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Category Archives: travel

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.

Castles, cairns and gin-making in the Boyne Valley

Older than the Pyramids: Brú na Bóinne

At first glance, the famous cairns that cluster around the River Boyne, in counties Meath and Louth might elicit a shrug – most are simple passages leading into small chambers. But the more you look, the more fascinating they get.

Almost 100 Neolithic monuments make up the World Heritage Site ofBrú na Bóinne (‘the Palace of the Boyne’), many dating from around 3200 BC, making them around seven centuries older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. They’re decorated with strange swirls and shapes and aligned with the sun and the landscape, yet so distant are their pre-Celtic creators that archaeologists are still guessing how the great stones were transported (possibly by river, or even rolled on seaweed) and whether they were built to honour the dead, the sun or the sea.

Stone Age magic at Newgrange and Loughcrew

Newgrange is the largest and most popular tomb, as well as the easiest to visit, via buses from the nearby visitor centre. Its 80m diameter is impressive, but the real thrill comes when you clamber through its dark tunnel, feeling the silence under muffled breath and gazing up at the enormous sandstone roof slabs as your heart stills and your eyesight sharpens. It’s hard not to feel a thorough connection to the living history of this place, an impression that swells as you stumble back out into the bright light and gentle hills of the surrounding farmland.

A trip to Loughcrew can be even more magical. That’s partly due to the lovely 15-minute walk from the winding R154 road, which takes you on a fairly steep climb into the Loughcrew Hills and views that stretch towards Dublin on one side and the Mourne Mountains on the other. And it’s partly due to the silence – even the most famous monument here, Cairn T, sees far fewer visitors than Newgrange. In summer, there are guides here to show you around (late April to end August), while in winter you can pick up a key from the visitor centre.

The feeling of epic discovery is heightened by the fact – only rediscovered in the 20th century – that the amber light of morning pierces the chamber at Cairn T (on the spring and autumn equinoxes) and Newgrange (at the winter equinox), bathing their mysterious symbols in a warmth and life that belies their age. At Newgrange, there’s a lottery for the winter equinox, and if you’re not lucky enough to get a place, at the end of each standard tour an artificial light is shone, mimicking its glorious effect.

Druids, monks and mercenaries

Subsequent visitors also left their mark in this fertile region. The Celts (who decided the impressive cairns must be the work of the faerie folk) arrived around 500 BC. You can ponder the roots they laid at Tara, where a hill marks the seat of the druids and the ceremonial capital of the high kings of Ireland.

Christianity arrived around 500 AD, and Irish monasteries became vital centres of European scholarship – the market town of Kells gave its name to the magnificent Book of Kells, now displayed in Dublin’s Trinity College. The monastery that was its home for six centuries is no more, but you can explore its ruins, including a 30m-tall round tower.

Twenty kilometres south of here, at a bend in the Boyne, Trim Castle is grand enough to have featured as no less than three castles (Edinburgh, York and the Tower of London) in the film Braveheart. Its atmospheric keep offers wonderful views of the countryside around, and a very solid reminder of another set of arrivals: Normans who came as mercenaries and ended up as rulers.

The Boyne’s game of thrones

The Boyne Valley was accustomed to being at the heart of Irish affairs, but in 1690 it was the site of a battle that shaped European history. Over 60,000 troops clashed a few kilometres west of Drogheda (now one of the best bases for exploring the region), as James II and his son-in-law William of Hanover fought for the British Isles. Despite the valiant efforts of the Jacobite cavalry, William’s larger, better-equipped force won the day – James fled to France, winning the nickname Seamus a’ chaca (‘James the shit’), and cementing the power of Protestant landowners and clergy across Ireland.

The landscape of the Boyne Valley isn’t the most stunning in Ireland – there’s a fair bit of commuter-belt sprawl around these lovely rolling hills. But you can give your explorations a focus by taking a boat trip up the nearby Boyne Navigation canal with Boyne Boats (boyneboats.ie). A paddle up this quiet waterway on a traditional currach is a wonderfully intimate experience – the boats were used in the filming of Game of Thrones, making them an ideal spot from which to ponder the ambition and bloodshed of the conflict.

