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DESTINATIONS
The South Pacific made simple...
posted by Richard Green on 04/04/2017

Sandbar schmandbar, where's the bar? Apart from that, another day in paradise. Photo The Brando

There’s nothing quite like a Pacific island for its total daydreamy perfection. The sense of relaxation is beyond compare, as is the quality of the beaches, reefs and surf, and the friendliness of the islanders. And this is not just a courtesy shown to tourists either, but a deeply ingrained way of life that's guaranteed to buoy your spirits.

The Pacific is a gigantic ocean, however, arrived at only after a long and expensive flight — and, beyond the South Seas stereotype, the individual island nations are very different. It's a big investment in time and money to get there, so before you go its vital that you choose the right island for you.

Here is a run through the best of them...

Hawaii

What’s it like? Hawaii’s most famous strip of sand is Waikiki beach, in Honolulu. As a city beach resort, it’s a hoot, with a real holiday vibe, good restaurants and cracking nightlife. The gargantuan surfing waves at North Shore, snorkelling at Hanauma Bay and the evocative Pearl Harbor memorial are all a short drive away (on very good roads).

Honolulu is very American it's true, a world away from the more traditional islands of the Pacific. And it’s a world away from Hawaii’s seven other main islands, too. Leave it and you leave behind three-quarters of the 1.4m population, and are set to stumble on experiences as wonderful as any in the Pacific.

Great for black sand beaches and scrabble, the Waiʻanapanapa State Park on the island of Maui

On the Big Island, you can watch fresh lava fizzing into the sea and visit upland cowboy ranches. On Maui, you can ride across the moonscapes of Haleakala Crater and drive the Hana Highway, over single-lane bridges and around heart-stopping hairpins. On Lanai, a ghostly tanker lies fast on the reef at Shipwreck Beach, and there’s a weird rock-strewn desert called the Garden of the Gods. On Molokai, take a mule ride along a narrow cliff ledge, 1,650ft above the waves, and trek the Halawa Valley for top-flight rainforest birding. And on Kauai, stroll boardwalks above the misty Alakai swamp and lie on Lumahai beach, where Mitzi Gaynor vowed “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” in South Pacific.

Sunset at the Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island. Photo Kurt Johnson

One more thing...the Union Jack is on the flag of Hawaii, reputedly because King Kamehameha flew the Royal Navy’s red ensign from his palace after it was given to him as a present.

A King Kamehameha I statue, with the current Hawaiian state flag behind

Getting there: the main gateway to the Hawaiian Islands is Honolulu International Airport, which handles over 20 million passengers a year. There are flights from 20 mainland US cities, and other regional destinations including Auckland with Air New Zealand, Beijing with Air China, Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo with Japan Airlines, Seoul with Korean Air and Asiana, Sydney with Qantas , and Vancouver with Air Canada

If you are planning a round the world trip, or want to take in other Pacific Islands, then there are connections to Apia, Kiritimati and Nadi with Fiji Airways, Pago Pago and Papeete with Hawaiian Airlines, and Chuuk, Guam, Kosrea, Kwajalein, Majuro, and Pohnpei with United Airlines

Getting around: the high standard of living in the islands ensures regular and affordable inter-island flights, with Hawaiian Airlines, Island Air , and Mokulele Airlines.  

More information: see Go Hawaii

Fiji

What’s it like? Fiji is the South Pacific at its best — with 333 islands and a population nudging a million, there are diversions aplenty. It has fabulous beaches, of course, as well as timeless traditions and decades of experience of welcoming tourists. It’s one of the easiest island groups to get around, too, and every budget, from top-end to backpacker, will find a beach to call home.

If you’re just stopping over, it's best to head for the 20 Mamanuca islands, off the coast from the main airport. Protected by a reef, they can be as beach party or secluded luxury as you like. On a longer trip, explore the main island, Viti Levu. It’s a fabulous four-hour drive along the Coral Coast highway from the airport to Suva, the Fijian capital. Along the way, you’ll find great family-friendly resorts, hiking in the central mountains and the pretty thatched village of Navala.

Pool bar at the Castaway Island resort in the Mamanuca group. Photo Castaway Island

From Suva, you can hop on a ferry to many of the other islands, including Ovalau, home to the ramshackle town of Levuka: a former whaling station, it has a cutesy collection of clapboard colonial buildings. Stay at the faded but fabulous Royal Hotel, one of the oldest in the Pacific.

In this part of the world, kava is a semi-ceremonial drink made from the root of a pepper-related plant. You’ll find it across the Pacific, but Fijians drink lots of it. Slurp down the cloudy liquid, pass the bowl to your right, then feel your lips numb and your outlook mellow. It tastes like dishwater, but it’s rude to refuse.

One more thing...the grass skirt has evolved into the sulu on Fiji, and is worn by men and women. The smarter version is called the sulu va taga (“with pockets”), and is sported by businessmen, the police and ceremonially by the armed forces.

A passing out parade of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces

Getting there: Fiji has two international airports on the main island, of which by far the largest is Nadi Airport over on the west coast. Fiji Airways  has flights to Adelaide (starting June 2017), Auckland, Brisbane, Christchurch, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Melbourne, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney and Wellington.

Flights to other Pacific Island nations include Apia, Funafuti (Tuvalu), Honiara (Solomon Islands), Kirimati (aka Christmas Island), Nuku'alofa (Tonga), Port Vila (Vanuatu) and Tarawa (Kiribati) with Fiji Airways. Other island connections include Noumea and Wallis Island with Aircalin, Honiara and Port Moresby with Air Niugini, Port Vila with Air Vanuatu, and Nauru with Nauru Airlines

On the far east of the main island Nausori International Airport is near to the capital Suva, and has flights with Air Vanuatu to Port Vila, and with Fiji Airways to Apia, Auckland, Funafuti and Nuku'alofa. There are flights to 16 domestic destinations too, with Fiji Airways and Northern Air Northern Air.   

More information: see Tourism Fiji

Cook Islands

What’s it like? Arriving in Rarotonga is an instant tonic. It’s the main island of the Cooks, home to three-quarters of the archipelago’s 20,000 people, yet the longest hotel transfer is 10 miles. The air is hibiscus-scented and the people are disarmingly friendly: you’ll likely bump into the chap who stamped your passport in a bar later.

Day tripping by boat to reef in the Aitutaki Lagoon. Photo Cook Islands Tourism

Waves crash onto the island’s encircling reefs, protecting azure lagoons, white-sand beaches, palm trees and a thickly forested interior. The tourist industry is well developed, spanning barefoot luxury and barefoot backpacking, and it has good restaurants and raging nightlife. Sights are few, but do catch the Saturday markets, Sunday service in a coral-built church and an “island night” dance show.

If all that sounds too lively, make for Aitutaki, an hour’s flight north. It’s popular for its Bora Bora-style scenery and overwater bungalows.

A local bloke up a tree. Photo Cook Islands Tourism

One more thing...Albert Royle Henry was the Cooks’ first premier, but when it was discovered that he had illegally flown in hundreds of supporters from Auckland on voting day, he was stripped of his knighthood. He remains much loved; his bust, often garlanded, is in a cemetery on Rarotonga. See a piece on the statue, on My Bathroom Wall

Canoe races and regattas take place in many of the Pacific Islands. Photo Cook Islands Tourism

Getting there: Raratonga International Airport has flights Air New Zealand to Auckland, Los Angeles and Sydney, Air Tahiti to Papeete, Jetstar to Auckland, and Virgin Australia to Auckland. Air Raratonga flies domestically to Aitutaki, Aitu, Mangaia, and Mauke.

More information: see the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation

Samoa

What’s it like? The main attractions here are the beauty of the islands and the unspoilt way of life. You’ll soon unwind to the local rhythm, which in Samoa is very slow indeed. Apia is the capital — home to about 40,000 people, as well as the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, the Maketi Fou market and the Museum of Samoa. There are some excellent resort hotels around the main island.

A beach on the southeast of the main island. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Take a gentle drive round the island and you’ll pass villages with open-sided thatched fales (houses), women playing a form of cricket and men playing rugby — a religion here, as it is in Fiji and Tonga. Over on wilder Savaii are blowholes, waterfalls, lava fields and forests.

One more thing...Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last four years of his life at Vailima, a couple of miles south of Apia. The grand villa he built is now the fine Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. Climbing up to his tomb on Mount Vaea, behind the house, is sticky as hell, but the inscription and the views are worth it.

