First, tea is served. In a fancy teapot, with biscuits, by a butler dressed in pristine white uniform. You gaze lazily out of the window as porters labour in the crushing afternoon humidity, blissfully cool in your air-conditioned cabin. Then the train eases out of the station: the skyscrapers of Singapore soon fall away, and you’re across the Straits of Johor and into the lush, torpid palm plantations of Malaysia.

This is the Eastern & Oriental Express, the luxurious train service that runs between Singapore and Bangkok, the last remnant of opulent colonial travel in Southeast Asia – evoking the days of posh British administrators, gin-sloshed planters and rich, glamorous dowagers rather like the set of a Merchant Ivory movie.

To be fair, you’re more likely to meet professionals from San Francisco or Hong Kong on the train today. There are a couple of stops to break the three-day journey – a rapid but absorbing trishaw ride through old Penang, and an evocative visit to the bridge over the River Kwai – but it’s the train itself that is the real highlight of the trip.

If you feel the need to stretch your legs, the observation car offers a 360-degree panorama of the jungle-covered terrain, and there’s a shop selling gifts to prove you’ve been. Then there’s the elegant dining car. Eating on the train is a real treat, superb haute cuisine and Asian meals prepared by world-class chefs. Many choose to wear evening dress to round off the fantasy and after dinner retire to the bar car, where cocktails and entertainment await, from mellow piano music to formal Thai dance. A word of warning: after all this, reality hurts. Standing on the chaotic platform of Bangkok’s Hualampong station, you might long to get back on board.

Singapore to Bangkok costs around US$2000 one way – see www.orient-express.com.

 

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After a search for the most captivating, exciting and beautiful travel photography, the Travel Photographer of the Year Awards announced their final winners last week. Here is a selection of our favourite images from this set of talented photographers.

Eagle hunter, Alti Region, Mongolia

By Simon Morris | www.tpoty.com

Powell Point, Grand Canyon South Rim, USA

 By Gerard Baeck | www.tpoty.com

 A woman serves butter tea in her home in Laya, Bhutan

 By Timothy Allen | www.tpoty.com

Emma Orbach playing the harp in her mud hut in Pembrokeshire, Wales

By Timothy Allen | www.tpoty.com

Japanese Macaques, Jigokudani Yaen Kōen, Japan

By Jasper Doest | www.tpoty.com

Nepali New Year festival, Bhaktapur, Nepal

By Jovian Salak | www.tpoty.com

Lionesses hunting, Chief’s Island, Botswana

By Ed Hetherington | www.tpoty.com

Northern Lights, Kirkjufell, Iceland

By James Woodend | www.tpoty.com

Lioness defends her kill from vultures, hyenas and jackals Masai Mara, Kenya

By Nicolas Lotsos | www.tpoty.com

 Phuket, Thailand

By Justin Mott | www.tpoty.com

Cheetah cub and mother, Masai Mara, Kenya

By Marco Urso | www.tpoty.com

Altai Mountains, Mongolia

By Tariq Sawyer | www.tpoty.com

Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India

By Roberto Nistri | www.tpoty.com

Lionesses hunting, Chief’s Island, Botswana

By Ed Hetherington | www.tpoty.com

A spear gypsy spear-fishing in the Andaman Sea

 By Cat Vinton | www.tpoty.com

Amazon rainforest, Brazil

By David Lazar | www.tpoty.com

Camel racing, north of Wahiba Sands, Oman

 By Jason Edwards | www.tpoty.com

Kolkata Skateboarding Club, Kolkata, India

By Gavin Gough | www.tpoty.com

A grain seller, Jaipur, India

 By Merissa Quek | www.tpoty.com

Pokot tribe, Amaya village, East Pokot, Kenya

 By Roberto Nistri | www.tpoty.com

The Flatiron building, New York City, USA

 By Tom Pepper | www.tpoty.com

Masai Mara, Kenya

 By David Lazar | www.tpoty.com

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Wondering where in the world you can get a gorgeous view served up with your cocktail? Not to worry – Hannah Lodge from BarChick.com has done the hard work for you, rounding up the world’s best bars with a view.

Sky Bar, Bangkok

Sky Bar is the highest open-air drinking establishment in the world, so if you are chasing vistas as well as drinks then this is going to top them all. Perched dizzyingly high on the 63rd floor of The Dome at Lebua, this small, circular, colour-changing bar is high up on any visitor’s list. It’s the ultimate place for a sun-downer; drink in the skyline of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River with fine vintages and amazing cocktails.

Hula Hula Bar, Hvar, Croatia

This beachfront beauty on the coastline of Hvar is proof that you don’t have to get up high to find a sight to knock your socks off. As the sun begins to sink everyone on the island flocks to the rocks to grab a cocktail from Hula Hula Bar and party as the sun sinks in to the Adriatic. It’s so good that people even moor up from neighbouring islands to catch a glimpse.

Skyline Bar, Venice

Not your typical Venetian drinking spot, Skyline Bar is a swanky cocktail lounge which looks out across the entire floating city and southern lagoon. As Venice’s most impressive bar, it boasts not only a panoramic skyline but also a rooftop pool, just in case you fancy taking a little dip. All those canals may be perfect for some things, but swimming sure ain’t one of them. There’s no better way to spend an afternoon than chilling out, Champagne cocktail in hand, watching the boats float past.

Rooftop Lounge, Venice Beach, LA

There aren’t many places cooler than LA, and the Rooftop Lounge in Venice Beach takes the crown in this town. There are laid back cabanas up on the hotel roof where you can look down at kids shooting hoops, spot bladers whizzing by or just grab some cold beers and hold tight for the sunset through the palm trees below.  This is the best place to get a slice of a real laid back LA lifestyle outside of the 90210 postcode.

Palaphita Kitch, Rio de Janeiro

This bar is a little bit special – it’s like an Amazonian jungle sitting on the shores of Rio’s Lagoa. Partially open-air and with a palm thatched roof over the rest, this is the definition of a place to star-gaze or enjoy a dusk sky. Beautiful by day, but even more impressive at night, torches are lit and the lake reflects its beauty. Settle into a tree-house like platform and get experimental when it comes to your drink: they’ve got over 28 different types of fruit just begging to be charged with booze.

Top Mountain Star, Austria

High above the Gurgler Tal in southwest Austria, the Top Mountain Star shines a thousand times brighter than any other. Seeing is believing with this architectural phenomenon. Safely anchored 3082m up along an incredibly narrow, rocky ridge, it’s the ultimate place to breathe in the mountains. Forget skiing, this place is much more fun (unless of course you have vertigo), and is the ultimate spot for lunch with a view.

Ghostbar, Las Vegas

This sure isn’t a city that’s running low on “wow-factors” but Ghostbar on the top of Palms Casino, with its 360-degree view outdoor terrace and floor to ceiling windows looking down on the Vegas Strip, is something else. You may be keen to try your luck with most things in Sin City but choosing where to get your cocktail fix shouldn’t be one of them. Sure the decor is on the tacky side of swanky, and you might spot some WAGs on those white leather couches, but you’re in Vegas baby – what did you expect?

The Heron Tower, London

With stiff competition for the best skyline scanning spot in the big city, the Heron Tower, near Liverpool St, has got it right by giving us two epic bars to choose from.  If you’re feeling glam and want to drink al fresco go to SushiSamba for fusion cocktails, or if you fancy a 24/7 vista keep going up to Duck & Waffle (sunrise views of London anyone?) where they’re keeping drinks British. Head up the ear-popping lift and just you wait for that view to hit you – when it does, you’ll need a drink with which to toast it. These two very different bars do have one thing in common though – they share an awesome view of the best city in the world.

Hannah Lodge is a writer at BarChick.com, a guide to the best bars in the world. Follow them on Twitter at @HotBarChick.
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All aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

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View more featureschevron_right

This competition is now closed.

Congratulations to our GVI trip winner Kirsty McCarlie, who chose Venezuela as her top destination for 2014. Kirsty is hoping to travel to Costa Rica with GVI to complete her placement conserving jaguars next year. 

Have you ever wanted to give back to the world, to develop and conserve some of the most fragile but exciting environments that surround us? Now’s your chance. We’ve teamed up with Global Vision International to offer you an incredible prize for the first of our monthly competitions.

With over 150 volunteer projects and 3,500 volunteers in 60 countries each year, GVI offers the opportunity for you to make an impact on a variety of communities. All of their programs are sustainable as long-running projects, meaning they can make the biggest positive impact possible on the local community. This month, one lucky winner will get to choose a place on one of the following two-week conservation programmes by Global Vision International:

Jaguar conservation in Costa Rica

Assist in the protection of endangered Jaguars, whilst living and working in the heart of Costa Rica’s Tortuguero rainforest. You will help search for signs of jaguars and their prey by setting up remote cameras and surveying a 16-mile stretch of a turtle nesting beach. Through this unique and active training you will have the opportunity to understand the rainforest and the variety of wildlife that depend on its future. More info >

Tracking dolphins in Kenya

Assist with valuable dolphin research in the stunning Kisite-Mpunguti marine protected area in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. From the GVI boat you will collect information on dolphin location, behaviour and population to continue the successful dolphin conservation effort in this area of Kenya. More info >

Marine expedition in Thailand

Assist in coastal and marine conservation as a member of this international team in the beautifully dramatic Phang Nga, Thailand. Alongside hands-on conservation activities, you will become immersed in the culture through various community initiatives to promote environmental education and in the delivering of English programmes. More info >

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, “Where is your must-see destination for 2014?”, posted here.

