Category Archives: Travel
Stromboli, Aeolian Islands
Start/End: Stromboli town | Length: 8km | Duration: five to six hours | Difficulty: moderate-demanding
For sheer excitement, nothing compares to Stromboli. Sicily’s showiest volcanic island has been lighting up the Mediterranean for millennia, spewing out showers of red-hot rock with remarkable regularity since the age of Odysseus.
Set off a couple of hours before sunset for the spectacularly scenic trek (guide required) to Stromboli’s 924m summit. Climbing through a landscape of yellow broom and wild capers, the trail eventually opens onto bare slopes of black volcanic rock, revealing fabulous vistas of Stromboli town, the sparkling sea and the volcanic islet of Strombolicchio below, and a zigzag line of fellow hikers slogging steadily towards the summit above.
Round the last bend and emerge into a surreal panorama of smouldering craters framed by the setting sun. For the next hour you’re treated to full-on views of Stromboli’s pyrotechnics from a perfect vantage point above the craters. The periodic eruptions grow ever brighter against the darkening sky, changing with the waning light from awe-inspiring puffs of grey smoke to fountains of brilliant orange-red, evoking oohs and aahs that mix with the sound of sizzling hot rocks rolling down the mountainside.
Ready for one last moment of magic? Don your headlamp for the descent and begin plunging down Stromboli’s precipitous eastern slope, with the moonlit sea at your feet stretching clear to the twinkling lights of Italy’s mainland.
Fossa delle Felci, Salina, Aeolian Islands
Start/End: Valdichiesa | Length: 4km | Duration: three hours |Difficulty: moderate-demanding
The ancient Greeks dubbed this island Didyme (the twins) for its verdant pair of dormant volcanoes. These days Salina remains theAeolian Islands’ greenest island, dotted with wineries that produce the region’s renowned Malvasia wine. For sweeping views of the vineyards and the surrounding seascape, climb Salina’s highest peak, Fossa delle Felci (962m).
Starting in Valdichiesa, the trail switchbacks steeply up the mountainside, climbing through fern-carpeted evergreen forest to the summit. Up top you’re rewarded with jaw-dropping views of Salina’s shapely second cone, 860m Monte Porri, backed by the distant volcanic islands of Filicudi and Alicudi.
Pianoconte to Quattropani, Lipari, Aeolian Islands
Start: Pianoconte | End: Quattropani | Length: 8km | Duration: four hours | Difficulty: moderate-demanding
Fabled since ancient times for its rich obsidian deposits, Lipari also boasts some of the Aeolians’ most stupendous coastal scenery. This classic hike starts in the highlands around Pianoconte, descending past the ancient Roman baths of San Calogero to reach the cliffs and sea caves of Lipari’s western shoreline.
After levelling out along a series of coastal bluffs – with tantalising perspectives on the neighbouring islands of Salina, Vulcano, Filicudi and Alicudi – the trail climbs steeply inland again to the town of Quattropani, revealing yet more dramatic vistas of flower-covered slopes cascading to the cobalt sea below.
Vulcano, Aeolian Islands
Start/End: Vulcano port | Length: 4km | Duration: two to three hours (return) | Difficulty: moderate
Volcano hikes don’t get much more satisfying than the gradual climb upFossa di Vulcano (391m), the smouldering grayish-orange peak that dominates the island of Vulcano. Belching out a steady stream of noxious sulphurous fumes, the crater – mythologized by the ancient Romans as Vulcan’s forge – is only a 45-minute jaunt up from Vulcano’s port via a wide, signposted path.
Once up top, circumnavigate the rim for spectacular views of the cavernous crater in the foreground, with the Mediterranean, the cliffs of Lipari, and the distant silhouettes of the remaining five Aeolian Islands aligned symmetrically on the horizon.
Start/End: Chiesa di San Antonio | Length: 3km | Duration: one hour | Difficulty: easy-moderate
You couldn’t ask for a more scenic hike than this easy loop around the hook-shaped Capo Milazzo peninsula north of Milazzo. The trail initially passes through a level landscape of olive groves, cactus and stone walls before beginning a steady descent towards the surging sea.
