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Monthly Archives: December 2016

The best European city

1. Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavík is the ultimate city-and-nature destination. This diminutive capital brims with Nordic-chic boutiques and cool hotels, yet lies just a few hours’ drive from the country’s most earth-shatteringly gorgeous landscapes.

Catch a ferry out to the islands of Viðey, Lundey or Akurey to see thousands of breeding puffins; hike up the “city mountain” Mount Esja; and explore still-active Eyjafjallajökull volcano, just 90 minutes outside of town.

You can also use Reykjavík as your base before embarking on the famous “Golden Circle“. This route encompasses the geysers at Geysir and roaring waterfalls at Gullfoss, with bathing opportunities in thermal pools such as Fluðir or Laugarvatn along the way.

2. Munich, Germany

You’ll find some of Germany’s most beautiful architecture in Munich, Bavaria’s historic capital. Start by exploring the fifteenth-century Gothic Frauenkirche, or climb the tower of St Peterskirche, the oldest church in the city, for unparalleled views over the rooftops.

Other worthwhile sights include the Pinakothek trio, three galleries each dedicated to a different era of art, the futuristic BMW museum and Schloss Nymphenburg on the outskirts of the city.

Munich’s green heart is the Englischer Garten, one of Europe’s largest urban parks, designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1789. If you’re looking to explore further afield, hire a bike and spend a day cycling south along the river Isar, detouring to the lakes of Sternbergersee or Ammersee for a spot of swimming.

3. Oslo, Norway

Oslo might be Norway’s largest city, but its ever-present waterfront – opening out ontoOslofjord – will lure you away from the centre in no time at all.

The best way to explore this island-studded channel is on a kayak tour, taking you close to lighthouses, nesting birds and small beaches from which you can swim or picnic before paddling back to the marina.

Off the water, make time for Oslo’s world-class restaurants – Maaemo has three Michelin stars – and some excellent museums, including the fascinating Nobel Center and National Museum, home of Edvard Munch’s Scream.

4. Århus, Denmark

As European Capital of Culture in 2017, Århus brims with contemporary art and architecture. ARoS is the city’s best-known art museum, featuring Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s circular 150-metre walkway lined by multicoloured windows, entitledYour Rainbow Panorama.

Head down to Åarhus Ø (Aarhus East), the recently redeveloped harbour area, to wander among landscaped gardens, stop at the canalside coffee shops and admire the striking architecture of the new public library, DOKK1. Open-water swimming fans can even take a dip in the icy bay; a dedicated channel is cordoned off from harbour traffic.

5. Barcelona, Spain

Home to some of Gaudí’s finest architecture, one of the world’s best city beaches and the country’s top cava bars, Barcelona offers many well-chronicled urban delights. Less well known are the city’s green spaces.

Head north from the centre and in less than 45 minutes you’ll find yourself in the Serra de Collserola. The city’s “green lung” rises above the urban sprawl, offering long vistas out to sea from among the pinewoods. The park is easily navigated on foot, but for a more exhilarating experience saddle up to see it on horseback, or spend a night under the glittering skies on an astronomy tour.

6. Helsinki, Finland

With architectural styles running the gamut from neoclassical grandeur to contemporary modern minimalism, Helsinki is a fascinating place to explore on foot.

This year, the city also celebrates one hundred years of independence. Visit the Helsinki Art Museum to mark the occasion, where a major exhibition on Finnish modernism covers national contributions to the world of art, architecture, design and photography.

Summer is one of the best times to visit, particularly if you plan to visit Nuuksio National Park, just 40 minutes away. Rock climb at Kolmoislammit and Romvuori; hike one of the many trails, keeping an eye out for nightjars, woodlarks and flying squirrels; and spot waterbirds from the Lake Matalajärvi observation tower.

7. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Thanks to a large student population, there’s lots going on in Ljubljana. Check out alternative Metelkova for artists’ studios, galleries, installations and sculpture, or visit in early February for MENT, a music and culture festival that’s Slovenia’s answer to SXSW.

The rest of Ljubljana is compact and easily explored foot. The city was crowned Europe’s Green Capital in 2016, and is encircled by the 35km Path of Remembrance and Comradeship, built for walkers and runners. It’s even possible to cross-country ski several sections on snowy winter days.

For adventure sports, a half-hour bus ride from the city centre takes you to the village of Tacen where there are adrenalin-inducing options aplenty, including whitewater rafting. Head an hour northwest and you’ll reach Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj and Triglav National Park, popular for watersports and hiking.

7 Most Beautiful Places in Alaska

1. Denali National Park and Preserve

Encompassing six million acres of pure Alaskan interior wilderness topped by North America’s highest peak (Denali, 6910m), this national park is Alaska’s ultimate showstopper. Bisected by one solitary ribbon of road, this pristine ecosystem plays home to a menagerie of wildlife – from wolves to bears, caribou to Dall sheep – which is often easily spotted on a bus ride through the park, or on a ranger-led programme.