Note: flights, visas and transfers are not included. See the full Terms & Conditions here.

GVI is a social enterprise supporting critical conservation and community development projects around the world. GVI provides the opportunity for individuals aged 15+ to get involved in these projects either as volunteers, interns, students or responsible tourists and make a difference from the ground up. From sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica to teaching sports in Kerala, GVI runs over 100 projects in 13 countries.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

All aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Go it alone: solo travel in Thailand

Go it alone: solo travel in Thailand

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15 Feb 2017 • Helen Ochyra insert_drive_file Article
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View more featureschevron_right

As the Northern Hemisphere is getting colder in November, below the equator things are hotting up as spring gets ready to give way to summer. The cooling temperatures aren’t all bad however, as the temperature in Egypt and India becomes far more bearable, and autumn in South Korea is a sight to behold. Check out these best places to go in November.

 

Surf in Senegal

Quieter than the beaches of Morocco and with more reliable surf, Dakar, on Senegal’s west coast, offers surfers a chance to ride the days away while soaking up sunshine, unique culture, beautiful scenery, fresh seafood and awesome waves – all in one fell swoop. November is the beginning of the winter season, when the waves still start small, but have a larger range (0.5–3m) – good for surfers of all levels. If you want to learn from scratch, improve your skills or just fancy staying somewhere sociable with other surfers, you could try one of the surf camps around Dakar’s northern beaches, or hop over to one of the nearby islands for some bigger waves, such as the tiny NGor Island. Less than a kilometre away from the mainland, NGor is far enough from Dakar for some peace and quiet, but close enough that you can jump on a boat back the city for the evening, if you’re in the mood for something a bit livelier.

Six epic surfing spots >

Explore a national park in South Korea

Naejangsan National Park, in the mountains of Jeolla-do province, transforms into a burst of fiery colours in the autumn. The foliage – mostly maple trees, but also elm, ash, oak, dogwood and hornbeam, amongst others – flares up into a magnificent scene of crimson, green, yellow, and everything in between. About three hours from Seoul by bus, the park makes for a beautiful day-retreat, with waterfalls and lakes, 1880 different species of wildlife, several pagodas and temples, and an expansive peaked area ­– 76,032 square kilometres – to explore.

Party for Diwali in Jaipur, India

Jaipur, the “Pink City”, is one of the most thrilling places to celebrate Diwali, the annual Hindu festival of lights, which runs November 3–7 this year. The whole city comes out to celebrate, and you’d be hard pushed to find a dark spot on any of the streets, as you bathe in the glow of the seemingly infinite numbers of neon lights dangled over the buildings, and the fireworks exploding over your head. Tuck into some delicious, tooth-wrenching Indian sweets while you’re at it.

Ski in the French Alps

Can’t wait till Christmas? Or fancy getting to grips with some guaranteed snow on a cheap(er) ski pass and quiet slopes? The high-altitude French alpine resorts of Tignes and Les Deux Alpes start their seasons in November. With altitudes of up to 3200m, these are the first resorts to get the winter snows. But if, in these unpredictable days of European weather, that doesn’t work out, you can make your way up to the glaciers, where you can ski to your heart’s content – whatever the weather.

Celebrate Thanksgiving in NYC

The most widely celebrated American festival, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season in the US. Most people spend this day, right at the end of November, with their families, but New York offers plenty to keep travellers entertained too. There’s the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to dazzle you in the morning, a range of cafés and restaurants – such as Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village and The Red Cat in Chelsea – offering traditional Thanksgiving meals (as well as tempting alternatives for those who’d rather opt out of the seasonally popular big bird), before you work it off with a skate round the ice rink at Bryant Park, or spend a more leisurely few hours immersed in the plethora of arts, crafts and jewellery at Union Square Holiday Market.

Learn to kitesurf, Egypt

The feeling of the wind powering your kite and hurtling you over the open ocean at breakneck speed is like no other. If you’re after the thrill and fun of kitesurfing, Hurghada, on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, is the place to try it. It barely ever rains, it’s almost always sunny and there’s plenty of wind – perfect conditions for this sport. There are also shallow areas for beginners, and, with average highs of 26°C in November, it’s an ideal place to escape the cold, late-autumnal drizzles and get to grips with a new adventure sport. Although, learning to kitesurf doesn’t come cheap; an eighteen-hour course, which will usually be split over three or four days, will set you back about £420 ($660).

Loads more Egypt trip ideas >

Round up elephants in Surin, Thailand

Ever noticed that a map of Thailand looks oddly like an elephant’s head? Perhaps it’s time you joined the hundreds of elephants marching through the city of Surin, on the border with Cambodia, as they make their annual procession on the third weekend of November towards a feast of giant proportions: the “elephant breakfast”. The following day, the elephants perform a show in the aptly named Elephant Stadium, where they re-enact battles of the past. Frankly, it would be odd if the map didn’t look like an elephant.

Melbourne Cup, Melbourne, Australia

For more than 150 years, over 110,000 spectators have come to watch “the race that stops a nation” on the first Tuesday in November, as thoroughbred horses dash round 3.2km of turf track. Don’t underestimate the popularity of the Melbourne Cup – not even the world wars stopped it from going ahead. If you don’t manage to get to the race itself, there’ll be plenty of parties going on in the city, where it’s a public holiday. Make sure to pre-book accommodation (very) well in advance.

For more travel inspiration, try our Inspire Me page. Find hostels for your November trip here and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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Thailand is home to an astonishing array of islands offering all manner of diving, swimming and sunbathing opportunities all year round. The hardest part for any visitor is singling out the best. Here are 20 of our favourites, taken from the Rough Guide to Thailand’s Beaches & Islands. Scroll down to see them placed geographically on our interactive map.

Ko Chang

Edged with a chain of long, mostly white-sand beaches and dominated by a broad central spine of jungle-clad hills, Ko Chang is developing fast but still feels green. It’s Thailand’s second largest island, after Phuket, but unlike its bigger sister it has no villages or tourist facilities within its steeply contoured and densely forested interior, just a few rivers, waterfalls and hiking trails. Despite its popularity with mainstream and package tourists, it’s still possible to find accommodation to suit most budgets and though the beaches may be busy, they’re undeniably handsome with plenty of inviting places to swim, stroll or snooze under a palm tree.

Ko Si Chang

The unhurried pace and absence of consumer pressures make tiny, rocky Ko Si Chang an engaging place to wind down for a few days. Unlike most other east coast destinations, it offers no real beach life ­– though the water can be beautifully clear and there are opportunities to dive and snorkel. There’s little to do here but explore the craggy coastline by kayak or ramble up and down the steep contours on foot or by motorbike.

Ko Pha Ngan

For drinking and dancing – and then more dancing – Ko Pha Ngan gets a mention in this list thanks to its world famous beach, Hat Rin. It’s now established as the major party venue in Southeast Asia, especially in the peak seasons of August, December and January, but every month of the year people flock in for the infamous Full Moon Party. The atmosphere created by thousands of folk mashing it up on the beautiful, moon-bathed beach, lit up by fireworks and fire jugglers, ought to be enough of a buzz in itself, but unfortunately drug related horror stories are common currency here, and many of them are true, so be careful.

Ko Samet

Blessed with the softest, squeakiest sand within weekending distance of Bangkok, the tiny island of Ko Samet, which measures just six kilometres from top to toe, is a favourite escape for Thais, expats and tourists. Its 14 small but dazzlingly white beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, lapped by pale blue water and in places still shaded by coconut palms and the occasional cajeput (samet) tree that gave the island its name. They are also, however, rather overcrowded and developed to full capacity, so don’t come here expecting a secluded break.

Ko Mak

Small, slow-paced, peaceful Ko Mak makes an idyllically low-key alternative to Ko Chang. Home to little more than 400 people, many of them descended from the islands’ five main clans, Ko Mak measures just 16 square kilometres and is dominated by coconut and rubber plantations. The island is shaped like a star and has fine white-sand beaches where most of the tourist accommodation is concentrated.

Ko Kood

The fourth-larges island in Thailand, forested Ko Kood (sometimes spelt Ko Kut or Ko Kud) is still a wild and largely uncommercialized island. Though it’s known for its sparkling white sand and exceptionally clear turquoise water, particularly along the west coast, Ko Kood is as much a nature lover’s destination as a beach bum’s. Swathes of shoreline are fringed by scrub and mangrove rather than broad sandy beaches and those parts of the island not still covered in virgin tropical rainforest are filled with palm groves and rubber plantations. Ko Kood is a surprisingly pleasant place to explore on foot (or kayak), especially as the cool season brings refreshing breezes most days.

