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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Things To Do In Amsterdam

Explore the Western Islands

The Jordaan may be the prize-winner for the most picturesque neighbourhood in Amsterdam, but the artistic and the creative soul of the city is concealed in the charming Western Islands. This small archipelago bathes in amazing quietness, only nudged from its slumber by bobbing houseboats and bikes rattling across the wooden bridges. Among the former grain, herring and tobacco warehouses, intrepid travellers will now find artists’ studios creating everything from film and music to painting and designer furniture.

Brunch on Kadijksplein

Forget the neon glare and scramble for seats on Leidseplein, and swerve the statues and sunbathers of Rembrandtplein; tiptoe instead to Kadijksplein, a delightfully quiet square that is also home to one of Amsterdam’s best brunches at Bakers & Roasters. This New Zealand-style cafe serves mouth-watering Navajo eggs, healthy salad bowls and decent coffee. Try a brekkie (a decadent mix of eggs, crispy bacon, fat sausages and creamy mushrooms) and wash it all down with a Bloody Mary. Waddle off your waist-expanding brunch at Entrepotdok, a dockside line of former Dutch East India Company warehouses, just around the corner.

Go for drinks at the hip bars on Javastraat

Forget struggling to get served in the city centre, informed barflies are buzzing along Javastraat. The heart of up-and-coming Indische Buurt neighbourhood, Javastraat chimes with the clink of glasses at trendy bars. With low-hanging lights, overgrown ferns and bamboo birdcages (but no actual birds, thankfully), those in search of a soothing G&T should try the Javanese colonial ambiance at the Walter Woodbury Bar (walterwoodburybar.nl). Bar James (Javastraat 49) meanwhile, pairs vegetarian dishes with whiskies, cocktails, wines, and local beers.

Relax on the beach at Amsterdam Roest

Forget heading to the coast, Amsterdam Roest in the Eastern Islands offers the complete weekend package without the need of a train ticket. Part urban beach, part art space and a whole lot of laid-back bar action, this urban escape revels in its graffiti-strewn industrial heritage as live bands and DJs head up an on-going roster of creative excellence, which swings joyfully between film, theatre and get-me-on-the-guest-list festivals. Take it all in with a glass of punch.

Hang out with the locals at Weesperzijde

With unrivalled views over the Amstel, Weesperzijde is where the locals come to picnic right by the water’s edge. Join them for a beer atDe Ysbreeker, a historic café-restaurant from 1702, or take in the scene at Girassol (girassol.nl), where you could almost be in Lisbon: the cooling blue-and-white Azulejo tiles, the cosy cotton-covered tables, the soft Fado music drifting from the speakers. The food is authentic Portuguese too: fresh octopus carpaccio and thick-filled cod croquettes, all seasoned with a Dutch sunset on a waterside terrace.

Go shopping on Czaar Peterstraat

Framing the fringe of the city centre, Czaar Peterstraat is peppered with independent boutiques, innovative brand outlets and rails and rails of vintage clothes. Trendsetters should browse the racks at the CP113 concept store (cp113.com), where stylish retro wear and good coffee are on the menu. Peanut nuts, meanwhile, should make a trail for De Pindakaaswinkel (depindakaaswinkel.nl), the first (and possibly only) peanut butter shop in the Netherlands. Its flavours spread from honey and walnut to sea salt caramel. Souvenir shopping? NJAG (njag.nl), which stands for Not Just a Gift, has more necklaces, soaps, ceramics and toys than you could ever fit in a suitcase.

Explore De Baarsjes neighbourhood

Although most travellers only make it as far west as Oud-West, keep heading away from the city centre and you’ll hit upon the vibrant and contemporary neighbourhood of De Baarsjes. Brimming with the licks of the Amsterdam School’s architectural style (think: brick façades, wavy lines and expressionist details), this former working class area teaches the intrepid about the good things in life. Caffeine aficionados should stop for a home-roasted brew at White Label Coffee (whitelabelcoffee.nl), where light pours through the windows; else T’s (tsteas.com) huge selection of loose leaf teas will merrily convert any coffee fiend.

Take a walk on the Wibautstraat

If you think Amsterdam is all about narrow streets, romantic canals and arching bridges, chances are you haven’t yet set foot on Wibautstraat. With its edgy, high-rise concrete buildings, plus wide roads and pavements, it could easily be mistaken for East Berlin. Step inside the unconventional Volkshotel, opened on the former premises of a newspaper HQ, and head up to its Canvas restaurant for a captivating view of the city. Then indulge in some Mediterranean-inspired tapas at The Pool (thepoolrestaurant.com) where the cocktails are as glam as the décor.

