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Category Archives: Travel

Things To Do In St Petersburg

Make use of free-admission days

Some of St Petersburg’s top museums organise free-entrance days. For the State Hermitage Museum it’s the first Thursday of the month, and for the Kunstkamera the third Thursday each month. Other museums are admission-free throughout the year, for example the Vladimir Nabokov Museum or the Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams. In many Orthodox cathedrals you also don’t have to pay an entrance fee. While the church architecture is stunning enough from the outside, just wait until you enter – the icon art is breathtaking.

Relax in parks and gardens

If you love the green spaces, don’t miss St Petersburg’s parks and gardens. There are plenty to satisfy any taste: the small, hiddenYusupov Gardens, the royal Mikhailovsky Gardens, the calm Tavrichesky Gardens, or the famous Summer Garden with its marble sculptures. The recently reopened New Holland Island in the city centre is St Petersburg’s latest cultural hub and a haven for artists, writers, professionals and tourists alike.

Stroll around Alexander Nevsky Monastery

The Alexander Nevsky Monastery is the most important Orthodox monastery in St Petersburg; its Church of the Annunciation was the first resting place for the tsarist family. The monastery is magnificent both inside and outside, but for many visitors the major attractions are its four historic cemeteries (which charge a small fee) – this is where you’ll find the graves of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Roerich and many other great names of Russian culture.

Learn about modern Russian art

You don’t have to spend a fortune on tickets to see modern art in St Petersburg. Some of the city’s most progressive art galleries – Anna Nova (annanova-gallery.ru), Marina Gisich (gisich.com), Art Re.Flex, KGallery (kgallery.ru), Bulthaup (design-gallery.ru) and Name Gallery (namegallery.ru) – don’t charge admission, giving visitors access to enough paintings, sculptures and installations to fill an entire day. On the opening nights you’ll be treated with a glass of champagne and some appetizers; check the websites for dates of new exhibitions.

Browse the bookshops

Bookworms will love St Petersburg’s oldest bookshop, Dom Knigi, and the Bookvoed chain of stores (bookvoed.ru; centrally located shops are open 24 hours). If you aren’t planning on buying a book but still want to read one, you can just pick a title, sit and read it from cover to cover – no one will ask you to leave. These bookshops offer a beautiful collection of art books, obligatory Russian classics as well as a lot of books in English.

Visit a flea market

The biggest flea market in St Petersburg, located in the north of the city, is a place you’ll be telling your friends about for a very long time.‘Udelka’, as the locals call it (because of its location near the Udelnaya metro station), is an extremely atmospheric place that offers a huge variety of artefacts such as antique icons, hand-painted samovars and, of course, the busts of Lenin. It’s open every weekend.

Explore the underground

The St Petersburg metro (metro.spb.ru) is one of the most attractive and ornate underground systems in the world – not to mention the deepest. Each station has stunning architecture and its own history. The most beautiful stations are Avtovo, Zvenigorodskaya, Narvskaya, Baltiyskaya and Kirovskiy Zavod, so make sure you break up your journey to admire them. The metro is not only a very impressive place but also the most popular way to travel around the city – it’s cheap, fast and efficient – and no matter how far you need to go, you’ll pay the same fare.

Hang out at anti-cafes

The ‘anti-cafe’ (or ‘time-cafe’) concept – which originated in Moscow – has become very popular in St Petersburg. The name means you are not charged for the coffee, snacks and sometimes desserts on offer; instead, you pay for the time spent there. This is perfect if you’re looking for a quiet space where you can relax, play board or computer games or even work if you need to. The oldest anti-cafe in St Petesburg is Ziferblat, but Miracle, Freedom and Ziferberg are also worth checking out.

Take a free tour

Every day at 10:45am, St Petersburg Free Tour (petersburgfreetour.com) offers a 2.5-hour walking tour through the centre of the city, departing from the Alexander Column on Palace Square. The walk covers all the essential sights, and the guides are very passionate and enthusiastic. While the tours are absolutely free, they’re also quite popular so don’t forget to book beforehand.

Hit the Baltic beaches

The northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, with its sandy beaches flanked by pine trees, is a very popular summer destination for St Petersburg residents. A relaxed atmosphere, fresh air, clean beaches and plenty of good restaurants make this a must-visit. If you’re in the city in winter, you can go for a walk on the frozen gulf – the views are overwhelming.

Exploring Yekaterinburg

Named after Peter the Great’s wife Catherine, the capital of the Ural region lies on the border of Europe and Asia and has long been a prosperous city. Yekaterinburg played a major role in trade between the east and west throughout the 1700s and 1800s, increasing its status and wealth; more recently, mining and industrial work has propelled the city into the limelight. And it keeps reaching for the stars: Yekaterinburg is one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the Russian government has injected billions of roubles to improve its infrastructure in preparation for the big event (including the upgrade of the Central Stadium and the construction of new metro stations).

City life

Although Yekaterinburg is spread out, most of the highlights are located in the historic centre. English-language guided walking tours aren’t mainstream yet, but in 2010 local blogger Dmitry Kalaev asked his followers to vote for Yekaterinburg’s most interesting sites, which resulted in the development of a 6.5km Red Line trail (ekbredline.ru) in 2011.

