wells next-the-Sea, the dinky narrow-gauge Wells Harbour Railway chugs back and forwards between the lively, rackety town and the shore every fifteen minutes in high season.

Next stop is the village of Stiffkey, a gorgeous little place with red-brick and flint houses, narrow streets, antique shops and the Red Lion, which serves Norfolk ales and seafood. Perhaps the high point of the route is the resort town of Blakeney, with its bobbing dinghies, canoes, and riotously competitive crab-catching contests. Take time off from the walk for a boat trip to view the common and grey seals. Just to the east, near Cley-next-the-Sea, you’ll find excellent tearooms at Wiveton Hall, housed in a brightly painted wooden building with outdoor seating and PYO raspberries and strawberries in season. The end point of the walk, Cromer is a Victorian resort town with all the requisite attractions: a sandy beach, a pier, fish and chip shops and a carnival held in August.

See www.nationaltrail.co.uk/peddarsway for further details.

Tintagel: landscape of legends

The very name Tintagel is steeped in myth. Just about anywhere west of Wiltshire claims a connection with the legend of King Arthur, but since Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) most Brits believe that it was in the island stronghold of Tintagel that the legendary sixth-century king was conceived. Excavations had already unearthed evidence of a powerful contemporary Celtic court here when, in 1998, archeologists discovered a tablet bearing the name “Artognou”.

Clinging to a cliff above a sandy bay, the toothy remains of today’s fort date from the thirteenth century. Catch it on a quiet day – or better still when an Atlantic gale lashes Barras Nose headland beyond the battlements – and it is impossibly evocative. The long-distance South West Coast Path tracks the shoreline above a fabulously fractured coastline. How far you follow it is up to you.

Tintagel Castle (www.english-heritage.org.uk) is open daily year-round.

The Fife Coastal Path

The coast of Fife, on a good day, is one of Britain’s most postcard-perfect peripheries. And as an official way-marked route, spanning 65 miles from the Forth to Tay bridges, it’s often thronged by day-packed ramblers.

On a cloudless late-autumn afternoon, however, you might just have it to yourself: suspended between sun-fired wheat stubble and a cobalt North Sea, it’s a dreamscape of Scotland at its most benign. This is the polar opposite of the country’s wilder stereotypes; the rolling geometry of a heavily farmed plain bound by successive swathes of Blue Flag beach, cliffs and golf courses is akin to a more rugged East Anglia, an impression compounded by the unlikely vision of an eighteenth-century windmill near the village of St Monans, a relic of a time when coal-fired pans evaporated sea water to produce salt.

The traditional, unfailingly picturesque fishing villages of Pittenween, Anstruther and Crail, have famously become a magnet for artists and musicians, inspired, perhaps, by the same boundless horizons as the ramblers, and braced by the same edge-of-Europe air that makes this coast so endlessly alluring.

See www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk for more.

The seaside in Southwold

Ranks of jolly beach huts, golden sands split by wooden groynes, a slender pier reaching into the sea… the little town of Southwold on the Suffolk coast has all the traditional British seaside enticements, plus a dash of vintage chic that’s all its own.

Tilly’s on the High Street is a temple to the English high tea, with staff in fetching 1920s maid’s outfits serving lovely “layered teas” – tall tiers of scones, cucumber sandwiches and cakes. As well as kite-flying, fish and chip eating and very bracing North Sea swimming, Southwold is a great place for drinking: Adnams ales have their brewery in the town centre, and you can sample their renowned regular and seasonal ales at the cosy Swan or the Crown hotel pubs on the High Street.

Strolling the prom and the pier, whose uniquely inventive Under the Pier Show is not to be missed, provide good antidotes to high teas and beer, but there are scenic walks in all directions – not least around the town’s backstreets and green spaces. Longer walks crisscross the unspoilt surroundings, including a three-hour route south across the River Blythe (via a little ferry) into the ancient village of Walberswick, where you can have a restorative pint at the 600-year-old Bell Inn.

Guernsey’s hidden coves

Guernsey lives up to its reputation as a sleepy place of soft-eyed cows, warm scones, ripe tomatoes and rambling country lanes. But it does have a wild side, too.

South of St Peter Port, the coast of St Martin is edged by steep cliffs of ancient, granite-like gneiss, crinkled by time. Farmland and woodland flows down to the clifftops, to be met by a wilderness laced with more than 28 miles of glorious paths. The views are of lush coastal greenery and cornflower-blue sea; head out to the points – Icart or Jerbourg – to enjoy the full drama. Protected from development since the 1920s, this entire coast is a rambler’s paradise to match the very best corners of Sussex, Dorset, Devon or Pembrokeshire.

Pick your way down one of the steep, rocky descents, and you’ll find yourself on a perfect little scrap of beach, its pale sand washed clean by the sparkling tide. There’s a string of these beauties, from those shown on the map – Petit Bôt Bay, La Bette Bay, Saints Bay, Moulin Huet, Petit Port – to the tiny, secret strands that only the locals and aficionados know.