The superb Villa Vailima, now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. Photo Flickr/Michael Coghlan

Getting there: Faleolo International Airport is 40 kilometres west of the Island's capital, Apia. It has flights to Auckland with Air New Zealand; to Honolulu, Nadi, Suva with Fiji Airways; to Pago Pago and Tau with Inter Island Airways; to Maota and Pago Pago with Polynesian Airlines; to Asau, Canton, Fagali'i, Funafuti, Maota, Pago Pago, and Vava'u with Samoa Air; to Pago Pago with Talofa Airways; and to Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney with Virgin Samoa. 
 
One more thing...Samoa Air charges passengers by weight - the passenger's weight that is. The company weighs them plus their luggage, and then calculates the ticket price based on that. It's a small player on the island, unlike the big rugby blokes who are clobbered by this fare system, but the airline has just two small Cessna light aircraft and mainly operates taxi and air charter services around the country.
 
The Samoa Air maintenance crew sporting their 'A kilo is a kilo is a kilo' T-shirts. A company Cessna. Photos Samoa Air

More information: samoa.travel

Tahiti

What’s it like? The turquoise lagoon and ragged peaks of Bora Bora are a seductive interplay of land and sea. The water is clear, the sharp-peaked mountains soar 2,000ft above the sea, and there is nothing to do but do nothing. Birthplace of the overwater bungalow, Bora Bora has dozens of super chic hotels fronting astonishingly beautiful beaches. It’s magnificent fly-and-flop territory, but it’s expensive and presents a rather Disneyfied version of the Pacific. If you aren’t rich and famous, or plotting a blowout honeymoon, you are better off on the black-sand beaches of Tahiti island or the white-sand sensations of Moorea, 10 miles to the west.

Bora Bora is overwater villa central. The first was built in 1970, now there are over a dozen. Photo Tourisme Tahiti

To find the pristine beauty of traditional Polynesia, you should venture to less visited parts of the Society Islands, of which Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea are all part. Inhabitants of Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa share their magical islands and enviably uncomplicated lifestyle with just a handful of idyllic retreats.

Bora Bora is 230 kilometres northwest of Tahiti, dominated by the 727 metre high Mount Pahia

One more thing...Marlon Brando fell for a local girl, Tarita Teriipia, while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962. He built his bolt hole 36 miles north of Tahiti, on Tetiaroa, and opened a hotel there in 1973. It has now closed its doors, but a new environmentally friendly 35 villa lodge called, inevitably, The Brando, opened in 2014.

By the looks of it, even the bogs at The Brando are sublime. Photo The Brando

Getting there: Fa'aa International Airport is the gateway airport for all of French Polynesia. It's located on the Island of Tahiti. five kilometres from the capital of Papeete. It handles international flights from Auckland with Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui, from Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines, from Los Angles with Air France and Air Tahiti Nui, from Noumea with Aircalin, from Paris with Air France and Air Tahiti Nui, and from Raratonga with Air Tahiti. And Air Tahiti flies to 25 French Polynesian Islands.

More information: Tahiti Tourisme

Vanuatu

What’s it like? Vanuatu is one of the closest island nations to Australia, and gets a fair number of Aussie package holidaymakers, but it’s still friendly and far from overdeveloped, with good hotels and great beaches.

Not of all the Pacific is pricey; Hideaway Island has simple room for about £30 a night. Photo Lisa McKay

It was once shared between the British and French empires, hence the French ambience in the lovely little capital, Port Vila, and the decidedly tasty food. Things get livelier on the outlying islands. Tanna has wild horses, a half-mile coral reef drop-off, hot springs, waterfalls and Mount Yasur, the most accessible active volcano in the world, where you can stand and marvel as the earth trembles and spumes of lava spit skywards. Just off Espiritu Santo island, there’s a pearl of a wreck dive — the luxury liner turned troop ship SS President Coolidge hit a friendly mine in 1942, and now lies with her stern 240ft underwater.

One more thing...the land-diving ritual takes place on Pentecost Island on Saturdays between April and June. Young men jump from rickety towers with vines tied to their feet. It’s bungee jumping without the elastic, helmets or safety equipment — so freakishly scary-looking that it can be tough to watch.

Getting there: Bauerfield International Airport is close to Port Vile, the capital of Vanuatu. It handles flights from Auckland, Brisbane, and Sydney with Air Vanuatu, Brisbane with Virgin Australia. Flights from other Pacific nations include Noumea with Aircalin, Port Moresby with Air Niugini, Honiara with Solomon Airlines, and Nadi and Suva with Fiji Airways. Air Vanuatu flies to 14 of the country's islands.  

More information: Visit Vanuatu


Tonga

What’s it like? The kingdom of Tonga was never colonised by Europeans, something that has kept the island as a crucible of Polynesian tradition. The sleepy capital, Nuku’alofa (“Abode of Love”), is on the main island, Tongatapu. It’s flat and largely cultivated, with watermelons, bananas and more. Sights are in short supply, but for a glimpse of royalty, scrub up and head to the Centenary Chapel for the Sunday service — even if the king isn’t in town, the singing is heart-warming.

Yachts in a lagoon. Photo Tourism Tonga 

This is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific. It’s totally unspoilt, but may be too laid-back for some — the extreme torpor could well become frustrating. If, however, you can adjust to the notoriously elastic “Tonga time”, you are in for a treat.

One more thing...Tonga is the only kingdom in the Pacific. Queen Salote attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and thrilled spectators by riding in an open carriage, waving all the way despite the pouring rain. The current king is the 58 year old Tupou VI.

Getting there: Fua'amotu» International Airport is 35 kilometres from the capital of Nuku'alofa. It handles flights from Auckland with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia, to Nadi and Suva with Fiji Airways, and Sydney with Virgin Australia. Real Tonga flies domestically to 'Eua, Ha'apai and Vava.u.

More information: Tourism Tonga


Micronesia

What’s it like? The Federated States of Micronesia occupy 1m square miles of ocean, yet have a combined land area just greater than the Isle of Man’s — and they sure do reward the effort of a visit.

Swinging hammocks on the island of Chuuk

Chuuk (formerly Truk) has more than 50 shipwrecks in its lagoon, mainly Japanese ships from the second world war, and is a diving nirvana. Yap guards its traditions with gusto: here, dance is central and some men still wear loincloths. Kosrae is a lush island with great diving, and Pohnpei is home to Nan Madol, an extraordinary ruined city made up of 100 islets, in a system of canals dating from the 12th century.

One more thing...Yap is the home of stone coins, known as rai, which look like cast off car wheels from the Flintstones. Up to 12ft across, they can weigh several tons.

Yapese dancers with a stash of cash behind them. Photo Global Environmental Facility

One more thing...

The Guamanian flag is an endearingly homely affair that dates back to 1917. Apparently it was designed by the US base commander's wife, Helen Paul, who made many sketches of Guam, including one showing a single palm tree on a beach at the mouth of the Hagåtña River.

Her sketch was then copied by some students in a home economics class - which sounds about as random as one of my school 'cookery classes', in which I was made to stand in the corner for the entire lesson as punishment for wearing my grubby old woodwork apron.

Anyway, here it is, with the central oval echoing the shape of a local Chamorro slingstone weapon, the passing boat a traditional 'proa' sailing boat, and in the background is a representation of 'Two Lover's Point' where legend has it that two lovers refused to be separated, tied their hair together and jumped of a cliff.

More information: Visit Micronesia


 
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DESTINATIONS
The latest glass-bottomed skywalks open in Gibraltar and Seattle, and the best of the rest...
posted by Richard Green on 11/08/2018
 

Mark Hamill earning his fee. Stormtrooper No2 has a more casual approach

May the reinforced glass be with you...and with actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the 1977 Star Wars (and four subsequent films) and was on hand to declare the platform open. His hamming was aided by the prescence of several extras from Boogie Storm - an unlikely troop of Stormtrooper-themed dancers who appeared in a heat of the UK's 'Britain's got Talent' in 2016.

Gibraltar's glass-bottomed 'Skywalk' is the latest in a global fad for fear-inducing experiences. They take what was already an outstanding view and render it terrifying by adding a pathway and a see through floor.

