Category Archives: travel
The Lake District is one of Britain’s most popular hiking destinations, but in winter it sees far fewer walkers. Ben Lerwill went to beat the crowds and take in this stunning landscape out of season.
They do a mighty fine goulash in the Dog & Gun, using a recipe that’s been bringing in hikers for five decades. It’s the kind of sustenance the body craves after seven cold hours on the fells. We spill into the rosy warmth of the little Keswick pub, peeling off damp jackets and stamping the muck off our boots. The windows are fogged with condensation. Two pints are pulled, food ordered, a corner found. We settle. “Yep,” says Daniel, one long swig later. “Tired.”
The two of us have travelled up to the Lake District for four days of winter walking. A trip here is always something of a meteorological lottery, so by arriving at the start of the year there’s already an acceptance that getting chilly, and probably soaked, is a given. It helps take the uncertainty out of the equation.
At the same time, it’s also a season that heightens the solitude and bristling drama of the hills. We’re here – with about seven months to spare – to beat the summer rush. And when you’re alone on Maiden Moor in February and it’s blowing a gale, you know about it.
At the river bridge, there’s a man lobbing a ball into the water for a soggy spaniel. The dog is half delirious with joy. We veer south and clamber up past the falls of Greenup Sikes.
My last time in the Lakes was a winter two years ago, when everything had been snow and ice. The temperatures are less fierce now, but the winter skies are still raw and blustery. Beds of wilting bracken lie across the slopes, coating the hills in a coppery red. We pause to watch a sparrowhawk glide past us: it tilts its wings to gain speed, then disappears over the brow of the rock.
For the next few hours the massed grey clouds tease us, revealing deep views then closing them up again. At the pinnacle of Cat Bells, a sudden, mighty panorama opens up to the west. We debate: is that Grasmoor? Grisedale? Ten minutes later it’s gone, and we hike on into the spitting wind, gossiping our way back to Keswick.
The mountain forecast is poor for the next day. Bad visibility, relentless rain, but little wind. There’s a chance of beating the cloud by rising above 750m, so we opt to trek up Scafell Pike – not a handsome mountain, but the tallest of them all.
The results are glorious. After a two-hour climb we find ourselves in the clear, striding above a thick bed of cloud, every underfoot sound made crisp. At the summit we gorge on sausage rolls and apples, the highest, hungriest men in England.
Neither of us are true, feral outdoorsmen – picnics yes, pick-axes no – so by the time we thread our way down the gully under Broad Crag and join the downhill trail, the distant lights of the Wasdale Head Inn have taken on the feel of a promised land.
It’s cold early evening when we arrive. The famous old climbers’ pub sits near-isolated in the valley. There’s a log-burner glowing in the bar, and Yates Bitter on the pumps. A blackboard reads: “No, we don’t have wi-fi. Talk to each other.” It’s a hard place to leave.
The following morning we’re spoiled. It dawns a billowing, bracing February day, with wind rushing through the dales and a charged, purple atmosphere on the uplands. We’re now in the southern fells, and make the most of the conditions by snaking our way up to the Langdale Pikes. The tops are gusty but the views are extraordinary: an ocean of ridges and clefts, Windermere glinting in the distance, sporadic sunbeams spearing through the clouds. In six hours of hiking, we pass one other walker.
People obsess over the Lake District. Some dedicate – even lose – their lives to it. It has much to do, I suppose, with how consuming the place can feel.
Squeezed between the North Pennines and the Irish Sea, it always seems far bigger than its borders, folding and contorting itself so endlessly that even when you’re poring over an OS map, it seems impossible that the valleys, peaks and overhangs all find the space to fit together. Wainwright famously described 214 fells, but each one is a world of its own.
The weather hurls its worst at us on the final day. Fuelled by flapjacks and a sense of duty, we troop up into the wet clag to reach the Old Man of Coniston, getting lashed with rain. The view from the summit is non-existent: 360 degrees of murk. Only when we reach the surface of Goats Water on the way back down does the land re-emerge, unfurling a windblown spread of yawning basins and far-off tarns.
