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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Natural Wonders That Will Blow Your Mind

Hidden Beach, Marieta Islands, Mexico

Shhh, don’t tell anyone else about this place! We want it to ourselves.

The secluded setting of this gorgeous beach is the stuff of wild and romantic fantasies, which is why it has also earned itself the title ofplaya del amor or lovers’ beach. Lovesick dreamers the world over have longed to have these golden sands, gently lapped by crystal blue waters, all to themselves, and due to the beach’s remote and concealed location there’s a good chance these dreams could come true.

How do we get in there?

This secret swimming hole, visible from above through dense jungle and cavernous limestone, can only be accessed by swimming or kayaking through a long tunnel of water that links the beach to the Pacific Ocean.

How did this natural wonder come to be?

Mother Nature can’t take all the credit for this one. It is believed that military bomb tests conducted by the Mexican government in the 1900s created a whole series of craters, caverns and unusual rock formations throughout the Marieta Islands, one of which being the magnificent Hidden Beach.

Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia

Water, as far as the eye can see.

This is one for the record books. Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake (by volume), stretches out for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres across remote Siberian wilderness, 636km in length and 79km in width, to be exact. The lake’s statistics are extraordinary: it contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water; more water than all of the Great Lakes in North America; it plunges to a world-beating depth of 1642m; and is also considered the world’s oldest lake, at around 25 million years of age.

The water looks crystal clear but a little on the chilly side.

Although winter temperatures in the lake drop to nearly -20°C and the whole thing gets covered in a thick blanket of ice, the summer sees a warmer side emerge and hordes of tourists descend to splash around in the pristine, and rumoured life-extending, water.

We still think it’s too cold to take off our clothes.

Then consider taking a hike around parts of the perimeter. A walk to the top of the Svyatov Nos peninsular gives you stunning 360° views of the lake and surrounds.

Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

It’s hard to believe this place hasn’t been created using CGI.

With so many jaw-dropping sights in one frame, you couldn’t make it up. We’re here to guarantee that this is just what the Lauterbrunnen Valley looks like.

Talk us through all of the magnificent natural phenomena we can see.

There are over 72 waterfalls dotted throughout the valley, including the 30m-high Staubbach Falls, one of Europe’s highest; there are also lush Alpine meadows; sheer cliff faces; dizzying mountain peaks; and several slow-moving glaciers.

It’s sounding like an extreme-sport-lover’s paradise.

It’s certainly a choose-your-own-Alpine-adventure kind of place. You’re spoilt for choice with skiing, mountaineering, rock-climbing, hiking, paragliding, mountain-biking, skydiving, or even dog-sledding all on the agenda.

Just the idea of all this activity is making us tired.

Then have a ride on one of the cable cars that travel between mountain peaks, or settle into a meadow picnic spot and just admire the view. There are many short walks close to valley villages that don’t require an excess of adrenaline.

Mendenhall Ice Caves, Alaska, USA

We never imagined it would be possible to explore underneath a glacier.

And the reality is even more beautiful than anything you can imagine. You need to be quick, however, if you’d like to experience this natural phenomenon first hand; global warming has caused the Mendenhall Glacier to begin retreating at an unsurpassed rate in the last 60 years. If we stay on this current path the ice caves will soon be gone.

Oh no! hurry up, let’s get in and have a look.

Fortune favours the brave, and in this case it also favours the persistent and the adventurous. To get in under the glacier you must first kayak across part of the Mendenhall Lake and then hike the West Glacier trail which takes you to the caves. An experienced guide will show you the way and also show you the path of least environmental impact.

The reward looks to be totally worth the effort.

It’s not every day you can say you stood, completely encased in luminous blue ice, with the sights and sounds of glacial streams swirling and burbling around you.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

What a pretty sight.

Nature sure knows how to turn on a good show, doesn’t she? This series of 16 terraced lakes with sparkling clear water cascading over from one to another is picturesquely situated among the trees in the vast forest ofCroatia’s largest national park. Nature’s bounty has been framed for human use by the sympathetic use of wooden walkways and footbridges.

That sounds like a very civilised way to hike.

It’s easy to see why this is one of Europe’s most popular natural wonders – it’s possible to follow the walkways around the edges of the crystalline pools, over sections of the gushing water, and even right behind and underneath some of the waterfalls.

