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Category Archives: Travel

8 Tips for Backpacking Australia

1. Plan a rough itinerary

Spontaneity is one of the best things about backpacking, but in Australia it pays to have at least a rough itinerary, as it’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to get around this vast country. Spending longer than planned pottering around South Australia’s wine country – fun though it is – might mean you have to sacrifice that eagerly awaited trip to extraordinary Uluru or exploring the billabongs of Kakudu.

Three weeks is the absolute minimum to “do” the East Coast by land: Sydney to Cairns via the broad beaches of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, self-driving the length of Fraser Island (the largest sand island in the world), sailing the gorgeous Whitsundays, diving at the Great Barrier Reef and trekking in Daintree, the oldest tropical rainforest on earth. So to see the rest of Australia, you’ll need to fly or have much more time.

2. Plan where to go when

At any time of year, Australia is a great place to visit but it can get unbelievably hot, as well as surprisingly chilly and rainy, depending on where you go. Avoid travelling north during the “build-up” – the unbearably sticky weeks before the wet season rains bring cooler temperatures (November–March).

It’s far better to spend time in the more temperate south during these months, for example driving the Great Ocean Road or on a hiking trip in the Blue Mountains. The winter is generally a lot quieter so it’s a lovely time to see the country.

3. Pick accommodation to suit your needs

For solo travellers, Australia is a breeze. Staying in hostels is the best way to meet people, and  staff can help you orientate yourself and make travel arrangements, while other backpackers are an invaluable source of information.

Whilst not to everyone’s taste, “party hostels” provide social events to break the ice, but you can also find rural retreats, city hipster hangouts, and most have private rooms if you’re a couple or dorms don’t suit.

4. Choose transport to suit your needs

Without doubt the easiest way to cover the great distances around Oz is to fly, but travelling by bus allows you to see more and is cheaper. Gaze out of the window on a long journey and be mesmerised by the changing landscape: the rust-coloured bush where kangaroos bound alongside, swaying grasslands, blue-tinged mountains, and occasional tiny settlements flashing past.

Greyhound buses offer hop-on hop-off travel passes, and the Oz Experience – the party backpacker equivalent – provides excursions along the way. If you want more freedom, hire a car or camper van, pack a tent or bivvy bag and camp out under the stars.

5. Be savvy about safety

Throughout Australia, be prepared for summer heat waves when forest fires are a frequent danger. The arid interior is a hostile environment so take the necessary precautions if you plan to drive – breaking down here is no joke. Like in big cities anywhere in the world, be streetwise – watch your valuables and let family and friends know where you are going.

6. Don’t be spooked by dangerous animals

Australia has more than its fair share of scary critters but don’t get paranoid – the risks are actually very low: more people die each year from bee stings than from encounters with snakes, sharks, dingoes, saltwater crocodiles or jellyfish.

Spider bites are rarely fatal thanks to the availability of anti-venom. That said, do take simple precautions: redback spiders hide in sheltered places so always check under toilet seats, especially in outside lavatories.

Reduce the risk of encountering a shark by swimming between the flags on patrolled beaches, and don’t swim in estuaries, rivers or mangroves where saltwater crocodiles like to hang out. When hiking in the bush, wear protective footwear to avoid snake bites.

7. Go west

Most visitors to Australia follow the well-trodden path up the East Coast. While it’s undoubtedly a highlight, the Ningaloo Reef on the remote West Coast is an equally spectacular and, unlike at the Great Barrier Reef, it comes right into the shore.

At Coral Bay, you can wade out through turquoise water to the reef or take a glass-bottomed boat and watch an exhilarating frenzy of fish at feeding time. When you’re done snorkelling or diving, see the reef from a biplane or speed on quad bikes along a glimmering white beach.

Head inland to spend the night at an isolated sheep station, cooking over a campfire as the sun sets over the never-ending ochre landscape.

8. Don’t dismiss anywhere

You can have a good time in the most unlikely places: for example, a stopover at a one-horse town with nothing but a pub and a few bungalows may turn out to be the venue for one of the most surprisingly good nights of your trip. The town probably won’t make it into the guidebooks but finding adventure where you least expect it is one of the best things about backpacking in Australia.

Where to go And What to do in France for First Time

Paris

France’s chic, sexy capital has to be experienced at least once. Mix picture-postcard icons with simple Parisian moments and you’ll truly fall in love with the city. Scale the Eiffel Tower then walk or cycle along the Seine, or cruise down it on a bateau-mouche (bateaux-mouches.fr). Venerate Notre Dame then grab a post-cathedral café atCafé Saint-Régis, ice-cream at Berthillon or super juice at literary café of mythical bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Hit the Louvre then collapse on a bench with a Pierre Hermé macaron in the Tuileries orPalais Royal gardens. Delve into hilltop Montmartre with a local Paris Greeter (greeters.paris). Escape to posh leafy Versailles and come back blown away by France’s most famous chateau.

