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Category Archives: Travel

Gearhead’s guide to rock climbing in Yosemite

Getting started at rock climbing in Yosemite

There are climbs for every ability imaginable somewhere in this park. First-timers should hit up the Yosemite Mountaineering School to do intro courses. In these intros, you’ll learn to safely belay your climbing partner, how to use your feet and hands properly to ascend the rock, and the basics of rock climbing safety. You’ll have a blast doing it, but it’s important to remember that climbing is dangerous. You should only go out on your own if you (or your partner) already know what you are doing. You can take more advanced courses at the Mountaineering School, or, if you’re confident that you’re ready for action, head to the notice board at Camp Four, where you can find climbing partners.

Rock climbing essentials

You can gear up before you depart for the park or wait to do your shopping at the Yosemite Mountain Shop to round out your equipment. Either way, the basics will probably cost you about US$200. It’s of utmost importance that any climber is going to need a well-fitting harness (costing between $50 and $150). Some top climbing manufacturers include Black Diamond (blackdiamondequipment.com), Petzl (www.petzl.com) and Arc-Teryx (www.arcteryx.com). Look for something that fits snug but allows for good freedom of movement.

What you’re really interested in, though, is the glorious hardware – even a few pieces of jangling metal can make you feel heroic. Early on in your climbing career, you’ll just need the basics to help you safely belay, rappel and attach yourself to anchors set up in the rock by a qualified guide or leader. Start with a good locking carabiner (an oval-shaped device with an opening gate that can quickly attach to bolts on the rock or pieces of gear that a qualified leader places in cracks in the rocks to protect from falls and create bomber anchors used to belay climbers from below). These come in myriad sizes – generally, the bigger the better. Add a belay or rappel device (Europeans call it ‘abseiling’) like a simple Black Diamond Super 8 (blackdiamondequipment.com). Add on a few carabiners for effect and grab a helmet to protect your melon.

Next up comes a good pair of climbing shoes. Climbing shoes are all about feel. For long climbs and cracks, you might want a stiffer sole. For shorter sport climbs, most people go with something that’s a little softer to the touch. No matter your choice, you generally size these down one-and-a-half sizes, and often wear them without socks. Yes, climbing shoes get stinky as hell, but that’s part of the charm.

Finally, round out your climbing gear with a chalk bag, comfortable pants – Prana (www.prana.com) makes some pretty cool stuff with plenty of room to stem your way up big chimneys or just bop through the Yosemite Valley Food Court and grab a coffee.

Real adventure: bouldering, free climbing and beyond

The adventures to be had on the vertiginous playgrounds of the Yosemite Valley are seemingly endless. In fact, people are still climbing new routes to this day.

On the one hand, a great thing about Yosemite is there is plenty of bouldering (climbing low to the ground without ropes or harnesses) to be had. There are about 700 established bouldering problems in the Valley. The most famous of these in Yosemite (and probably the world) is right in Camp Four. Midnight Lightning was first climbed by Ron Kauk in 1978. An iconic lightning bolt marks the spot. Don’t expect to get to the top of this one unless you’ve really honed your skills.

Many beginners, though, will start with traditional free climbing (not to be confused with free soloing, where you don’t use a rope). Most climbing in Yosemite is done without fixed bolts or anchors, meaning an experienced leader will climb up the route, placing gear (such as expanding cams) into cracks every five or ten feet and connecting the rope to the protection using a carabiners. The second climber stays down below, belaying the leader with their belay device that is used to stop the rope from sliding if the leader falls.

At the top, the leader will connect several pieces of protection to form an anchor (these are so strong they could hold a Mack Truck). From there, the less experienced climber follows the route, pulling the gear out as they go and meeting the leader, where they will connect to the anchor with their locking carabiner. This can continue for 3000 feet pitches of about 100 to 150 feet each.

The Grack on Glacier Point Apron is rated at 5.6. Perfect for newbies, this low-inclined apron is a great place to familiarize yourself with footing techniques such as edging (on a dime) and smearing (putting your heals down to stick to the rock like a gecko).

New heights: tackling the big names

Once you’ve worked out some of the systems (and any lingering fear of heights), try out classics like The Nutcracker (a 5.8 that’s no gimme with a big mantel move at the top) or Bishop’s Terrace on Church Bowl. After mastering the shorter three- to five-pitch routes (that’s still like 500 feet off the ground), try some of the longer day climbs. Tuolomne Meadow’s Fairview Dome has a classic 12-pitch route right up the center. It’s 5.9, so you probably need to be a pretty strong intermediate climber with a solid leader to get up. But the views from the top are nothing short of glorious.

With more experience under your belt, you can consider three- to ten-day Big Wall Climbs on the major monoliths like El Capitan and Half Dome. Big Wall climbing is where the hardware gets really ridiculous. You’ll need an assortment of ascenders, nuts, cams, bivvy ledges, sleeping bags, haul bags, and poop tubes (yes they take that whole ‘carry in, carry out’ thing seriously) to make these routes. But spending days on end in the vertical playgrounds of the Valley may just make it worthwhile.

Expeditions on terra firma

Not all Yosemite adventures take to the vertical. With the right gear (hiking shoes, plenty of water, a map, a compass or GPS, day pack, and possibly a good walking stick), you can easily explore to the furthest edges of this great park. Yosemite is the size of Rhode Island, so a good tip is to plan your route ahead of time, and tell somebody where you went and when you expect to get back.

Sipping Cocktails and Craft Brews in India

Stretching north from Gothenburg to the Norwegian border, the region features pine forests framing fjord-like lakes, charming coastal towns and, of course, a vast archipelago of 8000 islands, islets and skerries, whose distinctive Bohus granite glows orangey-pink in the rising and setting sun.

