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Category Archives: Travel

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.

7 Tips For Tackling Your First Bike Tour

Save the date and start planning

Deciding to go really is the hardest part. Setting the date (and having a rough idea of duration) helps concrete your trip, giving you a deadline to work towards. First-timers should head off during the warmer months and – unless you’re keen to channel Sir Ranulph Fiennes – pick an easy route for the first week or two. Training before your tour helps, but it’s not imperative – you’ll get fit on the road.

Buy the right kit

Invest in the essentials: a good free-standing tent, a decent touring bike, waterproof panniers (bike bags) and a cooking stove. Opt for a sturdy, steel-framed touring bike with steel front and rear racks to hold your panniers. Your bags should be hard-wearing as they’ll carry everything you need such as the tent, stove, sleeping bag and mat, electronics and clothing.

Every gram and inch counts. Opt for lightweight gear and use dry bags to compress your clothes. Resist the urge to overdo it and blow your budget on gear that might not last; real kit gems such as baby wipes, mosquito spray and chlorine tablets often cost virtually nothing.

Plan the right route for you

Wherever you’re planning to cycle, consider ditching main roads as they’re busy and often uninspiring. Countries such as the Netherlandsare renowned for their flat and bike-friendly trails, while thrill-seekers tend to make a beeline for the likes of Tajikistan and Patagonia.

Tap into regional resources and infrastructure such as Europe’s Eurovelo bike routes (eurovelo.org/routes) which offer excellent off-road rides. The USA’s Adventure Cycling Association (adventurecycling.org) and England’s Sustrans network (sustrans.org.uk) print terrific maps with alternative routes and amenity lists.

Avoid unnecessary detours

Once upon a time a wrinkled, dog-eared, hard-copy map was the ultimate bike tour companion. Now, it’s a reliable GPS or navigation app. Opt for a durable and multi-use GPS product designed with adventurers in mind.

Smartphones are also a fantastic option if you’re likely to have regular access to electricity and the internet. You can download maps that don’t just show you the best roads, but the best off-the-beaten-track routes for cycle touring. The Maps.me app is detailed, easy to use and now shows the route elevation on the bike option in most countries.

Create a budget and start saving

Bike tours can cost very little; if you’re willing to live on rice and porridge and wild-camp at every opportunity, then a budget of a few US dollars a day is achievable.

Visas, hotel stays and restaurant visits add up, but if you’re hoping for a happy medium (a lean food budget and plenty of low-cost or free accommodation with occasional splurges) then expect to spend about $15-$20 USD a day depending on the country. Factor in travel insurance and emergency money for bike repairs and kit replacements.

Set your own personal goals

World cyclist Jonathan Kambsgaro-Bennett says the question he gets asked most is how far he pedals in a day. His answer? ‘It depends on the hills, the wind, the road and about a million other things… Especially the wind.’

Setting daily distances can be tough but having a rough idea of what you want (and are able) to achieve will help you plot an itinerary. Many bike tourers average between 60km and 80km per day, depending on conditions, while those just starting out may aim for much less. Besides the weather and quality of the roads, your personal goals should also influence the decisions you make along the way – and will often push you to keep going.

Become a camping pro

Pitching a tent in the wild after a long day in the saddle can be stressful. Fortunately, fatigue often overrides fear – and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Some places welcome wild camping as long as you’re out of sight (Scotland, Iran, Japan) while others forbid it which makes a stealthy camp much tougher (Switzerland, Australia and the USA) – it’s worth being aware of the laws wherever you choose to cycle.

While a nice, secluded, flat piece of turf near a river is the goal, anything can make a fine camp spot and the key to overriding those initial fears is to keep well hidden and off private property, or to simply ask the landowners for permission to camp. Locals are often keen to help – and if you have their blessings, you’ll sleep like a baby. Check out world cyclist Tom Allen’s top tips on how to wild camp.

Explore Alexandria’s Civil War history

Indeed, this fascinating period in Alexandria’s history has been captured by the PBS drama Mercy Street (pbs.org/mercy-street), now in its second season (it airs at 8pm on Sunday nights). The story centers on two volunteer nurses – one a staunch Northern abolitionist, the other an entitled Southern belle – who duke out their philosophical beliefs. Making it even more poignant, the series is based on real-life events inspired by diaries, journals and letters of Alexandrians who experienced four years of war firsthand.

Today, many of the historical places featured in the series are open to visitors to Alexandria, with Mercy Street -related special events and exhibits mounted through the year as well as walking tours organized by Visit Alexandria. In the meantime, read on for our list of seven sites featured in this drama that TV and history buffs alike shouldn’t miss.

