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Great Destinations to Dive

the-gulf-of-aqaba# The Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan

Tucked between the arid lands of northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea is one of the world’s premier diving destinations, and leading off from its northern tip the Gulf of Aqaba boasts some of its best and least-damaged stretches of coral. The long Egyptian coastline is filled with brash, bustling and rather commercial resorts, and Israel’s slender coast around Eilat can get uncomfortably crowded, but the unsung Jordanian resort of Aqaba offers a tranquillity and lack of hustle that, for many, makes it top choice in these parts.

The water here is nearly always warm and the reefs exquisite. Wide fields of soft corals stretch off into the startlingly clear blue gulf, schools of anthias shimmering over the various fans, sea fingers and sea whips. Huge heads of stony, hard corals grow literally as big as a house, their limestone skeletons supporting an abundance of marine life, including turtles, rays and moray eels. Endless species of multicoloured fish goggle back at you from all sides.

# The great Sardine Run, South Africa

It may be a humble creature, but the sardine can put a pride of lions or a herd of buffalo to shame. Almost every year around June, enormous shoals of the fish, millions strong and kilometres long, swim up the South African coast towards Mozambique. It’s one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

Among the best places in the country to witness the Sardine Run is KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast, along which lies the scuba-diving town of Umkomaas. Once under water, it becomes apparent that the sardines have company. They have been tracked by thousands of hungry sharks, dolphins and game fish such as bluefish and tuna intent on gorging themselves silly on an incredibly easy target. The rare, once-in-a-lifetime highlight for the diver is when dolphins herd part of the shoal into a compact mass, known as a “bait ball”, pushing the fish towards the surface where they, along with their hungry co-predators, indulge in a feeding frenzy, darting towards the hapless sardines with gaping mouths.

# Palancar Reef, Mexico

Teeming with marine life, Palancar is just one small part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which stretches from Mexico to Honduras, but it is in a prime position to flourish. Just off the southwest corner of the island of Cozumel, and part of a larger ring of coral around much of the island, it is washed by slow, steady currents that keep the water clear and bear nutrients from nearby mangrove swamps.

Bumped by clumsy snorkellers, battered by hurricanes and boiled by freakish spikes in water temperature, Palancar not only survives but prospers as a fascinating and complex ecosystem. Any diver, novice or expert could explore this reef for hours – or, if you’re Jacques Cousteau, who put this place on divers’ maps in the 1960s, years.

Lobsters pick their way delicately along outcrops, feelers blown by the current, while blue-green parrotfish gnaw at the coral with their beaky mouths. Striped clownfish hide in the protective tentacles of an anemone, immune to its toxic sting; mellow turtles graze on algae; a graceful ray glides by.

# Bloody Bay Wall, Little Cayman

The reeftop is fairly flat and relatively shallow – around 8m deep – but when you swim to the edge you are looking into the abyss, 2000m straight down a vertical wall of coral.

Bloody Bay Wall is over 3km long and dotted with coral arches, chimneys and sand chutes. Giant barrel sponges as tall as a man cling to the wall, while barracuda, Nassau groupers and turtles patrol the wall. The waters around Little Cayman are among the clearest in the Caribbean, let alone the world, and floating over the drop-off is a unique experience – as close to skydiving under water as you can get.

# Tubbataha Reef, The Philippines

If you’re looking for some of the most adventurous and thrilling scuba diving in the world, Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in the Sulu Sea is the place to start. Well out of sight of land and almost 200km southeast of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, this World Heritage Site is only accessible on live-aboard boats when seas are favourable between March and June. Its very isolation means it’s not overrun by package-tour divers, and even during these peak months you’ll probably be on one of only a handful of small boats in the area.

Rise at dawn for a quick dive among the turtles and small sharks before breakfast. Afterwards there’s time for a visit to Shark Airport, where sharks “take off” from sandy ledges like planes, before it’s back to the boat for lunch and a snooze. You can do deep dives, night dives, drift dives, all kinds of dives. Or you can simply fossick gently along some of the shallower reefs, home to so many varieties of coral and fish that it’s hard to know where to look next. For a real buzz, dive deep over one of the many coral walls that seem to plunge into infinity, and hang out for a few minutes with giant manta rays, black-tip reef sharks and, just possibly, cruising hammerheads.

# The Indian Ocean, The Maldives

The brilliantly turquoise waters here  hold over two thousand species of fish, including serpent-like moray eels, bulbous napoleon wrasse and huge, elegant manta rays. With visibility of up to 40m, diving in this remote archipelago, 700km southwest of Sri Lanka, is understandably big business, and established dive centres at most resorts offer reef and drift diving, as well as the opportunity to dive at night.

Reef sharks are one of the main attractions in the Maldives and are reassuringly unlikely to be aggressive towards divers. Often sighted gracefully skimming the edges of the reef, the grey reef shark, distinguished by a lighter strip on its dorsal fin and a black flash across the edge of its tail, can reach up to two metres in length. Once immediate thoughts of Jaws have been banished, gliding through the sparkling Indian Ocean only metres from a great predator as it slinks its way around the coral is thrilling.

# Sipadan, Malaysia

Every diver who comes to Sipadan will see something that they haven’t seen before. Famous for its large resident population of green and hawksbill turtles as well as healthy numbers of reef sharks and magnificent coral, Sipadan is Malaysia’s only oceanic island. Sitting in the Sulu Sea off the northeastern coast of Borneo, it’s also a great base for exploring the nearby shoals of Kapalai and the island of Mabul, well-suited for voyeurs who are tantalized by the mating habits of mandarin fish and frogfish and other cryptic reef dwellers like sea-wasps. Above water, on Mabul you’ll also meet the indigenous “sea-gypsies” – the Badjao – who live either in stilt-houses perched over the lagoon or on their tiny fishing boats which ply the Sulu Sea as far as the Philippines.

# Pacific Harbour, Fiji

Most divers catch a glimpse of a shark in Fiji, usually a small blacktip or nurse shark prowling the edge of the reef. But to see the big boys – 4m tiger sharks or mean-looking bulls – you need to take a deep breath and head to Pacific Harbour on the south coast of Viti Levu. Just offshore is a stretch of water that offers the world’s ultimate shark diving experience – the chance to encounter up to eight species of the ocean’s top predators with no cage or chainmail to protect you. While this could be considered a novel method of suicide, the dive has a flawless safety record and is a great way to learn about these much-maligned creatures.

Having signed a form acknowledging that shark diving “is an inherently risky activity”, participants are given a detailed briefing (no swimming off on your own) before heading out to the Shark Reef Marine Reserve – a protected area funded by money raised from the dive. Here, experienced Fijian divers hand-feed the sharks, while you view the action from a reef-ledge “arena” a few metres below. It’s a bizarre sight: tuna heads and other scraps are served from a giant wheelie bin which soon attracts a swirling vortex of jacks, groupers and giant trevally.

# Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand

Jacques Cousteau championed the Poor Knights Islands as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. And with their warm currents, crystal-clear visibility and a host of undersea attractions his judgement is understandable.

Dive boats spread themselves over fifty recognized dive sites that jointly cover New Zealand’s most diverse range of sea life, including subtropical species such as Lord Howe coralfish and toadstool grouper, found nowhere else around the coast. Near-vertical rock faces drop 100m through a labyrinth of caves, fissures and rock arches teeming with rainbow-coloured fish, crabs, soft corals, kelp forests and shellfish. Blue, humpback, sei and minke whales also drop in from time to time, and dolphins are not uncommon.

A typical day might include an hour-long cruise out to the islands followed by a drift dive through a sandy-bottomed cave populated by stingrays and lit by shafts of sunlight. After lunch on board and perhaps some time paddling one of the boat’s kayaks you’ll head around the coast to a second dive spot, maybe working your way along a technicolor wall of soft corals and a few nudibranchs. As if that weren’t enough, the waters north and south of the reserve are home to two navy wrecks, both deliberately scuttled.

# The White Sea, Russia

How to go ice diving? 1. Fly to Moscow. 2. Board a 28-hour train north to Chupa, a polar station in the northernmost stretches of the European continent. 3. Head out by Chinese jeep to Polar Circle Lodge in the remote wilderness of northern Russia. 4. Zoom from the lodge out over the frozen White Sea by snowmobile. 5. Saw through the 1.5m-thick ice. 6. Jump in.