See www.visitguernsey.com for more information.

The seaside at Filey

There’s something about the traditional British seaside (think Blackpool, Margate or Skegness) that encourages a back-to-basics hedonism of rowdy amusements, raucous entertainment and near-the-knuckle double-entendres. It’s a winning format that’s been exported to the Brits-abroad costas, and you either love it or hate it, but it turns out that not all seaside resorts are cut from the same gaudy cloth.

Filey – perched elegantly on the North Yorkshire coast between bigger, brasher Scarborough and down-to-earth Bridlington – is a little different. There’s a long, wide sandy beach, but the promenade of houses and villas behind doesn’t feature a single amusement arcade. Donkeys plod up and down the sands, a pristine paddling pool sits below the town’s beautifully maintained Victorian crescent and gardens, while families explore the rocks and pools of nearby Filey Brigg coastal nature reserve. It’s improbably wholesome and unexpectedly refreshing – the raciest the seafront gets is by the harbour where you can buy fish and chips and watch the kids trundle round on the carousel. The harbourside notice board, meanwhile, advertises the week’s hot tickets – to an afternoon tea dance or a date with country and gospel singer Paul Wheater (“Yorkshire’s Jim Reeves”).

Filey Tourist Information Centre, John St, Filey, North Yorkshire, www.discoveryorkshirecoast.co.uk.

Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove

It’s easy enough to see how Durdle Door earned its name – but less straightforward to get to see it in the first place. From Lulworth Cove car park, the white chalk trail to the site stretches up a mile or so over the hills. Admittedly it looks a fair distance on first glance, but it’s only when you’re a third of the way along, huffing, puffing and drawing sympathetic glances from walkers on their way down, that you really begin to wonder if you’re nearly there yet. Push on: the reward is worth it.

At the summit, the iconic door emerges below, carved out of the limestone by the unrelenting strength of the sea. A precarious set of steps, crumbling like cinder toffee from the cliff side, lead to the shore. The beach is typically brimming with families, picnicking, paddling and watching the surf crash through the arch. Some people attempt to “swim the door”, but on all but the calmest days it’s a fool’s game – the waves, that will one day reduce the door to a stack of stones, fling swimmers around like so much flotsam and jetsam.

Back up on the clifftop track, the peaks of the ragged chalk hills stretch out like a giant dinosaur’s spine – rather apt for such a famous area of the Jurassic Coast. It’s easier heading down the path, and the views are glorious. The turquoise water of Lulworth Cove – another dramatic landform sculpted by the erosive power of the English Channel – shimmers at the foot of the trail. It should be your next stop.

See www.lulworth.com for more.

The White Cliffs of Dover

The full scale of the White Cliffs of Dover is best appreciated several miles out at sea, but to experience their dramatic views and sheer drops there’s no substitute for striding out along the clifftops themselves. Head west, towards Shakespeare Cliff – named in honour of its starring role in Lear – and you can descend to the tranquil nature reserve of Samphire Hoe; constructed from the spoils of the Channel Tunnel, it’s one of the newest parts of the kingdom.

Walking along the North Downs Way takes you though the fascinating Western Heights, a vast network of fortifications constructed to withstand the Napoleonic threat; part is given over to the ominously titled Dover Immigration Removal Centre, suggesting a purpose that’s no more friendly today. From here, the panorama across the shimmering-green Dover Straits – and even to France on a clear day – is spectacular.

Shakespeare Cliff and Samphire Hoe, www.samphirehoe.co.uk.

Llandudno’s Great Orme

Riding the train along the North Wales coast, try to imagine how the two-mile-long, 679ft-high hunk of limestone headland that is the Great Orme might have appeared to Viking raiders a thousand years ago. With its smaller acolyte, the Little Orme, you can just about picture them as a giant Nessie-style monster. An impossible-to-prove theory derives Orme from the Old Norse word for sea serpent – and is the root for the word “worm”.

Whatever its etymology, the Great Orme (Y Gogarth in Welsh) is inextricably linked with Llandudno, hunkered below its southern flank. As the Victorian middle classes flocked to this self-styled queen of the Welsh resorts for a little sea bathing and promenading, entrepreneurs devised ways to separate them from their holiday spending money, many of them involving the Orme. The views from the summit plateau across the Conwy Estuary to Snowdonia are just fabulous, and the Victorians have ensured that getting there is half the fun.

The essential tour is along Marine Drive, a four-mile circumnavigation via a wonderfully scenic one-way toll road, much of it cut into the limestone cliffs. Another lovely alternative is to take the Great Orme Tramway, a San Francisco-style cable car hauled up Llandudno’s steep streets and then out onto the open plateau.

Great Orme Tramway Victoria Station, Church Walks, Llandudno, www.greatormetramway.co.uk.

The Old Man of Hoy

There are no long-distance views; you’ll come across it quite suddenly. A soaring column stabbing out of the frothy ocean, precariously balanced on a ledge just offshore, a bit like a chopping knife, blade down. Catch your breath and soak in the view, the occasional puffin and the inevitable gaggle of super-human climbers, clinging to the rock like tiny red spiders.