Starting at Ploshchad 1905 Goda, the main square in town, the walking route passes by 35 attractions as voted by thousands of residents, including beautiful old merchant houses, Russian Orthodox churches (Church upon the Blood is the city’s biggest cathedral, built on theRomanov death site), the first school, the first theatre, the oldest house, the peculiar QWERTY monument, street art, museums and more.

Yekaterinburg’s latest museum isn’t on the route but if voting were to happen again, residents may advocate it be included. Opened in 2015, the Boris Yeltsin Museum (yeltsin.ru) is part of the swish Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, with quite the impressive (and somewhat unusual) collection of exhibits. There are replica rooms, video clips, sound and lighting effects and plenty of immersive displays spread out across nine rooms. If learning about Russia’s first president isn’t high on your list, head to Russia’s tallest skyscraper outside Moscow for a different perspective. The 188m-tall Vysotsky Tower has unrivalled city views from the 54th floor, and sunsets from here on a clear day are very Instagramable.

Sightseeing will, no doubt, whet your appetite and there’s plenty on offer in the culinary stakes. Russian favourites – such asborsch (beetroot soup) and pelmeni (ravioli dumplings) – are easy to find, with ample restaurants offering a Ural take on the well-loved dishes (try reindeer meat). Pozharka and Dacha are both good restaurant choices. International cuisine is popular too, with everything from Japanese and Chinese to Uzbek and Georgian easy to find.

The Russian banya

One of the top things to do in Yekaterinburg – and all of Russia, actually – is get piping hot, then get whipped and drenched in cold water (or better still, roll around in the snow). Welcome to the Russianbanya!

No bathhouse experience is as talked about as the Russian bath. If you can swing it, your best bet is to get yourself an invite to a resident’sbanya, as there’s nothing quite like the real deal. Your second best option is to book a banya session at one of the many complexes around town, where experiences range from simple home-style bathing practices to out-of-this-world extravaganzas.

Ruskie Bani (bani66.ru) was one of the first public banyas to open in Yekaterinburg in 2002. Here guests can choose to relax in traditional-style wooden banyas or splurge in contemporary fit-outs with fancy showers and Jacuzzis. Pelmeni and other Russian food can be ordered, and staff members are on hand to offer a variety of treatments including massages, steaming sessions, herbal-infusion soakings and… beatings. Visitors can choose from birch, oak, juniper, eucalyptus or fir brooms for the only-in-Russia experience.

Chapaevskiye Bani (m.chapaev-bani.ru) offers a slightly more luxurious option, and guests can stay at the Palais Royal next door if they want a multi-day banya indulgence.

Out of town

Yekaterinburg is perhaps most famous for the Romanov family tragedy. On 16 July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children and four of their employees were assassinated by Bolshevik troops in the Ipatyev house basement, where the Church upon the Blood now stands. The cremated remains were discarded in a mine pit about 15km out of town, the site now known as Ganina Yama. Today there’s a monastery made up of seven wooden chapels (one in honour of each of the murdered family members) on the site, called Monastery of the Holy Martyrs – a somber reminder of the devastation that took place a century ago.

For something a little less morose, day trips to national parks offer visitors the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Olenyi Ruchyi (Deer Springs; olen.ur.ru), about 90-minutes’ drive from Yekaterinburg, has some fantastic hiking trails that traverse birch forest and lichen-steeped caves. Bachovskie Mesta (бм-парк.рф), less than an hour’s drive from the city centre, is a scenic vastness of pine and birch grove forests, meandering rivers and small calm lakes. Russians come here to hike, horse ride, cycle and drive snowmobiles in winter.

There are plenty of other nature parks nearby, too – after all, Yekaterinburg is located in the heart of the lustrous Ural Mountains. You just need a sense of adventure and a Russian dictionary or a guide, as beyond the main cities (and often even in cities) Russian is the only language spoken. Of course, if you’re travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway you’ll no doubt get some Russian language practice anyway – whether you want to or not.

Make it happen

Yekaterinburg is one of the biggest cities on the Trans-Siberian route and a popular spot for those looking to break up the long journey;Koltsovo International Airport services plenty of domestic and international flights.

If you can’t get enough of the city panorama from the viewing platform of the Vistosky Tower, Visotsky Hotel is located on floors 37 to 41 of the same building, with a luxury spa for guests on the 52nd floor.

Reasons To Visit Ukraine, Kyiv

Legends of Andriyivsky Uzviz

Nicknamed ‘the Montmartre of Kyiv’, this street is one of the cultural gems of the Ukrainian capital. Every house here can tell a story, every corner hides a legend. With numerous galleries and workshops,Andriyivsky Uzviz has always been the melting pot of Kyiv’s artists, luring them with its bohemian atmosphere and attractive hilly setting. Here you can admire the gracious architecture of St Andrew’s Church and buy handmade souvenirs from one of the local artisans.

Delicious Ukrainian cuisine

Ukrainian food is not only very tasty, but also quite affordable. When in Kyiv, you simply can’t refrain from trying traditional Ukrainian varenyky (filled dumplings) and the legendary borshch (red beetroot soup). For a genuine Kyiv urban snack, try the perepichka (sausage in a fried bun) at Kyivska Perepichka near Teatralna metro station, and taste a magnificent cinnamon roll atBulochnaya Yaroslavna bakery on busy Yaroslaviv Val street.