Carlyle House

Probably most famous for Major-General Edward Braddock’s 1755 visit during the French and Indian War, Carlyle House is an elegant colonial manse. The wealthy Green family, portrayed on Mercy Street, lived there in the mid-1800s and opened a luxury hotel on the property in 1848. When Union troops seized the hotel complex, they turned it into Mansion House Hospital.

The second floor interprets period hospital rooms, and you can read some of the patients’ letters and journals, as well as see Frank Stringfellow’s original field case. Stringfellow was a Confederate spy who went on to marry Southern belle Emma Green … what better cover than to hang out in a hospital?

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Glass bottles fill the shelves of this colonial-era apothecary shop, which George Washington knew quite well. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary remained open throughout Alexandria’s occupation during the Civil War, when the Green family of Carlyle House and the Union quartermaster stopped by for everything from liquid opium (laudanum) to dental equipment to window panes.

Head upstairs to see the shadowy, ancient compounding room where prescriptions were ground, mixed and concocted. A Mercy Street exhibit showcases Civil War–era prescriptions and remedies, and a 45-minuteMercy Street tour, offered on certain Sundays, provides additional insight.

The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection

This gracious brick hotel in the heart of town (then called the Marshall House) saw the first traces of war. On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, innkeeper James W. Jackson defiantly flew the Confederate flag from the building’s roof, proclaiming it would be removed only “over his dead body.” The moment Union troops arrived, they tore down the flag, shooting and bayoneting Jackson in the process.

Today, The Alexandrian is a beautifully restored historic hotel with a modern décor that gestures to the city’s Civil War past. Wallpaper designs draw inspiration from a Civil War-era dress pattern, and military seals and uniform buttons are represented in the hallway carpet patterns.

Alexandria Black History Museum

As a Union-controlled Southern city, Alexandria drew flocks of “contraband,” or fugitive slaves, seeking safe haven, though life still was not easy – as the storyline of Aurelia Johnson, who works at the hospital laundry, reveals in Mercy Street. Though African Americans in Union-occupied Alexandria had freedom, formerly enslaved people often lived in shantytowns, where disease was rampant and death was common. The Alexandria Black History Museum offers rotating exhibits about African Americans throughout the city’s history, with special exhibits and events providing the Mercy Street perspective.

Can’t-Miss Sights During SXSW

In spite of the changes, the festival remains firmly at the center ofAustin’s best characteristics: a hub of creativity and art, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and that ongoing title of ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’ Of course, it’s no secret that the festival has moved firmly into the mainstream. McDonald’s and Bud are current sponsors and former US president Barack Obama spoke at the opening keynote in 2016.

Like it or loathe it, the massive craziness that descends upon Austin for 10 days during March has all the makings of an unforgettable time. However, whether you’re there for SXSW or not, there’s plenty to see, do and eat within walking distance of Downtown Austin.

Don’t escape Austin during SXSW. Dive headlong into the frantic, fun shenanigans and embrace the good, the bad and the weird.

What to see and do

Beat the hangover with an invigorating run around the Lady Bird Lake, just south of the Austin Convention Center. If people watching is an added incentive, we’ve heard Matthew McConaughey and cycling hero-turned-persona non grata Lance Armstrong also come by for their workouts.

Another unique Austin sight is the swarm of hundreds of thousand Mexican free-tailed bats coming out from under the Congress Ave Bridge in the evening. This is the largest urban bat colony in North America and a fascinating sight to behold. Catch it from the bridge, along the banks of Lady Bird Lake or via a boat tour.

The offbeat O.Henry Museum (austintexas.gov/o-henry-museum) celebrates the life of the city’s famed short-story writer through memorabilia and knowledgeable guides. If you’re around in May, the annual O.Henry Pun Off draws a crowd with its punny comedians.

Where to eat

Austin has a great range of international food but its strengths lie firmly in two areas: BBQ and food trucks.

Round the corner from the Austin Convention Center (and a great place to hit up if you want to avoid overpriced SXSW food vendors) is Ironworks BBQ. It may not be the most famed of them all but the location can’t be beat. Pile up the ribs, grab a local microbrew and grab a seat on the outdoor deck.

The absolute best, though, has to be Franklin BBQ, a mile north of downtown Austin. Aaron Franklin, dubbed ‘BBQ Jesus’, has been selling out of beef brisket daily since 2009. The line starts as early as 8am (doors open at 11am) but once you chow down on the melt-in-your-mouth, smokey beef brisket, you’ll understand that the hype is real. Anthony Bourdain and Obama are just some of the celebrities who’ve sampled the wares here. Not convinced? Check out Franklin’s videos.