Russia’s far north is a landscape of wonder and wandering once the colder months settle in and the unforgiving landscape freezes over, and ice diving in the White Sea – an open body of water that freezes over completely in the wintertime – is probably the most memorable time you’ll ever spend under water. Although the winter air temperature in the Arctic can drop to an extremity-shrivelling –25°C, the water in the sea is thankfully a bit balmier: just below 0°C at ice level and only a few degrees colder towards the bottom.

With base layers, undersuit and dry suit on, the only part of your body to get cold will be your face, but make no mistake: it will be numb within seconds. Connected to the world above via a single safety rope, use your underwater torch to follow your guide down past ice hummocks, rifts, cavities and caves, minnowing under tall arches and vertical rocks overgrown with sea anemones and sponges. After you surface, let yourself be guided along the frozen land by the glimmering northern lights above as you retire to a Soviet-era cottage for some real Russian hospitality, comradeship and – if you’re lucky – a sauna in the buff.

Travel Alone?, Here Its Tips

travel-aloneTravelling alone can seem daunting from the comfort of home. What happens if you get stranded somewhere? Can you go out at night solo? Won’t it feel weird to eat in a restaurant alone?. Here are travel alone tips :

# Be aware of safety

Travelling solo can be both safe and rewarding, but be mindful of safety concerns as you would travelling in a group or couple. Take care in large cities at night, watch your drinks, be aware of any local scams and keep a close eye on your valuables.

# Know your strengths

Are you a sociable person who wants to be in the middle of everything? You might go crazy if you can’t communicate, so head for where you speak the language. Or, barring that go somewhere with very few tourists. If you’re more of an introvert and prefer to observe a culture, forget the language barrier and go for passive entertainment. Vibrant cities are perfect for this, especially ones with good café cultures. Parisis classic, but other former French colonies, such as Vietnam, are also great for sitting and people-watching, all for the price of a coffee.

# Just say no

Sometimes, especially in more hospitable and foreigner-fascinated cultures like Egypt, the attention you get travelling solo can be a little intense. Learn how to say “no, thank you” in the local language, as well as “absolutely not” – plus the local nonverbal gesture for no, which is often more effective than both. Also have local help numbers, such as the tourist police, programmed in your phone. You’ll probably never need them, but just knowing you have them can give you the confidence to deal with awkward situations.

# Pack a book

A good book, a magazine or even just postcards to write or your travel journal to jot in – are all legitimate activities at a bar or restaurant if you get to feeling a little bored/lonely/exposed, so carry one of them with you at all times. And as a last resort there’s always fiddling with your smartphone.

# Learn a little language

Make the effort to learn a few words and phrases before you go travelling. Just knowing how to introduce yourself, start a basic conversation, order a beer and count from 1–10 makes all the difference. People love to know you’re making an effort and doing your best to interact, even if you’re rubbish.

# Take photos

Making photography a mission, even if it’s just little odd details you notice about a place, gives a little structure to your day. And you will notice more odd details, because you’ll have the time and attention to look around. Your friends at home will appreciate your perspective and the story that comes with it.

# Eat big

You might be tempted to live on fast food, just to avoid awkward restaurant situations. Don’t. In fact, fancy establishments are fantastic places to dine alone. Waiters are happy to help solo diners who smile and say, “I made a special trip just to eat here. What do you recommend?” Social folks might want to eat at the bar, but there’s no shame in taking a table for two.

# Get an early start

If the thought of bar-hopping alone makes you die a little inside, just recast your day. Wake up early, enjoy a leisurely breakfast (when all the good stuff is still available on the hotel buffet) and head out for parks, museums and other daytime-only activities. If you pack your day full enough, you’ll be ready for bed by 9pm.

# Find your people

Use Facebook and Twitter to ask for connections where you’re travelling. Offer to take local friends of friends out for dinner, and you’ll be surprised how many people take you up on it – everyone likes to be tour guide for a night. Also seek out your interests in your destination – the fan club for the local football team, say, or the chess association.

# Revel in it

Even if you do get lonely, don’t lose sight of all the things you can do when travelling alone. Some of those perks are tiny – whether that means double-dipping your chips in the guacamole or changing your mind every hour, without worrying about driving anyone crazy. But the real bonus of solo travel is much larger: pure freedom. You can take the exact trip you want, and even if you’re not quite sure yet what that might be, you’ll have a great time figuring it out.

# Embrace technology and terrible films

Remember that it’s OK to spend the occasional night in watching terrible films on your guesthouse’s TV. You wouldn’t be out every night at home, it’d be exhausting, so why would you try and do it for several months abroad? And a smartphone or tablet is a must now that there is free wi-fi almost everywhere. Among many other things it means you can book your accommodation ahead and ensure a safe pick-up at your destination. If you’re feeling lonely you can connect with home, read the news and podcasts are great for passing time on long journeys.

# Explore the expat hub

Pretty much every major (and sometimes not so major) town and city across the world has some sort of expat or gringo hub. Go there, sit at the bar, nurse a beer and you’re likely to get chatting opportunities. That’s assuming you want company. Or head to backpacker hostel restaurant/bar areas and repeat the same. Sometimes they’re on the look out for non-guests in the evening, but if you go in the afternoon you should be alright.

# Sleep around

Look for room rentals in an apartment, which gives an automatic connection with residents when you’re travelling alone. Even if your landlord doesn’t take you out on the town, you’ll at least scoop up a few local tips. Try online bulletin boards in your destination, room-rental sites like Airbnb and crash-pad networks like Couchsurfing. Bonus: as a solo traveller, you have tons of options to choose from. Hostels are of course ready-made for solo travellers, but you might wind up spending more time with other tourists than with locals.

Top Destination Around The World

london-united-kingdom# London, United Kingdom

The crown jewels, Buckingham Palace, Camden Market…in London, history collides with art, fashion, food, and good British ale. A perfect day is different for everyone: culture aficionados shouldn’t miss the Tate Modern and the Royal Opera House. If you love fashion, Oxford Street has shopping galore. For foodies, cream tea at Harrod’s or crispy fish from a proper chippy offers classic London flavor. Music and book buffs will love seeing Abbey Road and the Sherlock Holmes Museum (at 221B Baker Street, of course).

# Istanbul, Turkey

The mosques, bazaars, and Turkish baths of Istanbul could keep you happily occupied for your entire trip: an eyeful of breathtaking architecture here, a good-natured haggle over a carpet there. Kick your trip off at the awe-inspiring Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), which is visible from many points of the city. Stroll the Galata Bridge and stop by the Miniaturk Park to see its tiny artifacts. The Grand Bazaar has thousands of shops to browse, while the Egyptian Bazaar is a fragrant trove of spices and fruits.