What about going in for a dip?

Around, under and over, but not in. Swimming is prohibited, but you can jump on one of the park’s free boats for a different perspective on the lakes and waterfalls. The boats head from high to low, beginning at Kozjak, the largest of the lakes at around four kilometres in length. Don’t miss the Veliki Slap, the tallest waterfall in Croatia at 78m.

Pamukkale, Turkey

This is no off-the-beaten-track national treasure, if the tourist hordes are anything to go by.

That’s true, this dramatic stack of blindingly white travertine terraces isTurkey’s number one tourist drawcard. But don’t let that put you off. And here’s a tip: stay overnight near the terraces and visit first thing in the morning before the busloads begin arriving.

Right, we know all about the tourists, tell us more about the natural wonder.

The terraces are formed by the build-up of carbonate mineral from the warm water flowing from the thermal springs above. Pools form at the edge of the terraces where people have bathed for thousands of years.

Wild camping around the world

Where in the world am I permitted to wild camp?

Each country has its own rules and, in much of the world, pitching up anywhere you like simply isn’t allowed. However, there are a few places where you can live out that idyllic wild-camping dream:

Scotland

In Scotland, the public’s right to (non-motorised) access has been assured since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003 – you are legally allowed to wild camp on unenclosed land. However, bylaws to restrict overnight camping have been introduced in a few popular spots such as Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a useful rulebook to follow.

England and Wales

There is plenty of countryside in England and Wales, but if the land isn’t in the hands of the Forestry Commission or the National Trust, it’s likely to be privately owned – in which case you can’t pitch up there. Wild camping is only legal in parts of Dartmoor (and even here there’s small print). Everywhere else you must seek the permission of the landowner.

Scandinavia

The common right of access is a big deal in Norway, Denmark and Sweden – although it does come with a one-night restriction. You can pretty much camp anywhere on open land, so long as you are on foot and more than 150m from inhabited houses and cabins. Visit Norway has some useful advice and explains that “open land” means “uncultivated”, so it usually applies to shores, bogs, fields and mountains.

The rest of Europe

Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and eastern Europe have similar rules to England and Wales: you cannot camp on private land unless you have the express permission of the local landowner. To protect wildlife, you are not allowed to camp in national or regional natural parks. Italy and Germany don’t have a wild camping culture and it’s not widely tolerated.

The USA and Canada

Land here is managed by various national, state and local governments, and there’s also Indian Reservations and privately owned land. You’ve got to do your research to find out who owns the land and whether you’ll be trespassing (in some cases, trespassing comes with serious consequences).

Wild camping in Forest Service or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas is better known as dispersed camping and is a safe bet – if you follow all the usual rules (see below). The same goes for Canadian Crown Land. In National Parks and National Monuments, backcountry camping is common, but this is regulated and permits are required.

Australia and New Zealand

Camping is a national pastime in both Australia and New Zealand, but set up in the wrong place and you could be landed with a big fine. Camping locations are regulated by local bylaws so look out for signs prohibiting overnight stays.

It’s slightly more confusing in Australia as there are six states, all with different rules. It’s becoming harder to find land that doesn’t have restrictions – even national parks require a permit for backcountry camping.

New Zealand is a bit more relaxed and you are permitted to wild camp on public conservation land, providing it’s not expressly prohibited (or restricted to self-contained camper vans that have a toilet). In both countries there are some stunning DOC-managed sites that are free or just a few dollars, so there’s little need for stealth camping.

What are the rules when it comes to wild camping?

Everything comes down to “leave no trace”. Keep the site as you would want to find it: take all your rubbish home with you and don’t pick wildflowers or take shells or rocks. Wild camping is a beautiful privilege and campers need to do all they can to protect the fragile environment. Here are a few basic rules to follow:

Ditch the car

Although some people park their camper van by the side of a road and call it wild camping, we’re talking about really getting back to nature here. In Scandinavia and Scotland, leaving the car behind is a condition of the right to wild camp. Elsewhere, it’s far more likely that landowners will give hikers and cyclists permission to camp over drivers.

Take proper care of human waste

Dig a deep hole away from your site and any nearby water supply. Toilet tissue needs to be disposed of properly and shouldn’t be buried (it takes a long time to biodegrade and can be dug up by wild animals).