City of Golden Domes

This proud nickname reflects the architectural splendour of Kyiv’s churches, as well as the prominence of the Ukrainian capital for Orthodox Christians. Visitors are easily amazed by the beauty of the Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra monastery complex and the grandeur of St Sophia’s Cathedral, both Unesco World Heritage sites. You can spend days admiring the medieval frescoes and baroque facades, descending into holy dungeons and watching stunning panoramas from the bell towers.

Outdoors fun along the Dnipro

Kyiv spreads along the wide Dnipro river, which divides the city into the right and left banks. Numerous islands in between offer a great range of outdoor activities. Truhaniv island is the perfect spot for relaxing walks or cycling with beautiful river views. During the summer, Hydropark becomes leisure central with sandy beaches, water activities and fancy bars. You can also take a boat cruise from the River Port (rpea.com.ua) for spectacular views of Kyiv hills.

Gigantic Soviet monuments

Kyiv was the third-largest city of the Soviet Union, so it’s no wonder that Soviet heritage in the form of colossal apartment blocks, socialist-realist frescoes and bizarre modernist buildings is found pretty much everywhere in the Ukrainian capital. But there’s one structure you simply can’t miss: the enormous Rodina Mat (meaning ‘Motherland’) memorial, part of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. With a height of 102m, it’s a distinctive element of Kyiv’s skyline.

Rich entertainment scene

Kyiv is a vibrant capital with a wide array of events taking place daily. Fans of classical music can enjoy heavenly notes in the unique House of Organ and Chamber Music inside the St Nicholas Cathedral, which was designed by Wladyslaw Horodecki. Ballet enthusiasts will be enthralled by performances of the world-renowned National Ballet of Ukraine at the Taras Shevchenko National Opera Theatre. Kyiv nightlife is a microcosm of its own, with choices ranging from hipster Closer (facebook.com/closerkiev) to dynamic Carribean Club (caribbean.com.ua).

One of Europe’s largest open-air museums

The Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture is a perfect place to explore how Ukrainians lived over the centuries. Exhibiting 300 examples of folk architecture from all parts of Ukraine and more than 40,000 household items and objects of traditional culture, Pyrohovo is a one-of-a-kind outdoor museum experience. It also regularly hosts open-air festivals to showcase the old Ukrainian rural lifestyle.

Ukrainian Art Nouveau

Kyiv’s eclectic cityscape makes it a perfect destination for architecture lovers. On a single street, you can find baroque buildings next to Soviet-style apartment blocks, or elegant Art Nouveau palaces overlooking newly built skyscrapers. Kyiv’s so-called Modern architectural style is the equivalent of European Art Nouveau; its pioneer was Wladislaw Horodecki, sometimes referred to as ‘the Gaudí of Kyiv’. His architectural genius gave birth to the stunning Neo-Moorish Actor’s House and one of the most enigmatic Kyiv landmarks, the splendid House of Chimeras.

Monumental Kyiv metro

From colourful frescoes depicting medieval Kiev Rus heritage at Zoloti Vorota station to white marble busts of scientists and poets at Universytet station – not to mention the labyrinth of Soviet underground transfer passages – Kyiv metro is truly impressive. It’s also record-breaking, with Arsenalna station considered the world’s deepest. Both the immense heritage of Ukraine’s Soviet past and the main transport of city dwellers today, Kyiv metro is a curious attraction and a true highlight of the Ukrainian capital.

Affordability

Kyiv often tops the lists of the most affordable European destinations, particularly in recent years – and for good reason. For example, one metro ride will cost you about 0,15 euros, while opera tickets start from just 1 euro. Food and accommodation costs are also much lower than in central and western Europe especially since the devaluation of the hryvnya, which makes the Ukrainian capital a very tempting budget-friendly destination.

King Arthur in Britain

The real King Arthur

Arthur’s story is full of romantic embellishments, and historians have identified many figures who could be the real king. Was it Owain Ddantgwyn, who ruled the Dark Ages kingdom of Powys around 500 AD and was victorious against the Angles, Saxons and Picts? Or Riothamus, a 5th-century Roman British leader who fought against the Goths ?

The truth is, no one knows which (if either) of these warriors the legend was based upon, but that hasn’t stopped the story from becoming woven into folklore. Ever since its popularisation in the 12th century, the legend has inspired countless writers and artists, from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s solemn poetry to the surrealism of Monty Python, and most recently Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword(released on 24 March 2017).

A legend is born

With any good story, you must start at the beginning. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century work Historia regum Britanniae(History of the Kings of Britain), Arthur was conceived on the site ofTintagel Castle in North Cornwall.

Much of what was taken as fact from Geoffrey’s book at the time has now been dismissed as a cocktail of legends, family stories and his own fervent imagination, but the association has stuck.

The castle ruins date from the 12th century – it may even have been built as a ploy to tap into interest in Arthur’s story and draw pilgrims here – but it’s dramatic nonetheless. The location would have been an important trading post during the Dark Ages, when Arthur is said to have ruled, and relics from this era are still evident.

If the tide is out, you can step inside Merlin’s Cave, carved into the bedrock beneath the castle, which is just about mysterious enough to pass as a plausible hideout for the famous wizard. Be warned: you’ll have to clamber down the rocks onto the beach to access it.