2. Glacier Bay National Park

Alaska is famed for its Inside Passage cruises, and for many visitors passing through this UNESCO-listed national park en route is the highlight of their trip. Here, you can watch in awe from a boat (or kayak) as the majestic Margerie Glacier calves hundred-tonne icebergs into the tidewater while orcas, sea lions, seals and other marine animals frolic in the crystal clear waters surrounding it. Bring your binoculars to spot bears on the shore, and mountain goats on the cliffs above.

3. The Alaska Highway

Stretching 1387 miles from Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, all the way to Dawson Creek in British Colombia, Canada, the Alaska Highway (also known as the ALCAN) is considered one of the world’s top scenic drives. Constructed during World War II, this well-maintained road winds through some truly spectacular terrain, offering excellent wildlife viewing and countless other photo opportunities along the way.

4. Katmai National Park and Preserve

If you’ve seen one of those photographs of a brown (grizzly) bear perched on the edge of a waterfall snagging salmon in mid-air, there’s a good chance it was taken in Katmai National Park. Brooks Falls, to be exact – Alaska’s most famous bear viewing area. Unconnected to any town by road, the park – also famed for its fishing, hiking, rafting and kayaking possibilities – is most commonly accessed by floatplane. This grizzly has caught a starry flounder.

5. The Arctic Coast

Alaska is known as the Last Frontier, and nowhere does this seem more fitting than on its Arctic Coast. Here, along this starkly beautiful stretch of rugged tundra, Alaska Native communities live side-by-side with one of the world’s greatest predators: the polar bear. The Inupiaq village of Kaktovik, located on Barter Island just off the mainland, is one of the best places to spot these vulnerable mammals, which congregate here in large numbers in the summer while they wait for the Beaufort Sea to freeze.

6. Ketchikan

It’s known as the salmon capital of the world, but Alaska’s southernmost city is also an attraction in itself. Backed by the lush, forested slopes of Deer Mountain and facing the buzzing Tongass Narrows waterway, picturesque Ketchikan hugs the shoreline of Revillagigedo Island for 30 miles, with many businesses located in pastel-hued overwater bungalows accessed via suspended walkways. Native Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian arts are visible everywhere throughout the city – from museums to totem parks – adding to its cultural appeal.

7. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge

Its lush, green hills and mountaintop vistas that give Kodiak its ‘Emerald Isle’ nickname are pretty enough, but the island’s key draw is a brown bear subspecies that lives nowhere else. Spanning parts of Kodiak, Uganik, Ban and Afognak islands, the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge offers unparalleled wildlife-watching opportunities (from Kodiak brown bears to puffins, red foxes to sea lions) on top of some of the best salmon fishing in the state.

5 of The World’s Weirdest Christmas Traditions

1. The Swedes burn a giant goat

Every year on the first Sunday of advent, the good people of Gävle, Sweden erect a huge straw goat on the town’s main square. It stands there proudly for a while, bringing a bit of cheer to the chilly winter days. And then, more often than not, arsonists burn it to the ground.

Julbocken (the Christmas goat) has gone up in flames almost every year since 1966, when it was first installed, and is now famous right across the country, with Swedes following the news closely to see if it can make it through Christmas in one piece.

The authorities have tried all sorts of tricks to deter people from burning the goat, from installing CCTV cameras to impregnating the straw with a fire retardant material. They had a brief taste of success in 2015, when the goat survived right up until Christmas Eve – only to be burnt down two days later.

2. The Japanese eat KFC

Like it or not, marketing campaigns have shaped the way we celebrate Christmas. The classic image of Santa Claus as a plump old man, for example, is at least partly down to Coca-Cola’s ads in the 1930s.

And across the world, advertising continues to change how people celebrate Christmas. InJapan – a country with few Christians and no long-held tradition of celebrating Christmas – marketing gurus have managed to convince people that eating KFC is a perfectly normal way to ring in the festive season.

It all began back in the 1970s, when foreign tourists visiting Japan started eating KFC chicken as an alternative to the traditional Christmas turkey. With a bit of help from adverts, the same trend soon took off among locals.

Today, reports say, sales at the Colonel’s restaurants are five times higher during Christmas than at other times of the year, with many customers ordering their fried chicken months in advance.

3. The Spanish make models of people pooing

Forget everything you remember from your early days at school: in Catalunya, Spain, the traditional nativity scenes come with a more colourful twist.

Each year in the weeks leading up to Christmas, nativity scenes are livened up by the appearance of el caganer” (the crapper). These ceramic models, which traditionally depict a Catalan peasant dropping a hefty Yule log onto the floor, have been a part of local Christmas celebrations for centuries.

In more recent times, countless celebrity caganers have left their mark on otherwise holy scenes; Lady Gaga, Donald Trump and even the Queen of England have all been immortalised with their pants down.

