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Monthly Archives: January 2017

8 of the wildest places in Europe

1. Cruise the fjords of the Lofoten Islands, Norway

When it comes to jaw-dropping natural beauty, few places can compare with the Lofoten archipelago, whose clustered mountains tower above deeply indented bays. It’s not exactly empty of people, with quaint fishing villages now playing host to a burgeoning tourist industry. But untrammelled nature is never far away.

A plethora of hiking trails, cycling routes and fjord cruises provide access to some truly heart-stopping scenery. The islands are well within the Arctic Circle too, so there’s every chance that the midnight sun will add to the drama.

2. Boat through the Danube Delta, Romania

When it comes to European wetlands, few can compete in size and diversity with the Danube Delta. Here, the continent’s greatest river splits into myriad channels before entering the Black Sea. It’s a unique landscape of sandbar islands, semi-sunken forest and dirt-road villages, the majority of which can only be reached by boat.

Disembark at the fishing village of Crişan in the heart of the delta and you’ll be able to follow trails into reed-beds frequented by all manner of birds. Sfântu Gheorghe, the end-of-the-river settlement on the delta’s southern branch, offers more reeds, more birds and several kilometres of stark white beach.

3. Explore the enchanted forest of Białowieża, Poland

The last significant swathe of primeval woodland left in Europe, Białowieża Forest straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. This emerald world of trees, grasses, mosses and lichens is also home to a 900-strong herd of European bison, re-introduced in the 1920s after the last indigenous specimens had been killed in World War I.

Certain parts of the forest are off limits to casual visitors and can only be explored with a guide. But there’s still a wealth of free-to-wander trails radiating out from the main access point, the pretty village of Białowieża itself.

 

4. Hit the trail in the Northern Velebit, Croatia

Running for some 100km along Croatia’s Adriatic coast, the Velebit massif is one of the most brutally rugged mountain chains in southern Europe. While the canyon-riven Southern Velebit (site of the Paklenica National Park) is packed with summer trippers, it’s the less-trodden Northern Velebit that offers the most exhilarating hiking.

Towering Mount Zavižan marks the start of the Premužić trail, the 57km-long holy grail of Croatian hikers. However much of the route you manage to tackle, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of both the coast and the inland karst.

5. Bog-hop in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

Nothing screams “wilderness” more than a Baltic peat bog, its squelchy surface covered with mosses, lichens, cranberry bushes and dwarf confers. One of the best places to explore them is Estonia’s Soomaa National Park, where a patchwork of grassland, bog and riverine forest hosts a lively community of elk, beavers, flying squirrels and lynx.

Boardwalk paths such as the Riisa Trail lead out into this swamp-like realm. The spring thaw brings flooding and with it the possibility of canoe trips organised by local outfits such as Sooma.

6. Raft in the Durmitor mountains, Montenegro

Mountain ranges are routinely described as wild and unspoilt – but few are genuinely as wild and unspoilt as Durmitor. This limestone massif takes up a large chunk of northern Montenegro. It offers a huge variety of stunning scenery, from moon-grey peaks to grassy plateaux and lakes of eerie beauty.

Hiking possibilities are endless, with a network of trails beneath the 2523m-high summit of Bobotov Kuk. But it’s the rafting trips along the Tara Gorge – Europe’s deepest canyon – that really earn the superlatives. Local agencies such as Summit can book you a place in a dinghy.

7. Find solitude in the Urho Kekkonen National Park, Finland

In many ways the whole of Finland is a bit of a wilderness, with pristine lakes and huge silent forests lying within easy reach of even the biggest cities. To experience the country at its most awesomely empty, head north to Lapland’s Urho Kekkonen National Park. The park is a 2250-square-kilometre expanse of bare fells, birch forests and tundra-like heath.

Settlements such as Saariselkä, on the western rim, offer access to marked trails suitable for walks of half a day or more. However it’s the longer, 2–3 day trails in the uninhabited heart of the park that will truly put your frontier spirit to the test.