Skywalk at night. Photo MeteoGib Steve Ball

Bragging rights for these skywalks seem to be all about who's platform is the highest, and how far you can see from up there on a 'clear day'. Which reminds me of a friend in south London who was having new windows fitted in his flat by a workman wag. My mate was on the 5th floor and it's true that he had nice large windows. The workman stood back to admire the handiwork and declared, "on a clear day you could see Barbara Striesand from here".

The Rock of Gibraltar, with the airport runway running beside it

The Gibraltar Tourist Board can't promise quite that from atop The Rock, but for sure you can see the 842 metre high Jebel Musa in Morocco, some 20 kilometers away. The Moroccan sumit is likely the southern leg of the so called Pillars of Hercules - a term used in antiquity for the singular mountains that stand on either side of the strait.

So the latest Skywalk is on the Rock of Gibraltar, at 426 meter high monolith known simply as The Rock. The 360 degree viewing platform was built onto the the foundations of an existing WWII structure and is at a height of 340 metres.

The top of the Rock and Skywalk by day. Photo Visit Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar has been for centuries, and as such has been modified and tunnelled into. Visitors to the upper levels will find the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the Windsor Suspension Bridge, the ancient battlements, World War II tunnels, and the magnificent St Michael's Cave.

The Moorish Castle tower, built in the 14th Century. Photo Visit Gibraltar

puzzle I've been to Gibraltar many times and it makes for a refreshingly different city break, though most visitors day trip there as part of their holiday in southern Spain, plus the territory is inclreasingly popular with cruise lines. It's a friendly place with a facinating geography and history. 
31 Gibraltar International Airport is literlly a short walk from the main settlement and handled 548,000 passengers in 2016. Its runway famously bisects the main raod from Gib to Spain. It currently offers flights with British Airways to London Heathrow and Easyjet to London Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester, and Royal Air Maroc to Tangier and Casablanca.
weather Gibraltar is a year round city break destination, with the same climate as the surrounding south coast of spain. Summers are dry and hot, when temperatures can top 30 °C. Most rain falls between November and February, but generally only in short sharp downpoors, and winter temperatures rarely dipping below 10 °C.
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The Skywalk is inside the Gibraltar Nature Reserve on the Upper Rock. Admission costs £12 for adults and £7 for children ged 5-12, and free for senior citizens. For more information see Visit Gibraltar

Other great Skywalks...

Spece Needle, Seattle, USA: the latest glass-bottomed skywalk experience opened on 8th August 2018 at Seattle's iconic Spece Needle Tower. It's the worl'd first revolving glass floor and is the highlight of a USD$100m renovation, or 'spacelift' as it prefers to call it.

On a clear day you can see the ground. Photo Space Needle/John Lot

Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the Space Needle rises 18m above the city streets and reflects a bold space-age vision of the future. The USD$100m makeover includes what's termed 'The Loupe', after the handle-free magnifying glasses used by watchmakers and jewelers. The gently revolving turntable is original, but now there is a circular glass floor to stand trembling on. 

The main observation deck, from which on a clear day you can see peaks of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, is above the glass floor level, and has been improved with the addition of 48 floor-to-ceiling glass panels. Visitors are encouraged to lean backwards against these for some harum-scarum selfies. The SkyCity revolving restaurant is on this deck too, and is due to reopen later in the year - also with added glass floors. SeeSpace Needle

Tianmen Mountain, Hunan Province, China: This extraordinarilly sheer-sided massive has long been known to the people of Hunan Province - and in fact there's a Tang Dynasty era Buddhist temple sits at the sumit built in AD 870.

It's not reported what you might see on a clear day - I'd be facing the rock anyway.

The pathway is 61 meters long, some which has 2.5" thick glass pannelling on its floor, is grafted onto the rock some 1,430 meters above the surrounding countryside. high is also 6,35 centimeters thick (2.5 inches).

The cable car rides up to the scenic area from the city of Zhangjiajie, in the northwest of Hunan Province. The city's international airport has flights from across China, plus Bangkok, Busan, Jakarta and Taipei. For more info see Zhangjiajie Tourism

Mirador de Abrante, Canary Islands: anyone driving across the rugged northern side of La Gomera should call here for a coffee and a view. Next door to the cafe/restaurant is a seven-metre overhang with glass sides and floor. If it's not foggy you can see the tiny villages of El Charco, Las Casas and the most isolated, La Montañet in the valley of Agulo, 400 metres below, with its houses and vertiginous agricultural terraces. On a clear day you can see Mount Teide - Spain's highest peak - over on Tenerife. 

On a clear day you can see Mount Teide, Tenerife. Photo Thomas Jundt/Flickr

Get to La Gomera on a short flight from Tenerife North with Binter, or from the port of Los Cristianos on the south side of Tenerife with Fred Olsen, and from Los Cristiano and La Palma with Naviera Armas

Jingdong Stone Forest Gorge, Beijing, China: this new glass-bottomed monstrosity claims to be the world's largest and longest glass-bottomed viewing platform, jutting out 33 meters from the cliff edge. 

Wills Tower Skydeck, Chicago, USA: Remember that scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off when the three friends press their heads against the glass to admire the view of Chicago? Well it was filmed at the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. So many visitors to the tower started doing the same that the developers decided to build four glass cube viewing platforms especially for them – collectively called the Ledge.

Willie Wonka eat your heart out. Photo Skydeck

Despite being built way back in 1973, the tower formerly known as Sears is still the tallest building in the western hemisphere. And now you don't have to strain your neck for a view – you just step into a glass box that extends out 1.3 metres from the skyscraper 400 metres above the bustling city streets. Don't look down, but out to the horizon, where on a clear day you can see across four states - Illinois of course, plus Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Nobody will have been wondering, but just so you know, the glass cubes are retractable, and are brought inside the building for cleaning and maintenenace. The tower is at 233 S Wacker Dr. Admission is $24 for adults, and $16 for children aged 3-11. For more info see Skydeck

Glacier Skywalk, Banff, Canada: the Skywalk stands 280 meters above the Sunwapta Valley in the heart of the Columbia Icefield, the largest area of ice in the Rocky Mountains.  

Nice views, shame about the steel/glass eyesoar. Photo Glaciel Skywalk

The Skywalk is accessed via the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, just off Highway 93 an hour's drive south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff. The nearest gateway airport is in Calgary International Airport, 140 kilometres to the east. Entry to the Glacier Skywalk is CAD $31 for adults and $16 for children aged 6-16. For more info see Glacier Skywalk

Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, Chamonix, France: 'Step into the void' as it is known, is a glass box skywalk at the top of the Aiguille du Midi peak, near Chamonix, in south-eastern France. The part cube may be minimalist, but the vertigo is not. 

David Blaine might be at home here - not me. Photo Wittur Group

With nothing standing between them and the blissful one kilometer void (a sheer drop of 12,604ft), than a 12 mm (1/2 inch) platform of glass enforced by steel frames.

Grand Canyon Skywalk, Nevada, USA: jutting out over the canyon 1,219 meters above the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon Skywalk opened in 2007 and has since proved hugely popular, especially as it's so much closer to Las Vegas than the more familiar views from the South Rim.

When the natural edge of a canyon just isn't enough. Photo Skywalk Grand Canyon

The horseshoe-shaped Skywalk extends out beyond Eagle Point by 21 meters and is a four-hour drive west of the South Rim visitor centre, and two hours east from Las Vegas.

The Edge, Eurika Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne's Eureka Tower is a self proclaimed 'gem in its urban skyline' located down by the Yarra River. It opened in 2007, is 297 meters tall, and as if a 91-story monolith isn't eye catching enough, its top 11 floors are 24 carat gold plated.

The Edge projects out from the 88th floor at about 300 meters above the city. No self respecting attraction down under would be complete with a few 'in the southern hemisphere' epethettes, and getting to the Edge, 'the ighest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere' will mean travelling on the fastest lifts in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Some bright spark grafted a glass box onto 88th floor. Photo Eureka Skydeck 88

The Edge is at 7 Riverside Quay, Southbank. Admission is AUD $12 for adults and $8 for children. For more info see Eureka Skydeck


 
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DESTINATIONS
Summertime and the swimming is easy...10 spots worth packing your trunks for...
posted by Richard Green on 01/08/2017
 

Ik Kil, Mexico: just four kilometres from the Chichen Itza pyramids in Yucatan is the the magnificent fresh-water swimming hole of Il Kil. It's the most famous cenote in the area, which is an old Mayan word meaning 'sacred well', which are sinkholes formed when the roof of a limestone cave collapses. The pool is 35 metres deep, is home to shoals of black catfish, and the jungle scene is topped off by a curtain of vines dripping with beads of water.