# Marrakech, Marocco

The “Red City” of Marrakesh is a magical place, brimming with markets, gardens, palaces, and mosques. Exploring the intimate courtyards and snaking alleyways of the historic Medina can easily eat up a day. Find inner peace at the serene Jardin Majorelle or take in the beauty of one of the city’s historic mosques (taking note that, unless you are Muslim, you are not allowed to enter).
# Paris, France
Lingering over pain au chocolat in a sidewalk café, relaxing after a day of strolling along the Seine and marveling at icons like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe… the perfect Paris experience combines leisure and liveliness with enough time to savor both an exquisite meal and exhibits at the Louvre. Awaken your spirit at Notre Dame, bargain hunt at the Marché aux Puces de Montreuil or for goodies at the Marché Biologique Raspail, then cap it all off with a risqué show at the Moulin Rouge.
# Siem Reap, Cambodia
When the morning light washes over the overgrown temples and ruins of Angkor Wat, a simple Siem Reap sunrise becomes a profound event. The ancient structures are contained within one of the largest religious complexes in the world. The complex and the 12th century Angkor Thom royal city are considered the main reasons to visit Siem Reap. Get a lesson in national history at the Cambodian Cultural Village, and a lesson in bargaining at the Angkor Night Market, a bonanza of shopping stalls, food vendors, and bars.
# Prague, Czech Republic
The bohemian allure and fairytale features of Prague make it a perfect destination for beach-weary vacationers who want to immerse themselves in culture. You could devote an entire day to exploring Prazsky hrad (Prague Castle), then refueling over a hearty dinner at a classic Czech tavern. Spend some time wandering the Old Town Square before heading over to gape at The Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock. Prague’s best bars are found in cellars, where historic pubs set the scene for a night of traditional tippling.
# Rome, Italy
Rome wasn’t built in a day–and you’ll need much more than a day to take in this timeless city. The city is a real-life collage of piazzas, open-air markets, and astonishing historic sites. Toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, contemplate the Colosseum and the Pantheon, and sample a perfect espresso or gelato before spending an afternoon shopping at the Campo de’Fiori or Via Veneto. Enjoy some of the most memorable meals of your life here, too, from fresh pasta to succulent fried artichokes or a tender oxtail stew.
# Hanoi, Vietnam
The charming Vietnamese capital has aged well, preserving the Old Quarter, monuments and colonial architecture, while making room for modern developments alongside. Hanoi may have shrugged off several former names, including Thang Long, or “ascending dragon,” but it hasn’t forgotten its past, as sites such as Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Hoa Lo Prison attest. Lakes, parks, shady boulevards and more than 600 temples and pagodas add to the appeal of this city, which is easily explored by taxi.
# New York City
Conquering New York in one visit is impossible. Instead, hit the must-sees – the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and then explore off the beaten path with visits to The Cloisters or one of the city’s libraries. Indulge in the bohemian shops of the West Village or the fine dining of the Upper West Side. The bustling marketplace inside of Grand Central Station gives you a literal taste of the best the city has to offer.
# Ubud , Indonesia
The village cluster of Ubud is the ideal place to try a famed Balinese massage and soak up the ambiance of one of Asia’s top spa destinations. Acupressure, reflexology, stretching and aromatherapy star in the island’s distinctively firm massage treatments. Ubud is also the vivacious center of Bali’s arts scene, home to a small treasure trove of museums and galleries. Monkey around at nearby nature reserve Monkey Forest Park, home to hundreds of mischievous long-tailed macaques. Don’t miss the valley of tomb cloisters at Gunung Kawi.
# Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona feels a bit surreal – appropriate, since Salvador Dali spent time here and Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí designed several of the city’s buildings. Stepping into Gaudí’s Church of the Sacred Family is a bit like falling through the looking glass – a journey that you can continue with a visit to Park Güell. Sip sangria at a sidewalk café in Las Ramblas while watching flamboyant street performers, then create your own moveable feast by floating from tapas bar to tapas bar.
# Lisbon, Portugal
The museums of Lisbon celebrate the rich history and culture of this Portuguese capital city. The Maritime Museum is perfect for kids (and grown-ups!) who adore all things nautical, while the Casa-Museu Dr. Anastácio Gonçalves is a hidden gem of colorful artwork. To fully appreciate the city’s dramatic stone architecture you can take a guided walking tour, or customize your own tour, making sure to visit the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, and the UNESCO World Heritage site the Torre de Belem.
# Dubai, UAE
Dubai is a cosmopolitan oasis, a futuristic cityscape that towers over the Arabian Desert. This is a city of superlatives, home to the world’s largest dancing fountain; tallest building (Burj Khalifa); only 7-star hotel (the Burj al-Arab); largest artificial islands (the Palm Islands); and largest natural flower garden (the Miracle Garden). Rent a dune buggy for a desert adventure, bargain at the open-air market, or cheer on your favorite humped hoofer at the Camel Race Track.
# St. Petersburg, Russia
The second largest city in Russia, St. Petersburg is the country’s cultural heart. View splendid architectural gems like the Winter Palace and the Kazan Cathedral, and give yourself plenty of time to browse the world-renowned art collection of the Hermitage. Sprawling across the Neva River delta, St. Petersburg offers enough art, nightlife, fine dining and cultural destinations for many repeat visits.
# Bangkok, Thailand
Golden palaces, floating markets, majestic porcelain-laid spires…you’ve never seen a capital city quite like Bangkok. Visit Pratunam or Siam Square for premium shopping, then unwind in the European-style gardens of Dusit. Thon Buri is home to the awesome Wat Arun temple, and over in Phra Nakhon, you’ll find the Wat Pho temple of the Reclining Buddha. Savor mango sticky rice at a food stall before taking in the gilded splendor of the Grand Palace.
# Amsterdam, The Netherlands
This city, full of colorful homes, canals and bridges, is one of Europe’s most picturesque capitals. Must-sees on any visitor’s itinerary include the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum and the world’s only floating flower market. Rent a bike and join thousands of locals navigating Amsterdam’s labyrinthine streets, or just take in the sights on foot. For an unusual and memorable alternative to hotels, consider staying in a houseboat.
# Buenos Aires, Argentina
 The birthplace of the tango is, like the dance itself, captivating, seductive and bustling with excited energy. Atmospheric old neighborhoods are rife with romantic restaurants and thumping nightlife, and Buenos Aires’ European heritage is evident in its architecture, boulevards and parks. Cafe Tortoni, the city’s oldest bar, will transport you back to 1858, and the spectacular Teatro Colon impresses just as it did in 1908. Latin America’s shopping capital offers the promise of premium retail therapy along its grand, wide boulevards.
# Hong Kong, China
Delectable dim sum, floating islands, and a one-of-a-kind skyline are just some of Hong Kong’s unique features. Get an eyeful of traditional Chinese architecture in Ngong Ping village, then take the tram to the tippity-top of Victoria Peak for unparalleled views. The rocks and gentle hills of Nan Lian Garden will bring you inner peace, as will a calming cup of tea in a Stanley café. Become one with everything at the Chi Lin Nunnery, a serene Buddhist complex.
# Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Playa del Carmen is one of the top diving destinations in the world, thanks to vibrant sea life and dazzling underwater caverns. On dry land, Playa is a hipper and more modern version of the fishing village it once was. Spend some quality time on the golf course or wave hello to the playful spider monkeys at The Jungle Place sanctuary. Explore the ancient ruins of the Coba Mayan Village, or get in some quality people-watching as you shop and stroll along 5th Avenue.
# Cape Town Central, South Africa
Cape Town glistens at the southern toe of the African continent. Tourist brochure-views at Blaauwberg Beach and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are within easy driving distance of “The Mother City.” The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve provides sweeping sea vistas, hiking trails and wildlife encounters. On a more somber note, travelers can visit Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years.
# Tokyo, Japan
Tradition collides with pop culture in Tokyo, where you can reverently wander ancient temples before rocking out at a karaoke bar. Wake up before the sun to catch the lively fish auction at the Tsukiji Market, then refresh with a walk beneath the cherry blossom trees that line the Sumida River. Spend some time in the beautiful East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, then brush up on your Japanese history at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Don’t forget to eat as much sushi, udon noodles, and wagashi (Japanese sweets) as your belly can handle.
# Cusco, Peru
Incan majesty and Andean baroque exist side-by-side in Cusco’s stone streets, epitomized by the Qoriacancha palace and the church of Santo Domingo flanking the Plaza de Armas. In this high-altitude melting pot of Amerindian and mestizo culture, you’ll find extraordinary textiles, lively summer festivals and archeological wonders.
# Kathmandu, Nepal
Nepal’s capital is surrounded by a valley full of historic sites, ancient temples, shrines, and fascinating villages. Mingle with locals and animals amid Durbar Square’s monuments, or join mountain trekkers in the bustling Thamel District. Explore shops for exquisite work by local artisans—carpets and paper prints are specialties.
# Sidney, Australia
Sydney offers plenty of historical and contemporary Australian flavor. The marvelous Sydney Opera House looks like a great origami sailboat, floating peacefully in a harbor. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets of The Rocks and then take in a street performance on the Circular Quay before heading into the Museum of Contemporary Art. The views from the Sydney Tower Eye observatory are epic – use this chance to get to know the layout of the city from high above.
# Budapest, Hungaria
Over 15 million gallons of water bubble daily into Budapest’s 118 springs and boreholes. The city of spas offers an astounding array of baths, from the sparkling Gellert Baths to the vast 1913 neo-baroque Szechenyi Spa to Rudas Spa, a dramatic 16th-century Turkish pool with original Ottoman architecture. This Travelers’ Choice Destination, called the “Queen of the Danube,” is also steeped in history, culture and natural beauty. Get your camera ready for the Roman ruins of the Aquincum Museum, Heroes’ Square and Statue Park, and the 300-foot dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

Music Fans Vacations


# Having a sake party at Fuji Rock, Japan

In many ways, the Fuji Rock festival will be familiar to any seasoned Western festival-goer. Major international acts headline stadium-scale stages, and smaller local bands play anything from Japanese drumming to experimental electronica at fringe locations. There’s unexpected downpours, and impossibly early mornings as the sun turns your tent into an oven. But all of this comes wrapped with the charms of Japanese culture, both softening and enriching the experience.