Few visitors make the pilgrimage to the Old Man, the 449ft-high sea stack of red sandstone that pokes out of the North Atlantic; it’s not somewhere you can simply pull up in the car and take a photo. Hoy is a lonely, rugged place with a handful of inhabitants and a couple of hostels off the “mainland” of Orkney, accessible only by ferry. Once here, you’ll have to get hiking. From the pier at Moaness you must troll up the pass that hugs Ward Hill, then down the South Burn to weathered Rackwick Bay. It’s a wild and often bleak walk along the narrow “main” road, so don’t feel bad about accepting a lift from one of the locals – ancient tattooed sailors in 1970s Ford Escorts, local fiddlers on their way to the pub, and old ladies with cakes…on their way to the pub.

Two ferries (www.orkneyferries.co.uk) serve Hoy from Orkney.

The Isles of Scilly

This unique archipelago 28 miles off the south coast of Cornwall boasts one of the mildest, sunniest climates in the country. And in a place where two-thirds of the jaw-dropping landscape is water, the best way to explore is by boat. Don’t be fooled into leaving your waterproofs at home, however – this being Britain, unpredictable weather will decide whether you experience the islands in their sunniest glory or at the brunt of a wild Atlantic storm.

Each morning the quayside on St Mary’s – the main island – is a frenzy of activity as visitors queue for inter-island boat trips and tours to uninhabited isles. Meanwhile ferries also depart from Bryher, St Martin’s, Tresco and St Agnes, each heading for another slice of paradise where passengers can witness an abundance of wildlife, discover ancient sites and pad barefoot along white-sand beaches.

On board, there’s a palpable sense of sea-bound adventure. Binoculars are at the ready to spot seals, puffins, rare sea birds, porpoises, sunfish and basking sharks. On inclement days hoods are pulled tight around weather-beaten faces and passengers huddled inside strain for a glimpse of the scenery through steamed-up windows. With its five inhabited islands and hundreds of uninhabited islands and islets, the view is one of intoxicating beauty.

Check www.simplyscilly.co.uk for general information and travel to the islands.

Cruden Bay, Scotland

Look at a map of Scotland, towards the top, and you’ll see a wedge of granite jutting east into the North Sea. This is Buchan, a hard, flat region that, for all that it’s just next door to the Highlands, feels a world away. There are no lochs and glens here, no blur of heather and soft rain. Instead, farmland stretches under vast skies towards a savage coast where cliffs alternate with sweeps of wind-lashed sand. You feel the harsh beauty of this region most intensely at Cruden Bay. Bram Stoker certainly did: he stayed here while dreaming up Dracula.

The bay itself is a mile-and-a-half swoosh of stupendously white sand culminating at each end in jagged rocks. This is not a place for basking, then – the northeast does get an unfair share of Scotland’s sunshine, but still, it only gets really hot for a few weeks of the year. This is a place, instead, for stirring walks. One particularly Gothic hike leads north of the bay, skirting the golf course and crossing a picturesquely rickety white footbridge, the Ladies Bridge, to the tiny village of Cruden Bay.

For local history and information, try the Cruden Bay Community Association (www.crudenbay.org.uk).

 

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The island of Borneo – which is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – is home to some of the world’s best diving sites, along with a huge variety of plants, birds and mammals, some unique to the country. Yet it is also the land of the super-logger and oil-palm plantations that are eradicating the island’s natural forests. Ecotourism is one of few economic activities that can make a convincing case for protecting these habitats while supporting indigenous communities. The following five experiences get under the skin of Borneo and demonstrate that its superb natural assets are worth more alive than felled.

On the rafflesia trail in Sabah, Malaysia

Sabah’s Rafflesia Forest Reserve exists to protect the rafflesia – the world’s largest flower. The quest to find this rare plant begins in Kota Kinabalu, where you can take a bus upwards of 1500m through thick pockets of Bornean mist to the Tambunan waterfall. Then the trail leads into the forest; scrambling through the trees, stepping round enormous buttresses and over fallen logs you come to a clearing, and there it is, lying on the ground in splendid isolation: the unmistakable blood red bloom, spotted with white markings – a lone and beautiful rafflesia.

Take the bus from Kota Kinabalu to The Rafflesia Information Centre at Tambunan (about 1hr). For more information about visiting the centre and guided tours see www.sabahtourism.com.

Watch turtles in Sabah, Malaysia

When you see a turtle hatchling take its first steps towards the sea it becomes instantly clear what conservation is all about. You can witness this remarkable sight at the Turtle Islands National Park, which is made up of three small islands (Selingan, Bakkungan Kecil and Gulisan) in the Sulu Sea off the east coast of Sabah. Visitors may only stay on Selingan (numbers are limited to 38 per night divided between three chalets) though you can visit the two other islands during the day. At night, a ranger will take you to watch green turtles nesting on the beach and in the morning you’ll get the privileged chance to see their young being released into the sea.