The views get truly dreamy near the peninsula’s northern tip, where you’ll find the Piscina di Venere, an idyllic rock-fringed natural pool that’s perfect for a swim. Loop back along the peninsula’s western shore, stopping en route to visit the cactus-covered ruins of the 13th-centurySantuario Rupestre di San Antonio.
Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro
Start/End: Scopello | Length: 14km | Duration: five hours |Difficulty: moderate
Spanning a sinuous series of coves and steep headlands one hour west of Palermo, the Zingaro was established as Sicily’s first nature reserve in 1986, after local protests cancelled construction of a controversial highway that would have bisected this spectacular shoreline. The result: one of Sicily’s best walking locales, with the would-be highway converted into a 7km trail snaking between bluffs and beaches.
Some 40 bird species (including rare Bonelli eagles) and 700 species of flora can be found here, along with several small museums that celebrate the area’s traditional farming and tuna fishing economy. The trail is most easily hiked as a simple out-and-back from the park’s southern entrance near the pretty hamlet of Scopello.
Order unpronounceable ales at Skúli
Snorri, Úlfur, Garún, Þorlákur: the strong Icelandic names and high alcohol content of the draft beers at Skúli are guaranteed to get your tongue rolling. This is one of Reykjavík’s finest craft bars, and the selection includes over 100 quality brews from around the globe, including some non-alcoholic craft beers. A flight sample from the award-winning Borg brewery is a great way to enjoy Skúli, particularly with commentary from the owner and bartender Stefán.
It’s a far cry from the days before prohibition, when bjórlíki was the only ‘beer’ on offer in Iceland. It contained non-alcoholic pilsner mixed with aquavit – in a very variable ratio. Because, for reasons that may be hard to grasp today, liquor was completely legal while beer wasn’t.
Party with the in-crowd at Kex
This lively spot inside the popular Kex Hostel attracts locals and tourists in equal numbers. Offically known as Sæmundur Gastro Pub,Kex is a former biscuit factory renovated into an interior design gem, mixing mid-century furniture with modern elements. The best seats are by the large windows, with a view of Mount Esja across the Faxi Bay. Live performances feature a great sample of Reykjavík’s indie and jazz scenes.
Flee to the tropics at Pablo Discobar
In what is the world’s northernmost capital, Pablo Discobar offers an escape from darkness and disappointing weather for the price of a cocktail. Neon-bright and nostalgic, this new downtown bar has emerged as Reykjavík’s top place for exotic drinks; at the time of writing their most popular offering was the Cocoa Puffs cocktail.
Do whatever you want, man, at Prikið
Prikið is the ultimate hipster dive bar. But, even if you forgot to pack a Pac-Man T-shirt and a denim shirt, it’s still a very friendly place, and the saloon-style decor, unchanged since 1951, signals its status as a long-loved downtown establishment. A beer is only 600Kr during the 4-8pm happy hour from Monday to Friday, while over the weekend the bar is bustling until 4.30am. After a big night out, the brunch menu claims to cure hangovers with drinks such as the Bruce Willis milkshake.
Find the hidden bar at Bíó Paradís
A short walk from Sæmundur is the Bíó Paradís independent cinema. While not the most obvious place to visit for a drink, the attached bar has cozy seats and competitively priced Einstök ales, house wine and popcorn. During summer, the cinema often screens the cult classic 101 Reykjavík, in which the anti-hero frequents the famous nearby Kaffibarinn.
Play the piano at Kaldi
While named after the Icelandic word for cold – the preferred temperature of beer – the Kaldi bar is nothing but warm in atmosphere. With guests stretched out on the divan or standing by the piano, the place can fill up early in the evening. The draft beer comes from amicrobrewery of the same name located in Árskógssandur, a village of 100 people in North Iceland, and the authentic seasonal brew is often worth a try.
Visit the harbour at Bryggjan Brugghús
This up-and-coming microbrewery attracts large crowds to its spacious pub next to the Víkin Maritime Museum. The bartenders pump beers directly from the brewery tanks and the wall-length wine cupboard is ambitious, too. The place is a good fit for groups and keen visitors might enjoy the 90-minute tour on ‘all things beer related’.
Listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), polar bears face an uncertain future. But there is hope. In September 2015, the five states whose territories cover this spectacular animal’s range – Canada, Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the US – signed the Circumpolar Action Plan, a 10-year global conservation strategy to secure the long-term survival of polar bears, which number between 22,000 and 31,000 in the wild according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). While it’s too soon to measure its success, this joint commitment nonetheless offers some reassurance that these nations are dedicated to the species’ preservation.
Most people who have been lucky enough to eyeball a wild polar bear would agree it’s one of the most thrilling wildlife-viewing experiences on Earth. Still a relatively young industry, polar bear tourism is not without its challenges. An increase in human-polar bear contact in Norway, for example, has resulted in more bears being shot.
It can also be argued that the carbon emissions generated by tourists travelling to the Arctic to spot bears is counterproductive to the marine mammals’ survival. On the other hand, well-managed polar bear tourism is credited with inspiring visitors to see the necessity of safeguarding their fragile environment. If it’s a trip you dream of taking one day, read on for the best places to ogle these majestic beasts in their Arctic playground.
Canada: Churchill, Manitoba
They don’t call Churchill the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ for nothing. Every autumn, hundreds of polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay near the town of Churchill to wait for the sea ice to refreeze so they can return to hunting seals. The world’s most accessible (and cheapest) polar bear viewing destination, Churchill has a well-established tourism industry. Tours are typically conducted in custom-made tundra buggies with indoor/outdoor viewing areas. These vehicles can get close to the bears without jeopardising human or bear safety, though the elevation of the viewing platforms can present challenges for photographers.
When to go: October and November is peak viewing season in Churchill, but some operators offer packages at their remote lodges in March, when mother bears emerge from their dens with their cubs. Bear watching is combined with beluga whale watching in July and August.
United States: Kaktovik, Alaska
While polar bear populations in the Bering Sea are thought to be decreasing, bears have become such a common fixture on Alaska’s Arctic coast in summer that a tourism industry has developed around their presence in two Inupiat Eskimo villages: Barrow and Kaktovik. Located on Barter Island, just off the coast, Kaktovik is the best place to spot them – lured by the opportunity to feast on the carcasses of bowhead whales that the community are permitted to harvest, polar bears can be spotted by the dozen hanging out on the sand islands that fringe the town. Visitors arrive via small plane from Fairbanks for three- to four-hour viewing tours conducted in small boats equipped for six guests.
When to go: Boat tours run from mid-August until late September/early October.
Norway: Spitsbergen, Svalbard
Halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbardarchipelago harbours a rich array of wildlife among its stunning glaciers and dramatic fjords – including several thousand polar bears. Viewing tours take two forms: in winter, full-day snowmobile tours depart the capital Longyearbyen, on the main island of Spitsbergen, for polar bear territory in the island’s east, where bears can (sometimes) be viewed from a distance. It’s a long, cold day out, but it’s cheaper than summertime expedition cruises that ply the west and north coasts of Spitsbergen. Cruises, however, offer much higher chances of seeing bears.
When to go: February to May for snowmobiling tours; June to August for expedition cruises.
Fin McCarthy – Global News Editor
Wants to visit: Musées Yves Saint Laurent Paris and Marrakesh, France and Morocco
Two museums dedicated to the iconic French designer are opening in Paris and Marrakesh.
When a trip involves Marrakesh or Paris, two of my favourite cities, I’m always excited. But add Yves St Laurent to the mix – the man who introduced ‘le tuxedo’ for women and whose influence on the catwalk today is still undeniable – and I’m storming the departure gates. This year two new museums are opening, celebrating the designer’s incredible legacy. His former Paris atelier, which is being refurbished to its former glory, allows visitors the opportunity to get a sense of his work process, while also immersing themselves in the city of haute couture. Or take a trip to Morocco to drink in the electric blue of the designer’s Jardin Majorelle, which he bequeathed to Marrakesh, and where the new museum will display his work. But why not make both pilgrimages? I know I will.
Alex Butler – Global News Reporter
Wants to visit: New Holland Island, St Petersburg
The historic island has been transformed into a vibrant public space.