Relax by the water at Muziek Gebouw

Feeling overwhelmed by the crowds in Dam Square? Clear your head along the banks of the IJ river next to the state-of-the-art concert hallMuziek Gebouw aan ‘t IJ. On the terrace at Zouthaven, with a glass of prosecco in your hand, watch the boats pass by as the sun sets over Centraal Station. If you’re staying for the seafood dishes, try the Zeeland oysters. Desserts are delectable, especially the lime-honey mousse and pineapple tarte tatin.

Taste delicious street food at De Pure Markt

The street food scene is still emerging in Amsterdam, with food festivals and Sunday markets inviting locals to sample cuisines from around the world. Although stately Westerpark is a popular destination for food fairs, a hip alternative is De Pure Markt at the lesser known Frankendael Park. From Dutch Gouda cheese and Surinamese roti, to Indian curries and Spanish paellas, you’re spoiled for choice for affordable artisan food and alongside local arts and crafts stalls.

Hiking across Macedonia Mountainous

For explorers and adventure travellers who don’t know this undiscovered expanse of Macedonia, a country on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, an excursion to this dovetailing string of summits and massifs (which include the Šar, Bistra and Jablanica Mountains) means some of the best, and most unheralded, hiking on the continent. But even for the horseback members of the group assembled – all of whom live in the Balkans and have spent a significant amount of time scaling the region’s topography – this was a treat.

Over the course of eight days, we would hike (and gallop) stages that began in northwestern Macedonia, straddle the Kosovo border, and then steer south along the Albanian frontier. Our journey traversed a national park, and included visits to centuries-old Orthodox churches and a monastery built by St Clement more than 1000 years ago. We stayed in huts wedged into hillsides, and woke with frosty morning dew clinging to our tents. We had stove-cooked-coffee conversations with locals about a myriad of subjects from politics to sheep shearing, and watched as those same locals dragged thick, work-tested fingers across smudged maps and explained how the mountains here once defined the edges of Yugoslavia. The journey ended on the shores of the ancient, Unesco-protected, tectonic Lake Ohrid, 300m deep and stretching over 34 km.

At this moment, however, we were still clip-clopping behind our guide Vasko Velickovski, the founder of Sherpa (horseriding.com.mk), a Galičnik-based outfit specialising in horseback tours. We stopped at the summit atop steeds growing impatient under our already sore backsides. It was 5:30am. A clear sky was widening as a new sun cracked the horizon and threw beams across an expanse gilded with morning dew.

To the north I could begin to trace the itinerary from the past several days. The top half of our path had been dominated by a ridgeline wiggling along the Šar mountain range, which has more than 30 glacial lakes, some 200 endemic plant varieties, as well as brown bears, lynx and chamois. The trek – also a leg of the Via Dinarica mega-trail that runs through the Balkans from Slovenia to Macedonia – provided a slalom course to weave between the country’s most inspiring peaks.

Aleksandar Donev, a local who organised our trip, trotted up and stopped his horse beside me as I stared across the maze of rippling mountaintops and tried to make sense of where we had been. ‘The beauty of this trail and this country is that you can pack an incredible range of activities, culture and food into a pretty compact area,’ said Mr Donev, whose multi-tasking, Skopje-based company Mustseedonia (facebook.com/Mustseedonia) designs tailor-made trips and promotes responsible tourism across a country about the size of Vermont. ‘This makes Macedonia a perfect place to visit because you get both a pristine landscape and a chance to learn about history with a trek back in time to Europe’s old-world roots. I am glad we’re getting to see it now – because we will have to fight to keep it this way.’

In the distance I could follow that pristine landscape up to the head of our trail and the Šar Mountain: the pyramid-shaped, 2498m Mt Ljuboten. There, we overnighted at Villa Ljuboten (vilaljuboten.com), a lodge that provided a perfect starting base and where we devoured a dinner of sausages, steaks, plump tomatoes and grilled eggplants piled high on earthenware bowls and platters. We drank tumblers of homemade rakija (local schnapps) and planned our eventual hike south – a trek would take us past the 2748m Titov Vrv, the tallest point along the Šar massif. We then left the range and scrambled to the top of the mammoth 2764m Mt Korab, the country’s highest spot, which looms like a beacon over both Macedonia and Albania. After, the group was engulfed by more than 730 sq km of dense, protected pine forests covering Mavrovo National Park and cradling its famously trout-filled lake.