The egg-laying season for turtles is between July and October. For entrance fees see www.sabahparks.org.my.

Stay with the locals in Sabah, Malaysia

Ecotourism is a much-bandied term in Borneo, but this place fits the bill perfectly. Stay with a local host family in one of four villages in Batu Puteh Community, located in the wetlands of Lower Kinabatangan. You’ll go on river cruises and hikes into the jungle with naturalist guides, where you might come across gibbons, lemurs, tarsiers, some of the two hundred bird species or perhaps the bizarre-looking proboscis monkey, with its long, protruding nose and large belly.

Batu Puteh is 1.5hr by road from Sandakan or 5hr from Kota Kinabalu. For prices and reservations see www.misowalaihomestay.com.

Visit an Iban longhouse, Sarawak, Malaysia

Beyond the towns and cities, the majority of the population of Sarawak lead a traditional life that revolves around the longhouse (a communal wooden house on stilts) and the river. There are several disingenuous showcase village tours, but for a more authentic experience head for the Nanga Sumpa longhouse – located a two-hour longtail-boat ride from the Batan Ai jetty on the Ulu Ai River. For the last twenty years, Kuching-based Borneo Adventure has developed tours with the owners of the longhouse, home to about thirty Iban families who provide guests with river transportation, local guides and cooks. Based at a nearby jungle lodge, you’ll go fishing with the Iban, hike through jungle trails to waterfalls and visit the longhouse for an insight into today’s rural Iban lifestyle.

Three-day trips depart from Kuching. For prices and reservations see www.borneoadventure.com.

Come face to face with an orang-utan, Kalimantan, Indonesia

One orang-utan has the strength of seven men. To see these rare creatures in the wild (from a respectable distance) go to the lowland rainforest of the Tanjung Putin National Park in Kalimantan, home to one of the largest buffooneries of orang-utans in the world. Stay at Rimba Lodge, a simple and comfortable 35-room lodge by the Sekonyer River, from where you can hire guides and walk into the park…cautiously.

For details about visiting the park either on your own or as part of a tour group, as well as information about volunteering with the Orangutan Foundation, see www.orangutan.org.uk.

 

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Zoologist, committed conservationist, award-winning writer and bestselling author, TV and radio presenter, prolific wildlife photographer and expedition leader, Mark Carwardine is a hard man to pigeonhole. One thing, however, is for sure – his passion for the natural world is all-consuming. Here we get a flavour of the spine-tingling wildlife encounters that are the stuff of Mark’s extraordinary day job…

What is the first thing you do when arriving in a new destination, and why?

The flippant answer is that I sleep: the older I get the more I seem to suffer from jet lag. Seriously, though, if I’m in a city, I like to wander and just soak up the atmosphere, to get a feel for the place, because I’m not really into sightseeing as such. Most of the time, though, I tend to be at sea or in the middle of nowhere, in which case I simply get out and about as quickly as possible.

Which one thing do you always pack when you embark on a journey?

I’d love to be able to say that I travel light and, in fact, I could say that – if it weren’t for my camera equipment. I rarely go anywhere without at least 30 kilos of kit. Photography is my passion and I’d rather leave home without my trousers than without my camera. Apart from that, binoculars are essential, of course, and I always take a satellite phone (which has saved my life on two occasions and is often the only way to keep in touch with home and the office). I can’t travel anywhere without something to read and a pad and pen, because my boredom threshold – especially in airports – is incredibly low. Oh, and I take a few clothes if there’s room.

How have you seen travel – and the places you’ve visited – change over your career?

Wildlife tourism has changed beyond all recognition in the years I have been travelling. Returning to places I first visited decades ago can be a shock, because there are nearly always fewer animals and more people. Of course, there are exceptions, but often where once there was only camping now there is a small hotel, and where once there was a small hotel now there is a big hotel. It’s good that so many people are interested in wildlife these days, and that so much wildlife is accessible, but it’s crucially important that it’s managed properly and that both the wildlife and local people benefit too.

The biggest change I’ve seen was probably in Madagascar. I’ll never forget flying down the east coast in 1989 and looking out over an almost continuous swathe of rainforest that stretched as far as the eye could see, then returning exactly 20 later to discover that there was virtually no forest left.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your travels?

Travel teaches you so many things, but respect (being considerate and thoughtful) and patience immediately come to mind. I simply switch off as soon as I get to within a mile of an airport and then switch on again when I eventually emerge at the other end. Once I’m really on my way, I simply try to go with the flow.

How would you recommend readers try and make their travel more meaningful?

Read up before you leave home and take advantage of local guides for insight and information. The more you know and understand about a new place, the better.

What was your most memorable meal on your travels?

When I was travelling with Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) in China in the late 1980s, we were served still-wriggling rat foetuses on a bed of lettuce.

Where was the place that changed you, and how?