1. Creating parks in Patagonia
The Parque Pumalín is not the end, but the beginning: Tompkins Conservation, which was the subject of our latest travel podcast, will continue its rewilding mission in Patagonia. But the organisation can’t do it alone and is encouraging volunteers to come to Chile or Argentina, where they can get involved in tree planting, wildlife monitoring and, sometimes, reintroducing locally extinct species.
2. Going on safari in Laos
The last remaining home for tigers in Indochina, Nam Et-Phou Louey is a hotbed of biodiversity and an unexpectedly brilliant place to go on a safari. And we’re not talking about any old safari; we’re talking about the Nam Nern Night Safari and Ecolodge, which ploughs most of its profits into local outreach programmes that educate locals about conservation and sustainability. Twice a winner at the World Responsible Tourism Awards, guests on the safari not only support admirable conservation work but also have the opportunity to spy endangered species, mingle with locals and sleep in low-impact bungalows.
3. Crashing with locals in India
For remote Himalayan communities there can be scant opportunity for employment. However, thanks to an organisation called Village Ways, some of these isolated societies now have a steady income from sustainable tourism. The organisation puts intrepid explorers into homestays in India and Nepal, providing locals with a revenue source and an opportunity to celebrate their Himalayan traditions, culture and cuisine.
4. Supporting Maasai landowners in Kenya
The Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya is a 50,000-acre reserve created by 500 Maasai landowners. The park is home to bountiful wildlife – including big cats – and revenue from tourism provides the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood, which in turn helps preserve this diverse corner of Kenya. The conservancy’s stellar work was rewarded in 2016 with a gold medal at the African Responsible Tourism Awards.
5. Trekking with ethnic minorities in Vietnam
As tourism booms in Vietnam, not everyone is feeling the benefit: some of the country’s ethnic minorities are reportedly being left behind. However, Shu Tan, from the Hmong ethnic group, is trying to address that. The former street vendor has set up an award-winning social enterprise, Sapa O’Chau, which offers guided treks and homestays for tourists in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Managed by ethnic minorities, her organisation generates revenue for impoverished communities, where some people can’t afford to send their children to school.
6. Turtle conservation in Mexico
The deserted shores of Veracruz are just the tonic for hectic lives. They’re also a breeding ground for endangered turtles, which face a range of challenges including pollution and habitat loss. Cue the Yepez Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has spent the best part of half a century safeguarding turtles and their habitats in this corner of Mexico. They’re always on the lookout for volunteers who can help with a range of projects, from beach clean-ups and community outreach programmes to coastal reforestation.
7. Conducting reef research in Malaysia
The world’s coral reefs are, alas, in grave danger, as pollution, disease and climate change wreak havoc with these underwater ecosystems. Cue Biosphere Expeditions, which is running an eight-day excursion to the colourful colour gardens of Malaysia, where participants can help collect data from reefs, which could be used to preserve the beleaguered ecosystems. Open for qualified scuba divers only, the 2017 expedition takes place August 15-22.
1. Plan a rough itinerary
Spontaneity is one of the best things about backpacking, but in Australia it pays to have at least a rough itinerary, as it’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to get around this vast country. Spending longer than planned pottering around South Australia’s wine country – fun though it is – might mean you have to sacrifice that eagerly awaited trip to extraordinary Uluru or exploring the billabongs of Kakudu.
Three weeks is the absolute minimum to “do” the East Coast by land: Sydney to Cairns via the broad beaches of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, self-driving the length of Fraser Island (the largest sand island in the world), sailing the gorgeous Whitsundays, diving at the Great Barrier Reef and trekking in Daintree, the oldest tropical rainforest on earth. So to see the rest of Australia, you’ll need to fly or have much more time.
2. Plan where to go when
At any time of year, Australia is a great place to visit but it can get unbelievably hot, as well as surprisingly chilly and rainy, depending on where you go. Avoid travelling north during the “build-up” – the unbearably sticky weeks before the wet season rains bring cooler temperatures (November–March).
It’s far better to spend time in the more temperate south during these months, for example driving the Great Ocean Road or on a hiking trip in the Blue Mountains. The winter is generally a lot quieter so it’s a lovely time to see the country.
3. Pick accommodation to suit your needs
For solo travellers, Australia is a breeze. Staying in hostels is the best way to meet people, and staff can help you orientate yourself and make travel arrangements, while other backpackers are an invaluable source of information.