Chasing Camelot

According to Geoffrey’s depiction, Arthur held court in Caerleon in south Wales. The Roman amphitheatre, which today forms part of the excellent National Roman Legion Museum, provides a handy embodiment of the Round Table, but it’s far from the only place to vie for the title.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset has been linked to Arthurian legend since Tudor times. Excavations of the Iron Age hill fort show that it was indeed fortified at the time Arthur is said to have lived, and that it had a degree of wealth, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility, although if the recent claims of a retired Bangor University professor are to be believed, the real site could have been at a small but strategically important Roman fort on the outskirts of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

Visitors to Scotland’s capital would be forgiven for thinking the hill that looms large over Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, is in some way linked to Arthur’s legendary court. Evidence is scarce and it’s more likely that the name is a corruption of ‘archer’s seat’, but the walk up the crag still offers arguably the best perspective on a city packed with history.

One other popular theory is that Camelot was actually in Carlisle, in Cumbria, with Arthur’s Round Table a Neolithic earthwork henge located outside the city. If you do make the pilgrimage here, tie it in with a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, which was where Arthur’s last battle, Camlann, was said to have been fought, though historians disagree about whether it was near Birdoswald Roman Fort or Castlesteads, just outside Carlisle.

Lancelot and the Round Table

Near England’s northeastern tip, Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle is, according to 15th-century writer Thomas Malory’s account, the castle of Lancelot, the greatest knight of Arthur’s court – and the man who ultimately betrayed him with his beloved Guinevere. Its imposing walls house several rooms of wonderful Italian art.

At the other end of England, while the magnificent round table that hangs in Winchester Great Hall in Hampshire does look the part, it most likely dates from the 13th century and was restored during King Henry VIII’s reign – hence King Arthur’s striking resemblance to the Tudor monarch.

Shropshire’s claim

This rural county between Wales and the Midlands has more King Arthur sites than most, perhaps because one of the contenders for the ‘real’ Arthur did actually hail from near here. If Owain Ddantgwyn, known as ‘the Bear’, was Arthur it’s likely he would have ruled from Wroxeter, now a small village outside Shrewsbury, but then one of the most sophisticated cities in the country.

The King Arthur Trail (shropshiretourism.co.uk) highlights many places of interest including mystical Whittington Castle, where some say the Holy Grail once lay hidden in the castle’s chapel, while the nearby Bronze Age Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle (english-heritage.org.uk), on Stapeley Hill, is known locally as the site of the famous ‘sword in the stone’ – the legendary moment when Arthur proved his right as king by retrieving the sword.

Epic adventure

There are countless sites across Wales with Arthurian connections, including Llyn Llydaw and Llyn Ogwen, both in Snowdonia National Park, which both claim to be the watery resting place of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Llyn Ogwen is a popular stopping off point for people attempting the dramatic scramble up Tryfan.

Tryfan is one of Snowdonia’s most recognisable peaks and the legendary final resting-place of Sir Bedivere, the knight who returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake – it is also one of the locations for Ritchie’s film.

Away to Avalon

According to the legend, the injured Arthur was taken to the magical island of Avalon following his bloody clash with the usurper Mordred, and both he and Guinevere are buried there. Popular culture puts the real Avalon at 7th-century Glastonbury Abbey or nearby Glastonbury Tor, which would have towered over the marshy Dark Ages landscape like an island in the sea, and is regarded as one of the most spiritual places in Britain.

Other possibilities for Arthur’s resting place include Bardsey Island, off the northwest tip of Wales – said to be the burial place for 20,000 saints – and Craig y Ddinas in Brecon Beacons National Park, where Arthur and his warriors lie in wait until they are called upon once again to defend Britain.

Secret Valleys Of The Sichuan Himalaya

Haizi Valley

The toughest and steepest walk of the three valleys, Haizi Valley also presents the most stunning panoramas of the surrounding mountains and, for strong walkers, a string of deep blue lakes to reflect the snowy peaks. Despite the long uphill walk from the valley floor at 3200m to the turn into Haizi Valley proper, Yaomei Feng (‘Youngest Sister Peak’) still towers impressively at 6250m above her three older siblings and the viewpoints far below. Along the walk, look out for strings of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and take time to stop and admire the panoramas that open up above each of the four small lakes that dot the valley.

Horsemen hire out mounts to Big Lake about halfway up the valley, so even those not keen on a steep hike can hitch a ride this far. Even if you push up the entire 19km valley to the Twin Lakes at 4600m, you’re still far below the enticing summits of Yaomei Feng and her three smaller sisters.

Changping Valley

Just beyond the small tourist village of Rilong, Changping Valley is the middle way between the heights of Haizi Valley and the managed experience of Shuangqiao Valley. Directly at the foot of the Four Sisters massif, Changping Valley offers more closed-in forest trails than sweeping panoramas, but be sure to continue at least to the Muluozi viewpoint for an up-close view of the sisters from below. A short boardwalk starts at the ruins of a Lama monastery, but quickly reverts back to dirt trails after just a few kilometres.

Visitors who’d rather skip the initial five-kilometre road walk from Rilong to the monastery ruins can catch a shuttle bus from the ticket office at the entrance of the valley. It’s also possible to combine Changping with more remote destinations: multi-day treks lead to destinations as close as Bipeng Valley just outside the national park boundary, or as far as the Chengdu Plain near Dujiangyan.