In summer, that sun shines for 18 hours a day at this latitude, giving you plenty of time to explore what Bohuslän has to offer; better still, the E6 motorway, which runs parallel to the coast for about 100 miles, forms the backbone of a readymade route for independent travellers. The only decision that remains is what to see along the way.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

First stop: Marstrand – find the perfect place to drop anchor

Calculate the total value of the yachts gliding to and fro in Marstrand’s gästhamn (guest harbour) and you’d probably end up with a figure that dwarfs some countries’ GDP.

This small island, which lies about 30 miles north of Gothenburg, has been a compulsory stop for the Swedish elite ever since King Oscar II built a summer house here in the late 19th century; these days, Marstrand is a chic backdrop for world-class sailing events and welcomes up to 10,000 people a week in high season.

The king’s old residence – the regal Grand Hotel Marstrand, which has some satisfyingly old-school rooms and a swish restaurant – is one of the town’s two big historical sights; the other looms above it in the form of Carlstens Fästning, a hulking fortress built in the 17th century after Denmark-Norway ceded Marstrand to Sweden as part of a peace treaty.

While Carlstens Fästning trades on its storied history, offering guided tours and historical reenactments, Marstrand’s other old fort – the smaller 18th-century Strandverket Konsthall – opts for radical reinvention as the Strandverket Art Museum (www.strandverket.se), an unexpected outpost of contemporary sculpture, photography and more.

Don’t confine yourself to the history-steeped town, though – the rest of Marstrand is beautiful and begs for exploration. It’s also accessible thanks to well-marked trails, which range from easy to challenging. If you strike out west, scan the horizon for the red iron tower of the Pater Noster Lighthouse (paternosterlighthouse.com), now a small hotel for those who really, really want to get away from it all.

Marstrand is car-free, so you’ll need to park on the neighbouring island of Koön then hop on the ferry, which takes a couple of minutes.

Second stop: Tjörn – feast on high culture and haute cuisine

Like Marstrand, Skärhamn – the main town on Tjörn – is pretty enough to warrant a visit in its own right, but there’s another reason to go aside from the boats, boutiques and restrained Bohuslän-style bling: Skärhamn has become a hotspot for art lovers thanks to the Nordiska Akvarellmuseet, an award-winning museum designed by Danish architects Niels Bruun and Henrik Corfitsen.

Opened in 2000, this rectangular structure sheathed in red weatherboard panels (an echo of the region’s ubiquitous fishermen’s huts) frequently exhibits world-class work from big names such as Salvador Dali and Louise Bourgeois, as well as prominent Swedish artists. In other words, it’s a place that would befit a sophisticated city centre, yet somehow fits perfectly in this obscure location.

Save time to explore the surrounding lake, a family-pleasing affair with a lovely crescent of beach, a jetty and a diving tower; you might even want to stay overnight here by renting one of the museum’s five guest studios, intriguing grey modernist cubes that jut out over the water.

A year before the museum appeared, Tjörn’s tourism received a boost from another source with the opening of Salt & Sill, a floating restaurant. This acclaimed eatery, a few miles south at Klädesholmen, has been racking up plaudits ever since for its innovative seafood food. It specialises in that cornerstone of the Swedish diet, herring.

The signature dish is – you guessed it – a ‘plank’ of herring, which features six variations on this acquired but authentic taste of the west coast. You can sleep on it, too – in 2008, Salt & Sill’s owners added Sweden’s first floating hotel to the site; as is often the way here, the 23 rooms are simple but stylish, and the sun deck on the roof has cracking views over the archipelago.

Third stop: Smögen – promenade on Sweden’s most photographed pier

Although Smögen is still a working fishing town, where boats unload their catch for auction every weekday (you can buy it at the source, too), the warehouses that once lined the town’s ridiculously picturesque pier, or Smögenbryggan, have long since given way to a tourism-driven economy.

A small museum housed in a warehouse halfway down the pier gives an insight into the town’s humble past. These days, however, Smögen pulsates through the summer with a stream of pleasure-seekers, who arrive by sea and land to shop, people-watch from harbourside cafes and, of course, dine on the superlative seafood (try Göstas (gostasfisk.se), next door to the fish auction).

The island is an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding seas on a tour, which run the gamut from lobster-catching to seal safaris. In summer, you can also catch a boat to Hållö, a nature reserve for bathing and birdwatching that is also home to the oldest lighthouse in Bohuslän, as well as a far-flung hostel (utposthallo.se).

Exploring Norway’s north on the Nordlandsbanen

The journey

Though perhaps less well-known than the Oslo-Bergen train ride, the Nordlandsbanen, which stretches northwards for 729km between regal Trondheim and spirited Bodø, could certainly lay claim to being the more unique route. As well as being Norway’s longest train line, it also crosses the Arctic Circle, one of the few railways in the world to do so.

An efficient service and spacious, comfortable trains make it a delightfully sedate way to make the ten-hour journey, but it’s the huge diversity of scenery that’s most appealing. Gently rolling, emerald-green fields rest under huge skies, and Norwegian flags whip proudly over the pillar-box red hytter (cabins) dotted haphazardly over the hillsides. Moments later, the train will track its way through dense woodland, a wall of pine trees on either side of the train breaking just long enough to snatch a two-second-long postcard of mist haunting the treetops in a shadowy forest beyond.

Then, coasting out of a tunnel, the ground falls away to one side, and suddenly a 100m-high waterfall appears. Plummeting into a churning white froth below, the roaring deluge plays out silently on the other side of the train window. Such spellbinding scenes speed past repeatedly, and then evaporate into the distance, only to be replaced by another a few moments later.

Highlights of the Nordlandsbanen

All aboard at Trondheim

Before you board the train in Trondheim, take some time to explore the picture-postcard pretty city itself. The compact centre is relatively flat and easy to explore on foot or by bike. Marvel at the mighty Nidaros Domkirke, an ornate Gothic cathedral built on the burial ground of the much-revered Viking King Olav II, then linger as you cross over the quaint Old Town Bridge for views of the 18th-century waterside warehouses.