So much of St Petersburg’s allure lies in its wealth of history. But for me,New Holland Island, with its focus on public space and the arts, is a perfect addition to Russia’s cultural capital. The project seems poised to bring a burst of modernity to the historic city, providing a place for locals and travellers to go skating, visit food carts or even see a concert – the perfect way to kick back after a long visit to the Hermitage. Strolling onto the formerly restricted naval island will not only provide an interesting insight into the city’s past, but also a glimpse of its future.
James Martin – Global News Reporter
Wants to visit: Prince’s Paisley Park
An incredibly intimate look at the life and work of Prince.
As I’m a devoted follower of Prince’s music, the opening of hisMinnesota estate Paisley Park is one of the most exciting new developments in travel for 2017. Fans of the iconic performer will no doubt be aware of the unique spirit and impressive output of His Royal Purpleness, who used the 65,000 square-foot complex as his creative sanctuary. From recording a string of hit records and feature films to the manufacturing of clothing for upcoming tours, everything was done on site either personally or under the watchful eye of the industrious perfectionist. Following his death, Paisley Park has grown to represent sheer creativity and artistic opportunity. The idea of getting a first-hand look at the inner sanctum of one of music’s most enigmatic characters will no doubt excite and inspire many travellers and music fans alike.
AnneMarie McCarthy – Social News Coordinator
Wants to visit: Art 42, Paris
An eclectic collection of art salvaged from the streets and created especially for the space.
I know the idea of street art being displayed in a museum seems contradictory and, on many levels, it is. Yes, the joy of street art lies in the serendipitous discovery, but the museum’s careful curation reflects this feeling of surprise. While there is a beauty in the temporary, fleeting nature of the pieces, bad weather, officials or taggers soon make their unwelcome mark on it. Many of these artworks have been taken from the streets with the aim of preserving them, while some have been created specifically for the museum. They brighten up the space of this non-profit school where students pay no tuition and, most importantly, remain free to see to anyone with an interest in one of the world’s most exciting art forms.
Megan Eaves – Destination Editor for North Asia
Wants to visit: Shanghai Tower
The world’s second tallest building and the highest observation deck on earth.
There is nothing quite like seeing Shanghai from above, and the city keeps on giving with towers that soar higher and higher. Shanghai Tower takes this to the next level – being able to look down on the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Center will be a breathtaking moment. Even from Shanghai’s smaller skyscrapers, there is something peaceful about seeing the Pudong River like a tiny slip of water winding its way through a forest of apartment blocks and high rises. And from the Tower’s observation deck on the 118th floor (the world’s highest!), they will appear like a million tiny pins. For a moment, the chaos of the world, and Shanghai’s frenetic pace, will seem like another planet.
Next time you’re stuffing a pair of impractical shoes and a bumper-size shampoo into your bag, stop to consider the feelings of future you: the one sporting a sweaty back patch and a face riddled with regret. The ‘I’ll manage’ attitude dissipates in a flurry of expletives as you drag your luggage up a broken escalator, straining your bicep and stubbing a toe in the process. Worth it? Not so much.
Stick to it: Downsize: restricting suitcase volume soon hinders overpackers. Prioritise: it’s OK to take three paperbacks if you’re willing to forgo the laptop. Enlist a ruthless packing buddy who won’t give in to the words ‘but I neeeeeed it!’.
Take better pictures
Sick of returning home from a trip with thousands of hastily snapped images that you’ll never have the time to sift through and edit, let alone share? Whether you’re shooting for social media, an online portfolio or the family album, investing a little time and effort can take your creations from amateur to incredible.
Stick to it: Read up on how to take a decent smartphone snap; enrol on a photography course; join a photographer’s meetup while you’re on the road; or take a tour that combines travel and tuition.
Stop putting it off
Family, finances, your career… even fear. There are plenty of factors that prevent people from travelling – but when valid reasons become comfortable alternatives to taking a risk, it’s time for a reality check. You have one life on this planet. Stop making excuses and start making plans.
Stick to it: Whether you long for a round-the-world extravaganza or simply a weekend away, it’s not going to land on your lap. Identify your true barriers to travel and tackle them head on. Strapped for cash? Start saving. Option paralysis? Consult the experts. Worried what your boss will think? Propose a trip that will boost your résumé.
