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Monthly Archives: November 2016

The 7 best beach holidays in Europe

1. Find paradise in Rab, Croatia

Sandy beaches are a rarity in Croatia, but on this small island in the Kvarner Gulf, you’ve got 22 to choose from. Rab’s aptly named Paradise Beach on the Lopar peninsula is a good place to start for a relaxing beach holiday. It’s got a 1.5km sweep of sand and clear shallow waters. Or take a half-hour hike through woods to reach Sahara Beach in a sheltered inlet – a popular spot for naturists.

2. Take the plunge in Tropea, Italy

It’s hard to find a beach with a more dramatic backdrop than Tropea’s steep cliffs, where brightly coloured houses cling on, seemingly in defiance of gravity. Down in Italy’s toe, Calabria’s prettiest town hovers over several sandy beaches as well as a rocky promontory topped by the church of Santa Maria dell’Isola. Calabria is one of Italy’s least developed regions, and its warmth comes not just from the southern sun and the famously spicy cuisine, but from the people too.

3. Find peace on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast

Just north of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey are some of the country’s least developed beaches. Start in the small village of Sinemorets and work your way down the indented coast, where quiet golden-sand beaches are surrounded by protected nature reserves and pine forests. Bring your own picnic to the secluded sands of Lipite Beach and Silistar Beach, as you won’t find the bars and clubs that dominate the resorts further north.

4. Spin those wheels in Ile de Ré, France

Everyone’s on a bike on this chilled-out French Atlantic island, where 100km of cycle trails wind past sandy beaches, vineyards, salt pans and pine forests. Head inland where oyster beds hint at the gorgeous seafood on offer at the food market in the village of La Flotte. After a day on the dunes at Sainte-Marie-de-Ré’s beach, try one of the quayside cafés in St-Martin-de-Ré.

5. Chill out in Paxos, Greece

Strap on your swimming shoes to get the most out of the long rocky beach at Monodendri on the east coast of Paxos. You’ll be able to see every detail of the pebbles in the sparkling waters of the Ionian Sea here. Pine and olive trees offer shade, and both of the beach restaurants serve classic Greek dishes; one even has an outdoor pool.

6. Go back in time in Norfolk, England

Norfolk’s North Sea coast might not have the balmy climate of its Continental counterparts, but the 6km of Holkham Beach’s soft and often empty sands are very tempting all the same. Rent a bike and check out the Norfolk Coast Cycleway along the coast to Wells-next-the-Sea, where rustic beach huts give the area an old-fashioned charm.

 

7. Take it easy in laidback Liguria, Italy

There’s a wonderfully traditional and mellow air to the beach at Santa Margarita Ligure. Away from the smart yachts in the pleasure port, you can still watch the fishermen offload their catch, destined for the seafront restaurants. The town makes a good base for exploring this part of Italy’s Ligurian coast, with classy Portofino just to the west and the exquisite Cinque Terre villages a short train ride away.

The essential guide to backpacking China’s Silk Road

 But for adventurous travellers looking for something truly different, backpacking the Chinese Silk Road reaps glorious rewards: sand-sledding down a magical unmoving sand dune, a camel ride around an oasis, a trek up the end of the Great Wall and sipping wine under grape trellises are just a few of the possibilities. So don a sand-proof rucksack and check out our guide to backpacking the Silk Road through China.

The route

Historically, the Silk Road was not one but many routes that connected east and south Asia to Mediterranean Europe, so named because the largest commodity traded down the route was sought-after Chinese silk. The route traditionally started in Xi’an (then known as Chang’an), China and continued northwest through modern-day Gansuand Xinjiang provinces before reaching Central Asia.

Several historical splits in the road mean that you have options when deciding your route. By far, the most traversed portion of the route is from Xi’an to Lanzhou and Jiayuguan in Gansu. From here, you can choose to head northwest to Urumqi in Xinjiang, where fascinating Uigher culture, China’s wine country, and the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan mountains await.  Alternately, the southern route heads through the fiery desert of Gansu, with its huge dunes and ancient Buddhist caves, ending in the distinctly Central Asian city of Kashgar, renowned for its bustling Sunday livestock market. Adventurous travellers and those with extra time could potentially explore both routes by heading southward from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang in Gansu, then upwards to Urumqi and finally south again to end in Kashgar.

Don’t-miss sights

Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. This incredible desert landscape is striking for its orange, red and yellow hues of layered clay and sandstone, forming bizarre rainbow mountains. While you’re in Zhangye, also be sure to see the Giant Buddha Temple, which contains one of the largest wooden reclining Buddha statues in China.