Trondheim’s old-world charm continues at Baklandet Skydsstasjon. Owner Gurli serves up hearty, homemade fare such as super-fresh fish soup and silky-smooth blueberry cheesecake. Wash it down with that most Nordic of spirits, the potent, herby aquavit: there are 111 varieties to choose from here. Meanwhile, across town, sleek Mathall Trondheim (mathalltrondheim.no) – part store, part bar-restaurant – offers a more modern take on classic Norwegian cuisine, serving up a variety of smørbrød and a good selection of craft beer.

Verdal for Stiklestad and The Golden Road of Inderøy

After a little less than two hours on the train from Trondheim, alight at Verdal for Stiklestad, the location of the famous battle of 1030 that saw the demise of King (later Saint) Olav. It’s now home to the Stiklestad National Cultural Centre, which hosts a variety of events throughout the year, and the 11th-century Stiklestad Church. This ancient place of worship was reputedly built over the stone on which Olav is said to have died.

Verdal (or alternatively Steinkjer, the next stop along) also makes a good jumping off point to explore The Golden Road – a route through traditionally agricultural Inderøy – which brings together a collective of sustainable culinary, cultural and artistic attractions, such as farm shops, restaurants and art workshops.

Swing by Nils Aas Kunstverksted (nils-aas-kunstverksted.no), a workshop and gallery dedicated to one of Norway’s most celebrated artists. Aas’ famous statue of King Haakon VII stands near the Royal Palace in Oslo, but a collection of his pieces is also on display in a small sculpture garden just a few minutes’ stroll from the workshop.

The highlight of the road, though, is the aquavit tasting experience at Berg Gård (berg-gaard.no), a working farm with its own distillery. Book ahead to get rosy-cheeked while tasting this fiery spirit, flavoured with herbs and spices such as caraway, cardamom and anise, as the owner explains the artistry and innovation involved in creating it.

Must-see Mosjøen

A further three-hour train-glide north brings you to diminutive Mosjøen, nestled in the imposing Vefsnfjord and surrounded by wooded peaks. The oldest part of the town, Sjøgata, is almost an open-air museum in its own right: saved from demolition in the 1960s, the beautifully-preserved 19th-century wooden buildings tell the tale of a historically prosperous town, of hardy fishermen and thriving sawmills, a story echoed at the small but informative Jakobsensbrygga Warehouse museum.

Nowadays in Mosjøen the main industry is aluminium, and a factory hums somewhat incongruously amid its pristine surroundings. Nevertheless, the surrounding hills of the Helgeland region beckon visitors to explore. Hike up the 818m-high Øyfjellet for spectacular views of the town and beyond.

The town makes for a scenic spot to overnight and break up the journey to Bodø. With its cosy nooks and unique, one-room museum, Fru Haugans Hotel, northern Norway’s oldest inn, has occupied a peaceful spot on the Vefsna river since 1794.

Blink and you’ll miss it: crossing the Arctic Circle

From Mosjøen the landscape seems to change in preparation for the Arctic Circle crossing, as lush trees give way to the rolling, rocky terrain and barren peaks of the Saltfjellet mountain range.

With no defining geographical features to signal your passage across The Circle and into the chilly wilds of Arctic north, you may have to use your imagination. But keep an eye out for the two large pyramidal cairns either side of the tracks, and Polarsirkelsenteret, a visitor centre visible some distance from the train line, to indicate that You Were Here.

Last stop Bodø for street art, sky-gazing and the Saltstraumen

The final stop on the line, Bodø is a proud and lively cultural hub, with the world-class concert venue, Stormen (stormen.no), and an impressive clutch of murals painted all over the city by international street artists. One particular gem is After School by Rustam Qbic, a heart-warming homage to the aurora borealis that ensures the Northern Lights are always on show in Bodø.

If you’re not content with an artist’s impression, cross your fingers and hope to catch sight of the elusive aurora with your own eyes. The most vibrant sightings usually happen away from the light pollution of urban centres, but gaze skywards with a cocktail in hand on the balcony of Scandic Havet’s Sky Bar (scandichotels.com), and you might just be in luck.

End your journey on a high-octane note, by witnessing the fearsome force of the Saltstraumen, one of the world’s strongest tidal currents. Swirling into a frenzy every six hours, this furious maelstrom 33km from Bodø is caused by 400 million cubic metres of water rushing through a strait just 150m wide.

The Saltstraumen Bridge overlooks the strait, but a more exhilarating way to experience the power of the current is on a RIB boat excursion. Stella Polaris (stella-polaris.no) can zip you across the icy waters to the Saltstraumen at high speed, slowing down every now and then to catch a glimpse of local wildlife such as sea eagles and whales.

Making it happen

Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com) fly to Trondheim from London Gatwick five times a week, and daily from Bodø to Oslo for connecting international flights. An advance, one-way train ticket from Trondheim straight to Bodø on the NSB-operated Nordlandsbanen costs from Nkr249. Individual legs of the journey can be booked separately online (nsb.no) or, alternatively, a One Country Interrail pass (interrail.eu) offers the flexibility to hop off and on along the route.

A Rregional Guide to Europe’s

Italy

Few countries can rival Italy’s wealth of riches. Its historic cities boast iconic monuments and masterpieces at every turn, its food is imitated the world over and its landscape is a majestic patchwork of snowcapped peaks, plunging coastlines, lakes and remote valleys. And with many thrilling roads to explore, it offers plenty of epic driving.

Recommended trip: World Heritage wonders – 14 days, 870 km/540 miles

From Rome to Venice, this tour of Unesco World Heritage Sites takes in some of Italy’s greatest hits, including the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and some lesser-known treasures.

