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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Outdoor adventure awaits in Washington, DC

Running the National Mall

With major road races occurring year-round, including the acclaimed Marine Corps Marathon in the fall and the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in the spring (a warm-up for Boston-bound elites), Washington is a runner’s paradise. Locals never tire of jogging the National Mall, bound by trails that take you past the nation’s most important democratic monuments—all of which glow from within as dusk falls. Spring cherry blossoms, summer fireworks, autumn glory color and winter-snow wonderlands are some of its seasonal delights.

Climbing Great Falls

Rock climbers find happiness at Great Falls Park (nps.gov/grfa/index.html), just 20 minutes upstream from Washington, DC, on the Virginia side of the river. Here, neophytes and experienced climbers alike negotiate cliffs and outcrops ranging from Class 3 to 5.10. Nearby Carderock and Annapolis Rock are favorite go-tos as well. And note that in winter, when it’s cold enough, this is where Washingtonians come for ice climbing.

Paddling the Potomac

Where else can you escape the office at noon, jump in a kayak for a quick paddle, and be back in time for a 2pm meeting? Thompson Boat Center, next to the Kennedy Center, rents kayaks by the hour. Within minutes you’re paddling around Theodore Roosevelt Island, a woodsy island in the middle of the Potomac. Float upstream to Georgetown and beyond, or downstream past the National Mall’s marble monuments.

More hardcore kayakers surf and play in the white-tipped rapids of the Potomac River Gorge just below Great Falls. This spot has become a breeding ground for top-level competitive kayakers, and it’s within 30 minutes of the nation’s capital (only experienced kayakers should tackle this dangerous, sometimes deadly run).

Hiking the Billy Goat Trail

Of course Washingtonians can hit the trails of Shenandoah National Park, within an hour’s drive of the city, which wander into a deciduous realm of waterfalls, black bear and dreamy Shenandoah Valley views. But there are amazing hikes within city limits as well, notably the intertwining trails of Rock Creek Park (Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite wilderness escape from the White House). The most popular weekend warrior hike, however, is hands-down the fabled Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls National Park, about 30 minutes up MacArthur Boulevard, where you must leap and scramble over riverside boulders just like a billy goat.

A bounty for bicyclists

Whether you like your bike trails paved or tree-shaded dirt, DC’s got you covered. There are the pathways crisscrossing the National Mall with its front-row view of the monuments; the 18.5-mile Mount Vernon Trailshooting south to Mount Vernon; or the secret gem Capital Crescent Trail, a paved trail linking Georgetown with Bethesda. But if you want to join locals in making a day of it, take a spin on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD), an old railroad bed that’s now a 45-mile paved route between southern Arlington and Purcellville, in Loudoun County. This pastoral ride winds past cows, farmhouses, picturesque towns and a brewery or two along the way.

Camping just outside the Beltway

Shenandoah National Park is an obvious camping getaway. But Greenbelt Park, known as the “backyard” national park and one of the city’s best-kept secrets, is the closest campground to DC. If you’re new to camping, Little Bennett Regional Park, up I-270 near Frederick, offers ready-made campsites that include a four-person tent, two camp chairs, a propane stove and a lantern.

Take a glimpse at Europe’s best national parks

Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi, Italy

A grass-carpeted valley, birds chirping in the bottle-green trees, a twinkling brook: this bucolic scene is sheltered by a castellated line of mountains, formed of an almost luminescent pale rock. The drama is heightened by the contrast between the soft, gentle curves of the pastures and the sudden eruption of vast, sculptural mountains, each prong like a cathedral tower.

Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi is geology as theatre. The scenic drama has been formed through the different consistency and brittleness of the rock, which has allowed erosion to sculpt it into jagged shapes, and hollow out deep, wide valleys and corridor-narrow gorges.

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

No matter from which side you approach Durmitor National Park, you will be in awe – the glorious mountain peaks are rugged, smooth, sloping and jagged, all at the same time. The ancient pine trees dot the mountainsides with perfect cones, some reaching 50m high. And amid all this are the 18 glacial lakes that range in colour from frosty blues to deep navy and turquoise, like precious beads scattered on the massif.

Durmitor has 48 peaks above 2000m in altitude, with the highest, Bobotov Kuk, measuring 2523m, making the park the perfect place for hiking, especially in the warmer months. There are spectacular karst or forest trails, and stunning views that stretch hundreds of kilometres.