Jiayuguan Fort. The ancient Great Wall ends in this towering mud fortress, which rises out of the desert like a mirage. Just a few kilometres northwest of Jiayuguan town, the fort boasts a few touristy activities like archery and camel rides, but the real reason to come is for the sweeping views from its ramparts.

Overhanging Great Wall. Named because it looks like a dragon hanging over a cliffside, this portion of the Great Wall is one of the most visually stunning: a mud maze that zigzags its way up a stark desert mountain. The wall is open for climbing and views from the top are incredible.

Singing Sands Dune. To call this a single dune would be an understatement. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, Singing Sands Dune is the first in a series of thousands of dunes that make up the Taklamakan Desert. This particular dune, though, is legendary for having never covered the oasis below, despite thousands of years of sand erosion. Adventurous types can climb the dune for great vistas of yet more dunes – and then sand-sled back to the bottom.

Mogao Grottoes. Just outside of Dunhuang, this series of caves contains an incredible wealth of Buddhist art and murals.

Turpan Grape Valley. China may not be known for its quality winemaking just yet, but Turpan – an oasis town – is home to one of the oldest and most prolific wine-making regions in the country. No matter the quality of the wine (some is actually quite quaffable), sipping a fresh glass of white under grape trellises as a brook babbles nearby is great way to beat the desert heat.

Jiaohe Ruins. This 2300-year-old archaeological site contains the ruins of an ancient capital that was destroyed by Mongol invaders around the 13th century. What remains today is an elaborate network of structures in various states of decay, connected by a maze of streets.

Tian Chi Lake. This mountain lake, whose name means ‘heavenly’, sits in the cradle of the Tian Shan mountains underneath the looming 5445m gaze of Bogda Peak. A popular destination with domestic tourists, the lake’s serenity is sadly hampered by honking boat horns and tramping visitors, but if you can find a spot of solitude, the vistas are incredible. It’s also possible to camp or stay in a yurt with a local Kazakh family – highly recommended for delivering a slice of the water and surrounding forest to yourself.

Kashgar’s Grand Sunday Bazaar. One of the largest and liveliest markets in all of Asia, Kashgar’s bazaar is open every day but is especially bustling on Sundays, when the livestock market adds cattle, horses, sheep and goats to the mix.

Getting around

China’s northwest is historically one of its least connected regions. The Jiayu pass, where the impressive Jiayuguan Fort was built in the 1370s, marks the end of the Great Wall and the border of the ancient Chinese empire.

The region spreads over 2400km, most of which is separated by vast tracts of desert. Though you can still get on a long, bumpy bus ride if you want to, the region is now connected by high-speed rail, making getting around a breeze. Regular flights also connect most of the main airports in the region: Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Urumqi and Kashgar all have commercial airports, and tickets are often discounted.

Part of the allure of this trip is the vast journey overland, which hearkens to a day when explorers, traders and Buddhists rode and walked for weeks across the harsh desert. Doing at least part of your journey by rail is a good way to experience these landscapes up close. The entire journey could be done in 10 days by rail if pressed, but two to three weeks allow for explorations further afield and several days in each stopover to see the sights properly. Flying from Xi’an to Lanzhou and beginning your rail journey there would shorten the journey for those in a hurry.

An ideal Silk Road trip would include overnight or several-day stops in Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi (or Tian Chi Lake) and Kashgar.

Tips and recommendations

Most of this route follows extreme desert, so pack for dry heat. Carry plenty of sunscreen and breathable clothing that covers the skin. A bandana or lightweight scarf can be useful for shade and breathing in dusty conditions.

If taking an overnight train trip, equip yourself with food and plenty of sealed, bottled water before you embark. Hot meals are offered on trains, but tend to be very basic Chinese staples like rice, vegetables and stir-fried meats. Instant noodles, fruit, nuts and seeds are ubiquitous, easy to carry and keep well. Trains also usually sell beer and wine, but at high mark-up, so be sure to pack your own, as having a ganbei (bottoms up) is a great way to meet locals and make friends while travelling.

Officially, the entirety of China is in one time zone, China Standard Time, but the northwest, particularly Xinjiang province, often operates on its own locally created time zones. When purchasing train and bus tickets, double-check the departure time.

Family travel myths worth forgetting

 Long-haul’s a bad call

Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, that’s for sure. And just the thought of having to hush the baby or keep a writhing toddler still in the aeroplane seat for 10 or – gulp – up to 24 hours when, chances are, they simply will not sleep, is enough to make most parents retreat into a dark chasm of despair.