The Mayans had a penchant for human sacrifice, so its no surprise that a giant steep-sided pool would be a green light for some drownings - in this case young people thrown in sacrifice to their rain god.

These days getting out of the water and back to the top of the cenote is a synch, as steps and tunnels have been carved into the walls and through the living rock.

Practicalities: some coach tours to Chichen Itza from Cancun call in at Ik Kil and it gets busy at times. There's a restaurant and a few stalls around the rim now too. If you want to dodge the hoards and sleepover to enjoy a morning or evening swim, then Hotel Ik Kil is right by the rim, or the Hotel Dolores is a 10-minute walk away. The swimming hole is about midway-ish between Merida (140 kilometres) and Cancun (205 kilometres) airports.

Erawan Falls, Thailand: this gentle 7-tier cascade fills numerous emerald green ponds along its 1.5 kilometre descent and is named after the three-headed white elephant of Hindu mythology because its top tier is supposed to resemble an elephant’s head.

Practicalities: the falls are in the Erewan National Park, a three-hour drive west of Bangkok. There are walking trails and footbridges as far as the 7th tier - which takes about an hour and a half to reach from the base. The national park is open daily from 7am to 4:30pm: it gets packed at weekends, so arrive early in the day if you can to beat the crowds. There are places to eat, bungalows and a camp site if you want to stay overnight, and frequent busses from Kanchanaburi. The nearest airports are Bangkok's Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports, about 200 kilometres away.

Fairy Pools, Scotland: on the Hebredian island of Skye, the Fairy Pools are a delightful waterfall and pool complex backed by textbook Scottish scenery and wildlife. While you are jumping off the rocks and splashing about keep an eye out for deer, sheep, rabbits, curlews, herons and plovers. 

Practicalities: the pools are about a 20 minute walk from the car park in tiny village of Glen Brittle. Go Skye run shuttle busses from Portree to the Fairy Pools car park in summer. People bathe and swim here in high summer in swimsuits, but most people most of the time you'll be better off with a wetsuit. The best airport to use is Inverness, 196 kilometres away. 

Pamukkale Pools, Turkey: okay okay, I know it's not exactly wild swimming, more wild paddling really, but this surreal phenomenon in southwestern Turkey is an unforgettable place to dip. Pamukkale means 'Cotton Castle' in Turkish, and the shallow pools are filled with slow-flowing water and are made form travertine - a sort of limestone that's deposited by the calcium-rich hot springs. It's what stalactites and 'mites are made from in grottos and caverns. It's a popular tourist site, but at 2,700 metres long and 600 metres wide, there's always space for you to strike to find a pool of one's own. 

Practicalities: the closest airport and train station are at Denizili, 65 kilometres from the pools. This cascade has been attracting tourists for over a thousand years and it's now protected as a World Heritage Site. Strictly speaking, visitors are only supposed to dip their feet in the pools, although this is hard to police.

Las Grietas, Ecuador: the extraordinary atmosphere of the Galapagos Islands gives this remote flooded crevasse a decidedly Jurassic Park-like twist. There are a couple of steep-sided cool-water pools of dazzling clarity, and a submerged one-metre swim-through tunnel that connects them.

A cleft in the rocks reveals the perfect finger of water at Las Grietas. Photo Gringos Abroad.com

Practicalities: take a speedboat taxi from Puerto Ayora to the ‘otro lado’ (other side) and follow the signs to the Finch Bay Hotel. Pass to the left of the hotel and follow the path across a lava field and through a forest of cacti for about 15-minutes, then descend the winding wooden steps. The nearest airport is one on the adjascent island of Baltra, which is connected to Santa Cruz Island by a short 5-minute ferry crossing.

Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa: this sublime natural swimming hole is by the village of Lotofaga on the south coast of Samoa's main island, Upolu. A volcanic eruption led to some ground collapsing to form a 30-metre deep circular pool that's fed from the Pacific Ocean via a number of small channels and tunnels. There is now a flight of wooden steps leading down to a diving and swimming platform.

Practicalities: the tropical climate means that this swimming spot is good year round. The main airport on Samoa is Faleolo Airport, 47 kilometres away. See Beautiful Samoa

Cummins Falls, USA: this handsome waterfall has been a hit with bathers for over a century. It's Tennessee's largest falls by volume of water, and the main drop is 23 metres, reached along a two-kilometre hiking trail. The main curtain of water splashes onto a wide and worn-smooth shallow terrace of rock pools.  

The waterfall and bathing plinths at Cummins Falls. Photo Michael Hicks/Flickr

Practicalities: the falls are 122 kilometres east of Nashville, which is also the closest airport. See Cummins Falls State Park

Ghasri Valley, Malta: on the north western coast of Malta's sleepier and smaller island of Gozo you'll find a sinuous inlet that looks purpose made for swimming and snorkelling. It winds between rugged limestone ridges for 300 metres before reaching the sea at the pebbly Ghasri Bay.  

Practicalities: the Gozo Channel ferry from Malta to Gozo takes just 30 minutes, and the nearest place to stay is the nearby village of Gharsi, which is home to the Gordian Lighthouse, with a light that began scanning the horizon in 1853. There's a road from the centre of the village to the Ghasri Valley. See Visit Gozo

Agua Azul, Mexico: this dramatic cascade of waterfalls is a cracking place for a jungle-fringed dip. This gorgeous stretch of the River Shumulha has plenty of pools upstream of the main area too. In fact, it’s best to head a little upstream to put some distance between you and the the tourist kiosks by the car park - that way you'll  probably find a pool all to yourself.

Practicalities: the falls are popular and you’ll find that many hostels and tour operators offer day trips or excursions to them from Palenque or San Cristobel de las Cassas. The car park is four kilometres from the main road. The nearest airport is Palenque, a 90 minute drive away.  

Devil's Pool, Zambia: a small plunge pool on the lip of the Victoria Falls in Zambia isn't a place for a leisurely swim, but with tons of water plummeting 108 metres down into the gorge right behind you, it is perhaps the world's most terrifying dip. 

The Devil's Pool is next to Livingstone Island. Hotel staff guide swimmers to the pool for safety. Photo Tongabezi

Practicalities: the Devil's Pool can only be attempted safely in the dry season - mid August to mid January - when the river level is low enough not to sweep swimmers over the edge. The falls are almost two kilometres wide and are shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe, but the pool can only be reached from the Zambian side, after a walk over rocks and a swim. The Tongabezi is a riverside lodge that offers escorted trips to the pool. The Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Zambia is 10 kilometres from the falls, or Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe is 20 kilometres away. 


 
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DESTINATIONS
Salalah is a low key resort town where many from the Gulf go on their summer holidays. Here's why...
posted by Richard Green on 27/03/2017
 

Beach in front of the Salalah Rotana. Photo Rotana Hotels

‘Salalah’ might sound like a magician’s command from the Arabian Nights, but in fact it’s an historic city in the south of Oman with a tropical climate and super beaches. What’s more, it’s tipped as the next holiday hotspot, with a recently opened top-notch resort and a shiny new airport. So I went to check it out. 

On my flight from Muscat the desert blazed orange for a full hour before the captain announced ‘10-minutes to landing’. This prompted the local lad next to me to point out miraculous-looking green hilltops, and by the time the wheels hit the runway Mohammed had shown me a picture of his Mustang and offered to drive me wherever I needed to go.

I encountered more eccentric hospitality at the Taqa Fort museum next day. It’s as cute and crenellated a castle as you could imagine, with sand coloured walls, heavy wooden doors, and a governor’s quarters with bright cushions and a four-poster bed. In the middle of the guided tour, the curator lifted a 19th century rifle from its display brackets and handed it to me so he might take my picture holding it.

Living quarters in Taqa Fort. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Even the air is welcoming in Salalah – much gentler than the nostril scorching heat of Dubai or Muscat. Temperatures here seldom reach more than 30°C the humidity stays mild. Plus every lobby, shop or restaurant, has a heady perfume - sweet and rich, a curious fragrance suggesting wood, honey, lemon, and even caramel.

I breathed deeply and trailed like a Bisto Kid towards the source of the smell - a small earthenware burner containing yellowy-orange globules. 

