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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Festivals that will blow your mind

Holi, India and Nepal

Can’t you narrow down the location for us a bit more?

Holi, or the Festival of Colour, as it has come to be known, is primarily a Hindu festival and it’s celebrated with wild parties and crazy colour fights all over India and Nepal in areas with large Hindu populations. You’ll know you’ve found one when you spot the revellers who look like they’ve walked through a rainbow waterfall.

A colour fight?

Holi is a celebration of the victory of one’s inner good over evil but has basically become a frolicking free-for-all involving coloured powder and water. In a joyous and raucous street fight, participants throw powder and water at each other using the bright, exuberant colours to signify the start of spring, the power of love, and the generosity of humanity.

Sounds like some seriously messy fun.

Just try to resist the truly jubilant spirit of the festival – everyone, and we mean everyone, comes together to play, laugh, forgive and give thanks. What’s not to like?

The AgitAgueda Art Festival transforms its host city © Patrick Ferreira

AgitAgueda Art Festival, Agueda, Portugal

Wow, the umbrellas in the sky.

One of the most recognisable symbols of this vibrant Portuguese festival is the installation of hundreds of colourful umbrellas suspended above one of the city’s streets. Other parts of the urban landscape, like park benches, stairs, and power poles, are also painted in colourful examples of street art, creating an enchanted atmosphere.

What’s it all in aid of?

The festival aims to promote new musical and artistic projects with the ‘Talentos AgitAgueda’, a competition for emerging artists. As well as new hopefuls there are many established national and international acts that grace the stage.

Do we have time to check it all out?

The festivities extend over three weeks so there’s plenty of time to pack it all in. Many of the musical acts perform in the main tent, which is free. And there’s nothing stopping you from walking around the streets to see all the amazing outdoor installations, murals and sculptures.

Pingxi Lantern Festival, Pingxi, Taiwan

This looks pretty.

It’s a stunningly luminous sight. Close to 200,000 lanterns are released into the night sky at the start of the new Lunar Year.

Beautiful, but why? And why here?

According to ancient legend, the lanterns were originally lit to let Pingxi villagers, who had fled their homes under the threat of outlaw raids, know that it was safe to return. Over the hundreds and hundreds of years, the lanterns have come to represent a release of bad habits and an aspiration to achieve positive ideals.

So we all trek an hour out of Taipei to get involved?

Just you and 80,000 of your closest friends. It’s an extremely popular way to see out the old Chinese year, so expect to jostle for space to release your good luck lantern.

Is it worth braving the crowds?

The radiant light of the lanterns against the dark night is a spectacle not to be understated. Add to this beautiful sight the goodwill and optimistic vibe of the participants, and you have a night you’ll never forget.

Maine Lobster Festival, Rockland, New England, USA

This looks like a tasty way to spend a day.

What started as a community initiative to boost interest in local seafood has become a world-regarded festival celebrating the superior quality of the region’s marine produce. Tasty indeed.

Do we all sit around gorging ourselves on lobster?

And butter – don’t forget the butter. Each year, close to 10,000 kilos of these delicious crustaceans are cooked up with over 750 kilos of melted butter. We are not even kidding. Luckily, if you feel the need to burn off some of this extravagant eating, the festival organisers have cooked up some seafood-themed activities so you can justify round two.

Not just eating competitions?

Break up the gorging by joining the joggers in the 10km road race; or have a go at the Lobster Crate Race, where competitors hop from crate to crate across the open water; or just cheer on the festival’s reigning Sea Goddess at the Maine Street Parade. There are also cooking demonstrations and competitions, so you can take a little lobster inspiration from the locals back home with you.

Carnevale, Venice, Italy

Old-world, masked elegance.

Aside from dapper gondoliers cruising the city’s canals, there are few images as iconic to Italy’s water-circled city as the masked partygoers at the world-famous Venice Carnevale. Officially recognised as a festival from the Renaissance period, Carnevale was a licence to indulge in heedless pleasure, with masks to protect participant’s identities. However, when all this licentiousness became too much, the King of Austria outlawed the festival and it was only in the 20th century that Venetians brought the party back.

So decadence is back on the table?

With bells on. More than three million visitors crowd Venice’s cobbled streets during Carnevale for the chance to be a part of the festivities.

Must we come masked?

Not all participants are masked, but donning a disguise certainly amps up the fun. If you’re stuck for inspiration, check out the costume parade on stage in St Mark’s Square – the winners each day go head to head for the title of festival finest on the last day of celebrations.

Boryeong Mud Festival, Boryeong, South Korea

Time to get down and dirty?