But the reality isn’t nearly that bad. Babies are often coaxed into a sleepy state by the drone of the plane’s air regulator. True, flying with young kids of a certain age – let’s say roughly between one and two years old – can be a constant trial, but once they are old enough to appreciate in-flight entertainment, two thirds of the battle is won. The trick is to understand what you’re getting yourself into and plan ahead.

Top tips: Take a night flight if you can, when your kids are at their sleepiest and the cabin lights will be dimmed, and tag-team with a flying partner so each of you gets some respite if the kids are playing up. Run your children ragged in the airport before boarding, and always overestimate the amount of carry-on clothes, nappies and snacks you think you’ll need.

It’ll be too hot – or cold – for little ones

Nobody wants to see their children wilt under a scorching sun, or shiver in an Arctic gale. But kids are more resilient than we think. Extremes of weather are just another point of fascination for fledgling travellers – be that the sultry 24/7 heat of Thailand, or the theatre of ice and snow inLapland.

The tropics, in particular, are guaranteed to fulfil the wildest dreams of clothing-averse young ones. That daily struggle to get your kids dressed? Gone.

Top tips: In the tropics, hot nights call for air-con so your little ones can sleep easy. Pack cooling spray for sizzling days out. In freezing climates, bring portable hand heaters and insulating underclothes made of quality fabrics such as merino wool (widely available for kids, and even babies).

Beach is always best

All kids love wallowing in sand, right? Sand castles feed the imagination for hours on end, and chasing shallow surf is a game that knows no bounds.

Unfortunately, sand gets everywhere (ears, nose, nappy… you name it!); the salty stuff can be excruciating for grazes or baby eczema; the sun can be relentless, and kids get bored surprisingly quickly. The point is, try as you might, it’s not always possible to predict what’s going to float your kids’ boat.

Top tips: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and that applies to your children too. Pick destinations that have plenty to see and do around the beach and easy transport for day trips. Pebble beaches can also be great for stone-skimming – just pack sturdy jelly shoes.

Fussy eaters won’t touch a thing

Children aren’t known for their sophisticated palates, but it’s a myth that they’ll wither away if their familiar favourites aren’t available. Removed from their routines, you may find your children are more open to new foods. And trust us: every culture will have something that your child loves.

Spicy curry might be a no-no in India, for instance, but potato- or cheese-stuffed dosas could make them drool. The tropics will tempt them with seasonal fruit and freshly whizzed juices that’ll make their eyes pop. Local markets and hands-on, child-friendly cooking classes can also inspire tiny tummies.

Top tips: Pack a stash of snacks from back home to temper the new food experiences. Try using the one-bite taste-test rule. If all else fails, every country has a staple plain enough to satisfy the pickiest of eaters. Don’t beat yourself up if all they want to do is eat bread, rice or chips for the entire trip. Life’s too short.

Kids and fancy establishments don’t mix

Every parent will tell you there is nothing more embarrassing than watching your kids run amok when you’ve forked out for a sophisticated restaurant or hotel. In fact, many would argue that kids have no place in such fancy venues.

This view will always hold true with some establishments – and their clientele – but an increasing number of luxury businesses are catering for family travellers in new and interesting ways. Be that through the introduction of baby-sitting services and children’s spa facilities in swanky resorts, or because of the rise of more intimate luxury guesthouses and experiences.

Top tips: Redefine how you think about luxury. Businesses that champion personalised service (such as family-run boutique hotels) and private experiences (such as guided tours) are your new best friends, because they share one key principle: it’s all about you.

Road trips bore kids to tears

Trapped inside a tin can, with kids bouncing off the walls and whining ‘are we there yet?’. This not-so-pretty picture might be prophetic if you plan to cover several thousand kilometres of empty road in a week (wave goodbye to that Route 66 trip), but you just need to readjust your expectations. Small countries, for example, often make excellent road-tripping terrain for little ones.

Top tips: Consider European countries such as Montenegro, where distances are short, scenery is staggering and interesting stops are plentiful. Small, sleepy babies can make excellent road-trip companions; just coincide your driving time with their day-time sleeps. Got older kids? No problem – it’s all about engaging their imagination. Snacks always help, too.

Madagascar: an island unlike any other

 Kirindy and the baobabs

Start your trip in the west with wildlife encounters and a walk among iconic trees

Jean Baptiste strolls cheerfully through the forest, arms swaying, flip-flops flapping. For the past hour, he has led the way through a tangle of paths that each looks identical to the last, pausing to point out brown creatures hidden in the brown undergrowth: a twig-like pencil snake here, a fist-sized land snail there.