The Rotana Resort pool area. Photo My Bathroom Wall

My guide Hamed revealed that it was frankincense. “Salalah was once the centre of the world’s frankincense trade, when it was more valuable than gold or silver,” he said. “I burn it at home at least three times day.” Like all local men, Hamed wore an immaculate dishdasha – a plain robe that shades the wearer from neck to toe. And like most Omanis, he was educated and courteous.

Hamed the guide, and friend who walked out of the desert. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The marble lobby of the new Rotana Resort & Spa was especially strong smelling – I passed through again on my way to the bar (serving alcohol, incidentally) and sat outside for dinner at the Silk Road Restaurant. The resort softens the desert starkness with man-made canals, arched footbridges and palm trees. At night it feels extra exotic with the moon’s flickering reflection on the water, a warm reviving breeze and arabesque silhouettes.

Pool and Rotana resort at night. Photo Rotana Hotels

Salalah town centre, about 18 miles away, is less attractive. There is a small souk, but it’s a little forlorn, though the Land of Frankincense Museum pluckily reveals the history of the commodity that made the area rich with maps and wooden models. Along the beach is the fabled city of Sumhuram, once home to the Queen of Sheba’s palace. It’s a shadow of any former glory, ruined to little more than head height.  On some roadsides are wizened Frankincense trees with twisted branches.

Past the imposing wall of mountains that curtains the town are green hills that can look more like South Africa than Arabia, and a simple white and green tomb - one of several contenders for the burial place of that biblical prince of patience, Job.

The entirely undeveloped Mughsail Beach, and a wild frankincense tree. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Arab tourists from the Gulf region come to experience the hills in bloom during a mini monsoon season known as the Khareef. This modest southeast monsoon lasts from July to September and creates hazy skies and drizzle. The earth erupts in grasses and wildflowers and temperatures dip ten degrees below those in Muscat or Dubai.

Most western tourists however want to drive the other way, into the largest sand desert in the world. It begins a couple of hours inland from Salalah and is called The Empty Quarter, famously traversed by the British explorer, Wilfred Thessiger, with Bedouin companions in the 1940s.

The Rotana can organise a night at a desert camp here, or you can hire a 4WD from a company like Safari Drive, who’ll kit you out with a rooftop tent-box, a satellite phone and a Bedouin guide for the trickiest bits of off-roading.

Self driving the Empty Quarter; Wilfred Thesiger would be loping in his grave. Photo My Bathroom Wall

With the Landcruiser perched atop a 400ft dune and the sand cooling swiftly in the evening, the utter stillness made me conscious of my hearing, like when emerging from a nightclub. The sun setting behind miles of rolling dunes was a magnificent sight.

Oman’s gentleness can make your home country feel a bit on the fast and loose side. During my drive I had two flat tyres fixed free of charge, was handed ice from some fishermen, and more than one driver led me to the nearest petrol station so I didn’t miss it.

The low key and low rise skyline of Taqa, 35 kilometres east of Salalah. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I was pondering this while swimming from a speedboat in the bay off Taqa on my last day. A dolphin broke the water about 20 feet away and breathed out with a noise like a cough through a snorkel - then another half a dozen of them arched by gracefully. I gazed at the blue sky, pale green water and purple mountains. The Taqa seafront was a line of palm trees and houses shimmering in the noonday sun; its fort sat squat and reassuring in the distance.

Salalah is a real place alright – yet there’s no shortage of Arabian magic.

***

One more thing: Salalah is famed across the Middle East for the 'Khareef', a colloquial term for the most unlikely of monsoons. Called rather drearily the 'Southeastern Monsoon', winds draw colder water from the Indian Ocean, which in turn cool the air above. The moisture-ladened air then is blown up the side of the Jibal Dhofar mountains to cause the extraordinary phenomenon of a dependable drizzle in the desert.   

I visited during the Khareef some years ago and drove up into the mountains. It was amazing to see everywhere carpeted in grasses and wildflowers. I had a simple chicken byriani sitting on a misty mountain terrace and took in the strange sight of Arab men wearing their long flowing dishdashas not with a backdrop of a fiery sun and parched desert, but instead amongst the verdant hillsides.

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Reasons to be cheerful: the Salalah area is delightfully low key and genuine. Yet with a new airport and several new resort hotels, the region is improving tourist options. 

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You can't always get what you want: choosing the right resort here is essential, as you'll be spending most of your time there. The town is pleasant enough, but a bit scruffy, and certainly not somewhere you'll be heading to look for diversions or nightlife.

puzzle

Fitting Salalah into a holiday: the resorts of Salalah make for great winter sun fly and flop options for northern Europeans, while GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) tourists tend to arrive specifically to experience the Khareef - some even driving their families off-road through the desert to reach it. A short trip into the Empty Quarter is easy to organise locally, or it is possible to make longer driving holidays from Salalah up to Muscat.

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Getting there: Salalah Airport opened a swish new terminal in November 2015, with flights from Dubai with FlyDubai and Oman Air, from Doha with Qatar Airways, from Muscat with Oman Air and Salam Air, and from Sharjah with Air Arabia.

weather

When to visit: the somewhat surreal Khareef effects the coastal fringe of the Dhofar region - including the mountain behind Salalah - between June and September.

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More info: UK based tour operators featuring Salalah resorts include Steppes Travel and Original Travel, and Safari Drive can organise self-driving into the Empty Quarter, and throughout Oman. Or there's the locally based Al Fawaz Tours. For more info on the resort see Salalah Rotana Resort and for country info there's Oman Tourism

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


 
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DESTINATIONS
A man, a plan, a canal, and a hat named after entirely the wrong country...
posted by Richard Green on 09/03/2017
 

A display cabinet in the Homero Ortega 'factory' shop. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Imagine if Swiss Rolls actually came from Croatia or Turkish baths from France. Well it irks Ecuadorians that their most famous contribution to the world of hatmaking is associated with an entirely different country - Panama. In fact the Paja Toquilla, as it is known locally, is made in Ecuador by Ecuadorians from a plant indigenous to Ecuador's coastal areas.

So how did the traditional straw hat of Ecuador become the eponymous headwear of Panama? Well the most colourful story I heard on this was that early photographs showing the digging of the Panama Canal showed workers (likely to have been of Ecuadorian origin) wearing and waving them. But it's more likely that the necessity of transhipping most Latin American goods in former times, through to the better sea routes from Panama, lead to the hats being named after the last port they were shipped from rather than their town, region or country of manufacture.

Theodore Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal construction in 1906 and wears a 'Panama Hat'

Lightweight, light in colour, flexible, durable and breathable, Panama hats were popular in Ecuador as early as the 1600's, and then their use grew more widespread via the North American gold rush of 1848, when may prospectors headed from the east of the USA to the west via what was then the safest and cheapest way, the Panama Canal. In 1855 at the Paris World Fair they were introduced as 'Panama Hats' - and Ecuador wasn't a participant country at the fair - and then in 1906 US president Theodore Roosevelt sealed the misconception when he visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was frequently pictured wearing a 'Panama Hat' (above).

Another Roosevelt (this time Franklin Delanor), but the same canal and the same type of hat, in 1932 

Hollywood popularised the hats further still, and they appeared as influential wardrobe for Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mocking Bid and Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. Indeed in the late 1940's it is said that the hats were Ecuador's most important export by value. And yet even with the 'fabrique en Ecuador' inside every hat, the misnomer was beyond correcting. 

And the winner of the best Panama hat in a starring role might go to the hat worn by Dirk Bogard in Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice. The ageing composer, Gustav von Aschenbach, and his young obsession, the Polish boy Tadzio, both wore the Panama in the film. It's no spoiler to say that when Mahler's 5th symphony soars and Bogard's make-up runs at the film's finale, he's wearing a Panama. 

There are many places to buy Panama hats across Ecuador, but an important historical manufacturing centre is the city of Cuenca, at the southern end of the Route of the Volcanos, about 440 kilometres south from Quito.

Homero Ortega has a good little museum and an excellent shop. If you are lucky, as I was, your tour will be given by the charming and urbane xxx xxxx, who's family the business has been in since xxxx.

Raw hats are stacked before being finished in the Cuenca factory. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The hats are still woven in the coastal areas, done as a cottage industry before being shipped to highland towns like Cuenca for finishing. The Toquilla plant grows up to six metres tall, but the best leaves are picked from around the base in monthly cycles. As each hat is handwoven - usually taking a couple of days to make - it means that each Panama hat is unique.

Actually the finest woven and poshest hats can take several months to weave, and originate from the small town of Montecristi.