No one’s really sure where this odd tradition comes from, but it’s thought it may have something to do with “fertilising” the nativity scene, which helps to ensure it will return year after year.

4. Norwegians hide their brooms

There’s a time and a place for cleaning, and Christmas ain’t it. No wonder, then, that Norwegians have traditionally hidden their brooms out of sight on Christmas Eve.

Despite appearances, these Norwegians aren’t just trying to get out of clearing up. They simply believe an old legend which says that if their brooms are left out overnight, nasty witches will steal them, then ride off and wreak havoc throughout the Christmas season.

5. Iceland get the ‘Yule Lads’ round

Santa Claus is cool and everything, but wouldn’t it be better if there were a few more gift givers to brighten the Christmas season? Well in Iceland, there are – but it’s important to know that not all of them are as friendly as Mr Claus.

Kids who grow up in Iceland can expect visits from 13 separate ‘Yule Lads’ in the days before Christmas, who leave nice gifts or cold potatoes, depending on the child’s behaviour – in a shoe at the end of their beds.

As the offspring of a cruel giant who likes eating stew made from naughty children, not all of the Yule Lads are especially friendly.

Even their names – which include Doorway Sniffer, Bowl Licker, Window Peeper and Sausage Swiper – are enough to make you think twice about misbehaving before Christmas.

The Truth About Elephant Tourism in Asia

The crushing truth

We love elephants, perhaps because they’re a lot like us – intelligent, sociable and emotional, as anyone who has read about the way that herds protect their young and mourn their dead will recognize.

Paradoxically, it’s the reverence and affection travellers feel for these majestic animals that leads to the enduring success of many elephant attractions, and the abuses they perpetuate.

The idea of “domesticated” elephants working in harmony with their human handlers (mahouts) may sound idyllic, but the reality is anything but. Young elephants, whether born wild or in captivity, have to be made fit for human use through a process sometimes describes as “elephant crushing”, involving the systematic breaking of the elephant’s mind, body and spirit.

Babies are taken from their mothers (traumatic enough in itself for both child and parent), after which their “training” may include being confined in tiny pens, systematically beaten with bullhooks or nail-studded sticks, starved, deprived of sleep. Once these hugely powerful animals have been terrified into doing their owner’s bidding, they are considered safe to interact with tourists.

Taking them for a ride

The only way to travel on the back of an elephant humanely is to ride it bareback, sitting on its neck, as Asian mahouts traditionally do. Putting a heavy and unwieldy howdah(elephant seat) on an animal’s back is uncomfortable in itself, even before you’ve loaded it up with tourists.

“Elephants are supremely strong creatures, but they are not indestructible.”

Howdahs also need to be secured using ropes around the elephant’s stomach and tail, which can cause open sores, abscesses and other lasting physical damage including spinal injuries and deformities.

Elephants are supremely strong creatures, but they are not indestructible. An adult elephant can carry around 150kg for limited period, although many elephants carry far heavier loads including mahout, howdah and as many as four adults for rides lasting an hour or longer.

Long treks in extreme heat can also lead to dehydration and exhaustion, while many elephants used for riding also wear chains around their feet, which further adds to their discomfort.

The stress is bad enough for a fully-grown elephant – adults have been known to simply collapse and die beneath their burdens – but baby elephants as young as four have been seen carrying tourists.

Tricks of the trade

Elephants are amongst the most intelligent creatures on the planet and can be taught to do all sorts of things – to play football, spin hoops, ride tricycles, stand on their heads or even paint pictures.

Don’t be misled into thinking this is a natural expression of their playfulness or creativity when in fact they’re simply party tricks they have been forced to learn at the end of a bullhook, or suffer the consequences.

Do elephants paint or perform headstands in the wild? Exactly.

Elephants (particularly baby elephants) are also often used as cute begging props in tourist towns and on beaches, although they’re no better off. Being fed pieces of sugarcane and pineapple by foreign visitors doesn’t replace a natural diet of grass and leaves and ready access to fresh water.

Exhaust fumes, hot concrete, collisions with traffic and the constant stress of being in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by crowds of people and loud music (not to mention the sedatives they may have been dosed with) leads to a fifty percent reduction in life expectancy, while baby elephants used for begging are often dead by the age of five.

Human and economic realities

In an ideal world, all captive elephants would be released back into the wild and no one would ever ride one again. Sadly, this is never going to happen. In many countries there’s simply nowhere to release them to, while some captive elephants would not be equipped to survive in the wild.

The alternatives to elephant tourism are often worse than the cure. Elephants not used in tourism might end up being used for illegal logging, and suffer a fate far worse than carrying a few tourists, away from the public eye or any kind of veterinary help (as well as being regularly dosed with amphetamines in order to make them work harder).

Returning elephants to the wild would also put many at serious risk of poaching.