Whilst not to everyone’s taste, “party hostels” provide social events to break the ice, but you can also find rural retreats, city hipster hangouts, and most have private rooms if you’re a couple or dorms don’t suit.
Airbnb is a popular alternative while campsites are usually well-equipped with kitchens, toilets and the ubiquitous barbecue.
4. Choose transport to suit your needs
Without doubt the easiest way to cover the great distances around Oz is to fly, but travelling by bus allows you to see more and is cheaper. Gaze out of the window on a long journey and be mesmerised by the changing landscape: the rust-coloured bush where kangaroos bound alongside, swaying grasslands, blue-tinged mountains, and occasional tiny settlements flashing past.
Greyhound buses offer hop-on hop-off travel passes, and the Oz Experience – the party backpacker equivalent – provides excursions along the way. If you want more freedom, hire a car or camper van, pack a tent or bivvy bag and camp out under the stars.
5. Be savvy about safety
Throughout Australia, be prepared for summer heat waves when forest fires are a frequent danger. The arid interior is a hostile environment so take the necessary precautions if you plan to drive – breaking down here is no joke. Like in big cities anywhere in the world, be streetwise – watch your valuables and let family and friends know where you are going.
6. Don’t be spooked by dangerous animals
Australia has more than its fair share of scary critters but don’t get paranoid – the risks are actually very low: more people die each year from bee stings than from encounters with snakes, sharks, dingoes, saltwater crocodiles or jellyfish.
Spider bites are rarely fatal thanks to the availability of anti-venom. That said, do take simple precautions: redback spiders hide in sheltered places so always check under toilet seats, especially in outside lavatories.
Reduce the risk of encountering a shark by swimming between the flags on patrolled beaches, and don’t swim in estuaries, rivers or mangroves where saltwater crocodiles like to hang out. When hiking in the bush, wear protective footwear to avoid snake bites.
7. Go west
Most visitors to Australia follow the well-trodden path up the East Coast. While it’s undoubtedly a highlight, the Ningaloo Reef on the remote West Coast is an equally spectacular and, unlike at the Great Barrier Reef, it comes right into the shore.
At Coral Bay, you can wade out through turquoise water to the reef or take a glass-bottomed boat and watch an exhilarating frenzy of fish at feeding time. When you’re done snorkelling or diving, see the reef from a biplane or speed on quad bikes along a glimmering white beach.
Head inland to spend the night at an isolated sheep station, cooking over a campfire as the sun sets over the never-ending ochre landscape.
8. Don’t dismiss anywhere
You can have a good time in the most unlikely places: for example, a stopover at a one-horse town with nothing but a pub and a few bungalows may turn out to be the venue for one of the most surprisingly good nights of your trip. The town probably won’t make it into the guidebooks but finding adventure where you least expect it is one of the best things about backpacking in Australia.
Glen Tilt, Blair Atholl
One of Scotland’s lesser-known glens, this magnificent walk begins at the Old Bridge of Tilt, a hint of many ancient stone bridges hunkered in widescreen landscapes to come. This is Big Tree Country, populated by the tallest trees in Britain. Stay in a Scandinavian-esque woodland lodge on the Atholl Estates, which has been visited over centuries by everyone from Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Victoria.
Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Bleak and lunar-like, this bracing hike is punctuated by glimpses of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath on the horizon. Here, at the exposed north-western tip of Scotland, the rewards are great and hard-won. Sandwood Bay is one of Britain’s most inaccessible beaches, flanked by a skyscraping sea stack – a ruin said to be haunted by the ghost of a shipwrecked seaman – and sand dunes the size of houses. It’s perfect for wild camping, if you can face carrying your gear in and out of the boggiest of moorland. Make sure you go for a pint and plate of langoustines.
Castle Tioram, Ardnamurchan
Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of Britain, is a slender calloused finger of a peninsula pointing outward to wild seas. For a varied walk through coastline, heathland, moorland and woodland, begin on the banks of Loch Moidart where Castle Tioram, a ruin raised on a rocky tidal island, presides. Meander along sections of one of the Highlands’ most beautiful paths, the Silver Walk, then head into the heather-clad hills, passing lochs, reservoirs and pretty much every marvel of nature that the the area has to offer.