The hat weaving process, often done by moolight. Photo Homero Ortega

Apparently the weaving process is best done when the air is at its most humid, and so the weavers generally avoid working in the heat of the day and instead plait their fronds in the early morning, during cloudy skies, or by moonlight.

As well as seeing how the hat is woven and shaped, you'll pass a wall of fame showing some of the famous people who have visited the 'factory. The list of the great and good runs from Prince Charles to Geoff Goldbloom, via Peter Falk and Judith Chalmers. But the one that caught my eye was a certain Councillor Dolling from Luton, who passed this way in 2005.

The Homero Ortega wall of fame. Jeff Goldblum, Julian Sands, Peter Falk, and friends. Photo My Bathroom Wall

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Further information: see Homero Ortega for information on how and when to visit the hat factory. Serrano Hat also makes Panama's in Cuenca. For general tourist information see Visit Cuenca and Ecuador Travel

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Getting there: the small airport of Cuenca has Avianca Ecuador flights to Quito, LATAM Ecuador flights to Quito, and TAME flights to Guayaquil and Quito.

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Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


 
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DESTINATIONS
10 desert regions and what's to see beyond the sand...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

Sweeping seas of dunes, hospitable locals and sunsets to savour: the world’s desert regions are wonderfully romantic. Whether you choose camel training with the Bedouin, trekking with the Berbers or luxury lodging in Monument Valley, the exhilaration, stillness, clean air and stargazing will leave you longing to return. Here are 10 of the best deserts, and how to holiday in them.

America’s Southwest: The states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada could have been where the phrase “wide open space” was coined. Crank up the country and western, stock up on bottled water and drive through the inhospitable beauty of Death Valley, past the towering rock spindles and mesas of Monument Valley or along Nevada’s Highway 50 — dubbed the Loneliest Road in America. Set cruise control and steer through a land of tumbleweed, ghost towns and Joshua trees, then party at the oversized oases of Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

Tourists stroll the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America's low point, at 85 metres below sea level

About 100 miles to the west of Monument Valley is the Amangiri, a super cool take on how a desert resort should be. Or the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley was built in 1927 and is an institution of desert tourism. It sits on a natural aquifer - which has given life to a micro pocket of lushness and has been used to fill a sumptuous swimming pool. My heart sank to see the attached golf course though.

Jordan: On my last visit to Jordan, as the wheels of my plane hit the pink dusty runway, the young woman next to me proffered an enigmatic “Welcome to the desert”. And boy, what a desert it is. Crossed by the north-south sinew of the King’s Highway, Jordan includes the Dana gorge, the ruins of Petra and the superlative dunes and mountains of Wadi Rum. Jordanian hospitality is justly celebrated, the infrastructure is good and there are top-notch hotels and simple Bedouin-style camps to sleep in.

Petra's so called Treasury blushing pink in the dawn light

The Wadi Rum Bedouin Desert Camp is a good stab at creating a homely Bedouin atmosphere. It's admirably simple too - you sleep in traditional tents and dine in a larger lean-to. When I was there it was perhaps a little too close to nature though, as the sandy floor seemed to conjure scorpion-infested dreams. These days the tents are more substantial and nicely raised off the ground. There are no such worries in the Dana Biosphere's Fenyan Lodge- a delightful 26-room vegetarian bolt hole styled on a caravanserai.

See Visit Jordan

Morocco: South of the Atlas Mountains, the valley floors are traced by date palms and sand-coloured settlements. Further on, the villages are fewer, the palm groves more marooned, until you’re enveloped by the sublime stillness of the Sahara. There you can trek the great dune fields, then camp out at night, or gaze at the shimmering scene from the comfort of a luxury converted kasbah.

Aït Benhaddou was an important stop on the caravan route between the Saharsa and Marrakech

About a four hour drive southeast of Marrakech is the Riad Caravane; a lovely 8-room riad in a short stroll away from the kasbah village of Ait Boulmane - used as a filming location in The Man Who Would be King and Gladiator. Or an hour further east is Dar Ahlam; a 12-room desert lodge in Skoura with high walls, luscious decor and fine dining.

See Much Morocco

United Arab Emirates: Like many desert people, the Emiratis love  a good sunset - well actually any sunset. They celebrate the safe passage of another scorching day by heading off in their 4WDs for family desert picnics where they feast, fraternise, and run the quickly cooling sand through their fingers. You don’t need Emirati pals to experience this, though — several desert hotels cater for locals and tourists alike.

Desert falcon with trainer. It's the national bird of the UAE and must have its own seat when being transported by plane

About 80 miles south of Abu Dhabi is the crescent-shaped Liwa Oasis, which borders the vast Empty Quarter. Qasr Al Sarab, a luxury resort, offers Beau Geste bling — it’s styled as a desert fort, but with tasteful rooms (some with private pools) and a romantic restaurant.

Sir Bani Yas Island, 160 miles west of Abu Dhabi, was once the private pleasure park of the revered Sheikh Zayed, where he entertained the global great and good, and helped to save the Arabian Oryx. (The world’s largest herd is here.) His relatively modest guest palace is now a stylish 64-room Sir Bani Yas Anantara resort, from which you can take an Oryx safari, canoe in the mangroves, cycle over hills or lounge by the pool.

See Sir Bani Yas and Visit Abu Dhabi

Rajasthan: India being India, its deserts are rarely deserted. Indeed, Rajasthan is about the most flamboyant part of the country, with forts, palaces and towns that teem with colourfully clad locals, not to mention the magnificent moustaches. Push on past Jodhpur and you’ll come to the Great Thar Desert’s fort of forts, Jaisalmer. This magical castle has narrow streets and an intoxicating atmosphere, almost overwhelmingly so during its festival (February 23-25).

The Amber Fort near to Jaipur in Rajasthan

Oman: The locals are the most gracious givers of directions — a care derived from the days when bad directions could mean death in the desert. Roads are few, but well maintained and quiet. The low-rise capital, Muscat, is a super place, as is the city of Nizwa, the Hajar Mountains and the Wahiba Sands, where there are several excellent desert camps. Salalah it at the far south of the country and now has a few good beach resorts, but it is also gateway to the Empty Quarter — a sea of sand larger than Spain — that has to be seen to be believed.

A range of 400ft high sand dunes in the Empty Quarter of Oman. Photo Richard Green

The Rotana Salalah Resort is a splendid new beach resort with Arabian decor, excellent food and fine swimming pools. In the east of the country on the edge of the Wahiba Sands is the luxurious Desert Nights Camp. Here you'll find Bedouin style decor in its tented suites and very good service too. 

Egypt: Alexander the Great consulted the oracle at Siwa oasis before his eastern conquests. The temple is a ruin, but the patchwork of orchards, mud houses and magnificent dunes makes an unforgettable trip. Not far from Alexandria, there are poignant reminders of desert conflict in the scruffy town of El Alamein, home to many memorials to the fallen. And in the country's far south are the mesmerising ruins of Abu Simbel.

These four colossus of Abu Simbel, carved in the 13th Century BC are each of Pharaoh Ramesses II

Chile: Front runner for the title of oldest and driest desert in the world, the Atacama is a 600-mile sliver of Chile’s far north. It has weather stations that have never detected rain, and parts of it were used by NASA to test its Mars landers. Yet, partly by harnessing the moisture in marine fogs, plants and people have made it home for thousands of years. San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty oasis with superb desert lodges, an excellent archaeological museum and tours to the nearby Valley of the Moon.

Twisted rock formation in Chile's Atacama Desert

Australia: The Red Centre is dominated by Uluru, the arresting red rock that is six miles in circumference and sacred to Aborigines. Old settlements and ranches cling barnacle-like to the desert floor of western and central Australia, too, and make fascinating pit stops. The best way to appreciate the distances and the desert is a trip either down through the Tanami Desert from Darwin or up from Adelaide on the luxury Ghan train.

Clouds passing over Uluru, a gigantic sandstone monolith sacred to Australia's native people

Tunisia: The south of the country is a fascinating slab of the Sahara, with spectacular scenery and short driving distances. The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed here, and the troglodyte dwellings at Matmata had cameo roles in several of the Star Wars films. You can even drop in at Luke Skywalker’s place — now the somewhat scruffy Hotel Sidi Driss. A few hours’ drive away are a swathe of Saharan dunes called the Grand Erg Oriental, the mirage-like oasis settlements of Zaafrane, Ghidma and Ksar Ghilane, and the desert city of Tozeur, famous for its old town’s intricate facades.