Ko Tao

Ko Tao (Turtle Island) is so named because its outline resembles a turtle nosediving towards Ko Pha Ngan, 40km to the south. The rugged shell of the turtle, to the east, is crenellated with secluded coves where one or two bungalows hide among the rocks. On the western side, the turtle’s underbelly is a long curve of classic beach, Hat Sai Ree, and the 21 squared kilometres of granite in between is topped by dense forest on the higher slopes and dotted with huge boulders that look as if they await some Easter Island sculptor. There are rough trails inland that are great for exploring but Ko Tao is most famous for its great scuba diving.

Ko Chang (Andaman Coast)

No, we’re not repeating ourselves, this is a different Ko Chang, not to be confused with its much larger namesake off the east coast of Thailand. It’s a forested little island about 5km offshore, whose car-free, ultra laid-back, roll-your-own vibe more than compensates for the less-than-perfect beaches. The pace of life here is very slow and for the relatively small number of tourists who make it to the island the emphasis is strongly on kicking back and chilling out – bring your own hammock and you’ll fit right in.

Ko Phayam

The diminutive kangaroo-shaped island of Ko Phayam offers fine white-sand beaches and coral reefs and is home to around 500 people, most of whom either make their living from prawn, squid or crab fishing, or from growing cashew nuts, sator beans, coconut palms and rubber trees. Because of its roads, Ko Phayam has a slightly more developed feel than neighbouring Ko Chang, underlined by a low-key beach-bar scene – all hand-painted signs and driftwood sculptures – and the presences of a significant number of foreigners who choose to spend six or more months here every year.

Ko Ra

Hilly, forested Ko Ra (measuring about 10km north to south and 3km across) sits just off Khuraburi pier’s mangrove-lined estuary and is covered with intact rainforest full of towering trees, hornbills and wild, empty beaches. The island is home to some two-dozen Moken and Mai Tai people and just one place to stay, the rather special American-Thai run Ko Ra Ecolodge.

Mu Ko Surin National Park

Spectacularly varied and unusually shallow reefs, a palette of awesomely clear turquoise waters and dazzling white sands, and dense forests of lofty dipterocarps combine to make the islands of Mu Ko Surin National Park one of the must-visit destinations in south Thailand. It’s very much an outdoors experience, with most of the bulk of accommodation in national park tents, no commerce on the island at all, and twice-daily snorkelling the main activity.

Mu Ko Similan National Park

Rated as one of the world’s best spots for both above-water and underwater beauty, the eleven islands at the heart of the Mu Ko Similan National Park are among the most exciting diving destinations in Thailand. Massive granite boulders set magnificently against the turquoise waters give the islands their distinctive character, but it’s the thirty-metre visibility that draws the divers. The underwater scenery is nothing short of overwhelming here: the reefs teem with coral fish, and you’ll see turtles, manta rays, moray eels, sea snakes, red grouper and possibly white tip sharks, barracuda, giant lobster and enormous tuna.

Ko Jum

This is the sort of laidback spot people come to for a couple of days, then can’t bring themselves to leave. Though there’s plenty of accommodation on the island, there’s nothing more than a handful of beach bars for evening entertainment, and little to do during the day except try out the half-dozen west coast beaches and read your book under a tree. Nights are low key: it’s paraffin lamps and starlight after 11pm at places off the main grid and many don’t even provide fans as ocean breezes are sufficiently cooling.

Ko Yao Noi

Located in an idyllic spot on the edge of Phang Nga bay, almost equidistant from Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, the island of Ko Yao Noi enjoys magnificent maritime views from almost every angle and makes a refreshingly tranquil getaway. Measuring about 12km at its longest point, it’s home to some four thousand islanders, most of whom earn their living from rubber and coconut plantations, fishing and shrimp-farming. While the beaches don’t have that same wow factor as many of the other islands in Thailand, tourism here is low-key so it’s a peaceful escape.

Ko Lanta Yai

Although Ko Lanta Yai can’t compete with neighbouring Ko Phi Phi’s stupendous scenery, the thickly forested 25-kilometre-long island has the longest beaches in the Krabi area – and plenty of them. There’s good snorkelling and diving nearby, plus caves to explore, elephant trekking and kayaking, so many people base themselves here for their entire holiday fortnight. The island is especially popular with families, in part because of the local laws that have so far prevented jet-skis, beachfront parasols and girlie bars from turning it into another Phuket.

Ko Hai

The most developed of the Trang islands, Ko Hai (also known as Ko Ngai) is still decidedly low-key. The island’s action, such as it is, centres on the east coast, where half a dozen resorts enjoy a dreamy panorama of jagged limestone outcrops, whose crags glow pink and blue against the setting sun, stretching across the sea to the mainland behind. The gently sloping, fine white sand beach here runs unbroken for 2km and there’s some good snorkelling in the shallow, clear water off the island’s southeastern tip.

Ko Kradan

Ko Kradan is the remotest of the inhabited islands off Trang, and one of the most beautiful, with crystal clear waters. On this slender triangle of thick jungle, the main beach is a long strand of steeply sloping, powdery sand on the east coast with fine views of Ko Mook, Ko Libong and the karst-strewn mainland. An offshore reef to the north has a great variety of hard coral. Such beauty, however, has not escaped the attention of day-trip boats from Ko Lanta who often turn the beach into a lunchtime picnic ground.

Ko Sukorn

Further south than the other Trang islands, low-lying Ko Sukorn lacks the white-sand beaches and beautiful coral of its neighbours but makes up for it with friendly inhabitants, laid-back ambience and one excellent resort; for a glimpse of how the islanders live and work, this is the place to come. The lush interior is mainly given over to rubber plantations, interspersed with rice paddies, banana and coconut palms; the island also produces famously delicious watermelons.

Ko Turatao

This is the largest of the Ko Turatao National Park archipelago and it offers the greatest natural variety: mountains covered in semi-evergreen rainforest rise steeply to a high point of 700m; limestone caves and mangrove swamps dot the shoreline; and the west coast is lined with perfect beaches for most of its 26-kilometre length.

Ko Adang

This wild, rugged island is covered in tropical rainforest and the beach is steep and narrow and backed by a thick canopy of pines. There’s a steep half-hour climb to Sha-do cliff that’s worth tackling as it gives way to great views over Ko Lipe island to the south, while about 2km west along the coast from the main park station, a 20-minute trail leads inland to the small Pirate Waterfall.

Explore more of Thailand with our destination page or buy the Rough Guide to Thailand.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

All aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

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It’s that fateful A-level results day again, when hundreds of thousands of hard-working students will be taking one last trip back to school to discover the outcome of those arduous and intense exams they took at the beginning of the summer. Essentially, two years of hard work will all culminate in one single letter today, and while many will be hoping they got the grade for their first choice university, others will start looking for adventure as they begin a gap year.

As reported by members of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), there has been an increase in bookings over the last 12 months, as interest in taking a gap year returns among school-leavers this year. According to ABTA, these are the top ten gap year destinations:

10. Fiji

This idyllic island is a picture perfect combination of blue lagoons and exquisite beaches. Use our Rough Guide to Fiji for the best travel advice on your trip.

9. New Zealand

Consistently on bucket lists for travellers around the world, New Zealand has something for everyone, from its sweeping beaches to the snow-topped mountains. Climb a glacier or relax in a hot pool, surrounded by bush and gaze at the myriad of stars above. Plan your trip to New Zealand here.

8. India

India, sprawling from the snow-topped peaks of the Himalayas to the thick green landscapes of Kerala, entices gap year students year on year and it’s hardly surprising. Another incredibly diverse country, you can ride camels into the desert, lounge on beaches in the south and explore beautiful temples and palaces. Use our destination page to plan your Indian adventure.

7. Brazil

Bigger than the US (excluding Alaska), Brazil is often described as a continent, not a country. It has all the scenic and cultural variety you could wish for in a great gap year destination, not to mention the sprawling Amazon – the world’s largest river system. Covering over half of the country, the Amazon offers an abundance of wildlife and thick green rainforest that plays home to some of the world’s most remote tribes. Plan your trip to Brazil here.

6. Vietnam

With extensive rail and bus networks, the ease of navigating in Vietnam is a major positive for any gap year student – find itinerariesinspiration and essential information on Vietnam here.

5. Peru

Exotic jungles, coastal deserts, the breathtaking Andes mountains and the infamous Inca Trail – Peru is a top backpacking destination. There is an immense wealth of sights, from the fascinating ancient ruins and archeological gems, to buzzing nightlife in the big cities. Make use of those A-level Spanish skills and explore Peru here.

4. South Africa

The allure of elephants and lions in Kruger National Park is enough to draw in any backpacker on a gap year. South Africa has a diverse landscape with big cities and wide plains teeming with wildlife, making it one of Africa’s premier safari destinations. With a good infrastructure it’s easy to get around here, ensuring you can see everything from the vibrant Cape Town to the rural Zulu villages. Use our online South Africa destination guide to plan your trip.