You got that right. Many Koreans believe that the mud in Boryeong contains healing properties so, as any self-respecting health fanatic knows, this means it’s time to get all your friends together and get completely covered in the stuff from head to toe.

This sounds like fun.

Millions of mud wrestlers can’t be wrong, right? The mineral-rich mud attracts excitable local and international visitors all keen on getting completely slathered in the stuff. It’s a family-friendly affair with activities that range from mud races and slides, to the more sedate mud facials and body painting. There is even entertainment in the form of musical acts (hip hop and pop predominate) and spectacular evening fireworks. Don’t leave before the Korean b-boy show on the Friday night.

Three unique ways to unwind in Okinawa

Snorkel, dive and mystery-seek

While scuba and snorkelling hardly count as unique, you will find great diversity in the wild blue under, from mass manta encounters to super-accessible snorkelling that even little kids can splash into. Floating around in bathtub-warm water, watching real-life Nemos and Dorys dart by, or spotting sea turtles placidly grazing on algae – what’s not to love?

You can rent snorkelling gear at any beach on any island worth its salt. And even if you’re not a certified diver, introductory dive courses can be booked on various islands. One of the challenges is finding English-speaking instructors and guides, but a handful of dive shops such as Piranha Divers ( and Reef Encounters ( on Okinawa-hontō (Okinawa’s main island) and Umicoza ( on Ishigaki-jima have multilingual guides on staff.

More experienced divers with a taste for mystery should book a flight toYonaguni-jima, Japan’s westernmost inhabited island. Off the rugged southern coast, where wild island horses graze on the windswept bluffs, the surface of the sea conceals a spectacular set of ‘ruins’ that a local diver discovered in the ’80s. With surfaces and walls jutting up at 90-degree angles, and features suggestive of passageways and stairs, some believe that the blocky rock formations are remnants of a Japanese Atlantis. However, geologists theorise (less glamorously) that these unusual formations probably occurred naturally. Either way, the maybe-not-actually ruins are a fascinating dive site to explore and are singular to Yonaguni-jima. If the geology doesn’t float your boat, then be sure to visit during the winter, when most divers come for the thrill of swimming among schooling hammerhead sharks (your relaxation miles may vary).

Take five on Taketomi-jima

Five hours on Taketomi-jima will reset your stress levels by transporting you back about five decades to simpler times.

From Ishigaki-jima, the hub of the Yaeyama island group, tiny Taketomi-jima is a fifteen-minute ferry ride into the past. At last count its population was 361, and these few hundred residents have fiercely preserved their island’s heritage, which is evident as soon as you arrive. The roads are blanketed with crushed coral that crunches underneath the bicycle tires most visitors rent for getting around. Bougainvillea-festooned walls lining the roads are also constructed of stacked chunks of coral, and all of the island-village buildings are roofed with red clay tiles. This low-scale vernacular architecture is topped with the traditional Okinawan shiisā, the pairs of lion guardians that invite good spirits in and keep bad spirits out. The effect is beautifully and tenaciously traditional.

Even if you don’t speak Japanese, another way of getting around the island is on an ox-pulled cart. You won’t get anywhere in a hurry, but as the gigantic-hoofed oxen plod along the zig-zagging crushed coral roads, their Japanese-speaking drivers talk story and plink out a few traditional songs on the three-stringed sanshin (Okinawan banjo), the ride itself making it worth the trip.

But even while this island’s devotion to tradition is alluring on its own, Taketomi-jima has one more bit of magic for you: star sand. Pedal your one-speed bike down to Kaiji-hama, a beach on the southwest coast, to hunt for star sand, a rare phenomenon unique to certain beaches in Okinawa and other Asian-Pacific shores. The ‘sand,’ shaped like variously pointed stars, is made up of the exoskeletons of tiny marine protozoa that wash up on shore. Walk down to the water’s edge to wet your hand, press your palm onto the beach and see how many grains of star sand have stuck: instant, joyous, meditative wonder.

Get crafty

There’s a reason art therapy exists. Humans have always created things with our hands, and though many of us don’t incorporate the act of art making into our daily lives, Picasso once allegedly said, ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once (s)he grows up.’ This problem is easily solved, and the solution often results in secondary positive consequences – like a sense of well-being, or… souvenirs.

Okinawan arts are alive and kicking, as you will hear in the cheerysanshin-heavy soundtrack of restaurants and bars, and as you’ll see in the textile design of traditional fabrics or the beautifully-glazed, daily use ceramics sold in the Tsuboya pottery district of Naha, Okinawa’s capital city. Slowing down to spend a few hours learning the basics of creating Okinawan art can be a relaxing way to participate in its cultural traditions while also focusing on a rewarding, physically engaged project.