I think every place I’ve been to has changed me in one way or another: some in a good way, a few in a bad way. From a wildlife point of view, the Great Bear Rainforest, in Canada; Baja California, in Mexico; South Georgia; the Pantanal, in Brazil; and many other places, have had a big impact. Cage diving with great white sharks in the North Pacific about 10 years ago turned me into an ardent shark conservationist. From a human point of view, working on anti-poaching patrols in many countries in Africa and Asia blows me away every time – these people are on the front line of conservation and risk their lives every day.

Should air travel be made more expensive?

I think so, but with a few caveats. There is no easy solution to the frightening growth in air travel and the environmental damage it causes – and I, of course, am guilty, as a frequent flyer. The irony that most of my travel is for conservation certainly is not lost on me.

The number of European air travellers has risen sharply with the introduction of low-cost airlines, and there’s a fast-developing taste for flying in other parts of the world, too, especially in India and China. I’m by no means an expert, but it seems to me that there are several possible answers: the development of planes with low-fuel consumptions; governments limiting the number of airports, runways and flights in and out of their countries; and the introduction of an upper limit on the numbers of flights taken, which would ultimately result in increased fares. I think flying will have to become more expensive, in a way that reflects its environmental impact. This won’t necessarily make it an elitist activity, because most of the current research suggests that the majority of new demand – in the UK, at least – is simply the same people flying more.

Where’s the most overrated place you’ve visited?

That’s difficult because almost everywhere has at least some redeeming features. I tend to shy away from places that are heaving with tourists – Ranthambore National Park, in India, and Churchill, in Canada, immediately come to mind – but even in these places the wildlife encounters can be superb.

Overrated places – Rough Guides writers and editors reveal their picks >

Where in the world is still on your must-visit list, and why?

I’ve never been to Cuba. I’d spend my days trying to photograph the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird, and my nights eating that delicious mix of Spanish and Caribbean food while listening to some wonderfully evocative and upbeat Cuban music.

What’s your favourite travel book and why?

The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson, for its laugh-out-loud humour and wonderfully memorable lines. Moondust, by Andrew Smith, for its stunning insight into the world of the last surviving Apollo astronauts. Travel Diaries of a Naturalist, by Sir Peter Scott, because it is incredibly inspiring and written by one of the greatest naturalists and conservationists of all time. Am I allowed any more?

Our favourite travel books >

Which one travel experience across the world should every reader add to their ‘bucket list’, and why?

There are so many! My bucket list is still far too long and I’ve been travelling for 6–8 months every year for the past 30 years. I suppose if you held a gun to my head and I had to pick just one, it would be San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. This is a breeding ground for grey whales, which love to be scratched and tickled by visiting humans – it’s arguably the most extraordinary, awe-inspiring and emotional wildlife encounter on the planet.

View the complete interactive Rough Guides travel bucket list >

From whales in Iceland to the pink penguins of Hong Kong harbour, here’s ten of our favourite holidays for seeing whales and dolphins, taken from the pages of travel bible Great Escapes. Let us know your own below.

Whale-watching off the coast of Iceland

Iceland’s waters are blessed with large numbers of almost every kind of whale: blue, fin, humpback, sperm, sei, minke, killer and pilot whales, to name just a few. Not to mention the abundance of dolphins and other marine life.

The largest whale-watching operator in Iceland is North Sailing, which organizes three-hour trips on board a renovated oak fishing boat from Húsavík as well as a sailing trip on board a two-mast schooner, which visits a puffin island and all the traditional whale-watching sites. There’s also a three-day sailing excursion, which includes a visit to a herring and whale museum plus a few hours on the small Arctic island of Grímsey, home to a variety of seabirds, including puffins and auks.

Whatever your view on whaling, one of the best ways you can support the conservation of whales is to join a responsible tour like those offered by North Sailing– it will help show that a whale is worth more alive than dead.

For itineraries, prices and reservations see www.northsailing.is.

Monitor whales and dolphins in the Ligurian Sea

Here’s your chance to see what it’s like to be a marine biologist working in the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean. In collaboration with Oceans Worldwide, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) lets volunteers help scientists monitor several species, including bottlenose dolphins and the enormous fin whale – the world’s second-largest animal. You’ll spend five days out in the Ligurian Sea between Italy and Corsica on board a motorized sail boat (which is also where you sleep), spending your time learning identification techniques. Regular “swim stops” at various islands are scheduled during the trip so you can relax and cool off. Chances are you’ll come dangerously close to changing your career.

For itinerary details and prices see www.wildlifeworldwide.com/journal/whale-watching.

Spotting whales and dolphins on board the ferry to Spain

The Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in Europe to see whales and dolphins. Since 1995, over 21 species have been recorded in these waters (more than a quarter of the world’s total), including risso’s and bottlenose dolphins as well as various species of whale: fin, pilot, minke, Cuvier’s beaked and even the enormous blue whale. Different species are associated with different areas of the crossing; the common dolphins, for instance, spend their winters off the Brittany peninsula, while the beaked whale is often seen over the submarine canyons off Spain’s north coast.