Glen Etive, Glen Coe
The most dramatic of Scotland’s glens, featured in Skyfall, is just as powerfully experienced by walking through its valleys rather than up the giant backs of its mountains. In one day you’ll encounter snow, hail, sleet, rain, the brightest of blue skies and a white-out on this long, consistently jaw-dropping hike. The deer on the steep flanks of the surrounding mountains were so far away they looked like ants on a hill. A walk to end all walks, in all weathers. Stay at the Red Squirrel campsite, make a fire and pour a whisky.
Kyle of Durness, Sutherland
Stand on the tip of Faraid Head, surrounded by nothing but the squall of seabirds and wide open seas, and you’ll feel you’ve found the very edge of the island of Britain. As long as you don’t mind sharing it with an MOD training facility. A remote, surprisingly gentle walk, criss-crossing vast dunes and grassy headlands, happening upon some of the most stunning white-sand beaches you’re likely to encounter anywhere in the UK. Don’t bother seeking paths. This is about dawdling, stopping to pick up shells, and paddling in the coldest and clearest of waters.
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
Robert Louis Stevenson described the extinct volcano forming Holyrood Park as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. The views back across Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament, Leith, the Firth of Forth and out to the Bass Rock are fabulous. There’s no need to climb Arthur’s Seat either. Circle the crags, wander the paths, and take refuge with the dog walkers in Hunter’s Bog. It’s extraordinary enough to find hillwalking like this in a capital city. Afterwards, go for a pint at Swedish hipster bar Hemma.
East of Glasgow‘s old cathedral lies one of the great Victorian cemeteries, a reminder written in 3500 stone monuments, many of them crumbling away, that this was once the second city of the empire. Explore the city on a dark day under low skies, the way many would say is best to enjoy the cheek-by-jowl views of the Tennents brewery, high rises, grand civic buildings, and all that gives Glasgow its burnished beauty. Finish up atGlasgow Green’s West brewery, located in an ostentatious Victorian carpet factory, with a beer brewed on site.
1. Oradour-sur-Glane, France
The small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, tucked in the Limousin countryside, was the site of one of WWII’s most harrowing atrocities. On June 10, 1944, 642 of its inhabitants were massacred by the Nazi Waffen-SS. People from the village were rounded up, machine-gunned and many burned alive.
Today, the town’s crumbling buildings are a brutal reminder of that fateful day. Houses and shops lie in ruins, some retaining original details – rusting lamps, sewing machines and pots and pans.
The Centre de la Mémoire commemorates the crimes that took place with testimonials, exhibits and films shedding light on Oradour’s bloody past.
2. Imber Village, UK
In 1943, with only 47 days’ notice, the villagers of Imber in Wiltshire were evicted from their homes to allow American troops to train for the liberation of Europe. They never returned.
Villagers are said to have protested their banishment, but to no avail. Imber had been acquired by the Ministry of Defence before the war in a bid to make Salisbury plain the largest training ground in the country. To this day, the land belongs to the British Army.
3. Pripyat, Ukraine
Situated in northern Ukraine, Pripyat was founded to house the families of workers of the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The town was evacuated following the devastating explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, which caused vast amounts of radioactive chemicals to be pumped into the atmosphere.
Today, vegetation forces its way into the crevices of abandoned buildings, and textbooks and toys are strewn across school floors – a chilling reminder of the inhabitants’ sudden departure.
4. Pentedattilo, Italy
Clinging to the jagged rock face of Monte Calvario, Pentedattilo dates back to 640BC when it was established as a Greek colony. It thrived under Greek and Roman rule, later declining as a result of Saracen invasions.
The 1783 earthquake caused irreparable damage, causing most of the population to move to nearby coastal town Melito Porto Salvo.
Pentedattilo was partially restored by volunteers in the 1980s. Today, it is a thriving artistic and cultural centre, and host to the yearly Pentedattilo Film Festival.
5. Skrunda-1, Latvia
The secret city of Skrunda-1 once played a vital role in protecting the Soviet Union from possible missile attacks. During the Cold War, the city guarded a key radar station that scanned the skies for nuclear warheads.