It takes some time to locate the lemur he spotted with barely a glance, but after much gesticulating (‘To the left of the fork, down from the second branch, no, not that branch, down further’), there it is: a sportive lemur, its teddy-bear head and goggly brown eyes poking out of a tree hollow. The sighting opens the floodgates to an embarrassment of encounters in the forest of Kirindy.

A few steps on, a black-and-white Verreaux’s sifaka appears far above, swinging between the treetops with the elegance of a trapeze artist, the tiny head of her baby peeking out from the fur of her belly. In a clearing nearby, Jean-Baptiste’s guttural ‘whoop-whoop’ is catnip to a family of red-bellied lemurs, and they soon make their way down from the canopy to inspect their human visitors.

The residents of Kirindy have made their home in the remains of the last dry deciduous forest on Madagascar’s west coast. It supports eight species of lemur – and the one creature in the country whose belly starts to rumble when it spots one. The forest is one of the best places to see the lemurs’ only predator: the endangered fossa.

Three of the animals have spent the day in the camp at Kirindy’s ecological research centre. One by one, they slink out from beneath a cabin, stretching and yawning in the sunshine, before hunching down in the dirt. They look like some terrible genetic mix-up between a dog and a weasel, with grey-brown fur, yellow eyes and a tail as long as their bodies. Mamy Ramparany, who manages the centre, would rather they didn’t feel so at home here. ‘One of the major issues for them,’ he says, squatting to check for other fossa beneath the cabin,  ‘is the destruction of their habitat through farming and logging. Maybe they come here because they don’t have enough food.’

Mamy watches as the creatures rise and stalk into the forest. ‘That is the challenge of conservation in Madagascar, to work out how people profit from the forest without destroying it,’ he says. ‘But it is an exciting challenge. As long as there are animals left, there is hope.’

The broad-trunked, spindly-topped trees that rise incongruously through the scrubby thicket of Kirindy give some clue to the nature of that challenge. These are baobabs – ‘mothers of the forest’ in Malagasy –  and the region was once full of them. Lost to deforestation and agriculture over the centuries, they now commonly stand alone, trunks thick as houses, towering over scorched earth cleared by slash-and-burn.

Some 25 miles south of Kirindy, the Avenue des Baobabs is a proud reminder of what has been lost. At dawn, a thick mist has settled over the road, and the 20 or so baobabs lining it – some 600 years old – are reduced to murky silhouettes. Farmers emerge through the fog, carrying scythes and axes, and leading zebu cattle, who stop to scratch their flanks on the gnarly bark of the trees. Fires are lit outside mud houses along the road, blackened pots placed over them, ready for a day’s cooking. As the sun rises, the mist seeps away. More traffic appears on the avenue: jeeps on their way to the main town of Morondava, motorbikes with mattresses balanced on the handlebars. By the roadside, revealed for the first time in the morning light, are 10 small enclosures. Inside are frail baobab saplings barely a centimetre thick and half a metre tall – dwarfed by the old trees around them, but a sign of a brighter future nonetheless.

The road to Tsingy

Travel is all part of the adventure in Madagascar, and never more so than on the colourful journey along the bumpy 8a road from Kirindy to the north  

‘Apart from its unique biodiversity, Madagascar is also known for its bad roads.’ So says local tour guide Dennis Rakotoson, climbing into the jeep. He is not smiling.

With less than 20 per cent of its road network asphalted, getting from A to B in Madagascar is rarely straightforward. Google Maps will tell you that it’s a three-hour journey from Kirindy up the 8a road to Bekopaka, some 100 miles north. Google Maps is wrong – very, very wrong – but neither does it tell you that a day travelling the route is at least as exciting as a day in the forest with a family of lemurs.

For the most part, the 8a is more rutted mud track than road. It soon leaves behind the paddy fields surrounding the Avenue des Baobabs, their neat, green lines ploughed by zebu, trailed by squabbling ducks. The landscape becomes drier, the bushes lining the verge covered in sand thrown up by passing vehicles, as though someone has dumped a bucket of orange powder over them. Large patches of blackened earth still smoulder from recent forest clearings.

In the early morning, kids idle along the 8a on their way to school, kicking footballs in the dust. Women in bright skirts march between villages, bundles of maize or firewood balanced on their heads, and their faces covered in a paste made from tamarind bark, to keep off the sun. Families do their laundry in shallow streams, their clothes drying on the banks, or bump along on wooden carts, behind the camel-like humps and long horns of slow-plodding zebu.