Shuangqiao Valley

The longest of the three hikes at Four Sisters Mountain, Shuangqiao Valley is also the most accessible, with a boardwalk path and bus transfers between the entrance gate and the end of the valley. Though the walk is easy, the views never fall short. Burbling streams, glaciated peaks, pristine ponds and Buddhist stupas line that path throughout. Even with the comparative crowds that come to this easiest hike of the Four Sisters, it isn’t hard to find a moment of peace in such a lovely natural setting. As the landscape transitions from larch forest at the top of the trek down to grasslands at the bottom, the viewpoints like those at White Lake and Hunter’s Peak offer not-to-be-missed looks back at the mountains that ring the upper end of Shuangqiao Valley.

Outside of peak season (May to October), some lower sections of the boardwalk may be closed, so while visitors can still enjoy the mountain vistas they may end up doing more through a bus window than originally expected.

Make it happen

In recent years, tourists have accessed Four Sisters Mountain from the west, via the gateway city of Danba, but nearly-complete construction will soon have the area within easy range of Chengdu once more. Close to the city of Wenchuan, epicentre of the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan, poor road connections with Chengdu have played a major part in keeping Four Sisters Mountain off the beaten tourist trail. With reconstruction of the direct route via Wolong Nature Reserve soon to finish, however, what was once an all-day trip will shrink to three or four hours from Chengdu’s Chadianzi station. Get there before the rest of the world finds out.

Camping is allowed within the valleys of the national park, though only with a local guide. Most travellers will base themselves in the small town of Rilong. There’s a stretch of expensive tour-group hotels along the highway, but about 1km up Changping Valley is a small tourist village in a ‘reconstructed historic’ style that caters more to independent travellers’ needs.

Way Prepare For A Perfect Voyage To Antarctica

Because of its delicate environment, strict regulations and a lack of tourism infrastructure on the continent’s shores, most travelers visit Antarctica on expedition cruises that circumvent the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding islands. Prep for your voyage with the help of a polar travel tour operator – they’ll handle the planning, but suitable packing, physical conditioning and mental readiness is up to you.

Lean on an outfitter for the logistics

Antarctic cruises have the benefit of organized pre- and post-voyage transportation and sometimes include additional excursions aroundUshuaia, Argentina (where most Antarctica-bound vessels call in to port) plus accommodations, on-board meals and expedition gear included in the price. Pick a reputable, International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators-affiliated (iaato.org) outfitter to ensure a safe and environmentally responsible experience.

The more you know, before you go

Reading about Antarctica’s history, geography and wildlife will not only provide pre-trip inspiration, but will help you appreciate the journey as you reflect on the tales of those first explorers who charted the very same waters you’ll be sailing. Antarctica showcases wildlife on a magnificent scale, so learning about the life-cycle and food chain of the continent’s species will provide insight on the mesmerizing and sometimes curious behavior you’ll bear witness to.

If you don’t get a chance to read up before you go, most ships have reference libraries and offer lectures by on-board scientists. You may find yourself sitting next to one of them in the dining hall – pick their brains and you’re guaranteed top-notch dinner conversation.

At the very least, brush up on ice – it’s good to know the difference between a glacier and a ‘berg (the former chills on land while the latter floats out to sea).

Get the right gear

Many outfitters supply essentials like parkas, boots and waterproof trousers. These items are likely to commandeer most of your luggage space, so check with your operator to find out if these will be provided or if you must bring your own. Consult any packing list they supply, which should include items like hats, scarves and gloves (it’s wise to pack a back-up of each), wool socks and base layers.

Layers are everything on an Antarctic expedition, which goes for on-board time as well – you may be cozy with a cup of tea and a book one moment, then rushing outside to spot a pod of killer whales porpoising beside the ship the next. Best have a fleece and a down mid layer quick at hand, plus a pair of waterproof shoes with good grip for the slippery decks.

Non-clothing essentials

Bringing a quality pair of binoculars is wise, and if you want to get good photos of fast-moving wildlife, a zoom lens is ideal for your camera. Be sure to bring some kind of waterproof casing for your camera or mobile phone as splashes while riding on Zodiacs (the smaller boats used to venture out from the cruise ship) are certain.

Despite being a land of ice, the sun is incredibly strong in Antarctica and reflects blindingly off the snow, so sunscreen (at least SPF 45) and sunglasses are necessary. The cold wind can wreak havoc on your lips, so stock up on lip balm with SPF.

As minimal as you should strive to be, it’s nice to have a couple of creature comforts…particularly, edible ones. Most voyages have set meal times and the grub is plentiful, but outside of that, food may be hard to come by. Bring along some trail mix and chocolate or protein bars.

There’s often a strict weight limit on what you can bring on the ship (checked and carry-on luggage combined) and the average ship cabin is scant on square footage. Unless you find comfort in clutter, leave any unessential items at home – your cabin mate will appreciate it.

Shape up to ship out

You don’t have to be a triathlete to go on an expedition cruse to Antarctica, but general physical preparedness and sound mobility make for a much more comfortable voyage. One of the defining realities of a cruise expedition to Antarctica is the crossing of the Drake Passage – twice. This 600-mile stretch of sea between Tierra del Fuego (shared between Argentina and Chile) and the Antarctic Peninsula is notorious for rough waves. It’s the confluence of three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern; their temperatures and currents meld to create swell that once saw explorers perish.

Though the vessels of today are well equipped to maneuver such choppy waters, brace yourself for what will be a bit of a bumpy ride at best and vomitous at worst. When the ship starts to sway as you amble from deck to deck, good balance and leg strength well keep you sure-footed as a goat. When walking around, always keep one handsomewhere on the boat. The handrails you see everywhere serve a purpose (just don’t forget to hit a hand sanitizing station every time you pass one).