Skrunda-1 was one of the USSR’s “closed administrative territorial formations”: secret towns that supported research sites and sensitive military bases. The city housed the families of Soviet soldiers who worked on the nearby radar project.
The site remained under the control of the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but was eventually abandoned in 1998. Today, derelict Soviet-style apartment blocks littered with possessions still stand, an echo of the town’s recent past.s
6. Pyramiden, Norway
Pyramiden is located above Norway’s arctic circle, on the archipelago of Svalbard. It was founded by the Swedes in the early-twentieth century and acquired by the Soviet Union in 1927, becoming a Russian coal-mining settlement. At its peak, Pyramiden had around 1200 Russian residents.
Its decline began in the 1990s following the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the dwindling profitability of the coal-mining industry. It was completely abandoned in 1998.
Now a handful of visitors head here each year to see the town’s Soviet-era remains, which include apartment blocks and the world’s northernmost statue of Vladimir Lenin.
7. Belchite, Spain
In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Republicans and the nationalist forces of General Franco fought a bloody two-week battle in the town of Belchite. More than 3000 people lost their lives.
On Franco’s orders, a new town was constructed nearby to house its inhabitants. The war-torn crumbling village of Belchite was left as a mere monument. Today its dilapidated buildings, riddled by bullet holes and scarred by shells, only just remain standing.
1. Berlin, Germany
A divided and somewhat neglected city until 1989, Berlin has completely transformed itself. This diverse metropolis has deep historical resonances, an archipelago of urban nightlife scenes and a pop-cultural pedigree that embraces everything from Marlene Dietrich to Einstürzende Neubauten.
As well as the prestigious museums and galleries of the Kulturforum, there are plenty of smaller venues showcasing more offbeat artistic offerings. The Bauhaus Archiv Museum is the ultimate pilgrimage for design lovers. Meanwhile, the city’s fabled weekend flea markets allow you to rummage through a century’s worth of consumer culture.
2. Kanazawa, Japan
Horticulture can be just as inspirational as any other art form – and the Japanese city of Kanazawa is the perfect place to appreciate it. Here, the seventeenth-century Kenrokuen Park showcases the compositional qualities that make Japanese gardening so unique. Also known for its Samurai villas, geisha teahouses and traditional handicrafts, Kanazawa is the ideal destination for discovering the Japan of the Edo period, rather than its garish twenty-first century reincarnation.
But, if Kanazawa proves to be a bit too folksy, then fear not – you can always stop off inTokyo on the way back.
3. Tallinn, Estonia
Renowned for its medieval town centre, marzipan museums and faux-medieval restaurants, the Estonian capital may seem far too twee to cut the creative mustard. For Nordic cool with a twist, however, it is in a class of its own.
There’s a distinctive national style in the arts and crafts here – modernism and folk motifs come seamlessly together. Investigate this at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design and the KUMU art museum – the latter is a contemporary architectural statement in its own right. The Museum of Occupations, detailing the effects of both Nazi and Soviet power, provides gritty historical context.
You can also meet local creatives at the Telliskivi Centre. This building is a former engineering works that now houses a cluster of studios, design shops and nouveau-Nordic cuisine restaurants.
4. New York City, USA
Celebrated in film, TV, literature and popular song more than any other city on Earth, this list would not be complete without a mention of the Big Apple.
New York took over from Paris as the planet’s leading urban muse some time in the mid-twentieth century – and NYC shows no sign of giving up that status. As a city swelled by immigration, many of the world’s great languages, cultures and cuisines are represented here, and a huge portion of the globe’s cultural output is on show too.
The list of big-hitting institutions speaks for itself: the MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim. And there’s not just one major design museum, but two: the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and design.
5. Amsterdam, Netherlands
With its neat canals overlooked by handsome merchants’ houses, Amsterdam is one of the most beautifully proportioned cities in the world. It is also a laboratory of post-industrial living, thanks to projects such as the NDSM-Werf, a former shipyard now containing workspaces, cafés and a strong community spirit. The Westergasfabriek, where red-brick factory buildings have been adapted to house an arts and entertainment zone, is also fantastic creative fodder. Meanwhile Borneo, a former dockland area, has been rebuilt as a residential district of cool, contemporary dwellings.