Kings, rock and whiskey

With power came wealth, and the stately homes of Anglo-Irish landowners dot the Boyne Valley and beyond. Substantial yet elegantSlane Castle was home to Elizabeth Conyngham, the mistress of King George VI, and it’s said the road between Dublin and Slane was built especially straight to speed the smitten king’s journeys.

The great estates have mostly been broken up, and the Conynghams have diversified: Slane Castle is a famous venue for concerts (including U2 – who also recorded parts of The Unforgettable Fire in the Great Library – and Guns ‘n’ Roses), there’s now a rather lovely organic glampsite (rockfarmslane.ie) on the hills above, and a €47 million whiskey distillery opened in late spring 2017. Visits to the house and distillery offer a neat perspective on changing times, from the burnished new copper stills to the grand paintings of distant aristocrats, as the Boyne takes its peaceful path along the valley below.

Nearby Beaulieu House (beaulieuhouse.ie) has a gorgeous garden and a soaring hall, as well as connections to motor racing and the martyred 17th-century archbishop Oliver Plunkett.

Gin and local produce

The Boyne Valley is no fossil. Slane Castle’s whiskey is a traditional spirit given a contemporary twist (their first release is matured in virgin, seasoned and sherry casks), while Tayto Park uses Ireland’s most iconic crisp – and a dash of Irish mythology –  as the hook for a popular theme park.

Drink, dine and dance your way through a Queens night out

Happy hour

If you like to get started early, the pubs, cocktail bars, beer halls and lounges in Queens are ready with enticing after-work specials.Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria has a giant patio area that makes it the perfect place to meet in the spring and summer, but the half-priced beer at happy hour makes it worth hitting up year-round. The interior and patio both have a classic beer hall aesthetic, with Czech, Slovak and American flags hung proudly from the fortress-like walls. Inside, you can catch sports and enjoy some classic Slavic cuisine with your drink.

Looking for a less conventional happy hour? Visit The COOP in Flushing. This Korean fusion spot has a great beer, sake and wine selection, but specializes in custom-made cocktails such as a lychee cosmopolitan. At happy hour you’ll find great deals on oysters and small-plate fare: kimchi egg rolls, fried chicken gizzards and their famous hot wings, which add a uniquely Korean flavor to the bar food classic. The ambiance at The COOP is tastefully modern, with dim lighting and flashes of neon – perfect to get you in the mood for a long night out.

Fueling up

When it’s time for some sustenance, you’ll be glad to be in Queens. The Astoria neighborhood has some of the best Greek food this side of Athens, and few restaurants are quite as revered as Taverna Kyclades. Its popularity means that there is usually a long wait for a table. Even in the winter you’ll find a crowd outside the restaurant, but the wait is part of the fun. The staff passes out glasses of wine, and the array of patrons make for pleasant company. Once you get in, it’s no surprise what draws so many people. Kyclades means ‘islands’ in Greek, and their food reflects that relaxed, unfussy island lifestyle. Whole, simply seasoned baked fish, grilled octopus, fried eggplant with garlic sauce – everything is done to perfection. Of course, you’ll want to make sure to add a bottle or two of Greek wine.

On the other side of Queens is Asian Jewels. During the day, this behemoth of a restaurant is known for its dim sum service, and at night they offer a full menu of Cantonese delights. The restaurant’s spacious, open interior is filled with large tables that either seat extended families, or mix-and-match smaller parties. The vast and varied menu features dishes familiar to most, like fried rice and sweet-and-sour pork, as well as traditional Cantonese dishes, such as beef with bamboo shoots and sliced cold jellyfish.

After-dinner cocktails

Cocktail culture thrives in Queens, even in the outer reaches of the borough. If you enjoy a few drinks after dinner, there are plenty of exciting options. Dutch Kills in Long Island City is one of the best. A speakeasy-style joint located in an unassuming warehouse building, its industrial facade opens up into a dimly lit den of liquor. The decor is an intriguing mish-mash of bygone eras, with saloon-style wooden booths and bartenders in mid-century tiki-couture. Most importantly, the drink menu is extensive and the bartenders skilled.