Tracing History in Visby, Gotland

Steeped in medieval history dating back to the early thirteenth century, Unesco-protected Visby is an excellently preserved example of a European Hanseatic League trading town, with over 200 warehouses and merchants’ houses contained within its 13th-century ramparts.

A step back in time

Visby’s status as a key trading place in the Baltic Sea during the Middle Ages meant the island of Gotland saw its fair share of attacks and invasions. Most notable was the successful 1361 invasion by Danish King Valdemar Atterdag which made Gotland a Danish colony before it was re-annexed by Sweden in 1645.

Despite its tiny size, Visby has the largest number of preserved ruins in all of northern Europe, with 10 church ruins and 27 preserved medieval fortresses of the original 29 military defense outposts built to protect it. It also has more churches within its walls than any other town in Sweden. Construction began on some of these places of worship during the 12th century, and they were built by wealthy families who’d made their fortune through trading when Visby became a member of the Hanseatic League. Iconic religious structures including the Gothic cathedral St Karins kyrka, which was founded by the Franciscans in 1233, and St Nicolai kyrka, built by Dominican monks in 1230, are all within a five-to-ten minute walk of each other.

Strolling through its compact streets, medieval church ruins can be found at nearly every turn, and today many are used to house concerts due to the unique atmosphere they bring to the events.

When it comes to Viking artefacts and Norse mythology, Visby certainly isn’t lacking. With over 31,000 remains and objects salvaged from all around the island, these archaeological relics indicate that people may have lived on Gotland as early as 8,000 years ago. Human skeletons and stone tools dating to the Stone Age (around 1800 BC) were excavated around Stenkyrka, Lummelunda, and Big Karlso on the island, making them the oldest remains in Gotland and some of the oldest graves in Sweden. The impressive Gotland Historical Museumhouses many of these artefacts.  Here, you can see engraved steles, axes, daggers, sickles, swords, spears, silver and obelisks spanning several time periods from the Stone and Bronze ages to the Viking era and Medieval times.

Living history around town

History coexists seamlessly with modern-day living in Visby. The town is enclosed within a medieval 3.5km-long stone wall called Ringmuren (The Ring Wall), which was built in the 13th-century to protect the city from invaders. The walls were moulded using limestone, clay and mortar, and there are three main entrances into the town as well as over 50 towers. There are signs along the walk that provide visitors with information about key fortresses, stone buildings and church ruins around Visby.

Within the walls, there are around 200 well-preserved stone buildings, some with gothic-inspired facades, others with pointy, stepped gables. Dotting the town are also classic 18th-century wooden cottages with their signature doors painted green, all connected by narrow, cobbled alleyways and stone arches.

But Visby’s most iconic structure is the deep red, timber Burmeister House, located in the heart of Donners plats square, which was built by German merchant Hans Burmeister in the mid-17th century. During the summer, it doubles as a museum where you can marvel at the Baroque-inspired decor, historic fireplaces made from sandstone, and paintings by Swedish artist Johan Bartsch.

Exploring Visby today

Locals live and work in Visby’s historic buildings, and many shops, businesses and restaurants offer a nod to the town’s history by incorporating medieval details and nautical touches in their interior decor.

Visby’s cornerstone park, Almedalen (The Elm Valley) got its name from the elm trees that were planted there in the 1870s, and today the park is heavily associated with Swedish politics. Almedalen serves as the location where top politicians from Sweden’s political parties go to give speeches and hold debates every year in the first week in July, in what is known as Almedalsveckan (Almedal’s Week,

Strandpromenaden (The Beach Boardwalk), which was recently renovated, is a 5km-long walking and cycle path that runs the length Visby’s northern coastline. A leisurely stroll along the boardwalk goes past mile markers such as fortresses, towers, ruins, and beaches. Gotland’s 800km-long coastline provides panoramic views of the Baltic and walking along Visby’s beachfront promenade as the sun sets offers up stunning views of the sea.

Every August, Visby’s streets are filled with jesters, peasants and storytellers, as locals don medieval attire and return to the Middle Ages for the popular Medeltidsveckan (Medieval Week, The town’s squares and narrow lanes are transformed into vibrant, living, breathing marketplaces with jousting knights and crowd-captivating magicians. Medieval Week wraps up with a programme of musical entertainment, history lectures and theatre in celebration of Visby’s rich history.

uxe base camps in Japan’s southern islands

Big island hideaway: Hyakuna Garan

In southeastern Okinawa-hontō (Okinawa’s main island), Hyakuna Garan ( offers a first-class retreat perched on a bluff above the sea. Only 35 minutes’ drive from Naha airport, its elegant, red-roofed Ryūkyūan-style rooms afford luxury and privacy on an enviable beachfront bluff location.