On the food truck front, you can’t go wrong starting your day off with breakfast at the Paperboy food truck just a mile northeast of downtown. The inventive breakfast menu revolves around seasonal produce: you might tuck into sweet potato hash or goat sausage brioche sandwich.

The long wait for soft, delicious tacos is worth it at the Veracruz All Natural food truck, a mile east of downtown. Grab a refreshing, fruity, icy agua fresca while you wait.

Where to drink

Hipster, ahem, we mean specialty coffee can be found all around Austin. We dig the Arnold Palmer (the mix of cold-brewed coffee and lemonade is a great thirst quencher) at Houndstooth Coffee and the laid-back warehouse vibes at Wright Bros. Brew & Brew. At the latter, you can easily move from espresso to IPA while tapping away on your Macbook.

A Local’s Guide to Dublin’s Biggest Festival

The parade

The St Patrick’s Festival Parade on Friday is the main event for many. Starting at noon in Parnell Sq, it heads through O’Connell St and Dame St, ending at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Half-a-million people are expected, so aim to be there for 10am if you want a place at the front. If you arrive later, head towards the end of the parade route for a better chance of a prime viewing spot.

The parade lasts two hours from start to finish, but if you stay in the one spot you’ll see it all in about 45 minutes. As well as music and marching bands from all over the world, there’ll be plenty of colourful floats, dancers and costumes.

The floats aren’t always as classically Irish as many visitors expect; instead they’re colourful, carnival-style creations designed by groups from all over the country. You’ll get plenty of time to take it all in as the parade stops at various points for the marchers to show off their beats and tail feathers. When the last float finally waves goodbye, the crowd melts away, with many heading for the nearest pub.

On Sunday, there’s a free afternoon of family-friendly fun in Merrion Sq from noon with workshops, magic shows, carnival performances and music.

Let’s dance

It’s not St Patrick’s weekend without plenty of music and you’ll find plenty of spots playing traditional Irish tunes or whatever other genre takes your fancy.

The festivities kick off on Thursday 16 March at 4.30pm with an official céilí (stpatricksfestival.ie) where you can learn Irish dancing from professional dancers accompanied by traditional songs. You could carry on with a full day of dance and music in the Complex (thecomplex.ie) on Friday from 2.30pm. Brought to you by the best trad pub in Dublin, the Cobblestone, it’s a full day of lessons and music with food and drink also available. You’ll be doing the jig in no time!

Hit the pubs

Despite (or because of) its reputation, most Dubliners prefer to stay away from Temple Bar on Paddy’s Day. It’s expensive compared to other areas of the city and can get overcrowded. However, the sea of leprechaun hats is a sight to behold so why not stroll through Essex St East and soak up the atmosphere before exploring some of the best barselsewhere in the city.

Here you won’t have to battle to make your way to the bar and you’ll see a lot more of Dublin. Alternatively head to nearby Dame Ln off George’s St, where you can stroll between pubs with a pint in hand, ready to mingle.

Most Dubs leave the city centre by 6pm to retire to quieter locals or go to gigs, leaving mainly visitors to carry on the boisterous overindulgence until the bars close at 3am and the crowd spills out on the streets.

Gaelic sports and a Sunday road race

To get a glimpse into the exciting world of Gaelic games, make a date to watch the All-Ireland Club Championship finals. The All-Ireland Club Championship finals are the season’s climax, and are held in Croke Park on Friday at 2pm. Here you’ll see the most dedicated amateur athletes in the world battle it out in the ancient games of hurling and Gaelic football to bring pride to their local town. Limerick’s Na Piarsaigh won their first title last year after dominating their Antrim opponents in the first half, but since the reigning champions have already been knocked out, this year is anyone’s game.

Tickets are on sale from late February (gaa.tickets.ie) but they sell out fast so if you miss out, get close to the action and supporters inMulligan’s.

If you’d prefer not to be a spectator, dust off the cobwebs and join the 5km kilometre road race kicking off at noon from St Stephen’s Green on Sunday. You can register on the day at Mansion House or online prior to the event (msbac.ie).

Moscow’s Park Life Guide

Gorky Park

Moscow’s park revolution started with the famous Gorky Park. It was the first of the city parks to receive private investment, turning it into the number-one weekend spot for thousands of Muscovites. Full of lush green, artsy flowerbeds and thought-provoking sculptures, it was also the first to feature drinking fountains, never before seen in the city.