Further north in Astoria is Sek’end Sun, a restaurant with a large bar that specializes in crisp drinks that match its airy design. The ‘Infante’ – tequila, lime, orgeat syrup and nutmeg – is pretty to look at and a joy to drink, while the cachaça and ancho pepper based ‘Brazilian Bikini’ has a hard kick with a smooth finish. The specialty drinks at Sek’end Sun are $10 a pop, which is less expensive than most cocktail bars, and the creative menu makes it a great location for anyone who believes that variety is the spice of life.

Lively late-night entertainment

After a few civilized cocktails, it’s time to turn up the volume. Anyone in the mood for strong drinks, dancing and drag queens should head over to Icon Bar in Astoria. This gay bar provides all of the fun and atmosphere of similar Manhattan establishments, but has a friendlier vibe. It’s the type of place where you can walk in alone and leave with a group of new friends.

If you’re in the mood for a more structured late-night activity, take yourself to The Real KTV, located in the New World Mall in Flushing (newworldmallny.com), for a karaoke experience that is hard to top. This is an authentically Chinese spot that caters to all. The lighting and furniture are delightfully ostentatious, the drinks are strong and arrive quickly and the private rooms come with standing mics that will help even the most tentative performer let loose.

a guide to the locations of the cult classic

The Roadhouse

The heart of Twin Peaks country is the Snoqualmie Valley, in the hills east of Seattle. It’s at an easy distance for a day trip from the big city. Drop in first to Fall City, a town that is home to the building which starred as Bang Bang Bar, generally referred to as The Roadhouse. This was Twin Peaks’ adult entertainment venue, filled with couples and bikers listening to live music and downing a beer or two.

One of the most memorable scenes here featured the mystical Giant appearing in a vision to FBI Agent Dale Cooper, warning him of a murder with the line ‘It is happening again.’ Nowadays the century-old building houses the Fall City Roadhouse (fcroadhouse.com), offering food and accommodation.

Out back is another location: the cabin used to depict The Bookhouse, headquarters of the secret society known as The Bookhouse Boys.

White Tail Falls

Heading farther south-east to the town of Snoqualmie, the next major location is this impressive waterfall, falling majestically across our screens as the opening credits played to the haunting theme of composer Angelo Badalamenti.

In reality known as the Snoqualmie Falls (snoqualmiefalls.com), it’s a significant site to the Native American Snoqualmie people, who say the mist from the falls connects the heaven and earth. Since 1899 it’s also been the site of a hydroelectric power plant, which you can learn more about at the nearby Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Museum.

Its great beauty makes the location a popular tourist attraction, and there’s an observation platform from which to catch that Twin Peaksselfie featuring you, the falls and our next location: The Great Northern.

The Great Northern

Sitting proudly above the waterfall, this grand hotel with timber interiors bearing Native American totems was the domain of scheming businessman Benjamin Horne and his daughter Audrey. It’s also where Agent Cooper was shot by an unknown assailant in the cliffhanger ending to the first season.

The first hotel built here was the 1916 Snoqualmie Falls Lodge, a small inn where travelers rested on their journey through the mountains. In 1988 it was remodeled and expanded to become the upmarket Salish Lodge. With its spa treatments and scenic views, it’s a good base from which to explore the Twin Peaks universe. At the end of the day the hotel bar will serve you a Dale Cooper cocktail in memory of the Twin Peaks agent, featuring gin, cider, and the establishment’s in-house honey.

Ronette’s Bridge

Across the Snoqualmie River from the Salish Lodge, Railroad Avenue takes you past the Northwest Railway Museum and the giant Snoqualmie Centennial Log which appeared in the credits of Twin Peaks’ pilot episode. A left turn on Meadowbrook Way will lead you back to the river and the most chilling of filming locations: Ronette’s Bridge.

This railroad bridge was the location where a dazed and injured Ronette Pulaski was found, having escaped the fate of the murdered Laura Palmer. In the present day the rails have been removed and the bridge is now part of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, used by walkers and cyclists. Despite this healthy modern purpose, the dark girders of the structure still seem to loom ominously over the waters below.

Sheriff’s Station and Packard Sawmill

North of Ronette’s Bridge, 396th Drive leads through trees to the location which stood in as the sheriff’s station, occupied by Sheriff Harry S Truman and his loyal deputies. It’s instantly recognizable, though it’s now occupied by the DirtFish rally driving school (dirtfish.com).