France

Iconic monuments, fabulous food, world-class wines – there are so many reasons to plan your very own French voyage. Whether you’re planning on cruising the corniches of the French Riviera, getting lost among the snowcapped mountains or tasting your way aroundChampagne’s hallowed vineyards, this is a nation that’s full of unforgettable routes that will plunge you straight into France’s heart and soul. There’s a trip for everyone here: family travellers, history buffs, culinary connoisseurs and outdoors adventurers. Buckle up and bon voyage – you’re in for quite a ride.

Recommended trip: Champagne taster – 3 days, 85 km/53 miles

From musty cellars to vine-striped hillsides, this Champagne adventure whisks you through the heart of the region to explore the world’s favourite celebratory tipple. It’s time to quaff!

Great Britain

Great Britain overflows with unforgettable experiences and spectacular sights. There’s the grandeur of Scotland’s mountains, England’s quaint villages and country lanes, and the haunting beauty of the Welsh coast. You’ll also find wild northern moors, the exquisite university colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and a string of vibrant cities boasting everything from Georgian architecture to 21st-century art.

Recommended trip: The best of Britain – 21 days, 1128 miles/1815 km

Ireland

Your main reason for visiting? To experience the Ireland of the postcard  – captivating peninsulas, dramatic wildness and undulating hills. Scenery, history, culture, bustling cosmopolitanism and the stillness of village life – you’ll visit blockbuster attractions and replicate famous photo ops. But there are plenty of surprises too – and they’re all within easy reach of each other.

Recommended trip: the long way round – 14 days, 1300 km/807 miles

Why go in a straight line when you can perambulate at leisure? This trip explores Ireland’s jagged, scenic and spectacular edges; a captivating loop that takes in the whole island.

Spain

Spectacular beaches, mountaintop castles, medieval villages, stunning architecture and some of the most celebrated restaurants on the planet – Spain has an allure that few destinations can match. There’s much to see and do amid the enchanting landscapes that inspired Picasso and Velàzquez.

You can spend your days feasting on seafood in coastal Galician towns, feel the heartbeat of Spain at soul-stirring flamenco shows or hike across the flower-strewn meadows of the mountains. The journeys in this region offer something for everyone: beach lovers, outdoor adventurers, family travellers, music fiends, foodies and those simply wanting to delve into Spain’s rich art and history.

Recommended trip: Northern Spain pilgrimage – 5-7 days, 678 km/423 miles

Travel in the footprints of thousands of pilgrims past and present as you journey along the highroads and backroads of the legendary Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.

Portugal

Portugal’s mix of the medieval and the maritime makes it a superb place to visit. A turbulent history involving the Moors, Spain and Napoleon has left the interior scattered with walled medieval towns topped by castles, while the pounding Atlantic has sculpted a coast of glorious sand beaches. The nation’s days of exploration and seafaring have created an introspective yet open culture with wide-ranging artistic influences.

The eating and drinking scene here is a highlight, with several wine regions, and restaurants that are redolent with aromas of grilling pork or the freshest of fish. Comparatively short distances mean that you get full value for road trips here: less time behind the wheel means you can take more time to absorb the atmosphere.

Best Cheap Eats in Kuala Lumpur

From humble street stalls to value-for-money restaurants, here are the best places to fill up in Kuala Lumpur that’ll cost you less than a taxi ride across town.

A slice of Sarawak in Bangsar

If you set out to find the epitome of a neighbourhood eatery in Bangsar, the Sarawak laksa stall inside the Nam Chuan Coffee Shop food court is your best bet. The laksa (RM8) here is built for rainy days: a heap of chewy rice vermicelli arrives in a spicy, coconut milk-based soup that is crowned with shredded chicken, huge prawns, ribbons of sliced omelette and lashings of chopped coriander. Owner Christina Jong has been doling out bowls of comfort for more than 16 years – her version of Sarawak laksa doesn’t get any more authentic than this.

Vegan mixed rice in a temple

A heads up: don’t come here expecting a leisurely meal or doting servers. The neighbouring office crowd flocks to this budget-friendly canteen located at the back of Dharma Realm Guan Yin Sagely Monastery for one of the best vegan meals in the city. The mixed rice buffet (from RM5) displays more than 50 dishes, including vegan mock-meat items. Come on a Friday for lei cha (which literally translates to ‘thunder tea’), a Hakka rice speciality served with an assortment of chopped vegetables and accompanied by a ‘pounded’ tea drink.

Nasi dagang in a Malay settlement

The unpretentious Chunburi Seafood (7 Jln Raja Muda Musa) restaurant in Kampung Baru – one of the last Malay villages in the heart of the city – is famed for its Kelantanese nasi dagang (nutty rice cooked in coconut milk, from RM6), which is traditionally eaten as breakfast on the east coast of Malaysia. Diners pair the rice with a variety of fish dishes, especially the gulai ikan tongkol – a tuna curry that woos you with a rich depth of flavour. Chunburi is consistently crowded during lunchtime; grab a mango and coconut rice dessert from the sweets stand while you wait.

Pisang goreng for a midday snack

The best way to treat a king banana? Fry it to a golden crisp. Stall owner Uncle Chiam has been catering to a steady stream of office workers, students and construction workers every day for the past 34 years. Sourced all the way from a farm in Pahang, the bananas (RM1.40 per piece) are deep-fried in a heavy batter, giving them a satisfying crunch while maintaining a caramelised interior within. Round out your pisang goreng snack with some fried kuih bakul (rice cakes).

Beef noodles with a side of nostalgia at Soong Kee

The battered restaurant signage and tinted windows make this old-timer at Masjid Jamek feel like a true find. Beef noodles are aplenty in KL but it’s the noodles, and sometimes soup, that help define each particular style of this local staple. Go for the dry version (RM7) at Restoran Soong Kee (facebook.com/SoongKeeBeefNoodle): springy egg noodles coated in dark soy sauce are topped with minced meat, and served with your choice of beef balls, sliced beef, cow’s stomach or tendon in a light-tasting broth.