8. Count sheep in the Upper Eden Valley, England

Never heard of High Cup Nick? Or the Nine Standards? That’s probably because the Lake District gets all the tourists, leaving the majestically bleak and boggy hills of the neighbouring Upper Eden Valley comparatively off radar.

Green-brown fells, stone barns, hardy sheep and horizontal rain are the area’s main visual signatures. Two of England’s best-known long-distance trails – the Coast to Coast Walk and The Pennine Way – penetrate parts of the Upper Eden, ensuring that its wind-blasted trails are well documented and easily accessible. Head for the market town of Kirkby Stephen or the heritage village of Dufton to get started.

7 places to get off the tourist trail in Vietnam

1. Make the journey to Bai Tu Long Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Visit minority villages around Kon Tum

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

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

 

4. Take a road trip to remote Ha Giang

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

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

5. Cycle the Mekong Delta’s An Binh Island

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

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

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

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

7. Experience Mai Chau hospitality

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

6 of the best road trips in the UK

1. Scotland’s North Coast 500

This circular route is a greatest hits of Scottish icons, stretching across 805km of lonely single-track. Skirting the coast from Inverness and the Black Isle, past the seaboard crags of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross, it offers up uncanny ruins, rugged fairways, toothy castles, shingle-sand beaches, tiny fishing hamlets and peaty whisky distilleries. Even the name is a doff of the cap to The Proclaimers.

Along the way, the road becomes a symphony, building note after note, bend by bend, from its rallying start through the east coast villages of Dornoch and Wick to Aultbea, Poolewe and Gairloch on the savage west coast. Here, it reaches a crescendo below the impregnable peaks of Loch Maree.

Finally, the road reaches the nuttily brilliant Bealach na Bà, which loops up and over the Applecross Peninsula like a piece of gigantic spaghetti. It could scarcely be more isolated or awe-inspiring.

Best for: escaping urban life and unexpected traffic jams, courtesy of wayward Highland cows and stags.
Duration: 4-7 days.

2. A circuit through Yorkshire’s finest

In Yorkshire, the roads move from moor to dale through centuries of dark medieval history, once a backdrop to the War of the Roses, the bloody struggle between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

Here the mix of A- and B-roads create a daisy-chain link between the most beautiful villages, waterfalls and rolling backdrops in northern England. When heading through fields of summer grasses over the Buttertubs Pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale, the road twists and turns like a thrashing snake.

Set off on the A59 from Harrogate towards the historic market town of Grassington before boomeranging back to Aysgarth Falls, a multi-tiered terrace that’s perfect for a hazy summer ramble.

Next, putter along the valley floor to the Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre at Hawes to stock up on Wallace and Gromit’s favourite cheese, before plunging over into Reeth and looping back to your start point via Jervaulx Abbey. A spooky Cistercian monastery in the moors, its grisly backstory is worthy of CBBC’s Horrible Histories.

At the end of a long day’s drive, there’s nothing more satisfying than the promise of a pint of Black Sheep from Masham Brewery. The welcome here is warm, the people friendly, the surrounding landscapes wild, and the ales strong.

Best for: ale drinkers and cheese lovers.
Duration: 3 days.

3. Southwest England’s Atlantic Highway

A storied ribbon of asphalt and maritime history, this 275km road has the wild beauty that has become the hallmark of southwest England: it’s all about the big views.

Sandwiched between barley fields and a succession of bays and beach breaks, the A39 from Bridgewater to Bude is a magical concertina that creases and folds along the Devon and Cornish coast. Beyond the roadside hedgerows, the windswept dunes become the territory of shaggy-haired surfers, where foaming waves beat the shoreline.

Stop off at Exmoor National Park for hikes across the hilly moors, before driving south from Barnstaple through the salt-tanged seaside towns of Bude (for surfing), Padstow (for seafood) and Newquay (for weekend partying). Then it’s onwards to Land’s End – the place Cornish sailors once thought was the end of the world.