This music holiday kicks off with a bon-odori folk dance. The happy crowd honours the ancestors by stomping in a circle around a drummer, raising and lowering their hands. When the festival proper gets underway, food and drink stalls line all the main routes between the stages, but there’s more sushi than burgers on the menus. There’s alchohol, of course, but as well as beer stands, there are sake stalls where you can sample a variety of rice wines you’d never see outside Japan. Despite all the drinking, there’s no aggression, and a warm welcome for the occasional foreigners.

# Sampling Beirut’s cutting-edge culture, Lebanon

Beirut is packed with live music shows every night, with even the more popular bands often playing in tiny, packed-out bars for free. You might hear Arabic rhythms over the top of a saxophone, or electronic soul in French and Arabic. To plan your night you’ll need to pick up some of the flyers dumped at the entrance to Ta Marbuta in Hamra or at the Art Lounge bar in Karantina. Then head across town to walk up the hilly Monot Street, home to the popular Facebook Pub and the city’s see-and-be-seen crowd. But Monot is losing its edge to Gemmayze, at the bottom of the hill, a change kick-started by a red-neon-lit bar called Torino Express.

The bars start emptying out after midnight, when queues start to form at clubs such as BO18  and Sky Bar. BO18 is in a converted bunker, and when the sun rises over the Mediterranean, the roof peels back and the party steps up a gear. The open-air Sky Bar, meanwhile, has a 360-degree view of the city lights, framed by the mountains and the never-ending shoreline and patronized by Armani-clad, Hummer-driving playboys. It may all feel a little too cool for school, but Beirut can rival London or New York on a good day.

# Feeling the blues at a Delta juke joint, Mississippi

The ceilings are often made up of half rotted wood, half plastic sheeting and rain drops are collecting in buckets on the stained carpet floor. If you want a drink, your choices are simple: beer or whiskey served in a plastic cup. From the outside on a weekend night these places often look abandoned, with assorted junk piled up against the front wall. But open the door after 10pm, and you’ll find one of the most influential musical genres of the past century in full swing, with a hard drinking, hard partying crowd grooving and shaking to some of the Delta’s finest bluesmen – who are usually stuffed into a corner with their battered guitars and primitive PAs, but making enough noise to be heard three zip codes away.

Live music is guaranteed on weekends and could come from gnarled white country boys with one battered slide guitar, dungarees and a ZZ Top-esque beard, or from nattily attired black bluesmen armed with electric guitars, drums and bass. Red’s, on the outskirts of Clarksdale in a residential area straight out of The Wire, and Po’Monkey’s, located in a field a few miles from Merigold, are patronized by an eclectic mixture of predominantly local characters. Expect to embrace conversation with music lovers, beer swillers and tall-tale tellers.

# Checking out the Kinshasa music scene, Democratic Republic of Congo

The young François Luambo Makiadi – better known as Franco – was barely 11 when he was first spotted jamming on a makeshift instrument in the market district of 1940s Léopoldville, as Kinshasa was then known. By his early twenties, Franco was the biggest star in Congolese dance music. He called his Cuban-influenced musical style “rumba odemba”, after a favourite Congolese aphrodisiac. Franco went on to open four nightclubs in Kinshasa and throughout the last two decades of his life, the 1970s and 1980s, Kinshasa was a throbbing live-music hub. Even now, the seedy but lively Matonge district around Rond-Pont Victoire, between Kasa-Vubu and the centre, buzzes after dark.

For a dose of raw-edged nightlife, head up to the rooftop terrace at the down-at-heel Hôtel de Crèche, near Rond-Pont Victoire: live bands play here most nights. Meanwhile in Gombe Commune, the more salubrious central district, well-heeled locals and expats pack out the dancefloor at Chez Ntemba, an after-midnight club. If you want to catch a big-name band, see the local press – near the Congo River, the swish Grand Hôtel Kinshasa and Halle de la Gombe sometimes host stars such as Werra Son, Youssou N’Dour and Papa Wemba, all of whom cite Franco as a formative influence.

# Grooving at Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica

As you might expect from Jamaica’s flagship music festival, Sumfest is one of the best reggae shows in the world. If you’re interested in seeing the hottest names in Jamaican music past and present, with a few international R&B or hip-hop acts thrown in for good measure, then you’re in for a serious treat.

It’s best to arrive in Montego Bay a week or so before the event – held in late July or early August – and head for the beach to rid yourself of that fresh-off-the-plane pallor, and to attend pre-festival events: the Blast-Off beach party on the Sunday before the festival starts, and the Monday street Party with DJs and outdoor jams. Once the festival is under way, the island’s stage shows start late, carry on until dawn and involve some serious audience participation. And it’s doubtful you’ll find a better high than standing under the stars in a grassy bowl by the Caribbean with the music echoing out over the bay.

Unusual Transport All Around The World

# DUKW, London

DUKW, widely pronounced ‘duck’, are amphibious trucks that were designed by the American military during World War II to transport equipment and troops over both land and water. Nowadays, you can take a trip in a DUKW in central London, on the aptly named Duck Tours. On a tour you’ll drive past famous London landmarks before dramatically launching into the River Thames to get a view from the water. They’re the only way to experience the sights of central London by land and river – without leaving the comfort of your seat!

# Traghetto, Venice

Along the 3.5km stretch of Venice’s Grand Canal there are just three bridges, so how do you get across? By Traghetto, of course. The unglamorous sibling of the gondola; these no-frills boats get passengers from one side of the canal to the other for a meagre fee. You can pick up a Traghetto (meaning ‘ferry’ in Italian) from any of the seven piers along the canal – just look for the yellow signs pointing you towards the landings. Each boat is rowed by two oarsmen- one at the bow and one behind the passengers, as in a gondola – if you want to ride like a Venetian, stand for the short journey.

# Dog sleds, Alaska

Imagine drifting across a white canvas of snow as a troop of husky dogs pulls your sledge – it’s like something from a Christmas movie. In reality, dog sledding isn’t quite so graceful, it can be a bumpy ride and will be accompanied by your dogs’ barks, but nonetheless it’s certainly a unique journey. For most Alaskan locals this isn’t a day-to-day way of getting around, but for tourists it’s a special way to travel, and something you can’t do in many other parts of the world. The best time to go sledding in Alaskais January-March, as lack of snow in the summer means you’re likely to be pulled by the dogs on a wheeled sledge.\

# Tangah, Pakistan

Save yourself a few bucks in Pakistan and ride on a Tangah, rather than the more commonly used rickshaws and taxis. A Tangah is a carriage, sitting atop two large wooden wheels (not exactly designed for comfort, so expect a sore bottom on a long journey!), pulled by one or two horses. They have a low-glamour, but high fun factor and have become more widely used in Pakistan for enjoyment, rather than as a functional way of getting around. Just beware that they’re not the speediest way to travel!

# Barco de Totora, Peru

Totora is a reed which is grown in Peru, most notably on Lake Titicaca. The Uros are a group of people who live on the lake on floating islands fashioned from the reed. They also make Barco de Totora from bundles of the dried reeds, and these boats have become an icon of Peru. If you’re visiting Lake Titicaca, the Barco de Totora is a wonderful, unique method of getting across the vast and beautiful stretch of water.

# Monte toboggan, Madeira

Monte toboggans came to being in the 19th century, as a fast way of getting down the hill from Monte to Funchal. Today, they’re more a tourist attraction than an everyday mode of transport for the locals. Pick up a toboggan at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Nossa Senhora do Monte Church. Once you’ve climbed into the wicker sledge, two drivers dressed in traditional white outfits will steer you down the narrow, winding streets to Funchal at up to 48km/h. It’s an extraordinary and exhilarating experience.