From the parking lot, there’s a clear view of another Twin Peakslandmark, the Packard Sawmill. This facility was portrayed as the key asset of the Packard and Martell families. Opened in 1917 as the Weyerhaeuser Mill, the facility closed in 2003 and now only a single smokestack is left to bear witness to its history and television fame.

Double R Diner

Back over the river on Railroad Avenue, head southeast to the small town of North Bend. Here you’ll find the most fondly remembered Twin Peaks location, the Double R Diner. This old-school café, presided over by owner Norma Jennings in her retro blue uniform, was the quintessential small town eatery in the series. It was also a favorite haunt of Agent Cooper, who famously praised its cherry pie and ‘damn fine cup of coffee.’

Actually known as Twede’s Café, the family-owned diner that opened in 1941 has been through various ups and downs since its 1990s starring role (including a fire). With the filming of the new Twin Peaks season, it was transformed into its old appearance. If you visit now, you can still drink coffee, eat pie, and eavesdrop on small-town secrets.

‘Welcome to Twin Peaks’ sign

For a bonus location, steer your vehicle to 41483 SE Reinig Rd, Snoqualmie, then carefully pull over. You’re gazing at the view once graced by the ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks’ sign in the opening credits of every episode. The sign is no longer there, but the scenery hasn’t much changed. Sit back, take in the view of the mountains, and try to interpret the mysteries whistling through the mighty trees that Agent Cooper so admired.

8 ways to justify booking your next trip

1. Travel is an excellent way to destress and unwind

Although it’s hardly a shocker that travel has extensive health benefits, it seems that few of us manage to make the most of it. A third of British workers don’t take all their annual leave, while only four in ten Americans use their paid vacation days.

From reducing stress – yes, there is an argument for a day of cocktails and nap time on aCaribbean beach – to invigorating your mood, travel has so many wholesome benefits that it should really be bottled and sold in health food stores.

2. It could boost your career

Opportunities to test your transferable skills can arise more often than you change your underwear while you’re abroad. Need to evidence your problem-solving capacity for a job interview? Just whip out that story of your last trip to China, where you got from A to B relying solely on pointing, a few choice words of Mandarin and the lingua-franca of the travel world: charades.

3. You’ll meet a kaleidoscope of new people

Travelling gives you the opportunity to meet inspirational, impassioned and eccentric souls from around the globe. While not everyone may be your cup of tea, those with whom you share a few too many terremotos in a Santiaguino bar or trek into the rugged mountains of northern Laos stick around as friends long beyond your trip – and come with the added bonus of giving you free places to stay on your next holiday.

Going the extra mile and learning to chatter away in multiple new languages can also prove beneficial; bilingual people have reportedly been proven to seem more attractive.

4. It’s an excuse for a digital detox

We’ve all got a love-hate with technology, and travelling is one of the few chances we get to disconnect. Luckily, if you’re feeling up to your eyeballs in emojis, a digital detox is the perfect justification for that tour into the heart of the Amazon jungle or a cruise to the remotest stretches of Antarctica.

5. It’s an education like no other

Not only is travel a superb lesson in geography, it’s also a first-class education in cultural competency. Sure, reading about other countries can give you an introduction, but nothing beats exploring them on your own two feet.

It doesn’t take long to realise that your interactions with local people, as your learn about their way of life, are far more valuable than any class you could ever take.

6. It costs less than you think

Despite the oft-cited assertion that travel is expensive, budget flights, trains and car rental can provide affordable means of getting away.

Explore parts of the world such as Bolivia or Cambodia, where the cost of travel won’t leave you wincing at every purchase, or look closer to home for a refreshing but bank account-friendly break.

7. It’s a chance to get active

If you’re feeling like you’ve been cooped up in your office for too long, travel is the obvious antidote. Cycle between vineyards on a self-guided wine tour in the Wachau Valley inAustria or lace up your boots and trek the epic “Circuit” around Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.

Active holidays leave you feeling refreshed, fitter and reeling from the incredible landscapes you’ve visited. The exercise-induced endorphins will also have you committing – momentarily at least – to a new fitness regime when you’re back home.

8. You can’t fight the urge to travel

The existence of one “wanderlust” gene might have been discredited, but it remains true that some of us have a greater natural tendency towards travel. Fighting it may only work for so long…

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.