Keep out of sight

Keep your group small and camp far away from roads, towns and villages. Respect “No Overnight Camping” signs. Otherwise, set up at dusk and move on at first light.

Understand your environment

Be aware of the local wildlife and respect its right to roam. You don’t want to attract bears, foxes or rodents to your camp, so store your food securely (in the USA and Canada it’s advised to hang food from a tree branch or take bear-proof food canisters).

There’s nothing better than camping on a beach, but to avoid a rude – and wet – awakening in the middle of the night, be aware of the high-tide line. Choosing a site on a gentle slope is also a good idea if there’s a chance of rain.

Be aware of fire safety

Make yourself aware of any fire restrictions – this is particularly important in the summer months as forest fires have been started by careless campers in the past. If you are permitted to have an open fire, use only dead wood and existing fire rings where possible, and keep it small and supervised. Using a gas stove to cook instead of lighting a fire means you avoid scorching the earth and you can leave the site pristine.

7 places to get off the tourist trail in Vietnam

1. Make the journey to Bai Tu Long Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay is just to the northeast of world-famous Ha Long Bay – and its striking expanse is just as beautiful. However, it sees a fraction of the visitors.

More and more tour companies are now offering trips to Bai Tu Long (“Children of the Dragon”). Or, if you want to go it alone, you can take the ferry to remote Quan Lan Island – the slow boat from Cai Rong has the best views.

Quan Lan has only a handful of hotels, and very little English is spoken – but that’s part of the joy. Once you’ve taken in the bay, bask on the untouched beaches (the best stretch along the east coast) and explore the virtually empty roads by bicycle. You’ll get the impression that little has changed here for decades.

2. Enjoy farm-to-table food in Bong Lai Valley

Phong Nha National Park may already be on your itinerary, but your taste buds will thank you for venturing to nearby Bong Lai Valley. Farming is integral to the community here, and more and more locals are now opening their homes to visitors.

Farm-to-fork restaurants will give you a true taste of the local delicacies; Moi Moi’s speciality is pork slow-cooked in bamboo tubes and delicious veggie peanut dumplings. At The Duck Stop you can feed the ducks and buy drinks and packets of fresh pepper. The legendary Pub With Cold Beer does exactly what it says on the tin, plus there are hammocks and a river to swim in. In the true spirit of farm-to-table, they will kill and cook a chicken for a shared lunch.

3. Visit minority villages around Kon Tum

The lush central highlands are a highlight for many adventurers in Vietnam. The sleepy provincial capital, Kon Tum, with its glorious riverside setting, is particularly lovely.

Curiously overlooked by tourists, the 650 minority villages surrounding Kon Tum are wonderful, welcoming places to visit too. And you’re unlikely to see another foreigner on your travels. You can stay overnight in a communal thatched rong in the Bahner villages, within easy walking distance from the centre of town.

 

4. Take a road trip to remote Ha Giang

Home to several ethnic minority groups, including the Hmong, Dao and Giay, Vietnam’s Far North is the final frontier for intrepid travellers – and nowhere is wilder than Ha Giang. Mountain roads wind through lush green landscape and open out to incredible vistas, particularly in the rugged Dong Vang Karst Plateau Geopark.

Visitors are required to have a permit to visit the province (easily and cheaply acquired in Hanoi).

5. Cycle the Mekong Delta’s An Binh Island

To experience a slice of island life on your Vietnam adventure, head all the way south to the languid Mekong Delta. The watery rural idyll of An Binh Island is criss-crossed by narrow dirt paths perfect for exploring by bicycle. All routes are fringed with palm trees, with a backdrop of lush orchards and traditional thatched houses, many of which are open as homestays. Staying here overnight and exploring at your own pace is far more rewarding than a day tour organised from Ho Chi Minh City.

6. Drink homebrew at Hanoi’s other Bia Hoi Corner

Bia hoi can be found all over Vietnam and, in Hanoi, most visitors head straight to the tourist-laden bia hoi on Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien in the Old Quarter. Come evening time, the bars, filled with plastic stools at squatting height, are full to the brim with an international crowd sipping bottled beer.

But, to get a flavour of a real bia hoi, try further west on the corner of Bat Dang and Duong Thanh. Here, room temperature 5000VND (20¢) draught beer is served in sticky glasses to a predominantly male clientele.