‘One of the reasons I love hiking in this area is because you stay in the clouds and on some of the highest summits in the Balkans,’ said mountaineer and guide Uta Ibrahimi, the owner of the Kosovo-based outfitter Butterfly Outdoor Adventure (butterflyoutdoor.com), as we reached Korab’s apex. ‘You just ride the peaks that run between three countries – at a sustained 2500m – and stay there… looking out on the beautiful world below for days and days and days.’

As we cantered back into Sherpa’s Galičnik ranch, the sun had shifted to the other side of the horizon. We were worn out and dusty, but immediately buoyed by dinner. The smell of green, red and yellow piquant peppers, cooking naked on an iron stove, wafted above the corral. Wedges of young, white cheese sat beside pans of a savoury pastry called burek, and waited on a rough-sawn table. We sat and clinked glasses of strong, amber-coloured rakija.

‘There’s a wealth in the simplicity here that is magnificent,’ said Thierry Joubert, the director of Green Visions (greenvisions.ba), a Bosnian-based adventure tourism company. ‘You have just what is needed, and that is more than enough. Perhaps the spirit and the feeling is a product of the particular remoteness of these mountains. Perhaps it is the nature of the people. All I know is, when you are hiking in Macedonia you become part of it and you are truly content.’

Travel Tips For First-timers In Italy

But beyond the headline sights, what’s a trip to Italy really like? What’s the best way of getting around? What’s the local etiquette? What should I wear? Here are some practical tips to help you on your way and ensure that your first time is a truly magical experience.

Eat like a local

Whether you’re tucking into hearty farmhouse fare in a Tuscanagriturismo or a wood-fired pizza in a Naples pizzeria, dining out is one of Italy’s great joys.

And there’s no shortage of eateries, with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to neighbourhood trattorias, wine bars, cafes and pizzerias. Italians generally eat late, so if you want to fit in, stop for lunch at around 1.30pm and dinner at 8.30 to 9pm – the further south you go, the later they eat.

A full Italian meal consists of an antipasto, a primo (usually pasta or risotto), secondo (main course, typically fish or meat), contorno (side dish), and dolce (dessert). You’re not expected to eat all that, so feel free to mix ‘n’ match when ordering. And when you’ve finished, ask for the bill – it won’t be delivered automatically.

Some other pointers: eat spaghetti with a fork, not a spoon. Never eat bread with pasta, though it’s OK to wipe up any leftover sauce with it. Drink wine with pasta and beer with pizzas. It’s fine to eat pizza with your hands.

Dress the part

Appearances matter in fashion-conscious Italy. That said, you’ll have to dress comfortably for sightseeing because you’ll be walking a lot. Practical shoes are a must as cobblestoned streets play havoc with heels and ankles. For the evening, smart casual is the way to go.

At big religious sites, dress codes are strictly enforced. If you want to get into St Peter’s Basilica or St Marks in Venice, play it safe and cover your knees and shoulders.

Museums (and how to skip the line)

Italy’s historic cities are littered with awe-inspiring art and famous buildings, and often sightseeing is just a case of walking the streets. But for top sights like the Colosseum and Vatican Museums in Rome orFlorence’s Galleria degli Uffizi and Gallerie dell’Accademia, entrance queues are the norm.

There are no fool-proof ways of skipping the line – even with a ticket there are still security checks. But you’ll cut waiting time by booking tickets online. Alternatively, try to arrive first thing in the morning or late afternoon when the queues have died down. In the case of theVatican Museums, Tuesdays and Thursdays are the quietest days.

Museum opening times vary, but many are closed on Mondays. Also, state museums are free on the first Sunday of each month.

Bread and tipping

Italians are not big tippers. Service is generally added to restaurant bills, but if it’s not, a euro or two is fine in trattorias and pizzerias, up to 10% in smart restaurants. Also, expect to pay for pane e coperto (a bread and cover charge) – this is standard and is added even if you don’t ask for or eat the bread.

Tipping in bars isn’t necessary but many people leave small change when ordering a coffee.

Coffee etiquette

Stopping at a cafe for a quick coffee is one of the great rituals of Italian life. To do it like a local, first pay at the cash register, then, armed with your receipt, give the barista your order. When it arrives, drink standing at the bar – sitting at a table is fine but takes longer and costs more.