The city offers old-school artistic inspiration by the bucket load, too. Rembrandt’s House, the Van Gogh Museum and the modernist masterpieces of the Stedelijk are among the highlights.
6. Sao Paulo, Brazil
Gruff, gritty and overwhelming, Sao Paulo is an altogether more abrasive prospect thanRio de Janeiro, Brazil’s more popular tourist city. But, in many ways, it’s also more culturally potent.
The Sao Paolo Biennial and the MASP contemporary art museum are the flagships ofSouth America’s most diverse cultural scene, and the nightlife has a famously uninhibited, anything-goes reputation.
The sprawling city also has scores of bustling neighbourhoods suited to endless urban roving. Whichever part of the megalopolis you find yourself in, the music blasting out of bars, cars and private flats is a revelation.
7. Bandung, Indonesia
It’s smart to aim for a city yet to establish itself as a tourist hub – that way you’ll avoid too many preconceptions. One such outlier is Indonesia’s textile and fashion industry capital Bandung. It’s a raucous, chaotic, scooter-clogged metropolis that’s yet to find its way into much film or literature.
More than just a place to buy cheap denims, it’s the undoubted centre of Indonesia’s art, design and indie music scenes, and has the teeming café life to match. It can also boast some truly inspirational one-offs: the Regia inner-city forest comes complete with treetop walkway and alfresco cultural events. The perforated cube that is the Al-Irsyad Mosque is one of the most beautiful contemporary sacral buildings in Southeast Asia.
1. Sri Lanka: Kandy to Ella
Starting in colonial-style Kandy, the little train to Ella chugs through tea plantations and up hillsides to reach a remote station in the middle of Hill Country. It takes nearly seven hours to reach the final destination.
Rules around riding the train are lax in Sri Lanka, so you’ll find passengers sitting in open doorways swinging their legs in the sunshine as the train gasps its way into the hills. The last leg of the ride can be misty as the train breaks through the cloud line.
2. China: Jiayuguan to Xi’an
On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the city of Jiayuguan, in China’s far northwest, couldn’t feel more different to the metropolises of Beijing or Shanghai. In the Gansu province, the city is home to the Jiayu Pass, the furthest western end of the Great Wall of China.
The 18-hour train ride to Xi’an, also known as the end of the Silk Road, offers up more of the same. Scenery is bleak and awe-inspiringly vast. This journey – longer than any other in China – will give you a sense of the country’s sheer size.
The train belts along the Gobi Desert, before hitting the Hexi Corridor, the ancient northern Silk Road trading route. It then rattles onwards to the Qilian Mountain range, where snow-capped mountains glowing orange and pink are visible in the dusk. The train itself is comfortable, with a mixture of private compartments, second-class sleepers and hard third-class benches. The dining car offers freshly made stews and stir-fries, and cheap beer can be bought on board.
3. Malaysia: Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is blessed with a cheap and efficient rail service that runs down the west coast of the Peninsular. It’s also an incredibly scenic option.
Run by a series of electric trains that service families and commuters, this route feels just like a normal local’s journey. At least, it does until the train picks up speed and zips past forested hills and verdant tropical landscapes. In heavily populated Peninsular Malaysia, it’s a pleasure to sit back and soak up the tropical vibe from an air-conditioned carriage.
4. Japan: the Gonō Line in Tōhoku
If you ever find yourself in Tōhoku – the most northerly region on Japan’s main island, Honshū – book yourself onto a trip on the Gonō Railway. The line mostly runs through Aomori prefecture, which is surrounded by Japan’s iciest seas on three sides, with snow-capped mountains to the south. Considering how far north Aomori is, snow is pretty much guaranteed for most of the year, but the ride offers some fantastic coastal scenery.
Visitors will need to book onto a special “sightseeing train” called the Resort Shirakami. This line takes you to one of the most remote areas of the country, and it’s so far removed from Tokyo’s manic Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a different country. Its enormous glass windows and comfy booth seats are the perfect place from which to spot snow-topped Mount Iwaki and the craggy coastline.
5. Vietnam: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
More than 1000 miles of railway lines run the length of Vietnam. The lines carry comfortable air-conditioned sleeper trains, making a long distance train journey a pleasure.