After crossing the Drake, it’ll be time to get onto the water in Zodiacs, which requires coordination and balance, plus a bit of core strength to stay upright and steady while zipping around brash ice and ‘bergs. Depending on the operator, excursions like kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, camping, skiing and mountaineering are sometimes on offer, so ensure you’re in the right physical condition to take part. The expedition may also feature a “Polar Plunge” event, where you jump – in most cases, with a harness – off the side of the ship into the freezing ocean. Harness aside, you’ll need to know how to swim for this one.

Settle into setting sail

Once you get onto the vessel, get comfortable – this is your home for at least a week. The people who boarded the ship with glee alongside you were once strangers but are now family, whether you like it or not; you may form fast friendships with some and avoid others as much as possible, until you’re all forced to come together over dinner. Revel in the conversations and share stories, but take solace in solitude where you can find it. Yes, there’s usually (expensive) wifi on board, though there’s no better place on Earth to unplug than at the end of it.

Ways To Explore Colombo For Free

Here are ways to explore this constantly evolving city for free.

Snake charmers charm at Viharamahadevi Park

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

Join the locals on Colombo’s favourite promenade

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

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

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

Engage with Sri Lankan contemporary art at Paradise Road Gallery

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

Zen out and meditate at Bellanwila Temple

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

Love the sunset on Mount Lavinia Beach

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

Graffiti in 3D at Diyatha Uyana

Colombo’s most happening public park, Diyatha Uyana, has become an outdoor hub of cultural activity. Created by unknown local artists, trompe l’oeil graffiti artworks that seem to burst into 3D are the latest addition to the park’s artistic legacy, creating dizzying optical illusions in front of the beautiful view over Lake Batturumullam. Make a day of it and explore the serene grounds, scan the vegetation for tropical birds or check out the Good Market held on Thursdays, selling healthy snacks and Sri Lankan crafts.

Books, exhibitions and more at Barefoot Bookshop

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

Have a run in with history at Independence Square

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

Delve into Dutch history at Wolvendaal Church

A short distance from the chaos of Pettah Market, this impressive piece of Dutch architecture was put together in 1757. The jackals that used to roam this area were mistaken for wolves by early Dutch settlers, giving the church its curious name – Wolvendaal, or ‘Valley of Wolves’. Although the church isn’t well maintained, its five-foot thick stonewalls are laden with history. You could spend hours staring at the life stories of forgotten settlers, carved into the ornate tombstones that pave the floor. Catch a church service on Sundays at 9.30am.

Ways To Spend The Festive Period

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.

Keep it festive: Honolulu’s annual City Lights event brings Rockefeller Center vibes to Hawaii. Think brash decorations, a brightly lit tree and carols.

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.

Keep it festive: If weather allows, take a hike on Winter Island and build a snowman at an old British Antarctic Survey hut.

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.

Keep it festive: Namibia’s status as a former German colony means finding traditional festive treats isn’t a struggle. Bars in the capitalWindhoek serve up warm glühwein, despite the scorching summer weather.

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.

Keep it festive: Hanoi’s crumbling St Joseph’s Cathedral is the perfect place to attend midnight Mass and see traditional nativity scenes. Plus you can celebrate afterwards with a drink in one of the Bia Hoi (fresh draught beer) joints outside the main gates.

Tango in Buenos Aires

Argentina’s Catholic heritage means that the festive period is a huge deal in Buenos Aires. Festivities kick off on 8 December with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and there’s little let up until New Year’s Day. Christmas Eve is the day you want to make sure you’re in town though. This is the main day of celebration and undoubtedly the best way to spend it is at a tango show. Theatres lay on a feast while performers take to the stage, so you can enjoy a glass of Malbec and a hefty steak rather than sitting bolt upright in an uncomfortable seat in the stalls. La Ventana and El Viejo Almacen are both top picks.

Keep it festive: Buenos Aires does New Year fireworks like nowhere else. Armed with rockets, locals take the DIY approach, spending the minutes after midnight lighting up the city sky. Find a safe spot, look up and marvel.

A four-week festive party in Fiji

When it comes to indulging over the festive season, few places are better than Fiji. Beginning two weeks before the big day and continuing for two weeks after, Fijian communities gather together to perform ritual fan and spear dances, decorating their villages with lamps and candles. Feasts are prepared in traditional lovo hot stone ovens, with dishes including garlic chicken, cassava and Palusami, spiced mutton in coconut cream. Locals also indulge in the ritual drinking of kava, a homemade moonshine of pepper plant root and water which is not for the faint-hearted.

Keep it festive: Keep an eye out for Santa plying the beaches, handing out presents from his tropical sleigh, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a speedboat.

Beach vibes in Sydney

Escaping the frosty northern winter for fun in the Aussie summer sun is a ritual we can definitely recommend. For one, there’s Sydney’s first-rate surfing. Bronte and Tamarama beaches offer superb breaks for those wanting to get down with the locals. Then there’s the sheer novelty of having a barbecue rather than a gut-busting roast dinner come mid-afternoon. And on New Year’s Eve, you can enjoy spectacular fireworks over the harbour bridge and Opera House without having to wrap up against the midnight chill like you do in New York or London.

Keep it festive:It might be over 30℃, but it’s essential you don a cheap Santa hat if you’re spending the big day down at Bondi Beach.