The classic Italian caffè is an espresso – though, strangely, the term espresso is hardly ever used in Italy. Cappuccinos are popular for breakfast and are often paired with a fresh cornetto (an Italian croissant). They are never drunk later than mid-morning.

When eating in restaurants, un caffè after dessert is OK, but not with your main meal please.

Shopping like a pro

Traditionally, Italian shops have an afternoon break, typically closing between 1pm and 4pm. They’ll then re-open until around 8pm. However, this is changing and in big cities, many shops now stay open throughout the day. Some even open on Sunday mornings.

You’ll find the usual cast of chain stores and designer boutiques in Italy, but more interesting are its many small-label fashion boutiques and artisanal craft shops. A good case in point is Giulio Giannini e Figlio in Florence, where they’ve been making marbled paper since the 19th century.

To stock up on picnic provisions, or just to enjoy some local colour, markets such as Campo de’ Fiori in Rome or Venice’s Mercato di Rialtoare an entertaining alternative to supermarkets. Similarly, historic delis like La Baita in Bologna and Milan’s Peck are full of tantalising gourmet goodies.

To drive or not to drive?

It’s pointless hiring a car for city travel – traffic is hellish and ZTLs (limited traffic zones) are in force – but if you want to head into the countryside, it’s well worth considering.

Italians tend to drive aggressively but once you’ve got used to the tailgaters and tooting, driving here is not as nerve-wracking as it’s often made out to be. The roads are fine and outside the main urban centres the scenery is often spectacular.

Often harder than driving is parking. Street parking is denoted by white (free) or blue lines. The latter require a ticket from a coin-operated meter or tabaccaio.

Navigating public transport

Most Italian cities can be explored on foot, but you’ll inevitably need to use public transport at some point. Tickets, which must be bought from a tabaccaio or street kiosk and validated once on board, are generally valid for a set time period. In Rome, for example, a single €1.50 ticket is valid for 100 minutes. During that time you can use as many trams and buses as you like and take one metro journey.

If you’re staying in a city for a number of days, a travel pass will probably save you money. In Venice, a single journey on a vaporetto(water bus) costs an eye-watering €7.50, but various passes are available, starting at €20 for 24 hours.

Cash vs credit?

While credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, shops and autostrada tollbooths, Italy hasn’t entirely gone plastic. You can’t always rely on cards in museum ticket offices, and some smaller trattorias, shops and pizzerias only take cash.

ATMs (known in Italian as bancomat) are everywhere and most will accept cards tied to the Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus and Maestro systems.

Brush up your italiano

You’ll have no trouble getting by with English, but a few Italian words and expressions will help you on your way. This is particularly true in restaurants where menus don’t always have translations and some places rely on waiters to explain things.

Adventures in Perak

Shaped like a crescent moon, Perak sweeps across the northwestern corner of Peninsular Malaysia. Limestone cliffs are the state’s most unmistakable landmarks, but Perak is a tapestry of mangrove swamps, jungles and beaches, too – terrain so varied that exhilaration (and exhaustion) are practically guaranteed. Here are four adventures to get your pulse racing

Get off the grid in Royal Belum State Park

The only sound is a rhythmic swish, swish, as our boat glides across Lake Temenggor. We’re heading deep into Royal Belum State Park (royalbelum.my), a 117,500-hectare wilderness made even more impassable by its water levels. This jungly swathe of northern Perak, right against the Malaysia-Thailand border, was flooded in 1972 when Temenggor Dam was built. And in this remote nature park, the chances of getting phone signal are roughly the same as spotting the elusive sun bear.

The boat thumps noisily against the wooden gangplank at Belum Eco Resort (belumecoresort.com.my), my island home for the next few nights. While resort staff busy themselves securing the boat, my fellow travellers are already wriggling out of their T-shirts and dive-bombing into the lake.  As we bob around in the water, the jungle chorus of whistling blue-rumped parrots and chattering crickets surrounds us.

At daybreak, we gather in walking boots and liberal coatings of mosquito repellent. Boat transportation and a hiking guide are essential in this dense, swampy wilderness. Ours is leading us into the 130-million-year-old rainforest, one of the world’s most ancient. It’s home to tapir, seldom-seen tigers, and rafflesia, one of the largest flowers on the planet. Along slippery trails we spot tiny orchids that cower amid tree roots, while grasshoppers whir past our heads like toy helicopters. Hornbills swoop between branches, their orange beaks easy to spot in the gloom.