You can cross the Bay of Biscay on a weekly service from Portsmouth to Santander (24hr) or from Plymouth to Santander (20hr). By the time you arrive, you’ll probably have spotted some whales, enjoyed a range of onboard services and had a good rest. It may just take your mind off the pitch and roll.

For prices and bookings of ferries to Santander visit www.brittany-ferries.co.uk.

Humpbacks off Hawaii

There are few more incredible sights than watching a 37-tonne humpback whale breaching completely out of the sea. And few better places to see this powerful display than Hawaii: between November and April each year, up to ten thousand whales migrate here to mate, give birth and nurse their young.

Several operators offer trips out to view the endangered humpbacks and the 21 other species of whale and dolphin here, though Wild Side Eco-Adventures, based about an hour from Waikki on Oahu Island, comes highly recommended. With groups kept to a maximum of twelve people (and sometimes as little as six), the company offers several whale- and dolphin-watching trips led by expert marine biologists, as well as the chance to charter a boat for some leisurely island-hopping.

But Wild Side isn’t there just for entertainment: aware that whale-watching is fast becoming a popular activity, their staff are mindful of keeping a respectful distance from the mammals, while the company’s marine biologists are constantly monitoring the whale behaviour and collecting data.

For prices, itineraries, booking and more information on other cruises, see www.sailhawaii.com.

Whale-watching in Québec

Québec sits at the narrowing of the St Lawrence River (the word Québec means “narrowing” in the Algonquin language), which opens out to the estuary and gulf of St Lawrence where, just a few hours from the city centre – and from mid-May to mid-October – it’s possible to see thirteen species of whale, among them the blue, fin, humpback, killer and minke.

The variety of whales is impressive, but it’s the respectful manner in which you are taken to see them that marks Québec’s whale-watching operators as world leaders. Aboard a cruise boat, inflatable or kayak, knowledgeable guides will give guests an insight into the behaviour of the whales, their habitat and the ecology of the surrounding region. The operators have to apply for a permit and follow strict regulations that ensure they not only deliver memorable encounters with the whales but they do so without unduly disturbing the animals: boats aren’t allowed closer than 100m to the whales, swimming within 200m is prohibited, and the maximum speed in an observation zone is ten knots. As a result, the gulf of St Lawrence continues to be a safe sanctuary and bountiful feeding ground for these beautiful creatures – and a sure bet for viewings.

For a list of whale-watching operators see www.quebecmaritime.ca and www.aventure-ecotourisme.qc.ca.

Watch whales feeding in the Strait of Magellan

 

It’s all part of the nature of things, but herring don’t stand a great chance of survival when there’s a group of humpback whales circling in on them. These enormous marine mammals work together to catch their prey – some blow bubbles under the herring while others grunt and scream to scare them up to the surface. When the bubbles rise up through the water, the school of herring form an inescapable tight ball, the cue for a whale to rise up and gulp down a healthy mouthful of fish.

This remarkable spectacle is known as “bubblenet feeding” and you have a good chance of seeing it in the Francisco Coloane Marine Park in the Strait of Magellan, at the southern tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide. It’s home to Chile’s first marine area, set up to protect the summer feeding-ground for humpback whales, sea lions and fur seals, and also to conserve the nesting areas for Magellanic penguins.

A local travel company, Whalesound, run by a group of conservationists and marine biologists, organizes three-day boat trips into the Strait of Magellan to observe the whales, other mammals and seabirds in the marine park. By staying at such a remote location – at the foot of the continent – you experience a strong sense of how harsh and wild a place this is, while across the continental divide lies Antarctica, one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.

For prices, booking and more details about Whalesound’s support of scientific research contact +56 6171 0511.

Watch dolphins with a former hunter, Japan

Staring out from the bow of the Kohkaimaru, skipper Izumi Ishii points at an indistinct point amid the waves. “Bottlenose dolphin”, he says. It’s just possible to distinguish the grey triangle of a fin – you think – before the dolphin helps you out by leaping obligingly into the air. Izumi Ishii’s skill at finding dolphins and whales comes from a life looking for them in the waters around the pretty harbour town of Futo, on Honshu’s Izu peninsula. But it is only in the last few years that he has had tourists on board. Before that he was a hunter.

In 2003, however, he had a change of heart, and with the help of the American NGO Blue Voice established one of the few dolphin-watching businesses in Japan, right in the heartland of its hunting industry. In his spare time Izumi Ishii works to persuade other fishermen that his path is a more profitable one – financially and ethically. Already the volume of tourists wanting to come on his tours is too great for him to handle alone, and other fishermen are getting involved. If visitors keep coming to Futo to see the dolphins and whales, then, here at least, they will be better protected.

Izumi Ishii’s website is currently only in Japanese, but he can be emailed on [email protected] or contacted through www.bluevoice.org.

Go on a dolphin safari, Pakistan

A devastating mix of over-hunting, dam building and declining water levels has had terrible effects on the Indus River dolphin, to the extent that there are reportedly only one thousand of them left in the world, all in Pakistan. Grey-brown, stocky and functionally blind, these dolphins have a peculiar and unique trick: swimming on their side while underwater, they use one fin to feel their way along the bottom, then roll to the surface to take in air, appearing to wave with their other fin.