# Jeepney, Philippines

Known as ‘the undisputed king of the road’ in the Philippines, the Jeepney is a mammoth vehicle. When the American troops pulled out of the Philippines at the end of World War II, surplus jeeps were gifted to the locals and this is how the original jeepneys came to being. The Filipinos stripped them down, added roofs for shade and used them to re-establish public transport in the country. Nowadays, brightly decorated jeepneys are a symbol of Philippine culture and the most popular way of getting around in the country.

# Longtail boat, Thailand

Longtail boats are an icon of Thailand. Originally they were used in the canals that ran through Bangkok – and although the canals have now been filled and replaced with roads, the boats are still prolific in the country. As the name suggests, they are long and slim – the ideal shape for canal cruising – due to the long rod in the back of the boat which holds up the motor. Locals use these boats like public transport and riding one is an experience you can’t miss on a trip to the country.

# Songthaew, Laos

Also known as a baht bus, this is a pickup truck adapted to transport passengers. Songthaew literally translates as ‘two rows’, taken from the two benches fitted along the sides of the truck. They run either as a shared taxi service, or in larger cities bigger trucks are adapted to run a bus-like service. With a typically Asian lax-attitude to safety, you’ll see the rear of Songthaews packed with passengers and sometimes people travel standing on a platform attached to the rear.

# Bamboo train, Cambodia

Those with a strong constitution may want to ride a Cambodian bamboo train – known locally as a nori. Passengers sit on a makeshift bamboo ‘train’ (basically just a bamboo platform) powered by an electric generator engine, perched just inches above the railway tracks and travelling at up to 40km/h. The unmaintained railway tracks make for a bumpy ride and the closest you’ll get to luxury is sitting on a grass mat. But the fares are low and this is a once in a lifetime experience, as all the locals use them for getting around. Pick up a nori from Battambang station.

Know the Treks in Himalayas

# Track snow leopards in India

The ideal time to look for the snow leopard is late autumn and early spring, when there’s enough food to tempt it out of hiding but there’s still snow on the ground to reveal its tracks. After a few days acclimatizing in Ladakh’s capital Leh, you and your local guide, an expert mountaineer and snow leopard researcher, head off into the Hemis Valley National Park to spend four days in pursuit of this most elusive of cats. Sightings are not guaranteed, but even if you don’t spot one, the rugged mountain scenery is populated by enough other animals, including the ibex and Himalayan marmot, to keep you happy.

# A yak safari, India

As they seem to prefer standing alone atop freezing mountain ridges, few people ever get very close to a yak. On a “yak safari” with Spiti Ecosphere, however, you’ll get to ride one. With a surefootedness suited to the rocky paths and alpine pastures, the hairy beast will transport you over the Spiti Valley in northern Himachal Pradesh. You’ll stay overnight with families in remote villages, dining with them and chatting with some of the local farmers. Once the lifeline of isolated rural communities scattered about Himachal Pradesh, the yak is now slowly disappearing, as modern farming tools obviate the need for it. The emergence of yak safaris, however, has ensured that the hirsute animal has regained its value. Long live the yak.

# Journey to the centre of the world, Tibet

Going to Tibet (or not) is a thorny issue for travellers, as if you visit from inside China your only realistic option is a state-sanctioned tour. One way round this is to go on a trip with The Himalayan Adventure Company, which starts its tour in Kathmandu, exploring its winding lanes and ornate temples, before setting off on a long drive into Tibet. Along the way, you’ll break for village visits and a dip in another deeply revered site – the salty Lake Manasarovar. The highlight of the trip is Mount Kailash, a hulking mountain of black rock from which spring four major rivers: the Indus, Bramaputra, Sutlej and Karnali.

# Meet the three sisters, Nepal

Lucky, Nicky and Dicky are a bit of a legend in Nepal. Having opened a restaurant and guesthouse overlooking Lake Fewa in the trekking capital of Pokhara, the three Chhetri sisters broke with taboo in this traditional society by establishing their own trekking company. They and their female guides and porters take groups on a variety of different treks, including through the famous Annapurna, Everest and Langtang ranges. Some of their groups are women only, others open to both sexes; all their trips, however, are refreshingly free of the obsession with “getting there” that some testosterone-heavy hikes to the summit can exude. At a slower pace, you’ll have time to really enjoy the spectacular surroundings; after all, it’s a long way up.

# Trek through the villages in Nepal

The Himalayas are home to some of the world’s most physical trekking, but if you’re after a gentler approach, head for the Annapurna region. A trek here takes in spectacular views of Machaupuchare mountain and involves a morning on Poon Hill, watching the sun rise over the Daulaghiri peaks. With plenty of other trekkers on the path, you could easily negotiate the trek alone. But if you do it as part of a two-week Annapurna Trails and Homestay trip with The Responsible Travellers (who invest all their profits in local charities), you’ll also spend four days visiting Kathmandu and the medieval town of Bhaktapur. The trip concludes with four nights living with a Nepalese family.

Thrill in Nepal

The thrill of Nepal isn’t about standing alone by a jungle river, ears bent and hackles aloft for the rustle of rhino – or worse – and wondering when or if my guide will return. It isn’t about sitting in a smoky backroom washing down spiced goat with local spirits that I fear may soon be making my stomach lurch with sickness. Nor is it about when I flailed around lost in glacial moraine, all my energy and confidence and heart sucked away by the insidious thinness of the air at altitude.

What thrills and frightens me about travelling in Nepal is the incredible way it lets me see, touch and smell what feels like history. When you’ve grown up in a ‘mature democracy’ like the UK’s – where the government and the institutions seem unshakeably well-bedded down on their foundations and there are roads and lights and signposts everywhere – you don’t often feel the living pulse of history. In Nepal that pulse is hammering away at a feverish tempo; change is happening so fast that the country is tumbling over itself, and taking cuts and bruises and even serious injuries along its way.

Nepal only really opened itself to the outside world some fifty years ago. People I’ve met on my travels saw it when you could count the number of roads or cars or schools on your fingers. Even since I first travelled there, almost twenty years ago, Nepal has overthrown a virtually medieval monarchy, launched democracy, seen its royal family massacred, started a Maoist insurrection (and stopped it again), deposed its new king and contemplated federalism.

It has sent dirt roads and trucks and gaudy buses spilling out across hills that were once the province only of barefoot porters. It has thrown up real cities; twenty years ago, even Nepal’s capital Kathmandu was basically a low-rise medieval town with two functioning roads joining it to the outside world, occasional electric light, a smattering of cars on empty roads and one celebrated escalator in a solitary shopping arcade. Now travellers are met by a hungry, thrumming Asian metropolis with a swelling population and traffic problems, with shopping malls and apartment blocks, with a snarling ring road and one lone, automated pedestrian crossing.

When you travel into in the Himalayan foothills, it can still feel like stepping into the deep past. There are hill bazaars far from any roads, where you walk on stone-paved paths between rooting pigs and untethered goats, where half a dozen shops sell grain and vegetables and cakes of washing soap from wicker baskets. And where, on market day, the animals are slaughtered in the schoolyard. There are mud-built villages straggling across precipitous rice terraces where even Hinduism hasn’t quite percolated yet and where the Nepalese farmers still dress in homespun cotton and use buffalo to pull wooden ploughs.

But change is, of course, coming to Nepal – even to the deep hills. Children are being sent away from the villages to seek a better education in Kathmandu or the cities of the plains. Men are travelling to the fearful construction boomtowns of the Middle East and coming home with new ideas about the world and the way it operates, and roads are slowly reaching out into the hills. People like me are discovering that you can trek far from the glamour routes to Everest or around Annapurna, and we are accidentally demonstrating a radically different image of how the outside world might be.

One night, I stood on a pass deep in the massive Middle Hills, and saw, across the massive valley, the lights of the road ahead. Clustered around the distant township was a miniature constellation of electric sparks which stretched out a few spidery, weakening arms into the darkness. Beyond that, around me, there was nothing but darkness broken by the odd glimmer of a kerosene lantern or open fire. But the road and the light and the rest of the modern world were coming to Nepal, and I could hear their hungry roar.