7. Experience Mai Chau hospitality

Surprisingly overlooked by foreign visitors considering its proximity to Hanoi (135km southwest of the city), rural Mai Chau is a world away from Vietnam’s chaotic capital. The valley is inhabited mainly by the White Thai minority, many of whom have opened their traditional stilt houses as rustic homestays. You only need to wander the villages that fan out from Bac Ha to find somewhere to get your head down.

Once settled, feast on delicious home-cooked meals before a backdrop of jagged karst mountains.

Britain’s 7 Best Seaside Town

1. TYNEMOUTH, TYNE & WEAR

A 25-minute drive or Metro hop from central Newcastle, Tynemouth lies exactly where its name suggests. Of its beaches, surf-hub Longsands gets most of the accolades. But clamber down the stairs from the clifftop to King Edward’s Bay, and you’re in for a real treat. This is where Geordie foodies flock, in fine weather or otherwise, to enjoy superb seafood and real ales at Riley’s Fish Shack, a simple hut-kitchen that is the beach’s lone structure. Tynemouth also has a ruined priory and castle to enjoy, plus a Sunday flea market.

2. SOUTHWOLD, SUFFOLK

Perched on the east coast of England, the small town of Southwold offers typical seaside merriment with its sandy beach, traditional pier and candy-coloured beach huts. A working lighthouse (open to visitors) stands sentinel, surveying the bay, while the Adnams Brewery, which still operates on the same site after 670 years, wafts early morning hops into the sea air. Plenty of excellent eating and accommodation options range from the smart Swan Hotel, situated on the picturesque market square, to a nearby campsite – all a pebble’s throw from the sea.

3. PORTHMADOG, GWYNEDD

If Porthmadog is handsome, it owes at least a portion of its good looks to the magnificent views all around – from town, you can gaze up the Vale of Ffestiniog and across the estuary of the Glaslyn River to Snowdonia’s mountains. Indeed, there’s no finer base for trips into Snowdonia National Park, and Porthmadog is also the terminus of a fabulous narrow-gauge rail line – the 22km-long Ffestiniog Railway is the finest of its kind in Wales, and runs from Porthmadog harbour to the slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. A mile south of Porthmadog, Borth-y-Gest is little more than a semi-circle of low, brightly painted Victorian houses lining the beach – and utterly charming in its simplicity.

4. WHITSTABLE, KENT

Whitstable, on the north Kent coast, is a popular London escape route – but don’t let that put you off. One of the major attractions here are the local oysters, which the town has been famous for since Roman times. The annual highlight is the Oyster festival (last two weeks of July), when you can expect oyster-eating competitions, parades and performances. At any time of year, however, this is a great place to come for fresh seafood and windswept coastal walks.

5. ABERYSTWYTH, CEREDIGION

Two sweeping pebble bays, soft-hued Georgian houses lining the promenade, the nineteenth-century Royal Pier – Aberystwyth has all the hallmarks of a traditional British seaside resort. Yet this mid-Wales hub offers more than just bucket-and-spade amusements. Aberystwyth is a blast of fresh salty air with a lively student population, plentiful pubs, booming café culture, and a strong sense of national pride, which combined with the thriving art scene, make this one of the best places to enjoy live Welsh music.

6. SHANKLIN, THE ISLE OF WIGHT

Possibly the Isle of Wight’s most idyllic seaside resort, Shanklin has an archetypically pretty Old Village with thatched pubs, sweet shops and traditional tearooms. At the bottom of the steep cliffs is a pretty beach, where you can hire kayaks and the like in front of a row of whitewashed guesthouses and cafés. Don’t miss Shanklin Chine, a mossy gorge with fascinating World War II military connections.

7. HASTINGS, EAST SUSSEX

Once seen as a tired and tacky seaside resort, Hastings in East Sussex doesn’t get the love it deserves. The town has the UK’s largest land-launched fishing fleet, which means there’s ultra-fresh seafood on offer just behind the working beach, and a host of small but brilliant restaurants that serve the catch of the day. There are curios and antiques galore on the Old Town’s George Street, and some funny old funiculars to take you up the cliffs for a great view over the town. But it’s not all about the old in Hastings: 2016 saw the opening of the brand new pier, after the previous one was ravaged by fire, and its given the town a new lease of life.