There are very few things you can’t do in Gorky Park. Rollerblading, skateboarding and cycling, beach volleyball, yoga and fitness classes, electric cars and boat rentals, parkour – you name it. All summer long, dancing sessions are held in the evenings on the specially equipped embankment. There’s an open-air movie theatre called Pioner, pop-up screens for special events, music festivals and futuristic playgrounds. The cutting-edge Garage Museum of Contemporary Art hosts temporary exhibitions.

Food for every taste is offered in cafes and restaurants throughout the park, while carts sell Soviet-style ice cream, hot corn and cotton candy. An observatory allows the visitors to take their date to explore the night sky, a small artificial beach welcomes sunbathers in the warm months, while during winter half of the park turns into an open-air skating rink. But the best time for visiting is from late spring to early autumn – keep in mind that it might get crowded on the weekends!

Vorobyovy Gory

Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) is connected to Gorky Park by the Moscow river and its long embankment, meaning you can spend a relaxing day in the area walking both of the parks and enjoying what they have to offer. This nature reserve covers the hills below the grandMoscow State University; the observation deck on the top offers a beautiful view over half of the city. Not as well equipped as its neighbour, Vorobyovy Gory is a great retreat for those who want to enjoy some fresh air and listen to birdsong (there are bird-spotting routes throughout the park). You can do a little bit of hiking here, or try skating and cycling. When the snow covers the hills, the downhill skiing season starts, even though the main slope is neither high nor long.

VDNKh

The VDNKh (aka the All-Russia Exhibition Centre) wasn’t, in fact, a park when it was conceived in 1935. This vast area hosted the first all-Soviet exhibition, showcasing the country’s agricultural achievements in pavilions dedicated to each of the Soviet republics. Now it’s a favorite among museum-hoppers, families, active young people and picky shoppers. It’s also a marvel of Soviet architecture; you can spend days here and never see all of it.

The museums and shopping pavilions sell traditional Russian crafts, foods and even plants, while old-style vending machines have typical Soviet lemonades. The complex includes a zip-line, an oceanarium, a contact zoo, a bonsai greenhouse and a horse-riding rink. In summer, look out for water-gun battles and flashmobs; in winter, there’s a gigantic, 20,000-sq-m ice rink. Check the website for details and curious walking tours.

The Botanichesky sad (Botanical Garden; gbsad.ru) connects to the VDNKh, if you’re up for a really long walk. It doesn’t offer that many activities but there are a few great picnic spots by the water, a beautiful rose garden and a great variety of trees, bushes, flowers and other plants from all over the world.

Aptekarsky Ogorod

Moscow State University’s Aptekarsky Ogorod (Apothecaries’ Garden) isn’t exactly a park, but more of a large fenced garden that became really popular in the last couple of years thanks to its active social media (check out their Instagram account) featuring stunning pictures of rare plants. Apart from the main outdoor area, there are greenhouses that envelop you in tropical heat even in winter. Many kinds of orchids, carnivorous greens, water lilies and lotus flowers, succulents and herbs can be found here. The garden often holds seasonal exhibitions and offers a variety of classes and tours – or you can just come to meet the resident ‘flower cats’.

Izmaylovo

If you’d like to forget the city buzz for a while, Izmaylovo (izmailovsky-park.ru) is Moscow’s nearest recreational forest area. Apart from the large park smelling divinely of pine trees and fresh wood, there’s also a faux Kremlin in Izmaylovo – a colourful set of old-style buildings hosting the largest permanent Russian crafts market in the city. You can find anything your heart desires here: souvenirs, handmade and vintage items, including a whole flea market section with clothes, coins, manuscripts, WWII relics and more.

Sokolniki

Sokolniki took after Gorky Park and developed into a great outdoor retreat within the city limits. It covers a larger territory and makes you feel like you’re in a real forest, but with cycling paths and good infrastructure. It’s a family-oriented park offering lots of the same fun activities as the more central Gorky. Among the things that stand out are vibrant seasonal festivals, small amusement parks and an open-air swimming pool, while multiple ice-skating rinks, snow slides and an ice sculpture garden appear in winter.

Kolomenskoe Museum-Reserve

If the VDNKh is a Soviet-era museum, the Kolomenskoe Museum-Reserve will show you the lifestyle of Russians from hundreds of years ago. It’s a huge nature reserve with ancient churches (the Ascension Church was built in the 16th century), old estates (like Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich’s favourite residence or Peter the Great’s little wooden hut) and museums. The architectural ensemble of the park is a classic example of traditional Russian style, which you won’t often see in the city.

Where to go for Relaxtion in March

Enjoy a spring coastal break in San Diego, USA

‘America’s Finest City’ – or so the local claim boasts – is deceptively laid-back despite its size. And though summer is hotter and drier, March is still plenty warm, and also offers better value and shorter queues at its big attractions, of which there are many.