Learn to unplug
See it, share it. Try it, tweet it. The impulse to reach for your smartphone can be near impossible to resist, even on the road – but just as technology seems to have rewired our brains to crave constant connection, travel can be the ultimate antidote.
Stick to it: Can’t go cold turkey? Minimise distractions by deleting email apps and disabling social media notifications. Rediscover the joy of writing postcards. Keep a travel journal. Go for a walk without the safety net of Google Maps… and see where you end up.
As global tourist numbers continue to increase (1.2 billion international arrivals recorded in 2015 and counting, according to the UN), understanding the impact our travel choices have on the planet has never been more important. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to go green.
Stick to it: You know the drill: steer clear of plastic bottles; take public and overland transport where possible; choose ethical tour operators who respect wildlife and give back to local communities; reduce or offset your carbon emissions (calculate your footprint atcarbonindependent.org).
Use your time off wisely
It’s easy to fritter away precious paid leave on family events and close-to-home happenings, leaving little time for escapism. But this makes it tough to return to work feeling refreshed – and worse still, you’re no closer to seeing the world than you were last year.
Stick to it: Make no mistake: you earned your days off, so take them – every last one. Plan in advance; if you prefer regular short trips, get them booked in early. Capitalise on national holidays, adding a day or two either side for extra-long breaks. Alternatively, have that chat with your manager about using your leave in bulk for that three-week trip toSoutheast Asia…
Engage with the locals
The dream: gaining true insight into ‘real’ local culture. The reality: befriending an international crew of fellow travellers on Facebook and coming home with an ‘authentic’ souvenir made in China.
Stick to it: Let’s face it: it can take years to unravel the complexities of foreign cultures. But there are ways to increase your chances of having a meaningful encounter. Brush up on your language skills; you’d be surprised how far ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can take you. With the sharing economy showing no signs of slowing down, it’s easier than ever to find homestays, cooking classes and local tour guides.
The Hobbiton set is the country’s best-known attraction today with close to half a million visitors a year, but there is of course a wealth of film locations far beyond ‘the Shire’. You can always discover New Zealand’s dramatic film locations (over 150 were used during filming) for yourself, starting with this handy guide, or you can head to this remote country on a tour.
We’ve rounded up a few of the many operators running Tolkien tours of New Zealand in 2017, each for a different type of travellers. One thing they all seem to have in common is the desire to meld real life with fantasy worlds while exploring one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
Be a Middle-earth explorer
You can follow in the footsteps of Frodo and Bilbo with Round the World Experts (roundtheworldexperts.co.uk) on a 17-day tour of all things Lord of the Rings. As well as the obligatory visit to Hobbiton, the tour takes you to Wellington to go behind the scenes at the interactive Weta Cave workshops, learning how Lord of the Rings was brought to life with props, costumes, models and special effects. Next it’s on to filming locations in the South Island, with highlights including exploring Aoraki (Mount Cook), New Zealand’s highest mountain peak, discovering Queenstown, and experiencing the silence of Middle-earth on an overnight Milford Sound cruise
Wander windswept beaches
A 21-day tour with Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk) takes diehard fans through Lord of the Rings film locations with the national carrier, Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com). The itinerary starts with a visit to Hobbiton in the rolling hills of Matamata, then hits all the visual splendour of the films, including the stunning beaches at the top of the South Island as well as the dramatic mountains and fjords of theFiordland & Southland. There are several guided location tours included, as well as an overnight cruise on the spectacular Doubtful Sound.
Join the fellowship
Silverfern (silverfernholidays.com) does a 16-day journey travelling through New Zealand’s magnificent landscapes from Auckland down toQueenstown. The tour includes film locations across the country, with a few surprises like dinner at the Green Dragon Inn in Hobbiton; and a hike to Pinnacle Ridge in the heights of Mount Ruapehu, which stands in for Mordor.
Puerto Rican food is a varied mix thanks to its multicultural past. Influences from the peaceful hunter-gatherer Taínos manifest in the uses of cassava, ñame, yuca and other root vegetables, as well as the tradition of mashing corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other assorted ingredients with a maceta y pilón (mortar and pestle). West African culture also played a key role in shaping the island’s foodscape by introducing frying as a cooking method. Spaniards brought livestock and a couple of other items you might not expect – mango and plantain. These fruits weren’t indigenous to the island, but are now an iconic part of it.