3. USA

Skyscrapers, road trips, cowboys and surfers – America is a diverse and eclectic mix of people and places. Find inspiration for a gap year trip to America here.

2. Australia

Ever wondered what Christmas on the beach is like? You can find out in Australia, the second most popular country for gap years. Australia is a huge mass of over seven million square kilometres, so it naturally has a an entire gap-year’s-worth of entertainment. Check info on working holiday visas here and explore Australia on our destination page.

1. Thailand

With sixteen million foreigners flying into Thailand each year, there’s no wonder it’s top of the list for gap year students – it’s a pretty special place. From the tropical paradise islands – with idyllic beaches and epic parties – to the buzzing capital Bangkok, Thailand has plenty to offer: you can learn to dive, become a boxing champion or just relax on one of the many white, sandy beaches. Travel and accommodation is cheap if you know where to look and there’s a whole population of backpackers all year round to meet and make friends. Find itinerary ideas, things not to miss and all the information you need to get going in Thailand here.

Have you got plans for an adventure around the world this year? Or have you been on your gap year before and got some cool suggestions for those new travellers? Tweet us using the hashtag #greatgapyear for your ideas and suggestions for a great gap year destination.

Find hostels for your gap year trip here, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

All aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Go it alone: solo travel in Thailand

Go it alone: solo travel in Thailand

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Over 4000km long, the Mekong – derived from the Khmer “Mae” meaning “big”, “mother”, or “boss” – is the 12th longest river in the world, flowing from Tibet, through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Navigation remains tricky along the Mekong as many rapids and waterfalls pose a risk to those who choose to brave it, but there are plenty of safe parts to explore and important trade routes throughout.

From the giving of alms in Luang Prabang, Laos, to the floating markets of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, this vast river makes for a stunning way to navigate parts of Southeast Asia. Hover over the special interactive Rough Guides map below to discover the delights of the Mekong river, and visit our Thinglink page for more.


Explore more of the Mekong and southeast Asia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

All aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Go it alone: solo travel in Thailand

Go it alone: solo travel in Thailand

Thailand is the quintessential backpacker destination. Here you can make the first footprints on secluded sands, dance shoeless under a full moon and swim benea…

15 Feb 2017 • Helen Ochyra insert_drive_file Article
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The best places to go in spring

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Indian trains: a traveller's survival guide

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26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

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Quiz: can you name these famous places in India?

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24 Jan 2017 • Rough Guides Editors help Quiz
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There’s a ghost town made of coral in the UAE and it’s kind of beautiful

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China travel tips: 8 things you need to know before you go

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A first-timer's guide to India's Golden Triangle

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Go solo: the 20 best places to travel alone

Solo travel can be one of the most rewarding ways to explore the world. Whether you'd rather spend it on a desert island or in a frenetic new city, here are th…

21 Dec 2016 • Rachel Mills camera_alt Gallery
The most beautiful places in India

The most beautiful places in India

We asked the Rough Guides team in Delhi to vote for the most beautiful places in India. After much deliberation, here are the results... 10. Chilika Lake, …

16 Dec 2016 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
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1. Harry Potter, Christ Church College, Oxford

The “dreaming spires” of Oxford have starred in many a film (The Italian Job, Howard’s End, The History Boys), but it’s the college of Christ Church that’s most recognizable in the Harry Potter films, doubling up as the inimitable Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. From the cavernous wood-clad Great Hall and the echoey sixteenth-century staircase to the spooky cloisters and quadrangles, Christ Church makes the perfect setting for magical escapades.

2. Jaws, Martha’s Vineyard

The world’s most infamous fish laid claim to many innocent lives beneath the stunning turquoise waters of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, an affluent summer colony accessible by boat and air only. Local residents were picked by director Steven Spielberg to moonlight as extras in the film, including Chief Brody’s two young sons.

3. Inception, Nijo Castle

The mind-bending film, Inception (2010), flits from country to country and city to city – as dream-world scenes are apt to do – but we kick off the tale in Japan, in the ornate seventeenth-century Nijo Temple. Or rather, a staged Warner Bros. set with a design based on Nijo Castle… which is, in reality, located in Kyoto and open to the public.

4. Pretty Woman, Beverly Hills

Pretty Woman, the iconic 1990 rom-com starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, is set in Los Angeles. Gere plays Edward Lewis, a successful businessman who hires a beautiful prostitute, Vivian Ward, to be his escort at several high-flying events. She stays with him at the impossibly glamorous hotel, Beverly Wilshire, where she enjoys a luxurious week of scented bubble baths, champagne and, eventually, true love. Awwww.

5. Lord of the Rings, Matamata

J.R Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” is mocked up in New Zealand’s picturesque rural village, Matamata, in the heart of the Waikato region (North Island). The Shire’s quaint thatched cottages surrounded by idyllic countryside of flower-strewn meadows, baa-ing sheep and tinkling streams is also known as “Hobbiton” where LOR fans can take tours and pretend they too are hobbits.

6. Notting Hill, London

Whenever you’re feeling down, put on a Richard Curtis film: his feel-good offerings are bound to cheer you up. The 1999 film, Notting Hill, is a tried-and-tested film formula featuring classic Brit actor Hugh Grant as bumbling William Thacker, who falls in love with celeb of the day, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). As the title suggests, the film is set in the gentrified, oh-so-pretty London neighbourhood of Notting Hill, showing off Portobello Road market and that blue door on Westbourne Park Road.

7. The Beach, Ko Phi Phi Leh

A paradise concoction of sugar-soft white sand and translucent sea, framed by glorious mountains, Ko Phi Phi Leh was the bewitching backdrop to Alex Garland’s novel-turned film, The Beach. A fresh-faced Leo di Caprio runs amok with a beach community fuelled by marijuana-lovin’, but it’s the glorious Thai scenery that steals the show here. Following the film, visitors flocked here in their droves, leading to environmental concerns.

8. Gladiator, Ait Ben Haddou

Most Gladiator fans can recite the immortal lines: “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius…Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”. It’s a heady and emotional Oscar-winning film, made all the more potent by its surroundings, from the dank forests of “Germania” (near Farnham, Surrey) to the scorched African town of Aït Ben Haddou, near Ouarzazate in Morocco, where Maximus is sold into slavery.

9. Ghostbusters, New York

The Hook and Ladder 8 Fire Station in Tribeca, New York City, has enjoyed a somewhat spookier past as the headquarters for Peter, Ray and Egon, three oddball parapsychologists who set up a business ridding the city of troublesome ghoulies. The fire station is still in use today, so if you’re visiting armed with camera and questions, do be careful of fast-paced, on-duty vehicles.

10. Monty Python, Doune Castle

It’s a thoroughly English story about King Arthur and his band of knights, but the 1975 film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail was filmed mostly in Scotland. Dating from the thirteenth century, Doune Castle, near Stirling, appeared as Arthur’s home, Camelot, complete with Great Hall and Round Table. The castle wasn’t just Camelot though, as due to restrictions imposed by the authorities on filming in the area, it had to step up as Guy de Lombard’s abode, as well as “Castle Anthrax” and “Swamp Castle”.

11. Shaun of the Dead, Duke of Albany

This BAFTA-winning extravaganza combined undead zombies, irascible parents (brilliantly played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), long-suffering girlfriends and a directionless chap named Shaun (played by the matchless Simon Pegg). The film was shot entirely in London, mostly in the north round Finchley, Crouch End and Finsbury Park, but (weirdly) hops south of the Thames to Shaun’s “local”, “The Winchester”, actually the Duke of Albany in New Cross, now redeveloped into flats.

12. Angels and Demons, Vatican City

A best-selling thriller that delves deep into the murky world of a secret society, The Illuminati, Dan Brown’s first novel, Angels and Demons, was turned into a film in 2009. Tom Hanks plays protagonist Robert Langdon, who energetically romps around the symbol-strewn Vatican City – though of course, this is not the real Vatican City… it’s all film studios and substitution.

13. Trainspotting, Calton Street Bridge

Starring reputable actors such as Ewan McGregor (Renton), Robert Carlyle (Begbie) and Kelly Macdonald (Diane), the original Trainspotting movie is a tough and destructive story about heroin abuse in the late 1980s. The backdrop is an economically depressed Edinburgh, and the opening scene, where we meet Renton and his friend Spud running down Princes Street to the Calton Street Bridge, is duly filmed in the Scottish capital. After this though, most of the filming switches to Glasgow.

14. Forrest Gump, Savannah

With a narrative to melt the hardest of hearts, amplified by a wonderful soundtrack, Forrest Gump (1994) opens with a contemplative Forrest sitting on a bus stop bench in Chippewah Square, Savannah, Georgia, telling his story to anyone who will listen. Now in The Savannah History Museum, not far from the square, the bench is where Forrest utters that immortal line, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know which one you’re gonna get”.

