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Monthly Archives: November 2016

Why Kiribati is a Nature Lover’s Paradise

Whether you’re into fishing, bird-watching, diving or surfing, this remote destination is worth the trek while there are still people living here to welcome you.

First come for the fishing

One prime reason travellers head to Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Republic of Kiribati is for the fishing – marlin, sailfish, wahoo, barracuda and huge schools of tuna are found here. But the real gem: miles of pristine saltwater flats perfect for wading and fly-fishing for bonefish, milkfish, triggerfish and a number of trevally including the elusive giant trevally. GT, as they are affectionately known, are on the bucket list of most dedicated fly-fishermen. This exotic species hunts on the flats for prey and is known for its speed, weight (upwards of 40kgs) and ferocity.

Giant trevally are difficult to hook and even more difficult to land. They frequently snap both lines and rods. Fishing for one is a truly awe inspiring experience that will give you a heightened respect for this bully of the saltwater flats (catching a 20kg baby, in relative terms, GT was one of this fisherman’s proudest moments).

Fishing tours are run from a number of self-contained lodges that provide board, boats and guides. These local guides are proud of their island’s rich and diverse marine life and conservation is as important as the catch. Tuna caught off the island invariably end up as a feast of fresh sushi that same night in the lodge, all fish within the reef are returned to swim another day.

You can’t help but become a bird watcher

As you might expect for a nation of islands in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean, Kiribati is home to a thriving bird population. Here you can spot seabirds, obviously, with frigatebirds, boobies, shearwaters, petrels and gulls – they’re hard to miss. But bird lovers may be surprised by the land-based birds found in Kiribati. The islands have around 15 percent regenerated forest cover today which is home to the Kuhl’s lorikeet, Pacific long-tailed cuckoo, and the endemic Christmas Island warbler.  For those not inclined to twitching, the many species of birdsong is probably best enjoyed in a hammock with a cold drink.

Then there’s the diving

Scuba is a relatively new addition to Kiribati – but growing in popularity as the islands realise the potential – but divers can see over 200 species of coral that host a diverse range of marine animals here including colourful reef fish, sharks, manta rays, spinner dolphins and turtles. The main dive shops and tours operate from Christmas Island and much of it is done from shore or outrigger canoes. Further afield Tarawa atoll offers WWII-wreck diving with its reminders of the American and Japanese battle for the Pacific.

Most dive operations are run from the fishing lodges – Villages, Captain Cook and Ikari House fishing lodges all offer dive trips with guides, well-equipped boats and gear hire for experienced and novice divers.

Plus surfing and kite-surfing

You won’t find big concentrations of surfers competing for waves in Kiribati. Like with all the other activities on the island you are going to be among a hardy few. The wave calendar is similar to Hawaii – peak times are October to April. The prime surfing location is from the Kiritimati (Christmas Island) capital London to the town of the abandoned village of Paris (yes, you read that right). There are 24 surfable waves along this five kilometre stretch. The logistics of getting equipment to the islands – and remoteness of the locations once there – means you’re best advised to book surfing through an operator like Christmas Island Surf (christmasislandsurf.com) with plenty of local knowledge.

Outside the surf season, kite-surfing runs all year round. These islands are famed for their consistent, although slightly wearing, off-shore winds.

Did someone say beaches?

With an average height above sea level of just 2 metres, Kiribati has plenty of beaches. Add in the very basic infrastructure – many of the outlying islands have no plumbing, electricity or toilets – visitors are blessed with vast stretches of truly un-busy coastline.

In fact on our recent visit we saw no one else for a whole day on a trip to the eastern coastline of Christmas Island. The population here is so sparse we passed only one other car on a one-hour drive from London. In an increasingly crowded world, where constant communication has become the norm, it’s refreshing to find a destination where you actually can really escape.

Getting there

The largest individual atoll in this island group, Kiritimati (Christmas Island), is a mere 5000 kilometres from any other country! The largest coral atoll in the world, it is the centre of much of Kiribati’s tourism. It’s is accessible by weekly flights from Nadi in Fiji and Honolulu in Hawaii.