‘The Malagasy are very attached to their zebu,’ says Dennis, leaning on the dashboard as the jeep negotiates one of many potholes the size of paddling pools. ‘They are used for transportation and in the fields, of course, but also in rituals, burial ceremonies and medicine. If you rub the oil from their humps into your skin, you will get very strong.’

At the midway point of the journey, the road stops, cut off by the great brown slug of the Tsiribihina River. Jeeps are manoeuvred gingerly down planks onto Heath Robinson-style ferries, seemingly made from random bits of metal roped together. Everyone on board, they chug past people in hand-carved wooden canoes on the hour-long journey to Belo sur Tsiribihina on the opposite bank. By the early afternoon, the town’s market is in full swing, and traders sit beside piles of sweet potatoes, sugarcane, dried red chillies, fried shrimps and fatty zebu humps, waving large flies away from their goods with their hands.

‘The road gets a little worse from here,’ says Dennis, as the 8a heads out of town. It is partially collapsed in places, weaving and dipping a new course around fallen trees and waterlogged craters.

As the intense heat of the day starts to fade, activity is stepped up in the roadside villages. Men cut earth into bricks, or scythe reeds for building, while their wives rhythmically pound rice with poles in giant mortars, turkeys waiting expectantly beside them. Children race out to every passing vehicle and peer inside, practising their foreign-language skills with polite requests for pens or bonbons.

By the time the jeep pulls in to the last stop at Bekopaka, via a final river crossing and many stops to let a brightly coloured giant coua bird, herd of goats or nervous chameleon cross the road, the sun has started to set through the mangrove trees. The journey along the 8a has taken over 11 hours, but, perhaps, it wouldn’t be so bad to turn around and do it all again.

Tsingy de Bemaraha

Strap yourself in for a couple of days’ climbing and clambering in Madagascar’s most unusual national park

In Bekopaka, three small boys are attempting to knock mangoes out of a tree with a stick. Around them, jeeps park up beside zebu carts, their passengers leaping out to stretch their legs before heading off to a small office in the village. They are here to book tickets to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, the reason most people travel up the 8a road from Morondava.

The park is split into two sections, Petit and Grand, and the smaller bit lies just beyond the office. Guide Charles Andriasy leads the way in, squeezing through a narrow passage, before issuing a warning: ‘This area is very sacred. There are many tombs in here; you must be respectful to the dead.’ Indeed, the three mango-bothering boys would be discouraged from entering, from the local belief that children might be more likely to encounter a ghost in here.

Some 150 million years ago, the entire region was under the sea; when the water receded, it left behind an otherworldly landscape of limestone spikes and caves, the fossils of long-lost marine animals still visible on their surface. The passing centuries have added new decoration to the rocks: the vines of strangler figs wrap around them and reach into crevices; dark pools of water hide eels and crabs; and the giant cobwebs of golden silk orb-weaver spiders stretch between pinnacles.

A series of ropes, ladders and bridges take the visitor through, following a path that twists up, round and over the rocks – from deep hollows that have never seen the sun, to viewing platforms balanced precariously on limestone peaks. Madagascan hoopoes and fish eagles swoop over this spiny grey forest, and Von der Decken’s sifakas, black faces peeking out of white furry coats, bound in, rather more at home among the sharp rocks than their human cousins.

For all the scrambling required to get around Petit Tsingy, it is merely practice for the main event, some 10 miles away in the second part of the park. At Grand Tsingy, Charles adjusts his climbing harness and checks his carabiners before starting off down the trail. It starts, misleadingly, with an easy climb up through the forest, with the calls of far-off sifakas echoing through the trees, and black parrots sailing overhead.

The path comes to an abrupt halt at a cliff, whose summit cannot be seen from the ground. A series of nails is hammered into the rock face all the way up, thick wire strung between them. Charles clips his carabiners to the first wire and pulls himself on to a narrow ledge. It’s a long, slow 60 metres up, attaching and reattaching the carabiners, finding firm footing on slim stone steps hewn into the limestone, and edging across ladders that span fissures in the rock. ‘If you go slowly, slowly, you need not be afraid,’ calls Charles from ahead. ‘Slowly, slowly, and you can see the way in front of you.’ The scale of Grand Tsingy is revealed at the top, with views out over the pinnacles stretching far into the forest. It takes several hours to navigate through the rest of the park, slithering around the rocks, inching over comically creaking rope bridges, descending into vast caves and crawling through tunnels.