 
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DESTINATIONS
Carthage may be a ruin of a ruin, but Tunis is Terrific
posted by Richard Green on 12/02/2017
 

Now I know that ancient Carthage doesn't have a high profile in travel, so much of the anticipation was conjured by my own imagination. Yet having been to so many ancient sites and enjoyed them all, I was most definitely expecting rather more than I found...

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I looked out over the remains of one of the great capitals of the classical world, and found it to be rather disappointing. I was sweaty thanks to the 36C in the shade heat, but there wasn't isn’t a single portico or plinth to provide any shade. There was however, a shabby museum, a few meagre foundations and the odd scrap of masonry, but I’ve seen more statuary in a garden-centre cafe. It’s wasn't what I’d been expecting. One newspaper's travel section claimed that “Carthage is a mind-blowing place even if, like me, you soon tire of ruins, statues and frescoes”, while another gushed that it “would take a week to explore properly”. Really? Could I have gone to the wrong place by mistake?

My day hadn’t started well either. When I’d arrived at Carthage-Salammbo station, there was no obvious sign to “ancient Carthage”, just smart suburban villas, neatly trimmed bougainvillaea, and parked cars. I followed my nose towards the sea, until I got to a little kiosk. The ticket I bought there told me I was at the 'Tophet'. Apparently it was a walled garden where the Carthaginians buried thousands of their own children that they'd sacrificed to the gods — for good luck don’t you know. They did this every time the threat of war loomed, which surely in the long run may have contributed to their terminal losing streak. Either way, it’s a pretty grim spot. The bones and ashes of 20,000 children, along with those of sacrificial animals, were buried in little urns.

I left the mud-floored vault of baby tombs when the hairs on the back of my neck couldn’t take any more, and walked along Rue Hannibal, where I came to a couple of suburban ponds fringed with modern posh housing. This unimpressive water was all that was left of the Punic port, in its day the most impressive navy base on the Mediterranean. Spurting sweat and swatting flies, I almost gave up and scuttled back to Tunis city centre, but I'd flown from the UK to see this, so I regrouped and reopened the guidebook. Apparently, the Roman centurion to-do list for the sacking of Carthage included: kill the men, rape the women, sell the children, and burn everything to the ground. The latter probably exceeded expectation, as it's said that the city of Carthage burnt for 10 days. Then they wiped away any trace of it by removing the stone for new builds elsewhere.

And to rub salt into the wounds, they did exactly that, and rubbed salt into the soil to destroy it. It's no wonder that 'Carthaginian' has entered the language for meaning complete over the top annihilation. 

What is there left to see, then? Extremely little it seems, but the guide book implored that I should “capture something of the flavour of its epic history by climbing to the top of Byrsa Hill”. To check I wasn’t in a parallel universe, I walked up the steep residential streets of Byrsa Hill and, as I went, reflected that things could have been so different. I love poking around ancient sites. The Acropolis, the Coliseum, Petra and the Pyramids, all are superb. But here I am at the summit of Byrsa bloody Hill, and there’s nothing of Carthaginian Carthage left. The Romans wrecked it all. I so should have gone to a better school.

Just then, I heard an anguished curse and looked round to see a teenager swearing in Italian after stubbing his toe trying to kick a stone. But wait, what’s that behind him? In the distance I see a large pillar; a whole, intact, standing-upright-so-you-could-hug-it pillar. It’s part of the Antonine Baths, the remains of the second-largest Roman baths in the world. But I’ve had enough of the Romans frankly, so I go back to the beach near to Sidi bou Said.

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Writing an article for a newspaper or magazine usually means having to be more polemic that you might otherwise be. And just like when taking a picture of something, you have to choose where to point the camera and how much of the scene to include in the shot, so it is with writing.

With Carthage, it's true that if you arrived entirely unaware and unprepared, you probably would react as I did above. But couching the article in rather naive terms meant that I sound as though I hadn't ever heard of Carthage and was expecting to see something more substantial like say the Lighthouse at Alexandria or the Colossus of Rhodes - just kidding. 

As it happens the site is in a beautiful location overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, and although I cropped the piece to focus in only on the ruins there, I actually explored Tunis for a few days after my visit to Carthage. I've been several times and love the place, and especially it's seaside cliff-top village of Sidi Bou Said.

Carthage old and new. Vibrant textiles in local shops, and performer at the Carthage Festival. Photos Tourism Tunisia

The Carthage Jazz Festival is in its 12th year and in 2017 takes place between March 31st and April 9th. Performers include Liam Bailey, Myles Sanko, Tom Odell, Pink Martini, Cocoon and Aaron. See Carthage Jazz Festival. Villa Didon comes as quite a surprise - a swish hilltop property with a terrific restaurant terrace and super modern rooms with great views over the Gulf of Tunis. It has a smart swimming pool and snazzy rooms with Star Trek-like sliding doors.   

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Some places to look out for when in Tunis;

The Medina of Tunis

The tourists in the narrow-laned souks are Tunisian or French. And it’s a hassle- free antidote to Marrakech. There are magnificent mosques and madrasahs, and calming mint-tea vendors; try the Ottoman-era opulence of Café M’Rabet, too.

An unusually quiet moment in the gorgeously atmospheric Café M’Rabet in the Medina of Tunis. Photo Richard Green

The Bardo Museum

This superb museum houses one of the best collections of Roman mosaics in the world, from tea-towel-sized portraits to the 1,400 sq ft depiction of Neptune astride a horse-drawn chariot. Open daily, except Mondays; £2.70.

The TGM train

This little line runs from the city centre, across the lagoon, to La Goulette. Join the rest of Tunis here for a fabulous Friday fish supper: Avenue Franklin Roosevelt is lined with promenaders and huge ice-beds of fish. Next stops are Carthage, Sidi Bou Saïd and the seaside suburb of La Marsa. Trains every 20 minutes, 65p one way.

View of the Bay of Tunis, as seen from Sidi Bou Said. Photo Tourism Tunisia

Sidi Bou Saïd

This clifftop village is an arty retreat full of brilliant white houses and vivid blue doors, like a Punic Portmeirion. Check out the super cliffside restaurants and cafes, such as Café Sidi Chabaane and Dar Zarrouk.

A doorway in Sidi Bou Said. Photo Richard Green

Dar El Jeld

The most atmospheric dining room in Tunis, in the courtyard of an Ottoman mansion. Excellent local dishes and wines match the stylish surrounds and service. There is also traditional live music, or for a seductive Berber dance display, hit Café M’Rabet on a weekend evening. See Dar el Jeld

Getting there: Tunisair is the national carrier and flies from Tunis across Europe, North and West Africa, the Middle East, and to Montreal. Other airlines flying to Tunis include Air France, Alitalia, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines. 

Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

For more information see Discover Tunisia


 
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DESTINATIONS
The most brilliant day out from Dubai; the oasis city of Al Ain...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Drive east from Dubai or Abu Dhabi to the fabled oasis town of Al-Ain and their tangle of motorways swiftly gives way to flat featureless desert. But there was no movie style mirage of shimmering palms to greet me – as far from being a one camel town, this is a city of 600,000 people in the oil rich Gulf. So instead my first impressions were of numerous kitsch roundabouts with outlandish centre pieces - a giant coffee pot fountain, preening ibis and giraffe statues, and even a pop up waterfall.

Yet moments after parking I’d stepped back in time and was strolling through the ancient oasis with palm fronds swishing and birds chirping overhead, and the soothing sound of running water. In the dappled shade of the palm grove were mud built irrigation toughs known as falaj - a local technique that dates back three millennia.

Al-Ain’s 3,000 acres of date palms felt a world away from the UAE’s coastal bling, and my next stop was an impossibly cute fort. It looked more sand castle than military fortress, but unlike the pastiche heritage of Dubai or Abu Dhabi - where a large Beau Geste like facade is likely to be the entrance to a shopping mall - here it’s the real deal.

It's not a mall or the entrance to a golf course, it's a real 126 year old desert fort

It’s called the Al Jahili Fort and was built in 1891, with high mud brick crenellated walls and a four-story circular tower in one corner. Two immaculately dressed Emiratis’s greeted me as though I were expected. I explained that I had just called in as I saw a small sign saying museum, and with some ceremony, they asked me to follow a white- robed man.