Spot On China’s Yellow River

# The upper reaches, Qinghai, Gansu

You’d have to be pretty dedicated to head to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, which flow through remote territory in mountainous Qinghai Province, but it’s worth the effort. By the time it passes through Lanzhou, a major city in Gansu province, the river has already assumed the yellow colour from which it takes its name – and this is before reaching the Loess Plateau, where it picks up most of its silt.

# Shapotou, Ningxia

As the river enters tiny Ningxia Province, it skirts alongside the Tengger Desert. Firing past sand dunes, the mighty river is quite a sight to behold at this point, particularly at the miniature resort of Shapotou, where you’ll be able to go sand-skiing, or fly over the river on a zip line.

# Bautou, Inner Mongolia

Inner Mongolia is next on the river’s lengthy course, and you’ll be able to stroll its banks just south of Baotou, a scruffy city famed for its gigantic metal furnaces – and the resultant green (and sometimes purple) sunsets. It’s also home to Wudangzhao, one of China’s most important Lamaist monasteries.

# Hanging Temple and Yungang Caves, Shanxi

After Boutou, the Yellow River banks sharply to the south, forming a border between the provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi. Just east of the curve is the city of Datong, which has two major draws on its periphery – the gravity-defying Hanging Temple, which clings precariously onto a cliff; and the UNESCO-listed Yungang Caves, which feature spectacular examples of Buddhist painting dating back as far as the mid-fifth century.

# Pingyao, Shanxi

South of Datong, and 150km east of the river, lies Pingyao, a delightful place that’s tiny as far as Chinese cities go. Its quiet, historic core is surrounded by an enchanting Ming-dynasty city wall, and filled with restaurants selling quirky local delicacies.

# Hukou Waterfalls, Shanxi/Shaanxi

On the Shanxi-Shaanxi border, the 400m-wide Yellow River finds itself squeezed through a 20m-wide gap. The end result is the Hukou Waterfalls, a truly spectacular sight – and sound.

# Xi’an and the Terracotta Army, Shaanxi

Okay, so this pick is 100km west of the river but it’s nevertheless a must-see. Xi’an served as a capital city for no fewer than eleven dynasties between 1000 BC and 1000 AD so naturally the various historical sights in the area could take weeks. Do try and make time to drop by the world-famous Terracotta Army.

# Longmen Caves, Henan

The river then banks sharply to the east, sliding into Henan Province as it does so. The first major city you’ll encounter here is Luoyang, a typically huge Chinese city that serves as a jumping-off point for the Longmen Caves, a kilometre-long series of grottoes filled with elaborate Buddhist paintings, some of which date back to the late fifth century.

# Shaolin Temple, Henan

Shaolin’s warrior monks have achieved worldwide renown and spawned countless awful movies. While the name may sound almost mythical, there is indeed a Shaolin temple, and it may well have been where kung fu was created. Some come for months to hone their martial fisticuffs, others for a few days to see the beauty of the surrounding Song Shan mountain range.

# Zhengzhou & Kaifeng, Henan

The Yellow River is over 3km wide in areas around the cities of Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, which both boast riverfront viewing areas. Kaifeng is the more pleasant of the two; a Song-dynasty capital between 960 and 1127, it retains a pleasantly dignified air, despite the fifty-odd floods that washed away all evidence of its dynastic heyday.

Volunteer Holiday Destinations

# Give an elephant a bath, Thailand

On the Elephant Experience at Elephant Hills, a luxury tented lodge on the edge of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park, guests can do far more than on the usual elephant trek offered elsewhere. As well as hosing and scrubbing inside the folds of the elephants’ skin, you’ll prepare their food and feed them, learn how they and their mahouts (trainers) communicate, and then watch them playing together in the pool. It’s exhilarating and humbling to be so close to such mighty creatures, who love being washed and often respond with a delighted squirt of water from their trunk.

While most people would prefer that these creatures were truly wild, for two-thirds of the three thousand Asian elephants left this isn’t currently feasible: they have worked in the logging or tourism industries all their lives and wouldn’t survive independently. As well as giving more dignified lives to the fifteen or so elephants at its camp, Elephant Hills is establishing an elephant sanctuary in the north of the country, which will give even more elephants a better life and the opportunity to breed.

For package details, rates and reservations see

# Underwater gardening in the Maldives

Lots of people dream of sitting on a Maldives beach, soaking up the sun and gazing out to sea. Few people dream of sitting on a Maldives beach and rolling up balls of cement. But this is one of the most popular choices of activity at Angsana Velavaru, a luxury resort situated on a pristine island on South Nilandhe Atoll.

The appearances aren’t deceptive – Angsana is your typical Maldives hotel, a pampered paradise offering day-long watersports, endless spa treatments and cocktails at sunset. But the resort is also making concerted efforts to conserve its habitat: rising sea levels and temperatures caused by El Niño phenomena and global warming have put the islands at risk of flooding. This is where the (voluntary) cement-rolling comes in, as part of an ambitious project to replant damaged reefs, essential for protecting the islands they surround from the rising sea.

Once you’ve rolled out the cement balls, you swim out into the blue where, a few metres below the surface, new corals are being planted on a mix of custom-made frames, concrete blocks from building works, and even the odd broken air-conditioning unit. For the next hour or so, you wedge the balls into place and then stick shards of coral into their new home. You’ll then swim off to see some already-established coral beds, to see what your little saplings will become.

For prices and more information see

# Plant trees with Ripple Africa, Malawi

A volunteer holiday with Ripple Africa involves you in a vital project to establish four hundred community nurseries in Malawi, a country with severe deforestation problems. Three thousand local people are already involved in the scheme, which has established over 150 nurseries and already planted millions of trees.

Ripple Africa is acutely aware of the dangers of misplaced aid and ensures guests’ help is given where it’s most useful, and where it won’t stop locals from working. Accommodation is at Mwaya beach on the shores of Lake Malawi, in eco-friendly huts with private verandas overlooking the water, where swimming, diving and kayaking are among the best ways to relax.

For more on volunteering projects available, costs and testimonials see

# See conservation in action at Phinda, South Africa

At the seven different lodges in Kwazulu-Natal’s Phinda Resource Reserve, no attention to detail is missed – from the private infinity pools to personal butlers. These hideaways of opulence are not ecolodges in the strict sense, yet their environmental benefits are nevertheless impressive, since profits from the lodges have been used to create one of the most successful nature reserves in South Africa.

It’s hard to believe that twenty years ago Phinda was degraded farmland with just a handful of people scratching a living from it. Today the 160-square-kilometre park is a potent symbol of regeneration: it’s an excellent place to spot cheetah; the critically endangered black rhino has also been reintroduced; and some 4500 local people benefit from the new clinic, schools and employment the lodges have created.

The reserve runs several research projects in partnership with African Conservation Experience, which enables volunteers to stay in a simple farmhouse and enjoy the reserve at less expense. Twice a day, volunteers head out in safari vehicles to monitor elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, caracals or leopards. These projects have raised local awareness of game conservation and recently led to an amendment to South Africa’s hunting laws, thereby saving the lives of many animals.

For details of lodges, rates, activities and local attractions see

# Volunteer in the Pantanal, Brazil

Cattle-ranching used to be the main threat to the biodiversity of Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland (it’s bigger than France). But now pollution, sport fishing and tourism (as well as a black market for exotic pets) are all contributing to the destruction of this unique habitat – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to thirty million caimans alone.

You can help address these problems by joining one of four research projects organized by Earthwatch, a global conservation body that places volunteers at the heart of scientific research. You’ll stay in shared accommodation on a ranch with other members of the expedition. Choose between working with: amphibians and reptiles; bats, which involves catching them at night with mist nets; birds (there are 690 species in the Pantanal, including parrots, kingfishers and hummingbirds); or otters (which participants video from the banks of rivers).

In an age of disappearing wetlands, proposals are in place to alter the natural flow of water in the Pantanal, which threatens to disturb its complex ecosystem. By helping to monitor the effects of human impact on its biodiversity, you will not only become familiar with perhaps the world’s most amazing wetland, but also provide valuable data that could help save it from irreversible damage.