Road Trips On Australia’s East Coast

Australia’s East Coast offers plenty to get excited about for road-tripping explorers. Along sun-bleached blacktop, you’ll find picture-perfect beaches, hip cities, lush rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and abundant native wildlife. Driving routes can meet any interest and range from epic long-haul adventures to pinpoint itineraries of must-do experiences. So pack your surfboard, your hiking boots and your appetite and hit the East Coast road.

The Great Barrier Reef Drive: Cairns to Cape Tribulation (1 week)

By embarking on this trip, you’ll journey up the coast in far-north Queensland, passing classic old towns and luxe resort hubs with eye-popping Great Barrier Reef views en route. Starting ebullient Cairns, a snorkelling or dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef is a must. After that, pinball between the city’s botanic gardens, hip restaurants and buzzy bars.

Next up, head inland via gondola cableway or scenic railway to Kurandafor rainforest walks and the storied markets (try some macadamia nuts!). Don’t miss detours to picturesque Millaa Millaa Falls and a rainforest hike in scenic Wooroonooran National Park.

On Cairns’ northern beaches, check yourself into a plush Palm Coveresort, then pull off the road for a photo-op at Rex Lookout above Wangetti Beach further north. Port Douglas in next – an up-tempo holiday hub with fab eateries, bars and further reef-trip diversions.

At Mossman Gorge, lush (and Unesco World Heritage-listed) rainforest enshrouds the photogenic Mossman River: take a guided walk and cool off in a waterhole. At Daintree River, book yourself onto a crocodile-spotting cruise then have lunch in Daintree Village. Cow Bay awaits nearby for a few hours of beachcombing. Last stop is Cape Tribulation, a magnificent collusion of rainforest and reef. Spend a few nights at one of the upmarket lodges nooked into the rainforest here.

High energy Brisbane to the laid back Gold Coast (7-10 days)

Watch your worries fade away as you trek out of the lovingly big-cityBrisbane and out into the chilled-out Gold Coast surf towns and northern New South Wales. Before you leave Brisbane, though, you’ll want a couple days to enjoy Queensland’s river-city capital, a semitropical boomtown dappled with brilliant bars, cafes and bookshops (the pillars of civilised society). Don’t miss the excellentGallery of Modern Art (GOMA), the Brisbane Powerhouse arts hub, craft-beer bars and live tunes in the West End. Save a night on the tiles in hedonistic Fortitude Valley and make time for a ferry trip out to North Stradbroke Island for surfing, sea kayaking and fish-and-chips on the sand. Back on the mainland, scoot west to the Granite Belt region for cool-climate wineries and some boulder-hopping in Girraween National Park.

An hour south of Brisbane, the Gold Coast bares its beachy, brassy soul. The epicentre here is celebratory Surfers Paradise, with its brazen sun and after-dark good times. More relaxed and surf-centric are Burleigh Heads and laid-back Coolangatta. Head a quick 50-minute dash south into New South Wales and you’ll find the alt-lifestyle haven of Byron Bay, home to endless beaches, delightful accommodation, delectable food and more. The local charisma is so strong that many wandering nomads stop in Byron Bay only to never leave.

The Great Beach Drive: Sunshine Coast & Fraser Island (10 days)

Maybe your idea of a winning road trip depends on access to high-profile outdoor adventure. If so, you want to take on the aptly namedSunshine Coast in southeast Queensland. Start by meandering through the curious geology of the Glass House Mountains, with their breath-robbing panoramas and outstanding rock-climbing. Nearby is the superb Australia Zoo – brilliant if you have the kids in tow (and even if you don’t).

Next up, sunny Mooloolaba has solid surf and chipper beach vibes and boasts fresh catches of local ‘Mooloolaba King’ prawns. Another half-hour north and you’ll reach Noosa and its lush national park (home to sometimes-spotted koalas), river kayaking and a first-class foodie scene.

A couple of hours north is gorgeous Rainbow Beach, full of surfing, fishing, paragliding, hiking, skydiving, horse-riding and more. From here, explore the huge dunes, beach ‘highways’, bushwalks and crystalline lakes on the World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, the largest sand island on the planet (BYO 4WD, or take a tour).

Looping south, visit historic Maryborough, birthplace of Mary Poppinsauthor PL Travers; then explore Tin Can Bay, home to an improbable number of sea turtles, dugongs and rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins.

Offshore adventure: Airlie Beach to Magnetic Island (10 days)

Road trips and islands don’t make obvious pairing, but Queensland’s offshore offerings are so dense that you can survey a good bit of them in one trip linked with unforgettable coastal coastal drives.

Start in Airlie Beach. Here you can cut loose an unending population of travellers before booking a boat trip out to the glorious Whitsunday Islands archipelago. There are myriad Whitsunday daytrip options, but a multiday sail will let you leave your footprints on remote beaches with no one else on them. Don’t miss Whitsunday Island itself and a memorable swim off sublime Whitehaven Beach, often touted as Australia’s prettiest.

After cruising the islands, book a few nights at a swish offshore resort – Hamilton, Hayman and Daydream islands await. Feeling more adventurous? Sign up for an overnight kayaking trip with island camping.

Next you’ll want to head about three hours north to Townsville. Here, promenade along the waterfront, check out the excellent Reef HQ Aquarium, clamber up Castle Hill and lunch into Townsville’s impressive eating and drinking scene (try the seafood, of course). Experienced divers can book a dive on the famous wreck of the SS Yongala offshore.