Peneda-Gerês National Park, Portugal

About 300 million years ago, a continental collision pushed together the Iberian Peninsula and Europe, resulting in the amphitheatre of the Serra da Peneda, Serra do Soajo, Serra Amarela and Serra do Gerês mountain ranges, dominated by immense granite cliffs and slabs.

The glacial fields that covered these mountains during the ice age of the Pleistocene era are nowhere to be seen. Still, the moraines, glacial deposits and deep, U-shaped valleys hint at the violent climatic events that shaped this land.

Hortobágy National Park, Hungary

These vast prairies carry more than a whisper of the wild, wild West. But the puszta – the flat grasslands and marshes of Hortobágy National Park – stir the Hungarian soul. They are the bedrock of this country’s agrarian history.

The national park is part of the Great Hungarian Plain, which rolls across the eastern half of the country. This was once the homeland ofcsikósok, skilled herdsmen who thundered across the prairies. Pastoral lifestyles of lapsed centuries are frozen in time in Hortobágy: traditional sweep-pole wells dot its meadows, while herdsmen’s inns retain their original character. And while the csikós’ lifestyle has faded away, his descendants remain, many of them still learning horse-riding arts.

Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland

Europe’s largest protected area, Vatnajökull National Park is a stunning sample platter of pretty much every dramatic natural landscape Iceland has to offer. As you roam this vast reserve, you’ll find calving glaciers, geothermal springs, rocky canyons, snow-capped mountains, featureless ice sheets, silent lagoons, buried volcanoes, eerie ice caverns, surreal basalt formations and even wandering herds of reindeer.

Sprawling over 13,600 sq km, the park takes up a good-sized chunk of eastern Iceland, so most people take small bites from the edges – from Ásbyrgi in the north, or from Rte 1 as it sneaks between the ice sheet and the eastern seaboard.

Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway

One moment you’re following a sinuous, fjord-hugging road that snakes across Norway’s west, the next you round a corner and find yourself face to face with one of the most extraordinary sights anywhere in Europe.

Mighty Jostedalsbreen is the glacier you always dreamed of – vast in scale, magical in its ice-blue beauty, and seemingly alive as it groans and inches its way like a scythe through high mountain valleys and down to the water.

Top 7 Instagram hot spots in Hong Kong

1. Hong Kong’s garden hideaway

Few photos can capture the essence of Hong Kong better than those taken at Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon. Instagram opportunities unfurl before your lens here as classical Chinese gardens give way to a glorious golden pagoda and a lotus pond filled with plump koi carp. This serene Buddhist complex seems all the more tranquil when snapped against the contrasting skyscrapers that tower above, creating a seamless fusion of the modern and the natural.

2. Food too cute to eat

Embedded into Hong Kong’s culture like dragon dances and milk tea, Instagram swells with shots of steaming baskets of dim sum, so head toYum Cha to snap something more contemporary. This dim sum restaurant does things a little differently: the pork buns are shaped as pigs and the sausage rolls are designed like dogs. Even the pineapple puff cookies are made to look like birds and are presented in a metal cage.

3. The iconic rainbow residence

Thickets of high-rise apartments stretch skyward across much of Hong Kong, so skyline shots and neck-craning close-ups both provide fantastic photo fodder. However, the vibrant Choi Hung Estate (take exit C4 from the Kwun Tong MTR stop) is where Instagrammers should head first. With a rainbow of painted panels adorning the sides of the towers, palm trees lining the entrance and locals shooting hoops on the estate’s basketball court, the Choi Hung Estate could pass as 1970s California – and there’s always the 1977 Instagram filter to play up that effect.

4. Snap something fishy

Mong Kok is home to a number of markets selling everything from phone cases to lingerie, but keen photographers should zoom in on Tung Choi Street’s Goldfish Market where dozens of fish are separated into plastic bags and displayed for prospective pet owners to examine. It is considered good luck to bring fish into the home in China and while the humble goldfish does make an appearance here, expect to snap a wide array of colourful and exotic species.

5. The cocktail snap

What you want from a rooftop photo is an unobstructed view of the skyline, but not all of Hong Kong’s rooftop bars were created equal. While most tourists will flock to Central or Tsim Sha Tsui for a high-rise drink, Wooloomooloo (wooloo-mooloo.com) in Wan Chai offers a completely different perspective on the city. The panoramic view from the terrace is just the spot to capture Victoria Harbour in an envy-inducing Instagram shot, fruity cocktail in hand.