Best for: surfers and wannabe hippies.
Duration: 4-5 days.

4. Northern Ireland’s coastal route

Map a journey around the knuckle-shaped fist of the Irish coast and you’ll not regret it. There’s a hypnotic quality to this 195km route from Belfast to Londonderry, one that can see you detour off the road and lose days.

First hit the gas for the Gobbins Cliff Path, an ambitious walkway chiselled out of basalt rock with hammers and rudimentary tools. North of Belfast, it carves a path through caves, over bridges and gantries, and down steep drops. Following a £7.5 million investment, the path reopened in 2015 – the first time in more than 65 years (although it was closed again for maintenance in 2016 and is now scheduled to reopen in June 2017).

As the journey continues, stories, both ancient and modern, will pull you over. Detour toAntrim to see the Dark Hedges, a natural phenomena used in Game of Thrones, while making sure to stop at Ballintoy harbour (also another GoT location).

Stare in awe at the 40,000 jigsaw pieces of the Giant’s Causeway, then pop into the Old Bushmills Distillery for a refresher of Irish whiskey.

Freedom on a road trip like this is only limited by how far your imagination takes you. After Londonderry, the road keeps going to Enniskillen, Sligo and Galway, maybe even all the way to Dublin. Simply open the throttle, roll down the window and keep on driving.

Best for: story-lovers and stargazers.
Duration: 3-5 days.

5. The road to the isles of Scotland

This 74km scenic drive route from Fort William to Mallaig has an antique weirdness, like stepping back in time. Every mountain and loch tells a story and the ghosts of the Jacobite and Victorian eras are never far away.

At Fort William flows the Caledonian Canal, first built for trade and commerce; past Loch Eil stands the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie kicked off his bid for the crown in 1745; then comes the glorious West Highland Line, one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Start in the shadows of the UK’s most alluring peak, Ben Nevis, before tracing your route like a squiggly marker pen across a fold-out map from its namesake whisky distillery onto the A830. Venture westwards and you’ll pass a series of stand-out movie locations – the Glenfinnan Viaduct, famous for its starring role in the Harry Potter films; then Camusdarach Beach at Arisaig, where Bill Forsyth’s classic Local Hero was filmed.

Near the journey’s end, Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater lake in the UK, will fill your windows with stunning views. Like Loch Ness, it too has a storybook monster of its own; Nessie’s cryptid cousin, Morag.

Best for: historians and Harry Potter fans.
Duration: 2-3 days.

6. Chase Welsh dragons over the Black Mountain Pass

The shortest road trip of the bunch, this epic mountain road more than makes up for it with spectacular Brecon Beacons scenery, unrivalled views of the Tywi Valley and the kind of hairpin bends and switchbacks that’d bring a Swiss Alpine engineer out in hives.

It rolls between Llandovery in the north, crossing the dragon’s humps of Pont Aber and Herbert’s Pass past jaw-dropping viewpoints, before sinking low and cascading down to the village of Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen. Along the way, you’ll be met by rustic farmhouses, ruddy-faced farmers, wayward sheep and perhaps the odd motoring journalist. Thanks to ex-BBC host Jeremy Clarkson, it’s also known as the Top Gear road and is enduringly popular with test drivers.

Best for: Top Gear fans.
How long: one day, though it’s far better to extend your trip and stay in the Brecon Beacons area for at least 48 hours. The A470 running through the park’s east is also highly recommended.

7 places to get off the tourist trail in New York City

1. Sample small-batch Red Hook

At the southern tip of Brooklyn, the cobblestoned blocks and red-brick waterfront warehouses of Red Hook feel like a totally different city. The area is sprinkled with artsy stores, no-frills cafés and small-batch food and drink producers. Take a tour at Red Hook Winery, grab a tasty treat at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies or feast on sumptuous pit-smoked barbecue at Hometown.