Fluffy chapati in Little India

For cheap and cheerful refuelling, nothing beats a fluffy chapati at just RM1.80 each. Sure, you’ll find a much cheaper version of the unleavened flatbread elsewhere but the price at Authentic Chapati Hut (3 Lorong Padang Belia, Brickfields) is justifiable – the chapatis, cooked fresh on the griddle, are moderately chewy with perfectly browned crispy spots. They’re basically blank canvases to mop up curries or the restaurant’s signature chana masala (chickpea curry). Save some space for their pillowy naan bread too.

A belly-warming pork noodle

You can still score a decent bowl of pork noodles in the city even when you’re strapped for cash. Machi Pork Noodle (33 Jln 34/154, Taman Bukit Anggerik) outshines its contenders by cranking out a heady, cloudy pork broth that comforts you like a big warm hug. The noodles (RM6), cradling a poached egg in the centre (ask the waiter for it), are fortified with the addition of minced pork, pork balls, various pieces of pork offal, pork slices, fried lard and a flurry of chopped spring onion. Fortune favours the bold – break the yolk and stir through for a silkier and thicker soup.

Pair vegetarian nasi lemak with masala chai

A nasi lemak without the requisite fried anchovies and hard-boiled egg sounds almost blasphemous, but the vegetarian version (RM2.50) at Annapuurnam Chetinad Restaurant (74 Lorong Maarof, Bangsar) will prove you wrong. A warm, nutty fragrance permeates the air as you unpack the wrapping of the dish to reveal a mound of hot fluffy rice cooked in coconut milk, with peanuts, sliced cucumbers, a piece of mock meat, and a spicy sauce that packs flavour and heat in equal parts. A masala chai (spiced milk tea) seems like a sweet ending to a meal – until you spy the jars of murukku (crunchy Indian snacks) at the cashier.

Getting the Best of Both Worlds in the Maldives

Appreciating the Maldives’ natural riches

Nicknames aside, the etymology of the word ‘Maldives’ refers to the remarkable geography of this scattered archipelago. The ‘garland islands’ are indeed draped like a necklace across the Indian Ocean, hanging below the teardrop-shaped earring of Sri Lanka. And this is a treasure crafted from only the finest materials: white-gold sands with a turquoise trim, diamond-clear waters and sparkling sunsets framed by a curtain of palms. Every second spent here is a pinch-me moment.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest country in terms of elevation, and therefore first in the climate change firing line, which makes its natural wonders seem all the more precious, particularly when you meet the wildlife. Keen spotters, snorkelers and scuba divers should head to the southernmost atoll, Addu (also known as Seenu), to see spinner dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and white terns – a striking seabird found nowhere else in the Maldives.

Addu is also home to some of the islands’ most novel landmarks – a nine-hole golf course with lagoon views, one of the longest roads in the Maldives (a whole 16km, best travelled by bike) and the nation’s tallest mountain, which looms above Villingili, a staggering five metres high.

A taste of the inhabited islands

Staying at a luxury resort for 24/7 pampering is part of the Maldives experience, but spa treatments and five-star dinners are only half of the story. To really get a feel for island life, you need to visit one of the officially designated inhabited islands, where most of the islands’ 345,000 people make their homes. Until 2009, government restrictions meant visitors to the Maldives needed a permit to explore and stay on non-resort islands, but today, many inhabited islands are open for day trips or even overnight stays, and 50% of resort staff are required by law to be local, making island culture far more accessible.

After living it up at the Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa on the southern atoll of Addu, I joined local guide Azmy for a cycle tour of Addu City – a sleepy string of inhabited isles just across the lagoon from my blissful bubble – for a gentle introduction to the ‘real’ Maldives. In this laid back ‘city’, an unhurried island vibe pervades (there’s only so much pace one can gather this close to the equator) but political street art, a multitude of mosques, busy tea shops and welcoming smiles reveal an unexpected community buzz.

‘We don’t lock our doors here – everyone knows everyone,’ explained Azmy with a smile as we parked our bikes outside his family home. I’d wangled an invitation in order to see – and try out – an undholi, the traditional Maldivian swing seats found in most houses in the atolls. Azmy’s wife and mother-in-law seemed bemused by enthusiasm for trying out the fancy wooden hammock in their living room, but were graciously accommodating. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

A wealth of history and culture

People on Addu generally speak excellent English, as the British ran various military bases on Gan island between the 1940s and 1970s. Azmy’s grandfather worked there as a cook and his father, a local councillor, hopes to open a military museum one day to tell the story of the base, considered a hardship posting for British airmen because of the remote and secluded location.

But there’s plenty of history to discover even without a museum. As we pedalled, we passed a disused post office blanketed in moss, poppy-strewn memorials, a retro-looking cinema (still in occasional use), and an eerie old quarantine centre for sufferers of ‘elephant foot’, a mosquito-borne malady only officially wiped out in 2016. Needless to say, I declined to take a closer look at these last facilities.

These days the RAF barracks form part of Equator Village, one of many budget resorts springing up across the archipelago, and the airstrip has swapped bombers for commercial planes. Gan Airport received the first international passenger flights from Colombo in late 2016 and tourism is expected to boom in the southern atolls, so now is a good time to come and beat the rush.

Make time for Malé

While island life is what the Maldives is all about, the capital, Malé, remains the central transport hub and it’s well worth a stopover to see its miniature take on ‘big city’ life. It may only cover 5.8 sq km, but compared to the far-flung isles, this densely populated speck in the ocean is positively cosmopolitan. Residents often juggle two jobs, commuting by moped through traffic-clogged streets overshadowed by high-rise banks and office buildings. Markets bustle. Tarmac sizzles. The call to prayer cuts through the urban thrum.