15. The Shining, Timberline Lodge

You may or may not have plucked up the courage to see Stanley Kubrick’s pyschological horror film, The Shining, but you’ll have certainly heard of it. The terror takes hold within creepy “Overlook Hotel”, where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is employed as a winter caretaker, accompanied by his wife and psychic son, Danny. The hotel’s interior was filmed in Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England, though the exterior is actually the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, northern Oregon.

16. Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney

We are in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania… again and again and again. It’s February 2nd and arrogant weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is inexplicably trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day, until he manages to break the spell by capturing his love interest, Rita’s, heart. The film’s “Punxsutawney” is actually a city in Illinois called Woodstock.

17. Amityville Horror, Amityville

The subject of no less than ten films – the first dates to 1979 – the Amityville Horror is based on a novel by Jay Anson, which detailed the story of the Lutz family who move into a ghoul-ridden, Dutch Colonial-style house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville. They stay just 28 days, supposedly tormented by ghosts of the victims of Ronald DeFeo Jr, who murdered six family members there in 1974.

18. Skyfall, Glencoe

Number 23 in the Bond series, Skyfall welcomes back Daniel Craig as the one and only Agent 007. But we say goodbye to beloved M, played by Judi Dench, who (spoiler alert!) is killed. Filming locations included London and Turkey, as well as Scotland – where Skyfall, Bond’s family home, is sequestered away in the misty glens of Glen Coe (though the house itself is a plywood and plaster creation knocked up in Surrey).

19. Argo, Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning offering tells the story of six Americans who escape a besieged embassy in the middle of Tehran, Iran in 1980. They are forced into hiding, until Tony Mendez (Affleck) helps them escape, using an elaborately concocted ruse. Of course, filming in Iran was an impossibility, so the film-makers opted for the chaotic, colourful bazaars and crowded streets of Istanbul in Turkey to substitute.

20. The Hunger Games, DuPont State Forest

The science fiction hit of 2008, The Hunger Games was written by Suzanne Collins and adapted for the movie screen in 2012. Violent, imaginative and hugely compelling, the “Games” take place within the beautiful pine forests, craggy mountains and rushing waterfalls of DuPont State Forest in North Carolina.

21. Star Wars, Hotel Sidi Driss

The ancient troglodyte building, Hotel Sidi Driss, in the Berber village of Matamata in the Tunisian desert, is also known as the Stars Wars Hotel. Consisting of five pits connected by a series of underground tunnels and staircases, it was where Luke Skywalker grew up with his aunt and uncle Lars in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The connection with the “galaxy far, far away” has ensured the hotel’s popularity – at least as a day-trip, if not an overnight stay.

22.The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Tabernas Desert

It needs no introduction: this acclaimed Spaghetti Western stars Clint Eastwood as Blondie (“The Good”), Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes (“The Bad”) and Eli Wallach as Tuco (“The Ugly”) and involves tense gun duels, violent hangings, Confederate v Union forces, stolen gold and relentless heat – the latter provided by fierce sunshine in Tabernas Desert, in Andalucía, Spain.

23. Avatar, Hawaii

A mind-blowing mix of live action and computer-generated sequences, Avatar (2009) is predominantly set within a rainforest backdrop populated by a nature-loving, blue-skinned race, the Na’vi. It’s difficult, therefore, to tell what’s a real-life location and what’s “technified”, but one thing is for sure – Hawaii looks pretty amazing in Cameron’s hectic motion picture.

24. The Sound of Music, Salzburg

The hills are alive in and around Salzburg, where much of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, written by Robert Wise, was filmed – and where the Von Trapp family story originates. There are lots of historical inaccuracies in the film (for example, the family didn’t really live in this magnificent mansion), but who really cares, when this musical spawned tuneful classics such as “Do-Re-Mi” and “Edelweiss”.

25. The Dark Knight Rises, Mehrangarh Fort

As he successfully escapes the depths of the dingy underground prison, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) is confronted by the sight of the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort. Balanced superbly on a cliff overlooking the city of Jodphur in Rajasthan, the fifteenth century palace makes a suitably terrifying setting for the “Pit” that once imprisoned indomitable Bane.

26. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Rudolfinum

Prague stars as the movie location of the 2003 comic-book caper, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The “London Club”, where the League is assembled by M, is the grand Rudolfinum, Prague’s erstwhile House of Commons and now concert venue, home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

27. Mamma Mia!, Skiathos

A toe-tapping extravaganza of ABBA hits belted out by actors like Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, and, um, Pierce Brosnan, Mamma Mia! is bound to make you want to hop on a plane and get to Greece, fast. The sunshine, sea, sandy beaches and tavernas are donated courtesy of Skiathos, a gorgeous island in the Aegean.

28. The Avengers, Cleveland

In The Avengers, a medley of superheroes – think Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor – join forces to stop Thor’s villainous brother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) from conquering and ruling Planet Earth. The city of Cleveland in Ohio doubles up as New York City, scene of some especially chaotic battle scenes; “Stuttgart Square”, where Loki forces the public to kneel to him, is Cleveland’s Public Square.

29. The Godfather, Savoca

The ultimate gangster movie, The Godfather (1972), is a violent and complex story of family loyalties, murder, coercion, drugs, Dons and offers “he can’t refuse”. The Corleone family, headed up by Vito (Marlon Brando), come from the town of Corleone in Sicily, however due to its overdeveloped look, the filming shifted over to the prettier, more atmospheric villages of Savoca (pictured) and Forza d’Agrò, near Taormina.

30. Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum

A rust-red valley hewn into the sandstone east of Aqaba in Jordan, Wadi Rum has long been inhabited by humans, who have left their mark on the rocks and valley walls since prehistoric times. A more recent connection is to Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 movie based on the life of T.E. Lawrence (who passed through the area during the Arab Revolt in 1917–1918), which was mostly filmed here.

31. Les Misérables, Gourdon

It’s a French story by thoroughly French novelist Victor Hugo, but epic musical “Les Mis” was shot pretty much entirely in England, including the dockyards of Portsmouth, a chapel in London’s Little Venice and the elegant Naval College at Greenwich. There is one unquestionable French scene, however, and that’s the lovely hilltop town of Gourdon in the Alpes-Maritimes, where main man Jean Valjean secures his redemption.

32. The King’s Speech, Ely Cathedral

Westminster Abbey, site of real-life coronations, is played by Ely Cathedral in director Tom Hooper’s 2010 oh-so-British film, The King’s Speech. Stammering Duke of York (Colin Firth) is “cured” of his vocal affliction by Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, and successfully conquers his first radio broadcast as King George IV, following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII.

33. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Cambodia

Kick-ass adventure- and archeology-lover, Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) is on an Illuminati-thwarting mission in Cambodia – in the beautiful temple complex of Angkor Thom, to be exact. The full splendor of the area is on very much on show, including the 54 incredible towers carved with enigmatic smiling faces.

34. Rain Man, Caesar’s Palace

Rain Man tells the heartwarming tale of two brothers who embark upon a cross-country car trip from Ohio to Los Angeles. Dustin Hoffman plays autistic savant, Raymond (“Rain Man”) while Tom Cruise is his abrasive brother Charlie, who, once he learns Raymond has an excellent memory and mental calculator, carts him off to win at blackjack in the Las Vegas casinos in Nevada. Caesar’s Palace is where Charlie teaches Raymond how to dance.

35. Planet of the Apes, Malibu

Planet of the Apes has popped up in a few forms over the years – including a 1970s TV series and a Tim Burton re-hash in 2011. The original film (1968), complete with a bewildered and craggy-looking Charlton Heston, comes to an end on delectable Westward Beach in Malibu (between Zuma Beach and Point Dune), a gorgeous strip of yellow sand lapped by frothy waves.

36. Rebel Without a Cause, Griffith Observatory

Representing James Dean’s zenith as cultural and acting icon – he was to tragically die in a car crash before the release of the film – Rebel Without a Cause is a stark social commentary on the moral corrosion of 1950s American youth. The influential school trip and explosive final shootout takes place at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where a bust of Dean has been erected in the building’s grounds.

37. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Petra

The Last Crusade (1989) is the third installment in the popular Indiana Jones series, and here we head to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. The Holy Grail is supposedly housed in the “Canyon of the Crescent Moon”, actually – in real life – the Al Khazneh. The intricate sandstone carving and Greek-influenced architecture make it an exceptionally beautiful structure.

38. Shawshank Redemption, Ohio State Reformatory

Ohio State Reformatory is an imposing nineteenth-century building in Mansfield, Ohio, that shows off a mix of architectural styles – Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne and something called Richardsonian Romanesque. Behind this impressive facade huddled the inmates of Shawshank State Penitentiary – Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) among them.

39. X-Men, Gooderham Worts Distillery

Though it’s set in New York, the 2000 blockbuster featuring comic-strip favourites such as Wolverine and Magneto, is filmed for the most part in Ontario, Canada. The Gooderham Worts Distillery, once one of the largest distillers in the British Empire and now an entertainment district in downtown Toronto, appeared in the opening scene as a Polish concentration camp.