Room rates include beautifully styled traditional breakfasts and dinners, as well as free use of six ‘hermitages’ – private bungalows on the top level of the property, each containing private, open-air baths and terraces with unobstructed views of the ocean.

Surrounding a courtyard centred on a large banyan tree, the executive suites make up the bulk of this property, all with wide-ranging ocean views and designed in comfortable Western style with a classic Japanese touch. The three ‘special’ rooms are more spacious suites, all with private terraces or gardens, along with oceanview baths. One is Japanese-style, complete with tatami floors and shōji (wood-and-paper sliding doors), while the Western-style options have a sophisticated, distinctly Ryūkyūan feel to them, with polished rattan furnishings and limestone walls and flagstones.

Hyakuna Garan’s easy accessibility from Okinawa’s main hub, Naha, makes for a convenient luxury getaway for those with limited time in the islands.

Whitewashed villas, turquoise seas: Island Terrace Neela

Heading farther south to Miyako-jima, you could certainly choose one of the larger resorts on this beautiful island. However, if you seek intimacy, star-filled silent nights and don’t mind shelling out for more solitude, cross the bridge on the northern end of the island to Ikema-jima. There, on the west side, a quiet isle of tropical beach and marshland, Island Terrace Neela awaits with private villas atop an oceanfront bluff. Some of the five villas boast private hot tubs, but the small communal pool has its own appeal, perched in a prime spot above a private crescent of white-sand beach. And while a dip in the pool is lovely enough, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not donning a snorkel and mask to swim amid the coral and brightly-coloured fish just offshore.

Each freestanding villa has its own semi-private outdoor space for lounging, where you can also opt to grill your own dinner. With vaulted ceilings, tiled floors and glass doors opening toward the ocean, the spacious villas feel connected to the outdoor space. The whole environment has an air of unpretentious, laid-back comfort, making this a superb spot for low-key honeymooners.

Modernist jungle seclusion: Jusandi

For something equally intimate but with a modernist twist, Jusandi ( on Ishigaki-jima is the place. Designed by Norihiko Dan – the architect behind the redevelopment of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, among other large projects – Jusandi features five sleek, white villas nestled into the jungle, lending a sense of privacy and attunement with nature. Each villa, surrounded by jungle greenery, has its own garden area that includes a spring-fed pool and a covered deck with lounge chairs.

Secluded and elegant with a contemporary minimalism, the villas make good use of windows for natural light, Ryūkyūan limestone for a native feel and clean aesthetics in furnishings and decor. At the in-house Ryūkyūan fusion restaurant, guests can choose between Japanese- or Western-style breakfasts to enjoy with a jungle view. Tables are arranged with slatted screens around the room for a sense of privacy in this serene setting.

Honeymooners with a little cash to burn will find these secluded villas in the jungle well worth the romantic splurge.

Village luxury: Hoshinoya Taketomi Island Village

Holding fast to their Ryūkyūan roots, the islanders on Taketomi-jimahave worked fiercely to preserve their cultural identity, most clearly evidenced to outsiders by the island’s uniformly traditional architecture. The low-lying buildings on the island are still constructed in traditional fashion, with red-tiled roofs and low walls of stacked coral surrounding them. Tiny succulents, and flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea add colourful living accents to the stone structures.

One such clutch of traditional red-tiled dwellings blends right into the island’s environs, and for travellers wishing for a uniquely Okinawan experience, Hoshinoya Taketomi Island Village ( is it. Established by the luxury Hoshino chain, this singular inn creates a luxury experience in understated Taketomi style.

As in traditional Taketomi design, each ‘pavilion’ opens with a living space meant to be open-air, facing south to catch the ocean breezes. Guests can opt for wood or tatami floors, but all pavilions are outfitted with modern comfort in mind, with furniture that invites lounging and large bathtubs begging for long soaks.

The stacked-limestone walls and crushed-coral paths echo the village design, while the heated pool in the garden area seems like an incongruous secret in the centre of the property. Even more decadent is the Okinawan-tinged French style cuisine, showcasing local ingredients in the best kind of island fusion. Best of all, when evenings fall on Taketomi-jima, the day-tripping population ferries back to Ishigaki-jima and the quiet magic of the island’s starry sky is all yours.