Most Unexpected Neighborhood in Las Vegas

Chinatown Plaza, where it all began

When exploring Chinatown, the best idea is to start at its birthplace: the enormous and ornate Chinatown Plaza (lvchinatownplaza.com). With its colorful, dragon-adorned, Tang Dynasty-inspired gate and gleaming statue commemorating the classic tale Journey to the West – including the Monkey King – it’s a favorite place for photos. Popular restaurants include Harbor Palace Seafood for oceanic delicacies and Sam Woo BBQ for smoky meats. For an eye-boggling stroll, head into Ranch 99 for a display of pan-Asian foodways.

A block away, Chengdu Taste (facebook.com/Chengdu-Taste) serves some of the most chili-laden, incendiary dishes in the entire state of Nevada, let alone in Las Vegas. Specializing in Sichuan-style cooking, it also features dishes like pork dumplings in broth spiked with namesake Sichuan peppercorns. These feisty spices actually make your mouth numb, adding definitive tingle to the eating experience.

For aficionados of Thai cuisine, nearby Chada Street (chadastreet.com) is at the crossroads of classic cuisine and edible experimentation. In a pretty, wood-lined dining room, dig into adventurous appetizers like Goong Share Nam Pla — a blend of raw shrimp, fish sauce, garlic and chili. In the vibrant Kang Ped Yang, duck meat meets red curry sauce, pineapple and cherry tomatoes. Blending hearty and light, Yum Moo Yor is spicy salad with pork meatloaf. Of course, mainstays like Pat Thai noodles are served, too. The restaurant also has an extensive and lauded wine list.

The other, other Vegas strip

Vegas is a strip mall kind of town, so if you haven’t filled up in Chinatown Plaza, head a few blocks west to Mountain View Plaza, another strip with great options like District One Kitchen & Bar (districtonelv.com). Many restaurants in Chinatown trend to the traditional, but District One is thoroughly modern while retaining its Vietnamese heritage. With a cool décor defined by vibrant street art, District One serves some of the most renowned cuisine in all of Las Vegas, especially its fresh, seasonal seafood including sea snails and razor clams. Noodles abound in bowls of pho, including one with a whole lobster, and on plates like Crispy Birds Nest Noodles slathered with wok-fried shrimp, chicken and beef. Head to the bar for some advanced mixology.

How about a conveyor belt dinner? Don’t be alarmed, no robots or factory food is involved at the highly interactive Chubby Cattle (chubbycattle.com). Specializing in hot pot dishes with a Mongolian flair, this eatery features mini-plates of ingredients that course along a moving belt. When something you like passes near, grab it and add it to your personal receptacle of simmering broth that comes in flavor-profile choices like ‘The Beautiful Tomato’ and ‘Heaven and Hell.’ If you’re a newbie wondering how long to cook sliced lamb or exotic mushrooms, the staff can provide advice.

Sample Japanese noodles and sushi (and burgers too)

For Japanese cuisine, Raku (raku-grill.com) and its nearby sister restaurant, Raku Sweets, are pilgrimage-worthy destinations. On the savory side, rustic Raku specializes in robata-style grilled viands like Kobe beef tendon, Kurobota pork rib and fish belly. For dessert, Raku Sweets is a sugary dreamscape in a gleaming, hypermodern room. Here, elaborate sorbet confections and macaroons look like artworks. Edible ones, that is.

Lovers of fresh noodles are flocking to Udon Monzo (facebook.com/marugamemonzolv) in the Center at Spring Mountain, a lengthy, block-long collection of businesses. The Japanese restaurant specializes in handmade pasta strands that are spun and twisted in the air throughout the day. Looking in on the display kitchen, merely pick your choice of soup from shrimp tempura to curry. From there, watch cooks boil your fresh udon to order. The menu is also filled with deep-fried sides from soft boiled eggs to eggplant.

While sushi dens are strewn about Las Vegas, including Chinatown, none tops Yui Edomae Sushi (yuisushi.com), a secluded temple of fresh fish just off Spring Mountain Road. Be prepared for a somewhat austere interior, as the gemlike food is the shining star. This is sushi as it’s done in Tokyo at the highest level, and an omakase chef’s choice dinner sets the mind reeling. It’s also a pricey place to match the quality, so budget ahead. Fun fact: the elaborate interior wooden door was crafted in Japan without the use of nails or even glue.

And if you just want  to try the great American hamburger with a Japanese accent, head to the funky and fun Fuku Burger (fukuburger.com).

More surprising Chinatown stars

Just like the Asian extravaganza of Chinatown is unknown by many Sin City visitors, so too is the fact that there’s plenty of top-notch entertainment off the Strip. It’s not all about casino showrooms here, believe it or not. The respected Las Vegas Little Theater (lvlt.org) is one of the best options around for taking in stagecraft, with a schedule that ranges from works by big-hitters like Terrence McNally and Neil Simon to up-and-coming writers. It’s an intimate and rewarding aesthetic experience located in the back of the Center at Spring Mountain.

Best Spice Markets in The World

Rahba Kedima, Marrakesh, Morocco

Rahba Kedima, also known as Spice Square, is the obvious place to head to for brash, bright and brilliant flavourings when in Marrakesh. The mixed spices for flavouring fish and meat are a must for adventurous cooks, while you can also snap up anise, mace and fresh cinnamon for a snip of the cost back home. If you want good saffron, don’t buy the ground stuff – ask to see the fresh strands. It can get pricey, so make sure you shop around before parting with your cash.

Long Bien Market, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi’s labyrinthine Old Quarter is home to a wide variety of spice stalls. But for something a lot more visceral, set your alarm for 4am and head to Long Bien Market on the banks of the Red River. This pre-dawn, wholesale spot is the place to buy the freshest mint, lemongrass, cinnamon, coriander and ginger. This is a working market, meaning tourists are few and far between, so be respectful when taking pictures.

Grand Bazaar, Tehran, Iran

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar can feel like a daunting warren, especially as the day wears on and business becomes frantic. While its carpet shops and mosques are alluring, it’s the spice lanes that are the most evocative. You can buy spices, nuts and dried fruit by the weight or pre-bagged. The best deal is on saffron, which owing to its abundance is much cheaper here than in western countries.