40. Saving Private Ryan, Curracloe Beach

Steven Spielberg’s horrifying and emotional depiction of the 1944 D-Day Landings in his Oscar-winning war epic, Saving Private Ryan, used windswept Ballinesker and Curracloe beaches in Wexford, Ireland, to stand in for Omaha Beach in Normandy. The beaches are Blue Flag beauties known for bird-watching.

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On the hundreds of islands on Thailand’s coast, there are thousands of fantastic beaches to choose from. Whether you want to party hard with a vodka bucket, or just relax in a beachside bungalow, Thailand has it all – so, taken from the latest guidebook, here’s our rundown of the best beaches in Thailand.

Hat Sai Ree, Ko Tao

To the north of the island’s ain landing point, Mae Hat, and beyond a small promontory, you’ll find Hat Sai Ree – Ko Tao’s longest beach. This strip of white sand stretches for 2km in a gentle curve, backed by a smattering of coconut palms and scores of bungalow resorts.

Explore more of Ko Tao >

Ao Hinwong, Ko Tao

For a particularly remote, almost desolate escape, head to Ao Hinwong – one of many sheltered inlets on the east coast. As the most northerly habitation on Ko Tao, this is a deeply recessed, limpid bay strewn with large boulders and great coral reefs.

Laem Thian, Ko Tao

In the middle of the coast, the dramatic tiered promontory of Laem Thian shelters, on its south side, a tiny beach and a colourful reef, which stretches down to the east coast’s most developed bay of Ao Ta Note. Ta Note’s horseshoe inlet is sprinkled with boulders and plenty of coarse sand, with excellent snorkelling just north of the bay’s mouth.

Ko Nang Yuan, Ko Tao

Just 1km from Ko Tao, this close-knit group of three tiny islets provides the most spectacular beach scenery in these parts, thanks to the causeway of fine sand that joins up the islands. You can easily swim off the east side of the causeway to snorkel over the Japanese Gardens, which feature hundreds of hard and soft coral formations.

Hat Pattaya, Ko Lipe

A shining crescent of squeaky-soft white sand, with its offshore reef and relaxed, anything goes atmosphere, Ko Lipe island ­– another of the Ko Tarutao National Park archipelago – is attracting an influx of Westerners, Thais and Malaysian backpackers and families.

Hat Sai Kaew, Ko Samet

Otherwise known as “Diamond Beach”, Hat Sai Kaew was named for its long and extraordinarily beautiful stretch of luxuriant sand, so soft and clean it squeaks under foot – a result, apparently, of its unusually high silicon content. Unsurprisingly, it’s the busiest beach on Samet, but the northern end is slightly more peaceful.

See more of Ko Samet >

Ao Nuan, Ko Samet

Accessible by climbing over the headland to the north (which gives a fine panorama over Hat Sai Kaew), the secluded Ao Nuan is Samet’s smallest and most laid-back beach. Because it’s some way off the main track, it gets hardly any through-traffic and feels quiet and private.

Ao Hin Kok, Ko Samet

One of the many beaches on Ko Samet’s east coast, and much smaller than its busier neighbour, this stretch has more of a travellers’ vibe. Just three sets of bungalows overlook the petite white-sand beach from the slope on the far side of the dirt road.

Ao Noi Na, Ko Samet

On the island’s north coast, known as Ao Noi Na – even though it’s not strictly a single bay – has a refreshingly normal village feel compared to the rest of Samet. There are an increasing number of places to stay along the narrow coastal road here, offering serene views across the water to the mainland hills, and one white-sand beach of note at the far western end.

Ao Sang Thian & Ao Lung Dum, Ko Samet

A favourite with Thai students, who relish the beauty of its slightly wild setting, “Candlelight Beach”, and contiguous Ao Lung Dum display almost none of the commerce of other beaches on this island. The narrow, white-sand coastline is dotted with wave-smoothed rocks and partitioned by larger outcrops that create several distinct bays.

Ao Khung Kraben, Chanthaburi

This is a deep, lagoon-like scoop of a bay that’s occasionally visited by dugongs and is edged by a dense mangrove forest. A wide swathe of this mangrove swamp is protected under a royal conservation project and crossed by a kilometre-long boardwalk.

Lonely Beach (Hat Tha Nam), Ko Chang

Named “Lonely Beach” before it became Ko Chang’s top place to party, this stretch of sand has, despite the creeping concrete, some creatively designed little wood and bamboo bar-restaurants, some of them offering chilled, low-key escapes from the the loud dance music, all night parties and buckets of vodka Red Bull that the beachfront places are notorious for.

Hat Khlong Phrao, Ko Chang

One of the island’s nicest beaches, this sweeping, casuarina-fringed bay is yet to see the clutter and claustrophobic development of its neighbours. It begins with a nice 1km-long run of beach that’s interrupted by a wide khlong (canal), whose estuary is the site of some characterful stilt homes and seafood restaurants. The southern beach is partly shaded by casuarinas and backed by a huge coconut grove.

Ao Kao, Ko Mak

On the southwest coast, the longest and nicest beach on Ko Mak, is a pretty arc of sand overhung with stooping palm trees and backed in places by mangroves. The beach is divided towards its southern end by a low rocky outcrop that’s straddled by a couple of resorts, while the long western beach is shared by a dozen other sets of bungalows, most of them around the pier.

Discover Ko Mak >

Ao Suan Yai, Ko Mak

Long, curvy Ao Suan Yai is not as pretty as Ao Kao on the opposite side of the island, but the sand is fine and the outlook is beautiful, with Ko Chang’s hilly profile filling the horizon and Ko Kham and other islets in-between.

Ao Phra-Ae, Ko Lanta Yai

With its lovely long parade of soft, white sand, calm and crystal-clear water that’s good for swimming and shady fringes of casaurina trees, Ao Phra-Ae (also known as Long Beach) is strikingly beautiful and the best of Lanta’s many long beaches.

Ao Bang Bao, Ko Kood

This is one of Ko Kood’s prettiest beaches, fronted by a longish sweep of bleach-white sand and deliciously clear turquoise water, plus the inevitable fringe of coconut palms, and embraced by a pair of protective promontories.

Ao Phrao, Ko Kood

Just one hour by speedboat from the mainland, this long, unspoilt, stunning beach of white sand, backed by densely planted palms and the slopes of Khao Chom, is the perfect place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok. Behind Ao Phrao, the tiny fishing village of Ban Khlong Phrao occupies the mangrove-lined banks of Khlong Phrao (which extends another kilometre inland).

More of Ko Kood >

Ao Thong Nai Pan, Ko Pha Ngan

Ao Thong Nai Pan is a beautiful, semicircular bay backed by steep, green hills, which looks as if it’s been bitten out of the island’s northeast corner by a gap-toothed giant, leaving a tall hump of land dividing the bay into two parts. With lovely, fine, white sand, the longer, more indented southern part is the marginally better beach, but both halves of the bay are sheltered and deep enough for swimming.

Ao Sone, Ko Tarutao

For a few on-foot excursions once you’re all beached out, head to Ao Sone on Ko Tartuao – part of the Ko Tarutao National Park archipelago. Named so because of the casaurina trees that fringe the beach, this is a 3km sweep of flawless sand has a one hour trail leading up to Lu Du Waterfall at the north end, and a 90-minute trail to Lo Po Waterfall in the middle and a mangrove swamp at the far south end.

These best beaches were taken from the latest Rough Guide to Thailand. To explore more of the Thai coast, buy the Rough Guide to Thailand’s Beaches and Islands.

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Boulevard Saint Laurent, Montréal

Nicknamed ‘The Main’, this is one of the most central streets in Montreal as it links the old town to Chinatown, and Little Italy to the seaport. In summer, some of the stretch is closed to traffic while arts and jazz festivals take over and hundreds flock to the street to take part.

Camden High Street, London

This busy thoroughfare boasts an eclectic mix of brilliant bars, eccentric shops, and small indoor markets that overflow into the side streets. Known for its alternative character, Camden High Street is a fantastic place for people-watching, as punk hairstyles and heavily tattooed types ramble on past.

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

The main thoroughfare linking Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle is a mile-long cobbled street, lined with old and impressive buildings. It’s easy to get lost along the mile though, as there are lots of narrow alleys to explore, often concealing quaint little pubs or galleries.

Khao San Road, Bangkok

By day this former rice market is just another busy street in Bangkok, full of tourists and tuk-tuk touts looking to make a buck. Come nightfall, however, and this short strip of road becomes the highlight of Bangkok nightlife, as bars compete to drown out each other’s music and food stalls pop up to feed the masses.

Chandni Chowk, Delhi

If it isn’t a tuk-tuk or a bicycle laden with chickens, it’s the hordes of people that you’re battling against to get to the prize at the end: the Jama Masjid mosque. The mosque sits majestically at the eastern end providing a superb vista through the crowds and clusters of pop-up market stalls selling everything from street food to saris.