Wind up your journey on Magnetic Island, an unpretentious isle with easy-going beach villages, rampant wildlife and scenic bushwalking aplenty.

Little bit of everything: Sydney to Melbourne (1 week)

By now, you’re far from the rugged charms of Queensland, but the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne offers an abundance of national parks, surf beaches, ocean wildlife and disarming small-town vibes.

Sydney is Australia’s biggest and brightest city, offering iconic experiences like the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, harbour ferries to Manly and the bustling Bondi Beach. Just south, though, you’ll find the dramatic cliffs and bushwalks of Royal National Park and the elevated Grand Pacific Drive roadway, arcing out above the ocean for impressive ride. At Jervis Bay, you’ll find white-sand beaches, cavorting dolphins and national parks. With quick detour inland, you can visit Australia’s capital Canberra to check on proceedings at parliament house and visit the nation’s best museums.

Coastal Narooma has pretty beaches and solid surf. From here, catch a ferry to Montague Island, an important Aboriginal site and an impressive nature reserve. On south-coast NSW, sleepy Eden is famed for whale watching, and don’t miss historic, picture-perfect Central Tilba.

Crossing into Victoria, you can glide through forests, farms and the Gippsland Lakes district to Wilsons Promontory, with its fab bushwalks, camping and beaches. Beyond lies Phillip Island, where penguins, seals and surfers frolic in the brine. Finally, it’s the big smoke – Melbourne.

A southern coastal classic: Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road (7-10 days)

This classic rite-of-passage road trip tracks south from sophisticated Melbourne along the craggy Great Ocean Road – expect lovely little beach towns, great waves and epic scenery. Melbourne has enough to keep frequent-flyers grounded for months: laneway bars, galleries, live music, shopping, coffee culture, Australian Rules football and more. But an hour south, Great Ocean Road beckons.

Start in the surfing mecca of Torquay and check the swell at legendaryBells Beach, then roll into family-focussed Anglesea for a surf lesson and a riverside picnic. Aireys Inlet is just around the bend: tour the lighthouse then spend the night in urbane little Lorne.

West of here, Great Ocean Road gets wiggly and seriously scenic, winding between the churning sea and the forest-clad Otway Ranges. Unwind in the artsy fishing village of Apollo Bay for a few days (great pub!), then swing by Cape Otway to spy some koalas and the iconic lighthouse.

Next up is Port Campbell National Park and its famed Twelve Apostlesrock formation: count them from the clifftops or book yourself onto a scenic flight. Scan for whales off the Warrnambool coast, then continue west to the quaint, rather Irish-feeling Port Fairy. The folk festival here every March sends the wee town into hyperdrive!

Find Sydney’s best beaches

Sydney is one of the world’s luckiest cities when it comes to beaches literally on its doorstep. There are harbour beaches where toddlers can paddle as well as challenging surf breaks best accessed from rocky headlands – but in the height of summer Sydney’s city beaches can get busy. Here are our tips on how to enjoy the best of Sydney’s beaches, without dealing with the crowds.

Secluded spots

Sydney is famous for its surf beaches but there are many secluded hideaway beaches dotted all around the harbour. Some are more popular than others, depending on their accessibility, but our top tips are the diminutive Lady Martins Beach at Point Piper, not far from central Sydney and tucked between the salubrious suburbs of Double Bay and Rose Bay.

On the northern side of city, head for Balmoral Beach near Mosman. It is an excellent beach for families, with a netted enclosed swimming area and large shady Moreton Bay fig trees to escape the heat. Lastly, look for Collins Beach at Manly, a long circuitous walk from the Manlyferry pier, where you may well find yourself alone for a good part of the day.

Autumn sun

This may surprise many first-time travellers to Sydney, but autumn (March to May) is a perhaps the best time to hit the beach. Sydney is blessed with a fairly temperate climate so it can stay sunny and reasonably warm right into late May (the beginning of the Australian winter). It takes some months for the ocean to cool down to the same temperature as the land which means the sea can still be surprisingly warm even if days are not baking hot.

Rise and shine

You can beat the heat, and the summer hordes, by heading down to the Sydney’s most iconic surf spot, Bondi Beach, early in the morning. There’s nothing like watching the sun rise over the ocean, and you’ll be sharing the experience with locals surfing, running, and doing their early morning sun salutations. Bondi gets busier as the day wears on – by midday traffic can clog the main routes down to the shoreline. Book an early lunch at Icebergs, which overlooks the iconic ocean pool, then make your escape.

Go south

If you do hit Bondi in peak hour, you can also head south to Bronte andCoogee via a cliff-side walking path (unfortunately you won’t be the only one doing this walk!). Beyond Bondi there are further ocean pools for the less confident swimmers to take a paddle where you’re protected from sharks as well as the swell. You’ll still be swimming with the same breath-taking views of sandstone headlands, sea birds and the occasional band of whales ploughing their migration routes along the Pacific.

An even less touristy option is the beach Maroubra, another few headlands further south of Coogee. Maroubra means ‘like thunder’ in the local Indigenous language and is part of Australia’s second National Surfing Reserve. If you just want to sit on the sand and watch the action, the breaks here provide plenty for skilled surfers.

First-timers can hire a surfboard and sign up for lessons at the local surf school both at Bondi or Maroubra.