For prices, booking and more details about each expedition see

# Contribute to the Earthdive Log in Tobago

Given that our knowledge about the effect of climate change on the oceans is still evolving, wouldn’t it be great if divers made a note of what marine species they had seen on their dives, so we could develop a better picture of what is going on?

Thankfully this is already happening in the guise of Earthdive – a unique “citizen science” research project. The idea is that you put your dive to good use by recording sightings of what you see underwater, helping to build up a global snapshot of the world’s marine species and providing valuable data for conservation organizations.

If you want to participate, you can do so on Tobago, whose warm waters are home to manta rays, south Atlantic coral and a variety of multicoloured tropical fish. Tobago Dive Experience is a member of Earthdive and runs dives chiefly off the northeast coast of the island where there are forty dive sites, all within a 5–20min boat ride from the jetty in the fishing village of Speyside.

Divers in 119 countries have already joined Earthdive. The recording process on its website ( is very simple: once you’ve registered, choose where you dived and tick off the fish and coral that you saw from the list provided. It’s especially useful to record the key “indicator species” at the dive site, whose absence can alert scientists to any environmental pressures these species may be suffering, such as pollution and overfishing.

For info on dive courses, prices and bookings see

# Help conserve the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galápagos Islands, 1000km off the west coast of Ecuador, are a living laboratory of evolution, a fragile home to a collection of unique species. It’s a sad truth then that if tourism wasn’t providing an alternative income to the islands’ fishing industry, it’s likely the surrounding waters would be fished out. And with no fish, the seabird population would plummet and the island ecology would be devastated.

Discovery Initiatives arranges a two-week cruise around the islands in partnership with the Galápagos Conservation Trust and the Charles Darwin Research Station. On board a deluxe yacht, guests sail around the islands, hike up to the famous Sierra Negra volcano, see some of the last remaining wild tortoises on Isabela and learn about the Trust’s turtle conservation efforts. All funds raised through the trip go to the Charles Darwin Research Station to support its conservation work.

Alternatively, there are several volunteering initiatives with conservation projects on the islands. The Ecuadorian organization Fundación Jatun Sacha runs short-term placements on San Cristóbal island, where you’ll help local NGOs eradicate non-native plants. If you can spare longer, join a Global Vision International volunteering project, which last from five to thirteen weeks. Volunteers, based at the San Cristóbal Biological Station, help conservationists on reforestation projects. You’ll be given Spanish classes and, once a week, hike to one of the tourist hotspots and help teach visitors about the islands’ ecological issues.

# Community and conservation, Ecuador

Central America is famous for its ecotourism, yet Ecuador is fast becoming recognized as a centre for ecolodges and tours that are managed and run by local people, often in stunning settings. The pick of these community-based trips are to Sani Lodge in the Amazon Rainforest; to Santa Lucía, a lodge in the cloud forests of the northwestern slopes of the Andes; and to Oyacachi, a mountain community in the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve in northeastern Ecuador.

These and other tours can be organized through Quito-based company Tropic Ecotours. Tropic also runs trips to meet the Secoya people, an ethnic minority of fewer than one thousand in the upper Amazon basin. Tropic only takes small numbers of guests to visit typical Secoya houses so as not to overwhelm the local communities. As a result, these unique adventures provide guests with a raw sense of discovery time and time again, while the local communities benefit from a regular supply of income for medicine and education.

For details of programmes, prices and reservations see

# Volunteer at Lake Baikal, Russia

Called “the sacred sea” by those who live around it, Lake Baikal, in Siberia’s southern steppes, is the oldest, deepest and most biologically diverse lake on Earth. To help protect it, the Great Baikal Trail Association is creating Russia’s first environmental trail system round the lake’s 2000km circumference, providing a focal point for ecological tourism in the region and an alternative to industrial development.

On two-week volunteer holidays throughout the summer months, the first half of each day is spent working on the trail, doing anything from clearing paths to constructing shelters, signs and other facilities for hikers. Afterwards you’re free to walk around the lake, swim or just hang out with the other volunteers, a mix of locals and international visitors. Accommodation is in two-person tents (you’ll need a sleeping bag) or sometimes in homestays. It’s simple living – there are no showers or hot water and you cook for yourselves.

For more on what volunteering projects will involve and how to apply, see

# Teach rugby in Fiji

Known for their ferocious tackling and some of the most imaginative play in the sport, the Fijians wouldn’t seem to be much in need of rugby tuition. But while the nation’s raw talent is undeniable, there is little to no coaching at junior level and as a result many children never get the chance to nurture their skills. It’s one of the reasons that although the country excels at the more free-flowing sevens version, it struggles to translate this into the fifteen-a-side union game.

On a Madventurer two-week coaching holiday, you’ll work with kids between the ages of 6–14, passing on what you learned at school or your club about the increasingly complicated (and ever-changing) rules and tactics of rugby union. Accommodation is at the organization’s base in a house in the suburbs of Lautoka, the second-largest town on the islands. You’ll share a room with up to five other people and tuck into traditional Fijian meals, such as sweet potato and pineapple bake or lentil and potato curry. Outside of training – which starts at noon on weekdays and continues for most of the afternoon – there’s plenty of time to indulge in other Fijian pastimes, such as heading down to the beach, diving, swimming or drinking kava with the locals.


Know These Secret Beaches All Around The World

# Kooljaman beach, Western Australia

Run by  the local Aboriginal communities, Koojaman offers a total escape into the Australian wilderness. Unzip your tent early in the morning and you can watch the sun rise over the endless white-sand beach and azure sea. Take a short walk from your tent across the sands at the point of Cape Leveque and you can watch the sun set on an equally breathtaking stretch of secluded beach. You’re so far from anything and anyone here that you’ll probably have both views to yourself.

# Treasure Beach, Jamaica

Away from the packed resort of Montego Bay, in the southwest  of Jamaica, Treasure Beach is a friendly, Bohemian place where you get a feel for the way of life of the local fishermen and farmers. It  is in fact, four loosely connected bays, which are strung out along 10km of sublime secluded beaches, private coves and rocky shorelines. Though the area can get crowded in peak season, there are a lot of quiet spots where you can enjoy lounging on the beach or sampling the local food in a nearby beach café.

# Plage de Saleccia, Corsica, France

Plage de Saleccia is a kilometre-long sweep of soft sand with an impressive backdrop of high dunes. The beach is always pretty quiet, as to reach it you need to get a boat part of the way and walk the rest. The silky white sand of Plage de Loto is just a 40min walk east along the coast, but if you want to have these secluded beaches to yourself (once the day-trippers have gone), you can pitch a tent in the shade of  the trees behind Saleccia’s dunes at Camping U  Paradisu.

# Beaches in Riserva dello Zingaro, Italy

The Riserva dello Zingaro is in the northwest of Sicily, about an hour from Palermo.  It’s a popular day-trip for city-dwellers but go mid-week or out of season and you’ll have the isolated beaches to yourself. Established to protect a 7km stretch of coastline, it’s the island’s first nature reserve and home to  numerous flora and fauna. The only way in is on foot and it’s the perfect place for a walk on a pristine beach or, if you’re feeling more energetic, there are lots of inland mountain walks to be tackled.

# Thottada beach, India

On this secluded beach in northern Kerala, you’ll get  a length of palm-fringed shoreline to yourself; bar a few fishermen hauling in their catch. Kannur Beach House, two minutes from the beach and next to a freshwater lagoon, is the place to stay: the comfortable rooms have wonderful views of the pristine sands. Plus, the friendly owners cook and dine with you and will take you on various trips – there’s even a boat you can borrow, but  you’ll probably have to row that yourself.

# Praslin Island, St Lucia

The tiny white-sand beach on Praslin Island is on the east coast of St Lucia and perfect for a swim before a picnic lunch. Your only company is likely to be the occasional bird and a few lizards on this secluded beach. The only access to the island is by boat, which takes about ten minutes from Praslin village. If  you can stir yourself from the idyll, nearby is the Frigate Islands Nature Reserve and just north, the Eastern Nature Trail – where you can go on a guided  tour of the rocky coast.