Spuistraat, Amsterdam

While it might seem an odd choice for a stroll, as boarded up derelict buildings haunt the pavements, there is something pleasant about this street’s defiant atmosphere. The buildings lining Spuistraat are covered in clever and anarchic graffiti and the whole place has the melancholy air of some failed attempt at social revolution. For a flavour of the radical left you can visit the Vankrijk café, run by volunteers, where you can partake in political workshops and film screenings.

Venice Beach Boardwalk, Los Angeles

There is nothing better than a seafront stroll, and while one side is lined with colourful restaurants, bars and shops, the other is scattered with performers, fortune tellers and artists looking to catch your eye – all backed by the beautiful white sands and blue waters of Venice Beach.

La Rambla, Barcelona

This tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare stretches for just over a kilometre and is always buzzing with tourists, locals, street entertainers and market traders alike. There are plenty of restaurants and bars along this promenade, perfect for sitting outside with a glass of sangria, to watch the bartering market vendors and silver-painted human statues.

Wall Street, New York City

It’s not just a name – this is one of the most important streets in America and is home to the New York Stock Exchange. Wall St is where all the financial magic happens for America. The area is home to some beautiful Gilded Age architecture and boasts iconic buildings such as Federal Hall and the towering Trump Building.

Istiklal Street, Istanbul

Linking Taskim Square to the Galata district, this busy shopping street is a hive of activity day and night, with restaurants, bars and shops opening their doors to customers, while the tram whizzes up and down. As you wander down this thoroughfare, you can smell the roasting chestnuts on street stalls or follow your nose to a side street for some divine Turkish coffee.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

Once the home of Princess and the Pea writer Hans Christian Andersen, there is certainly an air of fairytale about this street. With a canal running down the centre, and brightly coloured 17th and early 18th century town houses lining its sides, it makes for a pleasant stroll in Copenhagen.

Half Moon Street, Sherborne, UK

For a quintessentially English experience have a wander down Half Moon St in the market town of Sherborne, Dorset. On one side, old cottages cluster side-by-side, housing little boutiques and independent shops, and on the other, the magnificent medieval Sherborne Abbey stands to attention as the centrepiece of the town.

Pingjiang Road, Suzhou, China

Over 1.5km long, this street is a picture of what China used to be, and in ancient Suzhou it was the main road through the city. A river flows along the street crossed by charming little bridges, and elegant gardens are scattered along the route making it a popular spot for newlyweds to take their photographs.

Begijnhof, Bruges

Small white cottages, originally built for single or widowed Catholic women, surround this quaint little street and its central green lawn. The cottages are now home to a group of Benedictine nuns and, as to be expected, there is an air of silence. However, the quiet is not eerie but tranquil in this unspoilt setting.

Jonker Street, Melaka, Malaysia

In the UNESCO World Heritage city of Melaka, the rather garishly-decorated Jonker Street is popular with both locals and tourists. At weekends it’s alive with food stalls and pop-up shops, and in the evening red lamps hang on wires to light up the way. Don’t miss some of the traditional restaurants that are often lost among the souvenir shops.

Latema Road, Nairobi

It’s pandemonium along this main matatu (minibus) stage, providing most of the transport out of the city. If you want to dive into the chaotic side of Kenya, this certainly makes for a most entertaining walk, as you dodge touts and locals haggling the price of their next journey, and dive out of the way of buses bursting with people. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along this strip that, from their first floor balconies, offer great views of – and reprieve from – the chaos.

Long Street, Cape Town

Living up to its name, this is one of the longest streets in the city, totalling a 3.8km walk. Antique shops, bookshops and galleries, many housed in elaborate and colourful Victorian buildings with original cast iron balconies, line this lengthy street. As you’d expect in this African metropolitan city, Long Street comes alive at night with scores of bars, pubs and clubs.

Royal Street, New Orleans

A rather popular alternative to the somewhat seedy Bourbon Street, this is one of the oldest roads in New Orleans. It is a particularly beautiful and unusual area dating from the French colonial era, with quirky antique shops and art galleries that promise to entertain anyone strolling down it, while flowers spill over elaborate balconies.

9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires

Purported to be the widest avenue in the world, this street, accommodating nine lanes of traffic in each direction, is something to behold as a pedestrian. When crossing the road, it may look like you’ll never reach the other side. But, fear not – there are extra wide pedestrian crossings for all of your rambling pleasures. Historical monuments such as the Obelisk of Buenos Aires and a statue of classic Spanish character Don Quixote are particular points of interest along this mammoth thoroughfare.

Lombard Street, San Francisco

Perhaps the craziest street in the world this famous zigzagged road is iconic in San Francisco. It has eight hairpin turns which twist and bend like a serpent downhill from west to east, making the drive quite a challenge but always entertaining to watch. Incredibly green gardens fill in the spaces between residential buildings and the road itself.

Fifth Avenue, New York City

This infamous street is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world, lined with prestigious and luxury brands and boutiques. Walking down Fifth Avenue gives a glimpse of the high life as New York’s richest shop for tailored suits and expensive jewellery. A section called “Museum Mile” houses renowned galleries such as the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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There’s few better ways to spend a holiday than getting wet. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some of the best water-based holidays around the world. So whether it’s kayaking with sharks or snorkelling with turtles, give one of these experiences a try and let us know how you got on…

Snorkelling “The Rift”, Iceland

Few places on Earth can match Silfra for snorkelling. The setting is unique, a fissure crack running between the American and Eurasian continents, its precise location changing with the shifting of the plates each year. But it’s the water – or more accurately, the stunning clarity of the water – that makes this site remarkable.

Silfra has arguably the finest visibility anywhere in the world. Crystal is cloudy in comparison. The temperature helps, hovering at around 3°C, as does the water’s glacial purity – it takes two thousand years to get here, drip-feeding its way through fields of lava. In fact, the combination creates a clarity so intense that people have been known to experience vertigo on entering the water, suspended like astronauts over a gully that seemingly drops away into the very centre of the Earth.

Diving Iceland (www.dive.is) organizes snorkelling trips into Silfra.

Sea kayaking in Prince William Sound, Alaska

Watching glaciers calve while paddling round a frozen margarita of opaque blue water and brash ice is an undoubted highlight of sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Perhaps better still are the opportunities for viewing marine life here. Seals often loll around on icebergs close to glaciers, while sea otters swim in the frigid waters, protected by the wonderfully thick fur that made them prized by the eighteenth-century Russian traders who partly colonized Alaska. In deeper water, look for pods of orcas cruising the waterways in search of their favourite food, seals (no wonder they hang back on the icebergs). You might even spot a few humpback whales, which congregate in small groups and breach spectacularly on occasion. Keep a splash-proof camera handy at all times.

Even if you miss out on a great action photo, there is considerable pleasure in just gliding around the generally calm waters of the fjords, where cliffs clad in Sitka spruce and Douglas fir rise steeply from the depths. For full atmospheric effect, stay in a simple Forest Service cabin or camp out on a small beach or at a designated campsite in one of the state marine parks.

Alaska Sea Kayakers (+1 907/472-2534, www.alaskaseakayakers.com), in Whittier, rents sea kayaks and runs guided day-trips and multi-day tours.

Kiteboarding in Cabarete, Dominican Republic

Kiters from around the world come in droves to the broad, archetypally Caribbean cove of Cabarete off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Some never leave, hanging out on the beach in a state of perpetual kite-slacker bliss, like lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Others shuttle in at weekends between stints at investment banking firms and crash at the high-end condos on the edge of town.

And why not? Cabarete’s bay seems engineered by a benevolent god of kiteboarding. Steady trade winds blow east to west, allowing easy passage out to the bay’s offshore reefs and then back to the sand. The offshore reef provides plenty of surf for the experts who ride the waves here, performing tricks and some incredibly spectacular jumps. The reef also shelters the inshore waters so that on all but the roughest of winter days the waters remain calm. Increasingly, the kiteboarding community has left the built-up main village to the windsurfers and retreated west to so-called Kite Beach. Here you can experience Cabarete as it was fifteen years ago, a kiteboarder’s paradise filled with fellow wind worshippers and a lively outdoor nightlife scene, including bonfires along the beach into the wee hours.

The international airport at Puerto Plata is 20km west of Cabarete. All the major windsurfing and kiteboarding equipment manufacturers have schools and equipment rental along the town’s main strip.

Sea kayaking in the Exumas, Bahamas

“Wilderness” is not the first word that springs to mind when someone mentions the Bahamas; rum cocktails, high-rise hotels and limbo contests are the ready images. Yet a short hop from the wall-to-wall cruise ship carnival in Nassau lies the Exuma Cays, a chain of a couple of hundred mainly uninhabited islands stretching for more than 65km along the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Separated by a tranquil sea, the low-lying chunks of honeycombed limestone rimmed by powdery white sand and covered in dense vegetation have seemingly been designed with one mode of exploration in mind: the sea kayak.

