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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Why Kiribati is a Nature Lover’s Paradise

First come for the fishing

One prime reason travellers head to Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Republic of Kiribati is for the fishing – marlin, sailfish, wahoo, barracuda and huge schools of tuna are found here. But the real gem: miles of pristine saltwater flats perfect for wading and fly-fishing for bonefish, milkfish, triggerfish and a number of trevally including the elusive giant trevally. GT, as they are affectionately known, are on the bucket list of most dedicated fly-fishermen. This exotic species hunts on the flats for prey and is known for its speed, weight (upwards of 40kgs) and ferocity.

Giant trevally are difficult to hook and even more difficult to land. They frequently snap both lines and rods. Fishing for one is a truly awe inspiring experience that will give you a heightened respect for this bully of the saltwater flats (catching a 20kg baby, in relative terms, GT was one of this fisherman’s proudest moments).

Fishing tours are run from a number of self-contained lodges that provide board, boats and guides. These local guides are proud of their island’s rich and diverse marine life and conservation is as important as the catch. Tuna caught off the island invariably end up as a feast of fresh sushi that same night in the lodge, all fish within the reef are returned to swim another day.

You can’t help but become a bird watcher

As you might expect for a nation of islands in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean, Kiribati is home to a thriving bird population. Here you can spot seabirds, obviously, with frigatebirds, boobies, shearwaters, petrels and gulls – they’re hard to miss. But bird lovers may be surprised by the land-based birds found in Kiribati. The islands have around 15 percent regenerated forest cover today which is home to the Kuhl’s lorikeet, Pacific long-tailed cuckoo, and the endemic Christmas Island warbler.  For those not inclined to twitching, the many species of birdsong is probably best enjoyed in a hammock with a cold drink.

Then there’s the diving

Scuba is a relatively new addition to Kiribati – but growing in popularity as the islands realise the potential – but divers can see over 200 species of coral that host a diverse range of marine animals here including colourful reef fish, sharks, manta rays, spinner dolphins and turtles. The main dive shops and tours operate from Christmas Island and much of it is done from shore or outrigger canoes. Further afield Tarawa atoll offers WWII-wreck diving with its reminders of the American and Japanese battle for the Pacific.

Most dive operations are run from the fishing lodges – Villages, Captain Cook and Ikari House fishing lodges all offer dive trips with guides, well-equipped boats and gear hire for experienced and novice divers.

Plus surfing and kite-surfing

You won’t find big concentrations of surfers competing for waves in Kiribati. Like with all the other activities on the island you are going to be among a hardy few. The wave calendar is similar to Hawaii – peak times are October to April. The prime surfing location is from the Kiritimati (Christmas Island) capital London to the town of the abandoned village of Paris (yes, you read that right). There are 24 surfable waves along this five kilometre stretch. The logistics of getting equipment to the islands – and remoteness of the locations once there – means you’re best advised to book surfing through an operator like Christmas Island Surf (christmasislandsurf.com) with plenty of local knowledge.

Outside the surf season, kite-surfing runs all year round. These islands are famed for their consistent, although slightly wearing, off-shore winds.

Did someone say beaches?

With an average height above sea level of just 2 metres, Kiribati has plenty of beaches. Add in the very basic infrastructure – many of the outlying islands have no plumbing, electricity or toilets – visitors are blessed with vast stretches of truly un-busy coastline.

In fact on our recent visit we saw no one else for a whole day on a trip to the eastern coastline of Christmas Island. The population here is so sparse we passed only one other car on a one-hour drive from London. In an increasingly crowded world, where constant communication has become the norm, it’s refreshing to find a destination where you actually can really escape.

Getting there

The largest individual atoll in this island group, Kiritimati (Christmas Island), is a mere 5000 kilometres from any other country! The largest coral atoll in the world, it is the centre of much of Kiribati’s tourism. It’s is accessible by weekly flights from Nadi in Fiji and Honolulu in Hawaii.

If you’re really wanting to go for the adventure of a lifetime it’s a seven- to eight-day boat trip, again from Honolulu, with Sailing Vessel Kwai (svkwai.com). Kiribati offers a variety of hotels and resorts, mainly on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), but don’t expect five-star digs and pina coladas waitered to your sun-lounge – accommodation here can only be described as rustic.

Where to cool off with an unforgettable wild swim

Lake swim at Refugio Frey in the Argentine Andes

The well-marked trail from Cerro Catedral in the Nahuel Huapi National Park up to the climbers’ hut at Refugio Frey offers relentless views of the Andes. These become truly stunning once you reach the hut itself, where a small mountain lake sits beneath vertiginous peaks.