Benito Juarez market, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca’s oldest market is sprawled over an entire block in the centre of the city. While tourists flock here, this remains a busy, working market, selling a huge array of produce. Dive in and you’ll find a mind-boggling variety of dried chilli peppers in all shapes and sizes, including ancho and chilhuacle. You can also buy ready-made mole paste, a fiery chilli concoction used to create the best Mexican dishes. Just be sure to check import restrictions in your home country before you buy a suitcase load of the latter.

Khari Baoli, Delhi, India

Home to the largest wholesale spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli sits near the Red Fort in Old Delhi. Dating back to the 16th century, the stalls here sell spices, nuts and dried fruits from across northern India and Afghanistan. You’ll find everything from dried mulberries to khoya, a milk solid used in cakes and desserts, as well as classics like turmeric and allspice. The alleyways here are narrow and the pace frenetic, so be sure not to dawdle.

Darajani market, Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s importance in the spice trade cannot be overestimated. To many it’s known simply as ‘Spice Island’ and today it continues to produce huge quantities of ginger, saffron, anise and pepper. At Darajani market, in the heart of historic Stone Town, you’ll find sellers offering these local spices by the sack load, making it the perfect place to stock up. If you want to cut a deal, avoid tourist shops and get ready to barter.

Dubai spice souk, UAE

Dubai’s futuristic cityscape can feel alien to its Middle Eastern roots. Not so in its traditional spice souk, where produce from around the region is sold from overflowing baskets and plastic sacks. The air here is pungent with the aromas of cloves, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, pepper, saffron and nutmeg. If you’re buying remember you’re expected to haggle rather than accept the first price you’re offered. The souk is open daily, so there’s no excuse not to visit.

Egyptian Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul’s Egyptian Bazaar is unquestionably the best place to buy spices in Turkey, and arguably the whole Middle East. Built in 1660 alongside the New Mosque, the bazaar was given its name thanks to most of its wares being imported from Egypt. Today it remains Istanbul’s main spice hub, with 86 shops selling everything from garam masala to green peppercorns. You can also pick up special herb blends and teas. Be sure to bring plenty of ziplock bags, as once you start shopping you’ll struggle to stop.

Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem, Israel

Known as ‘The Shuk’, Mahane Yehuda dates back over 100 years. Home to 250 vendors, in recent years it’s become a hip hangout for young locals and tourists. However, it remains steeped in tradition and spice fiends will find plenty to jazz up their home cooking here. Pereg Spices has over 100 different spices and special blends for sale; the sumac, an Israeli delicacy, is a must buy. The Shuk also runs official tours, making exploring its myriad stalls much easier.

Mombasa spice market, Kenya

Kenya’s link to Asia, Mombasa has long been a cultural melting pot thanks to its location on the Indian Ocean. Its spice market, just west of the Old Town, is a hectic experience, but an essential stop-off for intrepid travellers. Expect to find unique curry powders, bright yellow turmeric, masala and cardamom, all nodding towards the area’s cultural ties with the subcontinent, as well as local Mombasa pepper.

7 Safe Destinations for Solo Female Travelers

Wales

This country in the west of the United Kingdom has an amazing landscape and an even more amazing cultural history. If you’re interested in the King Arthur mythology, you’ll find a number of important sites from those texts. If you’re into outdoor sports, try a solo hike on the Pembrokeshire coast. Cardiff, the capitol, also offers a number of theaters (including the famous Millennium Center), museums, sports arenas, and shopping centers.

Canada

Almost all of my trips to Canada have been solo journeys and I’ve always felt extremely safe. In Quebec, you’ll find a huge cinematic and television culture like the Festival of International Short Film, as well as the famous winter Carnavale in Quebec City. Ontario houses the country’s largest city, Toronto, whose theater, music, and comedy venues are comparable in both quality and number to those in New York City.

The number of national parks, from Niagara Falls to Mount Revelstoke’s 1,000-year old forest, will give you plenty opportunities to hike, camp, ski, surf, and star-gaze. Wildlife lovers, like myself, often find Canada to be one of the best places to head out into the wilderness.

From spending the day with wild grizzly bears and getting up-close and personal with puffins to kayaking and snorkeling with whales, I’ve had some of my most magical solo (and non-solo) wildlife experiences in Canada. There’s plenty of tour operators who provide amazing outdoor experiences in this country, so you don’t need to worry about being completely alone in the wild.

Costa Rica

This country is excellent for ecotourists and those looking to learn more about sustainability — also, those looking to enjoy some aquatic fun! Watch and help sea turtles at their nesting grounds in Tortugero National Park or surf amazing waves at Playa Bonita. Costa Rica is also quickly becoming known for its large number of thermal spas, hot springs, and yoga retreats. What’s better than a solo yoga retreat?

Bali

Though some of the other Indonesian islands can be more conservative, intercultural Bali is a great and accepting place to travel on one’s own. With amazing beaches and underwater exploration sites like the USS Liberty shipwreck, it makes a perfect place for snorkel and scuba adventures. There are many carved temple sites to explore, including the famous Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

Nepal

For the intrepid female explorer, Nepal’s wide range of adventure tourism opportunities are perfect. Since adventure and ecotourism make up a large portion of Nepal’s economy, there are lots of opportunities to meet with an adventure tourism agency or hire a local Sherpa to bring you hiking up the Himalayans or exploring the wilderness.

I spent two weeks with a local guide, visiting tiny remote villages such as Dhading and Sankhu, meeting locals who made a bigger impact on me than any stunning vista ever could. I won’t lie, my visit to Nepal was trying at times, but the people were always warm and welcoming.

Australia

The large backpacking culture here means hostels, bars, and restaurants are familiar with solo travelers — but if you’re looking for the opportunity to make other traveling friends, this is one of the best places to do so! Surfers will love the continent, but foodies too, especially on the wine trails. There are already several popular backpacking and campervan routes established, so go where the wind takes you!