There are the beaches, of course: Mission has its wooden roller coaster, surfers head to Pacific Beach; Moonlight’s a family favourite; La Jolla’s the place for kayaking and snorkelling; hit Del Mar for peace and sweeping ocean views; and Coronado… well, it’s just beautiful. Balboa Park, with its museums and zoo, is uncrowded in March, while the bars and restaurants of the Gaslamp Quarter are as lively as ever. Go north towards Carlsbad to be dazzled by the ranunculus flowers at the Flower Fields, or to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to hike clifftop trails – watch for dolphins and migrating grey whales between December and March.

  • Trip plan: San Diego’s airport is absurdly (but conveniently) close to downtown – just a couple of miles from the Gaslamp Quarter, as the crow flies.
  • Need to know: Check dates for Spring Break, when school and college kids flood town.
  • Other months: Mar-May & Sep-Nov – warm weather, not too crowded; Jun-Aug – very hot; Dec-Feb – cool.

Wind among Australia’s wineries and beaches at grape-harvest time

Come March, the grape-pickers are busy plucking bunches from the vines – and it’s the perfect time to roam the rolling hills south ofAdelaide. While the Barossa, northeast of the state capital, gets the bulk of the wine tourists, the Fleurieu Peninsula offers a diverse menu of fine vineyards – some 70-plus cellar doors, dominated by hearty Shiraz vintages – plus artsy towns such as Willunga, kitsch Victor Harbour, and a gorgeous coastline, with sandy shores along Gulf St Vincent and surf breaks such as those at Middleton and Christies Beach.

  • Trip plan: You could base yourself in Adelaide and explore from there, but better to noodle south and spend the night in McLaren Vale or at one of the beaches, roaming the wineries by day.
  • Need to know: If you’re feeling active, the 750-mile (1200 km) Heysen Trail winds from Cape Jervis at the tip of the peninsula to the Flinders Ranges – tackle a short stretch to justify another gourmet dinner.
  • Other months: Sep-May – spring to autumn most pleasant; Jun-Aug – winter.

For bright Caribbean sunshine and cool breezes head to Antigua

Antigua has a beach for every day of the year – or so the legend goes. Whether or not there are 365 separate stretches of sand on the island, it’s true that you won’t want for a patch of soft, golden-tinted shoreline on which to lounge.

March sees a lull in tourist arrivals after the midwinter peak and before Easter, but the weather is still dry and hurricane-free. Antigua is a family-friendly paradise, too, with activities galore and a piratical air – venture to Nelson’s Dockyard or the atmospheric, 18th-century Fort James for a bit of maritime history, snorkel the colourful reefs or try a bit of bodysurfing.

  • Trip plan: International flights serve VC Bird Airport in Antigua’s north, near the capital, St John’s; the other significant centre is around the dual coves and historic sites of Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour in the south. But with its compact 13-mile (21 km) length and beaches all around the island, it’s easy to access all parts of the island.
  • Need to know: March is towards the end of the mating season for frigate birds – look for the throat sacs of courting males at Codrington on neighbouring Barbuda, one of the world’s largest breeding colonies.
  • Other months: Dec-Apr – driest; May-Jun – hot; Jul-Nov – showers; Jul – Carnival.

Visit Sri Lanka for chilling, culture, cetaceans and carnivores in the dry season

Sri Lanka is complicated – not least the weather: much of it gets hit by monsoons around May and October, while the north and east get soaked November and December. Come in March, when weather’s good all over, wildlife at parks such as Yala and Uda Walawe – home to leopards, elephants, monkeys and more – comes out to drink at waterholes, blue and sperm whales cruise the coast, and hiking Adam’s Peak is most pleasant.

Hit the beaches of the west for gorgeous sweeps of sand, and the south for peace and surf, but be sure to explore inland – sacred city Kandy, with its Buddha tooth relic; the ‘Lion Rock’ topped with an ancient palace at Sigiriya; and the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the ‘Cultural Triangle’. Make time to sample the glorious food, a blend of South Indian, Arab, Malay and Portuguese flavours.

  • Trip plan: Fly to capital Colombo and head south to the beaches around Galle for a few days’ relaxation, then hire a car and driver or catch trains and local buses east to the wildlife reserves then north to the cultural attractions of the centre.
  • Need to know: Visitors require a visa; obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) online at eta.gov.lk/slvisa.
  • Other months: Jan-Mar & Jul-Aug – dry most places; Dec-mid-Jan – busiest; Apr-Jun & Sep-Nov – wet in southwest and centre.