On summer weekends, head over to the Red Hook Ball Fields, where a dozen or so Latin American food carts and vendors set up around the local football (soccer) field. End the day at Sunny’s Bar, the neighbourhood’s spiritual heart, an old-school dive that opened in 1890.

2. Pay tribute to a giant of jazz at Louis Armstrong’s House

The multicultural borough of Queens rarely features on mainstream tourist itineraries – and few visitors know that the great Satchmo lived here from 1943 until his death in 1971. In fact, Dizzy Gillespie lived near Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Fats Waller and, briefly, Charles Mingus all called the borough home too.

The jazzman’s legacy is preserved at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where guided tours showcase Armstrong’s trumpets, furnishings and other personal belongings, enhanced by rare audio recordings made in this very spot. The visitors’ centre across the street holds a fascinating collection of Armstrong’s personal archives.

3. Discover Brooklyn’s flea markets

New York’s most fashionable borough is a fun place to shop. The Brooklyn Flea is the undisputed king of art, craft and antique markets, but there are several equally as enticing (and less touristy) alternatives.

The Brooklyn Makers Market showcases the work of craftspeople across the city, whileArtists & Fleas is a slightly posher artist, designer and vintage market. For a grungier blend of live music, tasty food, art, jewellery and tattoos try Rock N’ Shop in hipster enclave Bushwick, or Shwick, the huge arts and crafts warehouse in the same trendy neighbourhood. Some markets run seasonally or appear on an irregular basis, so check their websites for the latest dates.

 

4. Explore the city’s Jewish roots at the Museum at Eldridge Street

Surprisingly few tourists make their way to the Museum at Eldridge Street, tucked away in a section of the Lower East Side slowly being absorbed by Chinatown. Completed in 1887 as the first synagogue for Eastern European Orthodox Jews in the USA, this painstakingly restored site is a grand brick and terracotta hybrid of Romanesque, Moorish and Gothic influences.

The real highlight is the main sanctuary upstairs, with rich woodwork, a painted ceiling and giant chandelier, and original stained-glass windows, including the west-wing rose window – a spectacular Star of David roundel. The synagogue is a functioning house of worship, but you can visit the interior on guided tours, which provide plenty of entertaining stories about the neighbourhood.

5. Stroll the streets and parks of Fort Greene

Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope get most of the attention across the East River, but traditionally African-American neighbourhood Fort Greene is crammed with equally gorgeous, nineteenth-century architecture.

Author Richard Wright is memorialised in leafy Fort Greene Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, while South Portland Avenue is one of the prettiest streets in all of New York City. Adjacent South Elliott Place is home to Spike Lee’s Forty Acres and a Mule filmworks. If you’d rather go with experts, Big Onion Walking Tours offers an excellent introduction to the area for a reasonable price.

6. Soak up the art at the Hispanic Society

Stranded in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the Hispanic Society of America sees only a trickle of visitors, despite holding some of the city’s greatest artistic treasures.

Part of Audubon Terrace, a Beaux Arts folly completed in 1908, the society owns one of the largest collections of Hispanic art outside Spain. The main, dimly lit gallery glows with the rosy hues of a Castilian palace.

Admire classics from El Greco, including his Holy Family, and typically expressive portraits by Velázquez and Goya. The building is also home to 14 giant murals by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida – his Vision of Spain was commissioned specifically for the society in 1911.

7. Trawl the Italian trattorias and bakeries on Arthur Avenue

“Little Italy” in Manhattan is little more than a tourist mall these days, and New York’s largest Italian-American community actually lies smack in the middle of The Bronx.

Arthur Avenue is the main thoroughfare of foodie paradise Belmont, lined with pasticceria, authentic Italian restaurants and gourmet delis that make their own rich sauces and spicy sausages. Try Cosenza’s Fish Market stall for fresh clams and oysters, Madonia Brothers Bakery for olive bread and cannoli, and DeLillo Pasticceria (once owned by author Don DeLillo’s parents), for delicious pastries and coffee.