# Yérakas beach, Greece

Yérakas is not your typical Greek beach. Loggerhead turtles come here to lay their eggs so it’s off-limits to tourists from dusk till dawn and deckchairs are banned.  With resort facilities absent, tourism here is designed to complement the natural beauty of the surroundings and guests are encouraged to learn more about the delicate environment. Visitors can take catamaran trips to view the turtles or explore the countryside by jeep or on foot, with or without a guide.  Both the island of Cephalonia and the site of Olympia are short ferry rides away.


Thrill Vacation Ideas

# Off-roading to Khor al-Adaid, Qatar

In southern Qatar, the roads simply stop, swallowed by fuming waves of sand. Every weekend, countless Qatari 4WD enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to the desert to push their vehicles to the limit and find solitude in a shifting world of shimmering heat and rolling dunes.

Tour drivers whisk tourists out of Doha, Qatar’s main city, down to the desert for a day of adventure. After an hour’s drive south on a pot-holed freeway, huge sand dunes looms on the horizon marking the end of the road. Loud hip-hop and techno blares from an assembled entourage of expensive cars, Qatar’s modern day equivalent of the camel – gone are their plodding steeds of yesteryear, exchanged for faster, gruntier and air-conditioned contemporaries that are thirstier and also tend to roll more often.

# Sand-skiing in the dunes, Qatar

Launching yourself down the slopes under a scorching desert sun is possible in Qatar, a small Gulf country midway between Kuwait and Dubai – but forget about snow machines and fake icicles. Here, the ski slopes are all natural. Jaded ski bums looking for a new thrill should take a 4WD trip to Khor al-Adaid – known as Qatar’s Inland Sea. This is a saltwater inlet from the blue waters of the Gulf which penetrates far into the desert interior and is surrounded on all sides by monumental formations of giant, silvery sand dunes.

These are almost all crescent-shaped barchan dunes. Both points of the crescent face downwind; between them is a steep slip face of loose sand, while the back of the dune, facing into the breeze, is a shallow, hard slope of wind-packed grains. This formation lends itself particularly well to sand-skiing or, perhaps more commonly, sand-boarding, both of which are almost identical to their more familiar snow-based cousins – without the woolly hats but with a softer landing for novices.

# Skiing beside volcanic vents, Russia

An average ski run in Kamchatka is not like that of your regular ski resort; it’s not unusual to get in more than 10,000m of “vertical” in a single day. You’re pumped full of adrenalin before you even start, thanks to the half-hour ride to your first run in a huge, ramshackle Russian-built MI-8 helicopter.

Your guide will head down an enormous, open powder-field running 180m or more down the flanks of a volcano and you’re then free to follow, with almost infinite space in which to lay down your own tracks. You may pass beside hissing volcanic vents (the most recent eruptions in Kamchatka occurred in 2010) or alongside glinting blue glaciers or just bliss out on endless turns in shin-deep fluff. You may even end up on a Pacific beach where you can take a frigid skinny dip. And then you’ll clamber back into the helicopter to do it all over again – and again, and again.

# Ice climbing in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

You’re halfway up a sheer ice wall in the high Andes, with crampons on your feet, an ice axe in each hand and your stomach quavering somewhere around knee level, when you sense that there are some things humans were not meant to do. Yet if you don’t mind the odd moment of panic, the Cordillera Real, strung across Bolivia between the barren Altiplano and the Amazon basin, is a wonderful place to begin mountaineering. For one thing, it’s substantially cheaper than Europe or North America. More importantly, this harsh landscape, with its thin air, intimidating peaks and snow-covered ridges, is an unforgettable one, a world away from hectic La Paz and another planet from the one most of us live on.

# Finding perfect powder in Kashmir, India

The subject of a long-standing bitter territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, Kashmir was once dubbed “the most dangerous place on Earth” and talk of the region still largely remains focused on its politics, obscuring the fact that Kashmir, with its verdant valleys and towering mountains, makes the Alps look like a cheap film set.

It’s on those mountains that perhaps its biggest secrets can be found, and the biggest joys for thrill seekers. The Himalayas jut into Kashmir from Nepal, boasting light, dry powder in absurd quantities. Kashmir, or rather the small ski town of Gulmarg, seems set to explode onto the ski resort radar. Opened in 2005, its gondola is, at just shy of 4000m, the third highest in the world, and the powdery terrain that spreads out before it is limitless and untracked.

Topping it off are some very unresort-like qualities: you’ll ride a pony back to a hot shower and a warm bed; if it’s chicken for dinner you can pick one from the yard. The secret won’t keep for long.

# Bungee jumping the Bhote Koshi, Nepal

The worst part is the wait. Standing on a footbridge spanning a spectacular Himalayan gorge, it’s impossible not to glance down at the churning Bhote Koshi River, which races down from the nearby Tibetan border. Every so often a cheer – or a scream – sounds, as someone plummets towards the water on the end of a disconcertingly thin rubber rope.

Operated by The Last Resort, a tented camp and adventure sports centre, this 160m bungee jump is one of the highest in the world – to put it into context, the Statue of Liberty only measures 93m from its base to the tip of the flame. The mountains ahead appear briefly in your line of vision, before vanishing as you plunge down at what feels like an impossible speed and, for a few terrifying, exhilarating moments, you feel as though you’re flying.

# Canyoneering in Karijini, Australia

Canyoneering through Karijini National Park is an Indiana Jones-style adventure through a rarely seen world of towering red rock canyons, trickling waterfalls and hidden pools. Be prepared for half a day of walking then crawling, wading then swimming, climbing along ledges and up waterfalls and jumping into freezing pools. The trails are graded by how extreme the terrain gets. Classes 1–3 can be handled by most but 4–6 are where the excitement lies and should be tackled with a qualified guide.

One of the best is the “Class 4” Knox Gorge. Descending the steep track into the ravine you’ve little idea of what waits ahead. Paths and ledges peter out and you’re forced to swim across a couple of pools until the walls narrow suddenly into a shoulder-wide slot that never sees sunlight. You enter the chasm, bridging over jammed boulders, deafened and disoriented by water running through your legs until it seems there is no way ahead. There is, but to continue you must hurtle blindly down the “do-or-die” Knox Slide into an unseen plunge pool below. Later, pumped with adrenalin and teeth chattering from the icy water, you look up to see tourists pointing and staring at you from a viewpoint, wondering how on Earth you got down there.

# Taking the plunge with A.J. Hackett, New Zealand

Ever since speed skiers and general daredevils AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch invented commercial bungee jumping, New Zealand has been its home, and Queenstown its capital. So if you’re going to bungee what better place than here? And if it’s the classic experience you’re after, then the original Kawarau Suspension Bridge is your spot. At 43m it’s only a modest jump by modern standards, but you’re guaranteed an audience to will you on and then celebrate your achievement. So are you going solo or double? Dunking or dry? Shirt on or shirt off?

# Heli-biking Ben Cruachan, New Zealand

Ben Cruachan, a 2000m peak tucked behind the Remarkables, the mountain range that flanks the picturesque resort of Queenstown, is a favourite of many backcountry mountain bikers. It’s no surprise why: it offers 1600 metres of pure downhill adrenalin. And that’s after the rush of flying up to the top.

The trail follows a rough 4WD road down the ridgeline from the summit. Littered with loose shale, it demands both balance and patience to navigate. After a few kilometres the route veers left onto a vertiginious single track snaking 6km down a steep valley. The upper reaches of the track are fast and fun; further down, shallow streams cut across the trail and you need to concentrate hard to avoid flying over the handlebars when your tyres come to an abrupt halt in a muddy bog.

# Ski from the sky in the Rockies, British Columbia

Heliskiing got its start in the Rocky Mountains of BC, and this is still one of the best places on Earth to take part in this terrifically expensive, fairly dangerous and undeniably thrilling activity. It’s a pristine mountain wonderland filled with open bowls and endless tree runs, all coated in a layer of light and powdery snow. Accessing these stashes by helicopter, with its odd mix of mobility and avian fragility, only intensifies the feeling of exploration and isolation. From the air, you’ll eagerly envision making your signature squiggles and carve lines in the untouched powder fields. And once the helicopter recedes into the distance, leaving you alone atop the mountain, you’ll feel every inch the pioneer.