Loire Valley

Stunning châteaux are scattered around the lush Loire Valley. Stand in awe of the Renaissance supertanker of a castle Château de Chambord, and graceful Château de Chenonceau astride the Cher River. Château de Blois with its whistle-stop tour of French architecture, and classicalChâteau de Cheverny where the spectacle of the dogs having dinner steals the show, is the perfect one-day combo. In summer put the gardens at Château de Villandry and Château d’Azay-le-Rideau after dark on your hit list. Base yourself in Tours, Blois or Amboise; hire a bike to pedal along the Loire riverbanks at least once; and try to catch ason-et-lumière (sound-and-light) show.

French Riviera

This strip of seashore on the big blue Med has it all – hence half the world crowding it out in summer. The seaside town of Nice is the queen of the Riviera with its cutting-edge art museums, belle époque architecture, pebble beaches and legendary promenade. Glitzy day trips trail film stars in Cannes, Formula One drivers in Monaco, and hobnobbing celebs ‘n socialites in St-Tropez. Sensational coastal views make the drive along the three coastal roads from Nice to Menton an absolute must. Otherwise, grab your hiking boots and stride out in the fiery Massif de l’Estérel for brilliant red-rock mountain scenery.

Provence

Check all devices are fully charged: the extraordinary light and landscape in this part of France’s south demands constant snapping and sharing. Start with Marseille, a millennia-old port with striking museums such as the MuCEM and coastline straight off a film set. Inland, zoom in on glorious Roman amphitheatres and aqueducts inNîmes, Orange and at the Pont du Gard. Drive past lavender fields and cherry orchards to hilltop villages and food markets in the bucolic Luberon and Vaucluse regions. No lens is large enough for the peak ofMont Ventoux (a cyclist’s paradise) or the Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s deepest canyon with 800m sheer-drop cliffs and startling emerald green water, no filter required.

Champagne

This sparkling viticulture region in northern France is all class. Where else can you sip Champers in centuries-old cellars and taste your way through vineyards and medieval villages straight out of a Renoir painting? Stay in Reims (pronounced something similar to ‘rance’) or Épernay to visit Pommery, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and other big-name Champagne houses. In Reims, pick a clear day to scale the tower of the cathedral where dozens of French kings were crowned. From both towns, scenic Champagne driving routes thrust motorists into the heart of this intoxicating region.

Brittany & Normandy

A wind-buffeted part of northern France, Brittany & Normandy was created especially for outdoor fiends and history buffs with sensational seafood, cliff-top walks, a craggy coastline and ancient sights steeped in lore and legend. Top billing is Mont St-Michel, a magical mysterious abbey-island, best approached barefoot across the sand. Or grab a bicycle and toot your horn at the Carnac megaliths strewn along Brittany’s southern coast (wear a windbreaker). Normandy’s time-travel masterpiece is the Bayeux tapestry but it’s the heart-wrenching D-Day beaches and WWII war cemeteries nearby that will really take you back to a moment in history.

Find best Beaches in Sydney

Secluded spots

Sydney is famous for its surf beaches but there are many secluded hideaway beaches dotted all around the harbour. Some are more popular than others, depending on their accessibility, but our top tips are the diminutive Lady Martins Beach at Point Piper, not far from central Sydney and tucked between the salubrious suburbs of Double Bay and Rose Bay.

On the northern side of city, head for Balmoral Beach near Mosman. It is an excellent beach for families, with a netted enclosed swimming area and large shady Moreton Bay fig trees to escape the heat. Lastly, look for Collins Beach at Manly, a long circuitous walk from the Manly ferry pier, where you may well find yourself alone for a good part of the day.

Autumn sun

This may surprise many first-time travellers to Sydney, but autumn (March to May) is a perhaps the best time to hit the beach. Sydney is blessed with a fairly temperate climate so it can stay sunny and reasonably warm right into late May (the beginning of the Australian winter). It takes some months for the ocean to cool down to the same temperature as the land which means the sea can still be surprisingly warm even if days are not baking hot.

Rise and shine

You can beat the heat, and the summer hordes, by heading down to the Sydney’s most iconic surf spot, Bondi Beach, early in the morning. There’s nothing like watching the sun rise over the ocean, and you’ll be sharing the experience with locals surfing, running, and doing their early morning sun salutations. Bondi gets busier as the day wears on – by midday traffic can clog the main routes down to the shoreline. Book an early lunch at Icebergs, which overlooks the iconic ocean pool, then make your escape.

Go south

If you do hit Bondi in peak hour, you can also head south to Bronte andCoogee via a cliff-side walking path (unfortunately you won’t be the only one doing this walk!). Beyond Bondi there are further ocean pools for the less confident swimmers to take a paddle where you’re protected from sharks as well as the swell. You’ll still be swimming with the same breath-taking views of sandstone headlands, sea birds and the occasional band of whales ploughing their migration routes along the Pacific.