You can do the whole route north to south on the Reunification Express train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in three days, but the most scenic part by far is between Hué and Danang. Watch fishermen cast their nets as you pass the South China Sea, just metres away from the tracks, before curving around the coast past deserted white beaches and lush rainforest.
Breakfast in the dining car is pot noodles in broth, served with fresh lime and chilli. Enjoy it with cup of instant black coffee, drunk as the train chugs its way past buffalos grazing in rice paddies.
6. Uzbekistan: Urgench to Bukhara
High-speed trains link most of Uzbekistan’s cities: Tashkent, Andijan and Samarkand are all joined up by super-fast express Afrosiyob trains.
Bukhara to Urgench (the jump-off point for the ancient Silk Road mud city of Khiva) on the other hand, is serviced by a slow, 12-hour service – but that’s the beauty of it. The train runs through the Kyzylkum Desert, and you can spot camels lumbering alongside the tracks. Women in brightly printed dresses sell hard-boiled eggs and pickles from the platform before the train picks up speed, screeching past desert tomb stones and abandoned mosques eroded by sand.
Best for: winter thrills
The world’s largest island is covered almost entirely in ice – which makes for unbeatable winter sports conditions. Strap on the skis for some cross-country or head up higher on a helicopter to ski back down from the ice caps. It’s also possible to kayak among the icebergs and even scuba dive down to see what lies beneath their famously shallow surface. If you’d rather gather some speed, hire a snowmobile or take charge of a dog sled and head out there into the snow.
On The Go Tours tip: After a busy day of outdoor adventure, relax at Cafe Iluliaq (in Ilulissat) with a craft beer flavoured with berries and herbs sourced from the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Best for: urban adventures
Japanese culture may have been exported worldwide but nothing can compare to seeing it first hand, perhaps by eating sushi in Tokyo or seeing geishas perform a cultural ritual in Kyoto. Take in the culture by learning to cook Japanese food yourself on a cookery course and discover what it’s like to live in one of the world’s most frenetic cities at Tokyo’s Shibuja crossing – where you’ll join up to 1000 other pedestrians bobbing and weaving at one of the world’s busiest intersections.
On The Go Tours tip: When the hustle and bustle of Tokyo gets too much, head for the Todoroki Gorge, a hidden oasis of green and the capital’s last remaining natural gorge.
Best for: laidback watersports
Anyone who’s seen the film The Beach knows that Thailand is home to some of the world’s very best stretches of sand. This laidback country is also home to over 3000km of coastline, much of it made up of cliffs and caves that are just begging to be kayaked along or dived beneath. Further inland, head to Kanchanaburi, where you’ll find the infamous Bridge Over the River Kwai and the multi-tiered Erawan Falls – a fantastic swimming spot that is popular with the locals.
On The Go Tours tip: The Similan Islands are still considered one of the best dive spots in Thailand but visit in April or May for the best chances of seeing whale sharks.
Best for: surprises
Myanmar has only recently opened up to tourism and remains a truly unspoiled country with a unique culture. People here are keen to share their customs and you might find yourself waylaid by morning alms or the chance for tea with the locals. There’s great trekking here, in the Himalayan north around what is said to be southeast Asia’s highest peak, Hkakabo Razi, and at Inle Lake wonderful kayaking, out to peaceful villages and past floating gardens. This is a place to keep your eyes and your mind open.
On The Go Tours tip: Journey from Mandalay to Yangon by boat to explore otherwise-inaccessible gems, including minority villages, colonial towns and Buddhist caves.
Best for: mountain climbing
Smack bang in the centre of the Himalayas, landlocked Nepal is all about the mountains. Clamber up along the very spine of the globe, hiking the Annapurna range or to Everest Base Camp, and you’ll take in some of the most awe-inspiring scenery our planet has to offer – from snow-capped peaks to ancient oak and rhododendron forests. You could also go on an Asian safari, in Chitwan national park, home to rhinos and tigers.
On The Go Tours tip: Fancy a break from all that trekking? Spend a night or two in the picturesque village of Nagarkot where you can admire the sweeping mountain views from the comfort of your hotel bed.