If you’re really wanting to go for the adventure of a lifetime it’s a seven- to eight-day boat trip, again from Honolulu, with Sailing Vessel Kwai (svkwai.com). Kiribati offers a variety of hotels and resorts, mainly on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), but don’t expect five-star digs and pina coladas waitered to your sun-lounge – accommodation here can only be described as rustic.

7 Great Ways to Explore Colombo For Free

Many people rush through Colombo and make straight for the beaches, but linger and you’ll find a city full of history, where stately British colonial buildings jostle for space with Sri Lankan dagobas (stupas), palm-shaded parks and Dutch colonial churches. Here are 7 great ways to explore this constantly evolving city for free.

Snake charmers charm at Viharamahadevi Park

Colombo is spoilt for choice when it comes to places to chill out, but beautifully maintained Viharamahadevi Park is a city favourite. The parades of palms and fig trees are spectacular, the lawns are dotted with statues and fountains, there are views of Colombo’s colonial-era Town Hall, and there’s always the chance of catching the odd snake charmer in action. Find a shady spot and you can people-watch for hours.

Join the locals on Colombo’s favourite promenade

Whilst it might not be quite as green as it once was, Galle Face Green is still frequented by locals in search of some relaxing downtime. There’s a tacky but loveable charm to this seafront park, which is animated by bubble-blowers, bouncing beach balls and vibrant kites swooping across the sky. It’s also a great spot for a snack – street food traders congregate on the waterfront at sunset, serving delicious Sri Lankan treats, including crispy egg hoppers and the island’s signature kottu, a griddle fry-up of chopped noodles, eggs and spices.

Dive into an open-air gallery at Kala Pola Art Market

On any non-rainy day of the week, you can catch a cohort of talented local artists as they transform the streets of Nelum Pokuna into an open-air gallery with their latest creations. The Kala Pola Art Market is the oldest art market in town, and traders have been holding court here for over a century. Some of the work on display is touristy and generic, but there are some gems to be unearthed here if you look beyond the clichéd depictions of elephants and tigers. If you feel like investing, paintings are usually on canvas and can be rolled up to carry away.

Engage with Sri Lankan contemporary art at Paradise Road Gallery

The Paradise Road Gallery (paradiseroad.lk) is a piece of art in itself. This upscale gallery is a beautiful space that exhibits contemporary Sri Lankan artists of high renown and is considered one of the most important art spaces in the country. The general ambience, decadent aesthetic and renowned Gallery Café add to its charm. With monthly rotating exhibitions, it’s definitely worth popping back again for a second visit before leaving the island.

Zen out and meditate at Bellanwila Temple

It’s a pretty tough job finding a temple in Colombo that doesn’t charge tourists nowadays, but for anyone venturing down south to Mount Lavinia, the Bellanwila Temple is a top detour. This is a real locals’ temple, where visitors can experience the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition without having to share it with camera-toting crowds. Unsurprisingly, it’s a great spot for meditation. The temple is famed for its bright and bold Buddhist statues and its revered bodhi-tree – one of thirty-two saplings taken from the sacred bodhi in Anuradhapura.

Love the sunset on Mount Lavinia Beach

Just a forty-minute bus ride from the centre, Mount Lavinia beach is the perfect refuge for travellers wanting to escape the city hustle. Whilst the main drag of Mount Lavinia beach is often dotted with litter, there are plenty of tucked away spots that remain unspoiled and the sunsets here are simply spectacular. As you make your way onto the golden sands, watch for locals taking the back route, walking fearlessly along the coastal railway tracks.

More than just a bookshop, Barefoot is a great find. As well as the carefully curated range of titles by Sri Lankan authors, exquisite coffee table books and insightful travel guides in the bookstore, there are free exhibitions, displays of cultural textiles and live Dumbara weaving, all taking place under one roof. Even if you don’t buy, browsing the bookshelves is a great way to learn about the vitality of Sri Lankan culture.