Bonaire

Fresh fruit, bright sun, soft sand, and 60 to 100 foot underwater visibility: Bonaire is an amazing Caribbean destination. Along with its incredible beaches and dive sites, Bonaire is also known for its Karnival in February, a colorful, island-wide party that lasts almost two weeks!

How Tourism Works in a Changing Cuba

While the rest of the world has always had Cuba at its fingertips, Americans are still adjusting to the fact that this terra incognita is now within reach. What I found when I arrived was a place altogether strange and familiar, a place whose unique cityscapes frequently graced the silver screen, whose spirit we had seen in the homes our Cuban American friends, but a place we’d only ever really heard about in the context of prohibition. You can’t go there. It’s illegal.

Despite Americans’ newfound excitement, Cuba has long been on the tourist trail of those looking for a travel destination without all the conventional trappings of the western hemisphere. It’s a country valued for its isolation, even though said policy imposes a wide range of challenges for those living there. Now that Cuba’s biggest neighbor is gaining access to the island nation thanks to recently relaxed diplomatic relations, the inevitable question is this: will this new source of capital and traffic ‘ruin’ the country with consumerism? Since 2015, Cuba has seen a whopping 30.6% increase in visitors; in 2015 alone, American visits went up by an incredible 77%. When asked about the potential impact of American tourism, one of my tour guides summed it up rather succinctly: ‘more money will come into the country and it will adapt. But Cuban culture has a lot of personality.’ Cuba won’t be changed that easily.

But as tourism begins to really take hold in Cuba for the first time in decades, an internal shift has started to take place. The cities hum with activity like they always have, but with a distinctly more international flair, and new energy is being poured into homegrown initiatives: newpaladares (private restaurants), casas particulares (private homes), watering holes, art studios, venues and museums are all ready for business. As visitors continue to pour in, Cubans frustrated with low state wages (most make around US$30 per month) are turning to tourism to make up the difference. Many of these opportunities have been made possible by Raul Castro’s policy shifts permitting more private businesses and better internet access, but such advances are highly regulated.

Havana: the epicenter of change

Havana doesn’t ever seem to stop moving, locals and tourists pulsing through its arteries, a network of dusty streets walled with jaw-dropping buildings dressed with beautiful details: intricate ironwork, towering windows, open balconies, stained glass, worn paint. Don’t wonder at your surroundings too long, though – bicycle taxis whiz by and have little regard for careless pedestrians.

Wandering the streets you’ll find banks, historic plazas and impressive colonial churches, but also hip boutiques, kitschy-cool bars and stunning casas particulares. Edgy street art splashes across walls, tattoo shops host community building events and young designers create fashionable goods for both visitors and Cubans alike. This capital city has served as the nexus of creative change as Cuba marches headlong into an uncharted future where tourism just might be king.

Take a ride: the private taxi’s new starring role

Perhaps the single biggest symbol of Cuban-ness in the eyes of a foreign visitor is the antique car. Held together with ingenuity and sheer willpower, these vintage machines can be found on all the country’s roadways – a rainbow armada of Bel Airs, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs that shuttle visitors and locals from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even city to city.

My first private taxi driver drove me around the dusty streets of Havana as part of a history tour – we stopped at a Café Arcangel in Centro Habana, took in the explosion of color known as Fusterlandia, and cruised out to what the locals call El Bosque, a park full of old trees covered in shrouds of dangling vines, a rare green spot in Havana’s urban sprawl. A soft spoken gentleman who formerly worked as an electrical engineer for the state, he drove a beautifully kept Chevrolet so old that the sound system design only featured a single large speaker in the middle of the dashboard. Today, he works closely with his wife and an unofficial coalition of drivers to organize local and cross-country tours.

These cars and the people who drive them are on the forefront of the state-to-private sector shift, and the Cuban government is searching for ways to manage this form of entrepreneurship as demand for better transport systems increases. The government has mandated price and route controls on private taxis, who in turn recently reduced their trips in protest. Whether a compromise will be reached remains to be seen – for now, growing pains are the name of the game.

Creative casas: finding Cuban culture in homestays

Casas particulares make up another industry on the forefront of Cuba’s changing tourism infrastructure, and as visitors continue to arrive in droves, casa owners are finding new ways to attract potential guests. Some have found unique niches by offering dance or art classes, while others offer city tours or excursions (often conducted by friends and family).

At colorful Casa El Ceramista (homestay.com) in Trinidad, Alexey, a professional ceramicist, offers pottery classes to his guests. Trinidad has a strong pottery tradition, and local ceramics can be found in shops all around town. Luckily, I had the opportunity to take this class during my time at the casa – Alexey gave careful directions as I tentatively applied pressure to the spinning mound of clay on the throwing wheel in efforts to create something resembling a bowl. While we worked, the smell of spiced shrimp and pumpkin soup wafted over from the kitchen and guests laughed on the upstairs terrace. Forget the Hotel Nacional – thiswas Cuba.

Despite the fact that new casas are popping up across the country, Cuba is still coping with a significant lack of accommodation for the booming number of visitors. State-run hotels in Havana are boasting sky-high prices, and booking ahead is imperative. Casas provide a good alternative to government options, but even they are filling up quickly; while visitors used to be able to sort casa accommodation once they hit the ground, the need for advance reservations continues to grow.

Casas particulares were an ingrained part of Cuban culture long before the recent tourism spike, and a smattering of booking agencies have invested in the existing market. For example, Homestay.com began operating in the country in 2013 (earlier than its US-based competitors), and their business model emphasizes the local connection between visitor and host. Homestay casa owners frequently help facilitate travel and often offer bookable services like bike tours, cooking lessons and shared dinners; such hands-on guidance is indispensable for visitors who just might be a bit overwhelmed by Cuba’s complexities.