Best for: desert safari
The Namib desert is ripe for adventure, its dunes the perfect slopes for sandboarding down or quad biking over, its epic rust-red landscape an unbeatable backdrop for a fiery sunset. Namibia is also home to the world’s second-largest canyon, ideal for canoeing along, and some of the best game viewing, at Etosha national park and in the lush Caprivi Strip. See how many of the big five you can tick off – that’s lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino – and look out for smaller springbok, birds and reptiles too.
On The Go Tours tip: Namibia is a superb self-drive destination – it’s safe, English is widely spoken and road conditions are good, so set your own pace with a self-drive adventure trip.
Best for: riding the rails
The Trans-Siberian Railway should be on every traveller’s bucket list, the farthest you can travel on one train, across the largest country in the world and past the point where Europe meets Asia. Climb aboard to travel from Moscow past the Urals and through Siberia, breaking the journey in Yekaterinburg, the last home of the Romanovs, and in Irkutsk, said to be ‘the Paris of Siberia’ and the jumping-off point for Lake Baikal for a banya (sauna) at the deepest lake in the world.
On The Go Tours tip: Hop off the train at Vladimir, just a two-hour ride from Moscow, for the chance to explore the charming towns that make up the historic Golden Ring.
1. Gothenburg and the west coast, Sweden
In the space of a couple of decades, Sweden’s second biggest city has reinvented itself as one of Europe’s coolest city break destinations. It’s still a big industrial hub with a busy port at its heart, but the focus is increasingly on tourism. Why should you go? For the super-fresh seafood, for the locally brewed beer and laidback bars, and for the car-free islands that lie just offshore, where you can swim in cool, clear waters.
2. Skagen, Denmark
Set on a narrow spit of land with breezy beaches on both sides, Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town – and one of its prettiest, too, with mustard-yellow houses lining the streets. Since the Nordic Impressionists arrived here more than a century ago, attracted by the big skies and soft golden light, the artists have kept on coming. Now the town is dotted with galleries, workshops and antiques shops. Cycle a few kilometres northeast of town to the sandbar called Grenen, where Denmark ends, and you can watch two separate seas sloshing together before your eyes.
3. Bergen and the fjords, Norway
Bergen looks like it was built for a photoshoot, but its beauty pales in comparison to the epic fjords nearby. You might find that the staggering views are rewarding enough (imagine soaring mountains reflected in mirror-smooth water), but otherwise there’s a whole host of adrenaline-pumping activities to keep you occupied. Anyone for paragliding?
4. Stockholm, Sweden
Sprawling across low islands that are stitched together by passenger boats and bridges, with views of soaring spires around almost every corner, Stockholm sure is a looker. But beyond the medieval lanes of the old centre, the self-proclaimed Capital of Scandinavia is a slick, forward-thinking city, home to some of the world’s coolest tech and fashion brands. It’s pricey and pretentious, sure, but there’s a reason young Swedes flock here from all four corners of the country.
5. Lapland, Norway & Sweden
Wood-fired saunas, shivering forests, reindeer meat and steaming cups of lingonberry juice: Lapland manages to roll Scandinavia’s most exotic bits into a single epic landscape. Challenging weather conditions and the area’s vast size can make exploring a slow process, but with a long weekend you’ll be able to get a decent flavour for life in the north. Watch the northern lights, try ice fishing or snuggle down for a night at the Icehotel. Come back in summer when the sun reappears, nourishing the valleys with meltwater, and the possibilities for hiking are endless.
6. Copenhagen, Denmark
When it comes to art, design, fashion and food, no other Scandinavian city can compete with Copenhagen. Yes, Noma is here, but most visitors experience a more laidback version of the city, where bottles of Carlsberg are still swigged at canal-side bars, and where pushbikes – not limos – remain the favoured mode of transport. Give the famous Little Mermaid statue a miss, and instead make time for the galleries, food carts and design shops. A weekend here is barely enough to scratch the surface.
7. Österlen, Sweden
Home to rolling fields of poppies and cornflowers, rather than the usual dense pine forests, Österlen is the gorgeous chunk of land in the far southeast of Sweden. It’s one of the best parts of the country to explore by car, with farm shops and orchards sprouting up at the side of the road, and powder-fine beaches hugging the pristine coast. Head to Stenshuvud Nationalpark on a warm summer’s day, squint just a little, and you might think you’ve landed on some languid Thai island.
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.