Have a run in with history at Independence Square

Finding time to exercise on a trip to Sri Lanka can be tricky when there’s so much to see and do, but taking a run on the tracks at Independence Square is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. As you work up a sweat, you can admire the Independence Arcade, whose white-washed colonial buildings once housed the Jawatta Lunatic Asylum and the offices of the former Western Provincial Council. Scattered fountains and green spaces en route make this a seriously pleasant place to work out.

Top 7 Free Things to do in Shanghai

Tianzifang’s bustling alleyways

Expect cheerfully decorated shop fronts and a lively atmosphere in this fun shopping area at the edge of the French Concession. Tianzifang is a network of small alleys lined with craft shops, bars and food stands. Shoppers looking for the best bargains need to come armed with a price in mind and a knack for haggling – shopkeepers here love the chase!

The Bund waterfront

Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong.  Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.

Shanghai Museum

When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it’s free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.

Fuxing Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of theFrench Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.

French Concession stroll

No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.

Jing’an Temple

Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city.  Meandering through the temple’s three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you’re overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!

Yuyuan Garden

An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.

Switzerland For Nature Lovers

On a high in Valais                                             

Nothing says Switzerland more than that mountain. As the train chugs from Täsch to the ritzy outdoor resort of Zermatt, the pop-up effect of the Matterhorn is surreal. The 4478m fang of rock and ice forces your gaze skywards and elicits gasps of wonder.

Closer, you say? Kein problem. The Gornergratbahn, Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, has been trundling up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. At the summit, the view of the Gorner Glacier and 29 peaks rising above 4000m – including Switzerland’s highest, Dufourspitze (4634m) – opens up. Skiers, mountaineers and hardcore hikers are in their element at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Europe’s highest cable-car station on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m), with views reaching deep into the Swiss, French and Italian Alps.

Ever since British climber Edward Whymper made the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – albeit a triumph marred by rope-breaking tragedy – Zermatt has been the Holy Grail for mountaineers. Here you can tackle some of Europe’s most epic ascents: the Matterhorn, say, or Monte Rosa (4634m), with an Alpine Center guide. Hikers, meanwhile, can set out along the two-hour, 6.5km Matterhorn Glacier Trail. When the flakes fall in winter, the car-free resort is laced with 360km of ski runs in the Matterhorn’s shadow, some of which dip over the border into Italy.

Among alpine giants

The Matterhorn gets a lot of love, but swing north and follow the Rhône River east along the serene, remote valley of the Goms in Valaisand you enter another world. Here tiny hamlets with baroque churches and sun-blackened chalets are dwarfed by the dramatic backdrop. FromFiesch, take the cable car up to Fiescheralp, where paragliders catch thermals on clear days, then beyond to Eggishorn for one of Switzerland’s most unforgettable sights: the mighty Aletsch Glacier.

The icing on the cake of the Unesco World Heritage Jungfrau-Aletsch region, this is the longest and most voluminous glacier in the Alps: a 23km swirl of deeply crevassed ice that powers its way past waterfalls, spires of rock and the dagger-shaped summit of Aletschhorn (4193m) like a six-lane glacial superhighway. You can admire it from the viewpoint, but you’ll get much closer on the 17km, five- to six-hour hike from Fiescheralp to Bettmeralp, which is where you can be at one with the phenomenal views and perhaps spot the odd Valais blacknose sheep. For more of an instant thrill, walk (if you dare) the Aletschji–Grünsee Suspension Bridge, which spans the terrifyingly untamed, 80m-deep Massa Gorge.

Over the mountain as the crow flies lies the Bernese Oberland, presided over by its ‘big three’: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau (Ogre, Monk and Virgin), all hovering around the 4000m mark. The picture-perfect resorts of Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren are great bases for hitting trails like the 6km Eiger Trail, with fearsome North Face views. More spectacular still, the full-day, 15.9km trek from Schynige Platte plateau via Faulhorn to First has views of lakes Thun and Brienz to make you yodel out loud. Or enjoy knockout peak and glacier views with zero effort by taking the train from Kleine Scheidegg up to 3454mJungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station.