Instead of hunting the dolphins for their blubber, local fishermen are now working with The Adventure Foundation of Pakistan to earn a better living by taking guests on dolphin “boat safaris”. For two days aboard the fishermen’s wooden sail-boats, guests glide down part of the 900km stretch of the Indus, searching for these rare mammals. Unobtrusive hydrophones, used to pick up the dolphins’ sonic communication, are dropped into the water, so unlike many other invasive and damaging tours – which might involve feeding or swimming with the dolphins – The Adventure Foundation ensures that your contact with them is as discreet as possible.

For prices and more information contact +92 (0) 512 825 805.

Pink dolphins in Hong Kong harbour

Hong Kong – one of the most densely populated urban centres on Earth – hardly sounds like a place where you’d encounter dolphins. Pink dolphins at that: a surreal rose-coloured strain of river dolphin that became the official mascot for the handover of sovereignty in 1997.

Fantastic as they are, these fairytale creatures may not be with us much longer. Faced with chronic pollution of their waters, habitat loss and overfishing of their food sources, the population left in Hong Kong is now suspected to be fewer than a hundred. One of the best ways to help them survive is to take a boat trip with HK Dolphinwatch, which uses visitor fees to raise awareness of the dolphins’ plight and demonstrate their economic value as a tourist attraction. As you cruise through the crowded shipping lanes of one of the world’s busiest harbours, your guide will explain about this curious creature and the threats it faces. All the while, everyone will be on the lookout for tell-tale flashes of pink in the water. If by chance you don’t see them – and on 97 percent of tours you do – you’ll get a free ride next time.

For times, fares and bookings see www.hkdolphinwatch.com.

Monitor whales off the Bahamas

On an eleven-day Earthwatch volunteer trip to stay with marine biologist Diane Claridge on Abaco Island, you spend every other day out on the boat recording the behaviour of whales and dolphins that gather in the waters of the Bahama Banks to feed. Schools of dolphins often follow you, jumping into the air or across the boat’s wake. Sometimes you’ll spot reef sharks in the shallows. And if there are none of them around and a bit of time to kill, you can leap off and swim around the reefs.

On the days not tracking whales and dolphins you are back at the research station on the beach at Sandy Point, entering your data into the log and identifying animals by matching photos taken out at sea with ones stored in the files. It’s an amazing insight into the life of a marine scientist, and will provide many more intimate encounters with cetaceans than any brief whale-watching trip can give you. An experience like this might change how you feel about volunteering, or even what you are doing with the rest of your life.

For details and itineraries see www.earthwatch.org/expeditions/claridge.html.

 

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We were barely five minutes from the shore when the dolphins appeared, their splashing visible along the distinct line between the earthy-red of the landmasses and the deep blue of the Caribbean. At the tiller, Jhonny (the silent Spanish “J” affording him an unusual title) made a beeline for them, attracting their attention by rhythmically thumping the side of the boat. Momentarily distracted by the new playmate, the dolphins swam alongside, darting in and around the hull before tiring of our slow speed and breaking away in search of breakfast.

Our encounter took place in Mochima National Park in northeastern Venezuela, a stretch of Caribbean coastline dotted with sleepy beach-front communities such as Santa Fe. The park covers 360 square miles between the towns of Puerto La Cruz and Cumaná, both of which service the popular Isla de Margarita by ferry. This island is the country’s largest, where towns like Porlamar and Pampatar (some of the continent’s first European colonies) are welcome escapes for Venezuelans from the relative intensity of the cities.

The town of Santa Fe comprises a thin strip of sand lined with colourful guesthouses, moored speedboats and a large pelican population. The scruffy bird’s ungainly style of fishing is as engaging to watch as it proves effective and the best seat in the house for ornithological observation is the local market. Painted bright blue, its various stalls serve up empanadas, fresh juices and arepas – disks of savoury cornbread, fried and stuffed with fillings which depend on the time of day.

As we motored away from shore, the jungled terrain behind Santa Fe widened its enormous aspect the further we went. Around a headland, Playa Colorada (Coloured Beach) hoved into view, a sheltered bay named for the unusual hue of its terracotta sand.

The morning was spent hopping between various reefs for snorkelling, the coral identifiable by dark black streaks below the surface of the turquoise water. Squid, so ungainly looking on the fishmonger’s shaved ice, flitted gracefully between flower-like crustaceans which hide their blooms rapidly at the proximity of a hand. Those tiny fish with fluorescent spines seen in neglected basement fishtanks are here in their element – a school of thousands swam in a spiral. Jolts of light flash through each individual, contributing to a great shiver of electricity running the length of the collective.

Later we stopped at the fishing outpost of El Tigrillo (Little Tiger), where the local community hide from the midday heat by repairing boats, salting that morning’s catch or dozing in hammocks in the shade of corrugated iron roofs. Two pelicans skulked on the water nearby, hoping for any unwanted entrails or fish deemed too small for consumption to be thrown their way.