Tucked away in the southern section of Old San Juan, this tiny mom-and-pop shop would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line of eager folks snaking around the block, happily waiting their turn to indulge in some of the tastiest and coldest treats this little islet has to offer: handcrafted paletas (www.facebook.com/srpaletaoldsanjuan).
Paleterias, or ice-pop stands, are a growing culinary trend across the US and in several parts of Latin America. Shop owners Ramon and Jennifer craft refreshing natural popsicles in a variety of both milk and fruit-based flavors. Nutella? Got it. Cookies and Cream? Sure. But you might want to hold out for their best-seller, strawberry mojito. The shop stands apart thanks to its emphasis on using fresh fruit and high quality ingredients – many of their products are sourced locally, and they offer the only farm-to-table paletas in town.
Coffee first arrived Puerto Rico in 1736, soon becoming one of the dominant cash crops on the island; today, Puerto Rican coffee is known for its high quality and its strong, but not bitter flavor. Old San Juan is chock-a-block with several coffee spots, but Cuatro Sombras stands apart not only for its quality, locally grown beans, but because they are the only coffee shop in Old San Juan that roasts its own coffee fresh, right there on site. Cuatro Sombras is the “shop face” of the owner’s family coffee plantation, Hacienda Santa Clara, founded in 1846 and located in the mountains of Yauco.
These beans are single origin, which means they come from a single location and are not mixed with any other beans from other farms or even other countries. When you visit Cuatro Sombras, be sure to ask for the local’s drink, the cortadito. Think of it as the Puerto Rican version of the macchiato.
Princesa Gastrobar (princesapr.com) is nestled in a beautiful garden patio at the edge of the famous city wall that historically encompassed all of Old San Juan. Founded in 2015, owner Jose Daniel and head chef Luis Freire were inspired by a historic cookbook that featured recipes dating as far back as 1859 – the two decided to create a unique menu that blends Spanish and Puerto Rican dishes to make what they call ‘island cuisine’. These recipes are indicated on their menu with a local tree frog called a coqui.
The restaurant’s specialty is a Spanish staple: croquettes. These heavenly bites are made with chicken and Iberian ham and served over béchamel sauce – they require four days of prep and more than twenty ingredients. Fun fact: the recipe dates back 300 years to the kitchens of El Botín Restaurant in Spain, where Chef Luis completed his training.
La Alcapurria Quemá
Head to La Alcapurria Quemá for a big dose of local Caribbean charm (facebook.com/laalcapurriaquema); located in a foodie spot known asLa Placita, the restaurant is close to Ocean Park and Condado in an urban area known as Santurce. La Placita technically refers to the local market, the oldest operating farmers market in San Juan (dating back to the 1850s), but the surrounding area includes a number of bars and restaurants. For many years, this plaza has attracted locals who come for a long Friday lunch that often extends into the evening – it’s a great place to dance to live music into the wee hours of the morning.
The restaurant’s menu changes on a daily basis, but some staples are always present; be sure to try their namesake alcapurria, a type of Puerto Rican fritter. These delectable dishes are usually made with a batter of local root vegetable yautia (taro) and guineos verdes (green bananas), then stuffed with crab, lobster, shrimp, ground meat filling or vegetables. Top it off with local piqué, a Puerto Rican hot sauce, but proceed with caution – some piqués are on the mild side, while others set your mouth on fire.
If you’re looking for a dose of off-the-beaten path charm, Tresbé is the place to go (facebook.com/tresbecafe). It’s unusual name stands for three Bs – bueno, bonito and barato – translating to ‘good, pretty and affordable’ in English.
Tresbé is located off San Juan’s newly trending foodie street, Calle Loíza, which is holding tight to its reputation as a great place to find a variety of local, creative and delicious cuisines in a true urban ambiance. Another plus: the restaurant has parking next door, a rarity in that part of town.