Make it happen: Royal Belum is a 170km drive north of Ipoh, Perak’s main city (or 150km east of Penang). Daily buses from Ipoh reach gateway town Gerik from where you can get a taxi towards the park. Stays at Belum Eco Resort include boat transfer from Pulau Banting jetty, a 42km drive east of Gerik.

Board a Jeep safari to Kinta Nature Park

‘No other place in the world can claim to have 10 species of hornbills in one location,’ declares Jek Yap with pride. For Jek, a fanatical local birdwatcher, Perak’s wildlife is hard to beat. And in contrast to remote Royal Belum, some reserves lie in easy reach of Perak’s cities, likeKinta Nature Park.

Around 20km south of state capital Ipoh, this former tin-mining land is a tangle of low-hanging trees and teeming fish ponds. The park is home to around 130 species of bird, and it’s the region’s largest gathering place for herons and egrets.

‘Birds usually show up at dusk and dawn,’ counsels Jek. Despite Jek’s advice, dawn has long broken by the time I trundle into the park by 4WD. But hitting the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm hasn’t caused me to miss out: wildlife is abundant here, and much of it is barely troubled by the sounds of the car engine.

I can see grey herons alighting on fence posts, and plump little herons looking improbably weightless as they perch on fine tree branches. Huge monitor lizards dawdle on pathways. I’m poised to photograph a blue-tailed bee eater, but its flash of jade feathers is faster than my camera’s click. Still, it’s a good excuse to lay down my camera and admire the flourishing reserve, distraction-free.

Make it happen: book knowledgeable Ipoh-based guide Mr Raja for a guided 4WD excursion into Kinta Nature Park for RM400 per head (minimum two people). It’s also possible to cycle parts of the park.

Experience Gopeng’s caves and river rapids

The ceiling of Gua Tempurung yawns above my head. As I hike deeper into the cave, one of the largest in Peninsular Malaysia, every footstep sends echoes bouncing off the walls. Long spindles of limestone reach up from the slippery ground, and stalactites drip from above. Squinting, I can make out other walkers further along the dimly lit trails. They seem microscopic in size, dwarfed by vast folds of limestone.

Hikers with flashing headlamps aren’t the only ones to venture into the 4.5km-long cave. In the 1950s, Gua Tempurung was a communist hideout, and soon after served as a Japanese-run prison. But these are mere blips on its geological timeline: the cave is estimated to be up to 400 million years old.

Exploring this dank grotto on foot allows plenty of time to take stock of Gua Tempurung’s scale: at its tallest point, it towers 72m high. There are also more claustrophobic challenges to be had, such as wading through chilly chest-height water between cave chambers.

There are waterbound adventures above ground, too. The thrashing Kampar River has turned the town of Gopeng, 7km from the cave, into a miniature watersports hub. Just east of Gopeng’s dusty colonial buildings, Nomad Adventure Earth Camp (nomadadventure.com) leads excursions along 22 river rapids. And after a humid hike through the cave, there’s no more invigorating way to cool off.

Make it happen: guided forays into Gua Tempurung range from 40 minutes to four hours long; book well ahead for spelunking. Stay in or near Gopeng for easy access to the river. Nomad Adventure Earth Camp can arrange rafting and waterfall abseiling.

Ascend to Ipoh’s sacred grottoes

Spelunkers weren’t the first to enjoy the tranquility of Perak’s caves. In the late 19th and early 20th century, hermit monks sought refuge in Perak’s cliffs, meditating atop limestone crags and living in caves. From these spartan beginnings, a few ballooned into large temple complexes.

A notable trio are in easy reach of Ipoh. Gua Kok Look Tong, with ornamental gardens and Buddha statues in its central cave, is the most peaceful, while Sam Poh Tong is much visited for its lucky tortoise pond. But the most interesting ramble is up to Perak Tong, a frescoed cave temple 6km north of Ipoh.

The highest point of this cave complex, reached by steep stone stairs and seemingly endless spiral pathways, overlooks a muddled vista of wild greenery and urban sprawl. I stare into the distance at Ipoh’s uniform lines of houses, framed by surrounding trees. Tower blocks strain for attention against the silhouette of Perak’s cliffs, while forested hills roll into the distance.

My calves are stinging from the climb, but somehow the view makes me want to plunge straight into my next adventure.

Make it happen: on request, buses from Ipoh to Kuala Kangsar will stop near Gunung Lang, a 3km walk from Perak Tong. Better yet, rent a car from Ipoh (there’s plenty of parking within reach of the temple pathway).