The Exuma Land and Sea Park, in the middle section of the cays, makes for an excellent starting point. Your ride begins at dawn, when the mirror-smooth sea takes on a delicate shade of pink. The languid morning hours are spent blissfully dipping your paddle into turquoise waters lit from beneath by sunlight reflected off a brilliant white sandy bottom and brimming with lush undersea gardens, coral reefs and a profusion of tropical fish. At midday, beach your kayak on an inviting swathe of sand and picnic under a palm tree. Snorkel over bright-hued clumps of coral, marvelling at the dazzling colours and patterns of the fish as they dart among the waving purple sea fans.

The main transport hub in the Exuma Cays is Staniel Cay, easily reached from Nassau; for trips departing from Great Exuma, you can fly into George Town from Florida.

Snorkelling with turtles, Bonaire

After months of planning and years of dreaming you’ve finally arrived at a small, uninhabited cay off the coast of Bonaire. Beneath the crystal-blue waters awaits a spectacle unparalleled in the marine world. Immense schools of tropical fish in every conceivable shape, size and colour swim alongside sea turtles and dolphins in and around the most impressive coral and sponge gardens in the Caribbean. The waters surrounding this tiny boomerang-shaped island, 80km north of Venezuela, were made a marine park in 1979.

Once under water you immediately hear the continuous grinding of parrotfish grazing on the algae that grows on top of coral heads. Within seconds, a dazzling spectrum of reef fish comes out of hiding from the delicate stands of soft and hard corals. Schools of brightly coloured butterflyfish, angelfish and damselfish swim in and out of the crevices and between colonies of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Several metres below, purple sea fans and the tentacles of anemones sway back and forth as the swift current pushes you along.

www.infobonaire.com has lots of information on snorkelling.

Kayaking in the Sea of Cortés, Mexico

The remote and ruggedly beautiful Baja coastline has become a favourite destination for sea kayakers – and for good reason. The calm waters of the Sea of Cortés make for easy surf launches and smooth paddling. Hundreds of unexplored coves, uninhabited islands and miles of mangrove-lined estuaries play host to sealions, turtles and nesting birds. Just the shell of your kayak separates you from dolphins, grey whales, coral reefs and over six hundred species of fish as you glide through placid lagoons, volcanic caves and natural arches.

It’s a good idea to keep your snorkelling gear handy – should you ever tire of the topside scenery, you can make a quick escape to an even more spectacular underwater world. Rookeries of sealions dot island coasts, and if you approach them slowly, the pups can be especially playful, even mimicking your underwater movements before performing a ballet of their own. Back on land, as you camp on white sand beaches and feast on freshly made ceviche (citrus-marinated raw fish) under the glow of a glorious sunset, you’ll have time to enjoy some peace and quiet before pondering your next launch.

Tour operators in both Loreto and La Paz offer outfitting, guided expeditions and accommodation, with La Paz providing more rental options for the independent kayaker.

Paddling into secret lagoons, Thailand

The first time you enter a hong you’re almost certain to laugh with delight. The fun begins when your guide paddles you across to the towering karst island and then pilots your canoe through an imperceptible fissure in its rock wall. You enter a sea cave that reeks of bats and gets darker and darker until suddenly your guide shouts, “Lie back in the boat please!” Your nose barely clears the stalactites and you emerge, with your toes first, into a sunlit lagoon, or hong, right at the very heart of the outcrop.

Hong (“rooms” in Thai) are the pièce de résistance of southern Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. Invisible to any passing vessel, these secret tidal lagoons are flooded, roofless caves hidden within the core of seemingly solid limestone islands, accessible only at certain tides and only in sea canoes small enough to slip beneath and between low-lying rocky overhangs. The world inside these collapsed cave systems is extraordinary, protected from the open bay by a turreted ring of cliffs hung with primeval-looking gardens of inverted cycads, twisted bonsai palms, lianas, miniature screw pines and tangled ferns.

Phang Nga Bay covers some 400 square kilometres of coast between Phuket and Krabi. A reputable sea-canoeing trips operator around the bay is John Gray’s Sea Canoe (www.johngray-seacanoe.com).

Sea kayaking around Shark Bay, Australia

The Peron Peninsula in Shark Bay, on the northwest coast of Western Australia, is well known for its regular dolphin visitations, and a beachside resort at Monkey Mia has grown around the spectacle. But there’s much more to this UNESCO-listed reserve than meeting Flipper and the family, and the sheltered conditions make the Shark Bay area ideal for a sea kayaking adventure.

Paddling in a bay named after the ocean’s deadliest predator may sound as sensible as skinny-dipping in Piranha Creek. Sure, there are tiger sharks out in the depths, but the abundant sea life means they’re fed well enough not to bother you in the shallows. Don’t be surprised if before long a green turtle passes under your kayak, followed by rays the size of a tablecloth. And where there are rays there are usually sharks, but only frisky babies less than a metre long, maturing in the shallow nurseries before heading out to sea.

Visit www.sharkbay.org for more information.

Snorkelling with orcas, Norway

As you slide quietly over the side of the boat and put your face in the freezing water, it’s hard to breathe – not just because your teeth are chattering, but also because there, below you in the blue, are six or seven killer whales that seem as curious about you as you are about them. Tell your friends you’re going snorkelling with “killer whales” north of the Arctic Circle in winter and they’re likely to think you’re a few minnows short of a school. But though orcas, as they’re more properly known, have been known to eat prey larger than humans, the ones in northern Norway mainly eat fish.

Prime orca-viewing time is October to January, when migrating shoals of herring lure 600–700 orcas to Tysfjord in northern Norway. You might even have a chance to see them feed. Norway’s orcas have perfected a fishing technique called “carousel feeding”: they herd the unsuspecting herring into a tight ball using air bubbles as a net, slap the ball with their tails to stun ten to fifteen fish at a time, then scoff them one by one. Sure it’s cold, but there’s plenty of gear to keep you warm: dry suit, warm inner suit, mask, snorkel, gloves and booties. And yes, you might feel a tad vulnerable drifting on the surface of the North Atlantic surrounded by a bunch of five-tonne marine mammals. But all that’s forgotten as soon as you spot a dorsal fin breaking the surface – and you realize you didn’t just become dinner.

The local Tysfjord tourist office runs snorkelling safaris between October and mid-January for 1700kr per person. See www.tysfjord-turistsenter.no for more.

Sea kayaking in the Mingan Archipelago, Québec

On the map, the Mingan Archipelago, stretching 150km from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan to Aguanish, looks like a trail of biscuit crumbs scattered in the Gulf of St Lawrence. But from the vantage point of your sea kayak, cruising through the channels that separate this collection of forty uninhabited islands and nearly a thousand islets and reefs, it’s a much different story. First, it’s impossible to miss the tall rock monoliths that guard the bays which, from a distance, look very much like people. Second, much of what you’re paddling around to see actually lurks beneath the surface. The waters here are a feeding ground for the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, as well as for minke, fin, beluga and humpback whales – keep your eyes trained on the horizon, looking for the telltale puff of water vapour blown by a whale as it surfaces.

Beneath your paddles the water is so clear that it magnifies the seabed. Bright orange sea stars, deep red urchins and lime green kelp crust the sea floor, the rock worn into underwater monoliths or crazily paved ledges. As sunset stains the sea pink and purple, you’ll need to pick an island and a beachside campsite. Civilization feels a galaxy away as you laze around the campfire or scramble up a clifftop for a last gaze out at sea, hopeful of spotting a whale silhouetted against the sinking sun.

Expédition Agaguk in Havre-Saint-Pierre (418/538 1588) rents equipment and also provides guides for trips around the islands.

Rafting the Tatshenshini, Yukon

The silt-laden waters of the Tatshenshini River are a paddlers’ paradise, with the most magnificent portion coursing 213km through the heart of the St Elias Mountains, which extend from the southern Yukon across to northern British Columbia and on into the Gulf of Alaska. There’s no shortage of things beaked, toothed and clawed here, and the inevitable sightings and full-on encounters are thrilling: grizzly bears lumber along gravel river beds, hoary marmots scramble up scree slopes and schools of glinting salmon swim in the murky waters below.

Putting in at tiny Dalton Post, Yukon, for the start of a ten-day expedition that ends at Dry Bay, Alaska, you’ll soon be floating through the same territory prospectors did during the late 1800s Klondike gold rush, when the river was a busy thoroughfare. Yet you’d barely know anyone had ever been this way – the whole region remains gloriously untouched, surrounded as it is by Canada’s Kluane National Park, BC’s Tatshenshini Provincial Park, the Yukon’s Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary and the US Glacier Bay National Park. Journeying through these, you’ll pass through steep-sided mountain canyons, negotiate rapids, drift past razor-sharp cliffs and thick stands of pristine wilderness and come within touching distance of 10,000-year-old icebergs – the river system, after all, passes through the largest non-polar ice field in the world.

Tatshenshini Expediting in Whitehorse (867/633-2742, www.tatshenshiniyukon.com) has details on package tours ranging from day-long rafting trips to 10-day expeditions.

 

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All aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express features

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