I was led to a sitting area with plush red seats and fierce air conditioning, and presently the man returned to pour me a traditional Arab coffee and offer me a plate of succulent dates. 

The museum was free, the hospitality priceless, and inside its corridors I discovered a collection of Wilfred Thesiger photographs. I’ve long been fascinated by the great explorers, and here were wonderful black and white photos of the great British explorer and his Arab friends. He’s still known locally a Mubarak bin London after his crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter in the 1940’s.

Local children at the National Museum

By chance a figure emerged from a doorway across the sun blasted courtyard and being nosey, I discovered that it was the National Museum. It’s hard to know just how long it will maintain its current form, but for now it’s an endearing old-style museum with glass cabinets and typed labels. The oasis settlement was a crossroads for the caravan routes between the Gulf States and Oman, and here you’ll find old weapons, jewellery, pottery and coins.

At the other end of the spectrum is the snazzy new Qasr Al Muwaiji Qasral Muwaiji museum, opened in November that showcases the birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa (current ruler of the UAE) using transparent floors and raised walkways. Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum is another corking former home museum; this time dedicated to the revered Sheikh Zayed who founded the UAE.  

Surprisingly for such a harsh and remote environment, Hili Archaeological Park, seven miles north of the city are wellhead strongholds and tombs dating back some 5,000 years. On the main tomb I saw delicate carvings of humans and Oryx.

Cute camels yes, but the camel souk isn't for the faint-hearted; it's a noisy smell meat market too

Local wildlife is on view at the Camel Souk, which is unromantically parked behind the Bawadi Mall, and the Al Ain Zoo, big on conservation, is the place to view the beautiful Arabian Oryx – actually in the world’s largest man made safari park. The new Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is here too – a state of the art building with superb displays and a space age auditorium.

Unlikely as it seems, I found a fabulous mountain road out here in the middle of nowhere. A local gave me exquisite directions to a petrol station – perhaps echoing the need for precise directions to wells in days gone by – and recommended I should drive up Jebel Hafeet.

The ludicrously high spec road to the top of Jabel Hafeet

Jebel is the local word for mountain, and although its craggy 4,050ft bulk is right on the outskirts of Al-Ain, it was lost to me in the heat haze until he pointed it out.

I soon found myself in Top Gear heaven on a three-lane highway switchbacking its way to the summit. At the top I parked up, grabbed a soft drink from a stall and marvelled at the sprawling town surrounded by fiery desert that is Al-Ain.  

One more thing...

Temperatures reach a frazzling forty plus degrees in summer – and even the high twenties in mid winter – so I'd suggest doing as the locals do and savour the cool of sunset. You could stroll to a café or a picnic in a park, but my favourite option is the superb mountainside terrace of the Mercure Grand, about a mile from the summit of Jebel Hafeet.

Nightime view of the Jebal Hafeet road snaking down the side of the mountain

***

Getting there: the vast majority of tourists heading to Al Ain simply drive there from Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Further information: see the Al Ain section of the Visit Abu Dhabi Website.


 
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DESTINATIONS
A Ferrari that does 0-60mph in two seconds using the catapult from an aircraft carrier. Riding the world's fastest roller coaster
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

The Formula Rossa roller coaster: and an aerial shot of the Ferrari World building, the world's largest indoor theme park

The Formula Rossa, at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, is the world’s fastest rollercoaster. It does 0-60mph in less than two seconds, uses the type of hydraulic winch that flings jets off aircraft carriers, and hurtles round the track at 150mph. All of which is fine, and very impressive, apart from one thing. I’m sitting in it. And I’m beginning to see red.

Everything here is red. The rollercoaster is red, the outside of this outlandish building — a giant space-age scarab next to the Abu Dhabi F1 circuit, and the size of seven football pitches — is red. The staff are dressed in red, the maps, showing the 20 rides (including three other coasters), are red. There’s even red on the ticket I wish I hadn’t bought. And it’s the colour of most of the 30 real Ferraris on display, sparkling like polished stones on rakishly angled plinths.

This is not me. I’m not the guy who does rollercoasters. I haven’t been on one since an ill-fated fling at Alton Towers many years ago left me trembly-lipped and traumatised. But when my (former) friends back on the Travel desk heard that I was going to be close to the world’s fastest rollercoaster, they seemed unusually enthusiastic that I should experience it. And so now there’s a squidgy foam-clad bar across my waist and people are looking at me sympathetically. I’ve surrendered my house keys. They say it’s so they don’t fly off on a bend and poke someone’s eye out in Cairo.

The seat rockets forward. My ribcage pushes backwards, emptying my lungs like a deflated whoopee cushion The seat surges — rockets — forward. My ribcage pushes backwards, emptying my lungs like a deflated whoopee cushion, and in five seconds — with no helmet or shoulder harness, sitting upright without an enclosing canopy — I’m travelling at more than twice the legal speed limit on the M1. And my face is rippling. At the end of the launch track, before my brain and body know what hit them, the carriages careen upwards: 170ft above the desert floor.

The backwards G-forces are joined by downward ones until there really is no whoopee left in me. I’m about to die in a stupid Ferrari-coloured shooting star across the blue Emirati sky. My stomach punches into my mouth like a surfacing rescue pod from a submarine, and I begin to swear.

I curse the first nauseating turn, which arcs just 5ft above the ground, I yell over the next long hump, the next dip, the next full-tilt curve, and on and on. At last there is another colour here as I turn the air blue. It is unrelenting — my language and the ride. There is no loop-the-loop, no watery flume, no made-you-jump ghost-train tunnel. It’s pure adrenaline, pure speed. And then, less than two minutes after it started, the carriages decelerate back to the starting position.

The end of the ride; and the beginning of the stupid grin. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I shake hands with young Amal sitting next to me — once stranger, now blood brother. And then, for the next few days, I wonder if the stupid grin on my face will ever go away.

I travelled as a guest of Etihad Airways. For more information on the theme park, see Ferrari World Abu Dhabi


 
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DESTINATIONS
A son et lumiere is no way to illuminate the past
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

I've always thought that expectation is a key factor in travel? I can stroll down a side street in Vilnius and discover a weird statue of Frank Zappa in a car park and be thrilled by the serendipity, yet if something has a tremendous reputation that proceeds it, then I'm often on standby for a gigantic squib.

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, a Texan dude ranch, and any 'son et lumiere' anywhere, has left me decidedly disappointed...

Lighting some significant structure with garish beams and accompanying this with a booming soundtrack and trite narration, has always struck me as pointless. The majesty of the Pyramids at Giza is temporarily vandalised each evening just after sunset so that tourists can be packed into an open air viewing area and marvel at one of the world's wonders lit up lurid green and bright pink. 

The Son et Lumiere at the Pyramids - multi coloured madnesst. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The concept was the brainchild of Frenchman Paul Robert-Houdin, who hosted the first son et lumiere at the Chateau de Chambord in France, in 1952. The one at the Pyramids dates from 1961, and still attracts a sizeable audience nightly.

The Sphinx glowing orange; it's riddle emphatically unthreatened. Photos My Bathroom Wall

To the bashing of symbols and the hamming of an overly pathetic narrator, the great pyramids and sphinx are lit in green, blue and red, with unhelpful graphics and slides sometime appearing on the side of the face of the sphinx of the side of a wall. It all drives me potty quite frankly.

The real sunset is spectacular lighting enough; peaceful, natural and profound. Photos My Bathroom Wall

The best part of the 'show' is the naturally gorgeous sunset that sends the sky orange and purple as the pyramids themselves recede poignantly into the growing darkness. Yet at this point the queue to buy fizzy drink and snacks, to chat and update social media accounts seems to take centre stage rather than the great sandstone monoliths themselves. Then darkness falls, the crowd falls silent, and the spotlit piffle begins.

See Sound and Light, which also hosts son et lumier shows at the ancient Egyptian sites of Karnak, Philae, Edfu and Abu Simbel.

Where are other Son et Lumiere shows? There are a good few in France, some in the USA, and one at Masada in Israel.

Yet the strangest I ever saw is the one in Fez, Morocco. Instead of selecting one particular building to inflict the sound and light onto, the whole city is illuminated from a nearby hill. The huge spotlighting looks like something from the second world war, and there's a feeling of half a populace caught in the glare. It's truly appalling, and apart from learning nothing about the city, the most magnificent mediaeval city in the world looks ludicrous with a searchlight pointed into its face at close range.

 


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