6. The star shot

For a different perspective of the city’s skyscrapers ride the Star Ferry. If you’re quick enough to grab a window seat, Hong Kong’s most beloved boat offers unrivalled vistas of Victoria Harbour and an upward view of the towering architectural giants that dominate the city’s eternal skyline. It’s a sight that will make you feel small, but one that will keep your Instagram game strong.

7. That ‘I’m on top of the world’ picture

For a sweeping view of all that Hong Kong has to offer, climb the moderate 2.8km hike from Wong Tai Sin to Lion Rock in Kowloon. Though not as popular or as easy as the trek to Dragon’s Back, those that make the ascent will be rewarded with piercing views that sweep across over cloud-like clusters of skyscrapers below, out across the haze of Victoria Harbour and to the silhouetted hills beyond. The 495m-high mountain is named after the feline-shaped rock at its summit, which also happens to be the city’s most recognised natural landmark.

Slowing down in Sichuan’s most charming old towns

The biggest difference these days is that, instead of trade in tea and goods, tourism is taking over as the dominant draw. Visiting any ofSichuan’s old towns is a chance to explore this vast country’s living history and, increasingly, one of the last ways to see a slower pace of life in ever-expanding China.

Dujiangyan (都江堰)

Though not the oldest of Sichuan’s old towns (it’s close, founded in 250BC), Dujiangyan is undoubtedly the most important, for it was here that governor Li Bing of Shu conceived of and built the town’s eponymous irrigation system during the Warring States period (475–221 BC). Visitors to modern Dujiangyan can see the workings of this still-functional irrigation system, a marvel in its day, walk the small old town area and visit numerous temples that local communities have built to give thanks. Each year on Tomb-Sweeping Day, a traditional Chinese festival that celebrates ancestors, Dujiangyan holds a ‘water releasing ceremony’ to mark Li Bing’s accomplishments and honour his memory.

Dujiangyan is a half-hour train ride from Chengdu’s main station; trains go several times daily to Lidui Gongyuan station just outside the old town. Frequent buses also run from Chengdu’s Chadianzi station for the 45-minute trip to Dujiangyan’s main station.

Pingle (平乐)

Once an important stop on the ancient Tea-Horse Road trade route between tea-rich Yunnan and Tibet and believed to be at least two thousand years old, the Pingle of today is more party town than caravan route. City-worn Chengdu residents head here in droves during warm summer days to swim or engage in a little light adventure like rafting and tubing. Outside of the sunny season, Pingle is more about sitting around chatting in its numerous teahouses or under overhanging banyan trees that line both sides of the Baimo River. There are also chances to tour local museums and take an amble through the relatively untouched countryside that begins just beyond the south edge of town, but the slow pace of local life makes it easy for a day or two to slip away almost unnoticed.

Buses leave throughout the morning from Chengdu’s Xinnanmen station for the two-hour trip to Pingle, though some will require a change in the nearby city of Qionglai.

Langzhong (阆中)

In Sichuan’s east, the old quarter of Langzhong is considered one of the four great historic towns of China. Historically renowned as the capital of Ba state from 476BC, the birthplace of feng shui, and the home of Zhangfei: revered local hero and famous general of the Three Kingdoms period (220–280AD). Though nowadays Langzhong may have lost its once-great political importance, visitors still come to explore the well-restored old town and traditional buildings. The Imperial Examination Halls are considered among the best-preserved examples in China of these testing centres, which once played a central role in populating the imperial bureaucracy that maintained the vast Chinese empire. Between the historic core, surrounding forested hillsides dotted with temples, and the old town’s many renovated historic hotels, this is a town that often takes hold of travellers for far longer than they’d initially expected.

Buses leave throughout the day from Chengdu’s Beimen bus station for the four-hour trip to Langzhong.

Liujiang (柳江)

Cut by two rivers and bordered by a third, Liujiang is surrounded by verdant green hillsides and dotted with whimsical bridges. It may be an artist’s or photographer’s dream town, but its remote location away from major cities and relative lack of historical significance compared with other old towns in Sichuan (it’s only eight centuries old, after all) have kept Liujiang off the mass tourism radar for now. But it’s still packed with charming wooden architecture, waterfront boardwalks and hiking trails that wind their way through the nearby countryside; for somewhere to get away from the fast pace of life or travel in China, Liujiang absolutely suits.