The Joys of Winter Walking in The Lake District

The Lake District is one of Britain’s most popular hiking destinations, but in winter it sees far fewer walkers. Ben Lerwill went to beat the crowds and take in this stunning landscape out of season.

They do a mighty fine goulash in the Dog & Gun, using a recipe that’s been bringing in hikers for five decades. It’s the kind of sustenance the body craves after seven cold hours on the fells. We spill into the rosy warmth of the little Keswick pub, peeling off damp jackets and stamping the muck off our boots. The windows are fogged with condensation. Two pints are pulled, food ordered, a corner found. We settle. “Yep,” says Daniel, one long swig later.

Winter is a season that heightens the solitude and bristling drama of the hills
The two of us have travelled up to the Lake District for four days of winter walking. A trip here is always something of a meteorological lottery, so by arriving at the start of the year there’s already an acceptance that getting chilly, and probably soaked, is a given. It helps take the uncertainty out of the equation.

At the same time, it’s also a season that heightens the solitude and bristling drama of the hills. We’re here – with about seven months to spare – to beat the summer rush. And when you’re alone on Maiden Moor in February and it’s blowing a gale, you know about it.

We’re starting in the northern fells with a long, looping yomp around the slopes above Derwent Water. The morning is shrouded in low cloud, rendering the islands in the middle of the lake as ethereal outlines.

At the river bridge, there’s a man lobbing a ball into the water for a soggy spaniel. The dog is half delirious with joy. We veer south and clamber up past the falls of Greenup Sikes.

My last time in the Lakes was a winter two years ago, when everything had been snow and ice. The temperatures are less fierce now, but the winter skies are still raw and blustery. Beds of wilting bracken lie across the slopes, coating the hills in a coppery red. We pause to watch a sparrowhawk glide past us: it tilts its wings to gain speed, then disappears over the brow of the rock.

For the next few hours the massed grey clouds tease us, revealing deep views then closing them up again. At the pinnacle of Cat Bells, a sudden, mighty panorama opens up to the west. We debate: is that Grasmoor? Grisedale? Ten minutes later it’s gone, and we hike on into the spitting wind, gossiping our way back to Keswick.

The mountain forecast is poor for the next day. Bad visibility, relentless rain, but little wind. There’s a chance of beating the cloud by rising above 750m, so we opt to trek up Scafell Pike – not a handsome mountain, but the tallest of them all.

The results are glorious. After a two-hour climb we find ourselves in the clear, striding above a thick bed of cloud, every underfoot sound made crisp. At the summit we gorge on sausage rolls and apples, the highest, hungriest men in England.

Neither of us are true, feral outdoorsmen – picnics yes, pick-axes no – so by the time we thread our way down the gully under Broad Crag and join the downhill trail, the distant lights of the Wasdale Head Inn have taken on the feel of a promised land.

It’s cold early evening when we arrive. The famous old climbers’ pub sits near-isolated in the valley. There’s a log-burner glowing in the bar, and Yates Bitter on the pumps. A blackboard reads: “No, we don’t have wi-fi. Talk to each other.” It’s a hard place to leave.

The following morning we’re spoiled. It dawns a billowing, bracing February day, with wind rushing through the dales and a charged, purple atmosphere on the uplands. We’re now in the southern fells, and make the most of the conditions by snaking our way up to the Langdale Pikes. The tops are gusty but the views are extraordinary: an ocean of ridges and clefts, Windermere glinting in the distance, sporadic sunbeams spearing through the clouds. In six hours of hiking, we pass one other walker.

The Lake District always seems far bigger than its borders, folding and contorting itself so endlessly
People obsess over the Lake District. Some dedicate – even lose – their lives to it. It has much to do, I suppose, with how consuming the place can feel.

Squeezed between the North Pennines and the Irish Sea, it always seems far bigger than its borders, folding and contorting itself so endlessly that even when you’re poring over an OS map, it seems impossible that the valleys, peaks and overhangs all find the space to fit together. Wainwright famously described 214 fells, but each one is a world of its own.

The weather hurls its worst at us on the final day. Fuelled by flapjacks and a sense of duty, we troop up into the wet clag to reach the Old Man of Coniston, getting lashed with rain. The view from the summit is non-existent: 360 degrees of murk. Only when we reach the surface of Goats Water on the way back down does the land re-emerge, unfurling a windblown spread of yawning basins and far-off tarns.

Even today, it feels good to be out. For the next hour we sing damp songs and hasten on toConiston, where they say the Black Bull Inn’s just right for afternoons like these.

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.

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 (piranha-divers.jp) and Reef Encounters (reefencounters.org) on Okinawa-hontō (Okinawa’s main island) and Umicoza (umicoza.com) 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.