Into the Engadin

Evocative of a golden age of travel, Switzerland’s train journeys are some of the world’s finest. There are big mountain views on repeat aboard the Glacier Express, which negotiates the Furka, Oberalp and Bernina passes on the eight-hour ride between Zermatt and St Moritz inGraubünden’s Upper Engadin.

Switzerland’s cradle of winter tourism since the mid 19th century, St Moritz is enshrined in sporting legend, home to slopes of Olympic fame and host to world championship events. Skiing ramps things up a notch in winter, with 350km of pistes, first-class freeriding opportunities, forested cross-country trails and heart-stopping black runs on 2978m Diavolezza.

The resort is every bit as alluring in summer. Hiking trails thread for mile after lovely mile, mountain bikers are in their element on 400km of terrain – the Suvretta Loop single trail is a classic – and wind- and kite-surfers drift across Silvaplana’s startlingly turquoise, wind-buffeted lakes in wonder.

For a taste of the Alps before the dawn of tourism, head northeast to theSwiss National Park in the Lower Engadin. Easily accessed from the quaint villages of Scuol, Zernez and S-chanf, Switzerland’s only national park is a nature-gone-wild spectacle of high moors, pastures, glaciated mountains, larch woodlands and topaz-coloured lakes. The only way to see it is by striking out on foot on one of 80km of marked trails. Go solo or hook onto a guided walk with the visitor centre in Zernez. With an expert in tow, you stand better chances of spotting rarities like wild edelweiss, ibex, chamois, golden eagles and bearded vultures.

Land of lakes & legends

Sitting on the mountain-rimmed shores of its eponymous lake, Lucerne, with its pristine Old Town, medieval wooden bridge and promenade, is every inch as genteel as it was back in the 19th century when Goethe, Wagner and Queen Victoria fell for its charms. And Lake Lucerne is no ordinary lake: this is where the Swiss legends were made and born. Cruise the fjord-like waters of Lake Uri and you’ll glimpse Rütli Meadow, hallowed birthplace of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, and the Tells’ Chapel, where apple-shooting hero and Swiss rebel William Tell apparently escaped from the boat of his Hapsburg captor, Gessler.

Lucerne itself is a cracking base for striking out into the surrounding lakes on low-key adventures. Without venturing too far or expending too much effort, you can marvel at the Alps cycling the trails rimming the waterfront, taking a refreshing dip at lakefront beaches in the warmer months, or hiring a boat to explore Lake Lucerne at your own steam.

The mountains that rear above Lucerne and its lake are the stuff of myth. Green peaks seem to ripple into infinity from 2128m Mt Pilatus, where the restless ghost of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is said to roam. Reached by the world’s steepest cog railway, the mountain has walking trails commanding views as far as Germany’s Black Forest on cloudless days. Its rival in the beauty stakes is 1797m Mt Rigi, famous for its magical sunrises and sunsets.

Little Italy, Switzerland style

Lakes are a defining feature of the Swiss landscape, but they take on a very different quality in the southern Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where pines give way to palms. South of the fortified town ofBellinzona, topped by a trio of Unesco-listed medieval castles, mountains tumble down to the shores of lakes where the water is warm enough to swim. Baroque campaniles chime in waterfront towns and stylish cities with Italian flair: Locarno, Lugano and Ascona included.

Lago di Lugano looks sublime from the boats that ply the lake, but 1701m Monte Generoso gives a great overview from above. Reached by a rack-and-pinion railway, it affords a broad vista of the Alps and Apennines and is crowned by a Mario Botta-designed visitor centre resembling a giant stone flower. For more expansive views over the lakes and into the Alps, take a funicular above Lugano to Monte San Salvatore or Monte Brè.