Our final stop was a protected beach on the western end of Isla Caracas., where fish and plantains were thrown over glowing embers for supper. Heading back to the mainland, the dolphins reappeared at Jhonny’s knocking, their streamlined bodies effortlessly surging alongside, jumping and diving within reaching distance before breaking away again when it became clear that nothing edible was forthcoming.

Indeed, so easily had the dolphins been summoned that I found myself giving the beach-front boats a good pounding on my way to dinner that night, hoping they might announce themselves one last time. Instead, the diving pelicans supplied all the entertainment I needed.

Parque Nacional Mochima is 600km east of Caracas, best accessed from the capital’s Terminal de Oriente;  buses run daily to Puerto La Cruz (5hr), from where it’s a further hour by buseta (shared minibus) to Santa Fe. Ask at your hotel about lancha (speedboat) trips around the area.

Alasdair Baverstock was in Venezuela researching the latest edition of Rough Guides’ South America on a Budget.

Of all the sights, sounds and sensations stamped in my mind from my week in Malawi, one stands out above all others: Everlasting’s laugh. Our brilliantly-named driver was guide, companion and entertainer over several hours and countless bumpy miles around this sliver of sub-Saharan Africa, and his protracted guffaws were a law unto themselves. Oscillating from meek titters to all-out howls, they inevitably provoked a similar reaction from everyone else in the car, in turn sparking more from him, and fusing into one constant comic chain.

Everlasting was a font of near eternal mirth: giggling as he pointed out the upturned bottles outside houses that signified a moonshine manufacturer; chuckling as he gestured towards tyre merchants and Catholic churches; and all-out chest-heaving when we asked why he kept ignoring his wife’s calls on one of his mobile phones.

We were visiting the country for the annual Lake Of Stars festival on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, followed by a short safari at a luxury camp in Liwonde National Park, but it turned out to be the unforeseen elements of the trip – the journeys between these destinations, the daytime excursions, the incidental events – that proved most memorable in Malawi.

The five hour drive from Lilongwe’s airport to the festival, for example, went by in a haze of lethargy from either jetlag or the anti-malarials or possibly both, and offered initial glimpses of a continent I’d only experienced second hand. Burnt orange earth banks, sporadic tenements, police checkpoints and bunches of locals selling newspapers and sweets went by in a flash. Curious stares and manic waves accompanied us the whole way from children and adults alike, not least when we stopped at the Boyz Pub – essentially a brick shell with a TV hanging off the wall and a fridge full of beers.

All photos by Tim Chester

The festival, meanwhile, mixing international acts from America, the UK and Japan with homegrown talent and one band who drove for five days from South Africa to play, was great fun (and covered in more depth on NME), but it was a shared carton of Chibuku Shake Shake (a strange, boozy concoction with, it must be said, vomity notes) with the locals in the nearby market that will stay with me longer than any of the performances.

Of course it was impossible not be moved by the obvious stuff: the local school, where children swarmed and knocked me to the floor for the chance of seeing themselves on my tiny SLR screen; the book bus, a travelling library surrounded by story-hungry kids; the HIV clinic, where locals are reluctantly starting to take the test and where one man tried to hustle some of the festival-goers into a jab, causing them to recoil in horror. At the school I met a pupil called Ronard. He followed us around, sold some homemade peanut butter and showed me his dusty patch of earth in the gardens, promising it will one day yield vegetables. He wrote down my email address but I never heard from him.

We were taken to meet a group of ladies under a tree in a nearby village, recipients of money from an organisation called Microloan who provide small loans to start small businesses. They stood up one by one and, through a translator, told us how they had used the money to make a living. It was moving stuff, as was the way they greeted and waved off our bus singing. Much like Everlasting’s laugh these women possessed an inherent musicality we witnessed again and again on our trip, and Foals’ afrobeat-inflected headline set at the festival later than night merely underlined Africa’s irrepressible pulse and its influence on the rest of the world.

It felt a bit wrong to disappear off into a posh resort to spot animals through binoculars after all that, and it turned out the place was more like a prison than a boutique retreat. It was reached by boat like an Alcatraz with better linens; each day began at 5.30am with oatcakes and tea; meals were non-negotiable; safaris were strictly scheduled. Leisure time, meanwhile, was only permitted for half an hour between the afternoon drive and evening drinks. It was lockdown after nightfall and you had to beat a drum if you needed someone to emerge from the darkness and safely escort you to another secure location.

Of course we ticked off all the requisite beasts roaming the big wild nothingness of Liwonde National Park (alligators, monkeys, hippos – they hadn’t introduced the cats by this point), watching wildlife from a raised platform and sharing a deserted swimming pool with several simians.

My impressions of Africa were abstract and recycled before. They’re much more concrete now. I’ve fallen in love with the continent and want to return, to travel further and for longer. I was frequently told, by grizzled veteran travellers of the continent, that Malawi is “Africa for beginners”. If that really is so, then I hope to graduate to intermediate soon.

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