A quintessential Christmas with Krampus in Austria
I traveled to Vienna and Salzburg right before Christmas in 2010 and it was the most magical Christmas experience of my life. It had snowed heavily right before our plane landed, so the whole country was covered in a soft blanket of white – a perfect backdrop for its numerous bustling Christmas markets, where we drank a fair amount of gluhwein and ate too many holiday sweets. This American also had her very first run-in with the European-style St Nicholas and his more threatening counterpart Krampus; both happened to be walking down the streets of Salzburg like old chums, and I had to consult a local pretzel maker to figure out who Santa’s terrifying monster pal was.
Strange stocking fillers and a Christmas safari in Malawi
My mum’s cousin lived and worked in Malawi and in 1996 my parents decided to spend Christmas with them. It was both the best and strangest Christmas ever. We couldn’t bring many presents with us, so I remember getting a stocking filled with a toothbrush, Tic Tacs and some banana chips (things readily available in Malawi or the airport!). Our Christmas tree was basically a twig and we didn’t have a turkey, but we did run barefoot across boiling-hot sand to go for a swim in a lake and went on a safari to see the tallest giraffes we’d ever seen. It was definitely a Christmas to remember.
Four’s a crowd on a honeymoon in Thailand
I went to stay with my friend in Bangkok last December, and over Christmas we decided to head down to Phuket for a couple of days. Checking Facebook upon arrival, we realised that some friends of ours were in town at the same time – on honeymoon. After a day drinking Singhas on the beach, we decided to surprise them by crashing their first Christmas dinner as a married couple at Baan Rim Pa. Looking back, I imagine they didn’t much appreciate us joining them at probably the most romantic restaurant in Thailand. Still, it’s not every Christmas you get to spend catching up with friends on the other side of the world.
The unexpected guests of honour in Fiji
We were on a catamaran hopping between islands in the Yasawas, Fiji, when our names were called over the tannoy. Dutifully we reported to the nearest staff member and were told we’d been upgraded. Off the boat, it turned out we were less upgraded and more abandoned – we were the only guests staying in our bure (a Fijian cabin made from wood and straw) and it was also the only bure on this section of the island. We had planned to spend our Christmas Day lounging around, drinking cans of Fiji Gold beer and swimming in the sea. However, the bure‘s chef had other ideas. On Christmas morning he had us hiking up over the headland to attend church in the next village with his family. The tiny airless church was packed with the faithful and my partner and I – the sweaty guests of honour – were made to sit at the front, facing the congregation for the whole two-hour-long service.
Surfing in Hawaii
Hitting the waves rather than huddling around the hearth is the order of the day in Hawaii over Christmas. This US state’s surf is spectacular all year round, but takes on legendary status in December on Oahu’s North Shore. Pros and world-class board fanatics head here for swells of more than 30 feet. If that seems a tad too intense, why not join the New Year festivities and feast on whole roasted pig, a tradition which dates back to the native Hawaiians’ end-of-year Makahiki Festival, when locals took a whole four months out to party. Whether you opt for surfing or stuffing that tummy (or both), we’re sure you can squeeze in a few hours of post-Christmas dinner sunbathing.
An Antarctic cruise for Christmas and New Year
A cold Christmas doesn’t have to mean hunkering down when the sun sets at 3pm. Antarctica’s brief summer coincides with the festive period, making it the perfect time to hop on a boat and cruise along the icy continent’s peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. Polar Cruises (polarcruises.com) operates a 10-night trip which starts in Port Stanley on the Falklands and makes its way south for hiking stops on the mainland, plus the chance to see penguins, humpback whales and albatross up close. The constant daylight means the views are often relentless, so be sure to wrap up warm and spend as much time on deck as possible.
Christmas and New Year safari in Namibia
After November’s rains, Namibia’s parched earth begins to turn a lush green. Newly replenished watering holes are a magnet for wildlife and the drier days of December make it the perfect time to visit. Etosha National Park, in the north of the country, is the classic destination for first timers, where big game, black rhino and some of Africa’s largest elephants roam in search of sustenance after months of dry and dusty conditions. Throw in huge views of the Etosha salt pan and the chance to drive through the ethereal red desert in the far south and this is a festive adventure as far removed from mince pies and wintry walks as you can get.