The water here can get icy in the off-season, but during the summer months of January and February, swimming out from the shallows and lying on your back to take in the view is the ideal way to end one ofArgentina’s finest walks.

Hampstead Mixed Pond, London

One of three bathing holes on London’s vast Hampstead Heath, the pond is the ideal haven when the searing heat of the city gets too much. Its freshwater is tested daily, and lifeguards provide reassurance to those feeling nervous about stepping into the depths from the metal steps.

Swim out a few metres and you’ll find yourself in your own bubble, quickly forgetting that central London is just a short Tube ride away. Entry costs £2 and the place can get busy on hot days, so aim for an early start to ensure a good sunbathing spot on the grassy banks.

Waterfalls of Costa Rica’s Bajos del Toro Cloud Forest

After a sweaty hike through the lush green cloud forest of Bajos del Toro, the La Promesa waterfall is the ultimate sight for those looking to take a cooling dip. With a gentle sloping beach and shallow plunge pool, it’s the perfect place for a safe wild swim, with plenty of hikers trailing up here from the nearby El Silencio Lodge (elsilenciolodge.com). With white water pouring down 100 feet, the water is refreshing but never cold.

Once you’ve dried off, take a ten–minute stroll to the thunderous Bajos del Toro waterfall, which at 300 feet is one of Costa Rica’s highest.

Havnebadet, Islands Brygge, Copenhagen

No country does outdoor swimming as well as Denmark. The stunning Havnebadet in the centre of Copenhagen is home to five pools, two of which are specifically for kids. There are diving boards for the bold and plenty of space for those looking to power through a few laps rather than enjoy a languid dip.

Brave locals swim here all year round, even when the air temperature drops below freezing, so be sure to pack your bathers whenever you happen to visit and show your mettle.

Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is blessed with some truly beautiful bays and beaches, perfect for a lazy afternoon spent sunbathing and swimming. For cleansing water and big vistas though, it’s hard to get past Qualicum Beach. Keep your head out of the water and you’ll get frog’s eye views of the Strait of Georgia and the Coast Mountain Range.

Qualicum is popular in summer, but that means you’ll find plenty of facilities close by if you want to bring the family for a day of swimming and snorkelling.

Erskine Creek, Great Blue Mountains, Australia

The area around Sydney has some enticing outdoor swimming holes, none more so than at Jack Evans Track on Erskine Creek in the Great Blue Mountains. A sandy beach offers a handy place to set up camp, while the 200-metre pool provides the perfect way to cool off on a steamy Aussie summer afternoon.

A hotspot for birdlife, this is one of the great destinations for those who like to slip into the water and become one with nature. The Great Blue Mountains is home to a number of glorious wild swimming spots, such as Wentworth Falls, so plan a multi-day trip if you really want to explore.

Switzerland for nature lovers

On a high in Valais

Nothing says Switzerland more than that mountain. As the train chugs from Täsch to the ritzy outdoor resort of Zermatt, the pop-up effect of the Matterhorn is surreal. The 4478m fang of rock and ice forces your gaze skywards and elicits gasps of wonder.

Closer, you say? Kein problem. The Gornergratbahn, Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, has been trundling up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. At the summit, the view of the Gorner Glacier and 29 peaks rising above 4000m – including Switzerland’s highest, Dufourspitze (4634m) – opens up. Skiers, mountaineers and hardcore hikers are in their element at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Europe’s highest cable-car station on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m), with views reaching deep into the Swiss, French and Italian Alps.

Ever since British climber Edward Whymper made the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – albeit a triumph marred by rope-breaking tragedy – Zermatt has been the Holy Grail for mountaineers. Here you can tackle some of Europe’s most epic ascents: the Matterhorn, say, or Monte Rosa (4634m), with an Alpine Center guide. Hikers, meanwhile, can set out along the two-hour, 6.5km Matterhorn Glacier Trail. When the flakes fall in winter, the car-free resort is laced with 360km of ski runs in the Matterhorn’s shadow, some of which dip over the border into Italy.

Among alpine giants

The Matterhorn gets a lot of love, but swing north and follow the Rhône River east along the serene, remote valley of the Goms in Valaisand you enter another world. Here tiny hamlets with baroque churches and sun-blackened chalets are dwarfed by the dramatic backdrop. FromFiesch, take the cable car up to Fiescheralp, where paragliders catch thermals on clear days, then beyond to Eggishorn for one of Switzerland’s most unforgettable sights: the mighty Aletsch Glacier.

The icing on the cake of the Unesco World Heritage Jungfrau-Aletsch region, this is the longest and most voluminous glacier in the Alps: a 23km swirl of deeply crevassed ice that powers its way past waterfalls, spires of rock and the dagger-shaped summit of Aletschhorn (4193m) like a six-lane glacial superhighway. You can admire it from the viewpoint, but you’ll get much closer on the 17km, five- to six-hour hike from Fiescheralp to Bettmeralp, which is where you can be at one with the phenomenal views and perhaps spot the odd Valais blacknose sheep. For more of an instant thrill, walk (if you dare) the Aletschji–Grünsee Suspension Bridge, which spans the terrifyingly untamed, 80m-deep Massa Gorge.

Over the mountain as the crow flies lies the Bernese Oberland, presided over by its ‘big three’: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (Ogre, Monk and Virgin), all hovering around the 4000m mark. The picture-perfect resorts of Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren are great bases for hitting trails like the 6km Eiger Trail, with fearsome North Face views. More spectacular still, the full-day, 15.9km trek from Schynige Platte plateau via Faulhorn to First has views of lakes Thun and Brienz to make you yodel out loud. Or enjoy knockout peak and glacier views with zero effort by taking the train from Kleine Scheidegg up to 3454mJungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station.

Into the Engadin

Evocative of a golden age of travel, Switzerland’s train journeys are some of the world’s finest. There are big mountain views on repeat aboard the Glacier Express, which negotiates the Furka, Oberalp and Bernina passes on the eight-hour ride between Zermatt and St Moritz inGraubünden’s Upper Engadin.

Switzerland’s cradle of winter tourism since the mid 19th century, St Moritz is enshrined in sporting legend, home to slopes of Olympic fame and host to world championship events. Skiing ramps things up a notch in winter, with 350km of pistes, first-class freeriding opportunities, forested cross-country trails and heart-stopping black runs on 2978m Diavolezza.

The resort is every bit as alluring in summer. Hiking trails thread for mile after lovely mile, mountain bikers are in their element on 400km of terrain – the Suvretta Loop single trail is a classic – and wind- and kite-surfers drift across Silvaplana’s startlingly turquoise, wind-buffeted lakes in wonder.

For a taste of the Alps before the dawn of tourism, head northeast to theSwiss National Park in the Lower Engadin. Easily accessed from the quaint villages of Scuol, Zernez and S-chanf, Switzerland’s only national park is a nature-gone-wild spectacle of high moors, pastures, glaciated mountains, larch woodlands and topaz-coloured lakes. The only way to see it is by striking out on foot on one of 80km of marked trails. Go solo or hook onto a guided walk with the visitor centre in Zernez. With an expert in tow, you stand better chances of spotting rarities like wild edelweiss, ibex, chamois, golden eagles and bearded vultures.

Land of lakes & legends

Sitting on the mountain-rimmed shores of its eponymous lake, Lucerne, with its pristine Old Town, medieval wooden bridge and promenade, is every inch as genteel as it was back in the 19th century when Goethe, Wagner and Queen Victoria fell for its charms. And Lake Lucerne is no ordinary lake: this is where the Swiss legends were made and born. Cruise the fjord-like waters of Lake Uri and you’ll glimpse Rütli Meadow, hallowed birthplace of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, and the Tells’ Chapel, where apple-shooting hero and Swiss rebel William Tell apparently escaped from the boat of his Hapsburg captor, Gessler.

Lucerne itself is a cracking base for striking out into the surrounding lakes on low-key adventures. Without venturing too far or expending too much effort, you can marvel at the Alps cycling the trails rimming the waterfront, taking a refreshing dip at lakefront beaches in the warmer months, or hiring a boat to explore Lake Lucerne at your own steam.

Top 7 Free Things to do in Shanghai

Tianzifang’s bustling alleyways

Expect cheerfully decorated shop fronts and a lively atmosphere in this fun shopping area at the edge of the French Concession. Tianzifang is a network of small alleys lined with craft shops, bars and food stands. Shoppers looking for the best bargains need to come armed with a price in mind and a knack for haggling – shopkeepers here love the chase!

The Bund waterfront

Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong.  Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.

Shanghai Museum

When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it’s free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.

Fuxing Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of theFrench Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.

French Concession stroll

No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.

Jing’an Temple

Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city.  Meandering through the temple’s three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you’re overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!

Yuyuan Garden

An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.