Fake snow and Christmas lights in Hanoi
Vietnam doesn’t stop for Christmas. But that doesn’t mean the locals don’t go in for all the usual festive brouhaha. Wander along Hang Ma Street in the city’s labyrinthine Old Quarter and you’ll find a huge selection of tacky decorations, with Christmas trees and snowmen lit up outside every shop. Fake snow is blown across parks, while many of the city’s moped riders don Santa outfits once 25 December comes around. And if you love a spot of bargain hunting, the city’s malls go all out when it comes to the festive sales, flogging off high-end goods at knockdown prices.
Despite a century’s worth of miners striking it lucky, there is still enough gold in these hills to have made Tony a rich man. His straggly hair and beard may disguise it but his net worth is estimated at over $5 million. ‘We strictly came here for the money,’ he says. ‘Let’s say that worked. We’re a little spoiled now, but like I always say…’ He holds up those dusty articulated fists. ‘It was earned.’
Tony mines near the Klondike River, where gold was first discovered on Rabbit Creek by Skookum Jim, George Carmack and Tagish Charlie in August 1896. The area proved so rich that when the prospectors arrived back in San Francisco in July 1897 their ship’s cargo was worth over a million dollars. The news sparked a Gold Rush that led 100,000 people to attempt the long, punishing journey to the Klondike.
Realising that these stampeders would be even easier to mine than the hills, a barkeeper named Joseph Ladue built a sawmill and staked out a townsite on the mud flats at the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon. He named this Dawson City, and it became home to the miners, and to the pimps, hustlers and dancing girls who followed in their wake. Dawson City remains an outlaw town. ‘You can do things the way you want here,’ says Tony. ‘A lot of places are regulated and over-regulated, but here they still let you get away with stuff.’
Wandering Dawson at dusk the only thing missing from the scene is a pair of duelling gunslingers. The buildings of wood and tin haven’t changed since the 1900s, the saloons still have swing doors and the streets are little more than dirt tracks.
Dawson is still the end of the road. Keep going north and the only settlements you’ll find are in the Arctic Circle. That means a certain breed of character washes up here, like nuggets in the bend of a river. On any given night, in bars like The Pit at the Westminster Hotel, you’re likely to hear tall tales from guys like Duncan Spriggs, the former landlord who’ll tell you about the time he rode a horse from Vancouver to San Francisco. Or about Dana Meise, who walked across Canadafrom the Atlantic to the Pacific and claims to have fought no fewer than three grizzly bears along the way.
No bar sums up the spirit of Dawson quite like the Downtown Hotel. The signature drink here is the Sourtoe cocktail, served with a genuine severed human toe resting in it. Dawson is not a place concerned with Health and Safety regulations. The story goes that in the early 1970s a man named Captain Dick Stevenson came across the toe of a Prohibition-era bootlegger pickled in a jar of overproof rum. Yukoners refer to anyone who hasn’t spent the harsh winter here as a ‘cheechako’, while anyone who has survived one becomes a ‘sourdough’. Captain Dick decreed that in order to become an honorary sourdough, one must kiss the ‘sourtoe’. To date, over 67,000 have.
Like the miners, the dancing girls are still here too. Most nights in Dawson end at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest casino and home to a can-can show hosted by the eponymous Gertie. One of the most famous dance hall stars of the Gold Rush era, she’s currently played by Amy Soloway, a singer from Nova Scotia who moved to Dawson eight summers ago to take the role.
‘Gertie was a smart lady, and she knew what men liked, especially lonely men: liquor, ladies and gambling. ‘She was the baddest chick in 1898,’ says Amy. ‘When I mingle after the shows I meet miners and feel transported back. It’s still very much alive.’
Not everybody comes here for the gold, but it has a way of pulling you in. Leslie Chapman and husband Bill just wanted to live off the grid when they moved from Calgary in 1974 and built a cabin near the Alaskan border. Soon they started finding gold dust and after staking their claims built a house in Dawson where Leslie now works as a goldsmith making jewellery, mostly from the spoils of their own mine. She has an electronic scale on the counter, accurate to 1/100th of a gram, and miners often pay her with dust pulled from their pockets. It’s not what keeps her here though.
‘The Yukon means freedom,’ she says. ‘That’s the reason I came. We still have so much open, unclaimed land in its natural state. So many people in the world can’t even see the stars anymore. That’s not a problem here.’