Monthly Archives: March 2017

Top spots for off peak travel

Take a trip in high season and you might have to contend with eye-watering prices and suffocating crowds – and while low season might bag you a bargain, poor weather and closed attractions could derail the best of plans.

The budget travel sweet spot? Shoulder season. Prices have fallen, but there’s still great weather, most restaurants and attractions remain open and the bulk of the holidaymakers have moved on. So don’t settle for less; with these shoulder season hotspots you get the crème de la crème of travel destinations without the compromise.

 

…for beach lovers

The first rule of booking a budget beach break? School holidays are a no-no: costs can be painful as travel providers across the board cash in on families’ limited time off.

During the Mediterranean’s June to August peak season, jacked-up prices come with sweltering temperatures and swarming beaches. Wait until October and hotel rates have dropped significantly, but you’ll still find plenty of sun in Greece, Turkey and even southern Spain and Italybefore the beach resorts close down for the winter season.

Over in the Caribbean, the main tourist season gets going in December and continues through to April, coinciding with various school holidays around the world. This leaves a perfect window in May and June to snag a deal, with room prices falling by as much as a third after the crowds have left. Sure, you might have to contend with the odd downpour, but you’re not yet into hurricane season and there’ll be much more space on the beach.

 

…for wildlife watching

Most visitors heading out on a Kenyan safari choose the June to September dry season, but as the crowds start to go down in November, so do the prices for both trips and accommodation. The best news? You’ll still be able to spot lions and elephants aplenty, and it’s one of the best times of year for birding. Yes, it’s the start of the wet season, but rains are confined to short showers in the afternoon and the scenery is lush and green. If you’re lucky, you may still catch the end of the great migration.

South Africa’s shoulder season (September to October) is fantastic for safaris. The temperatures are mild, but not as cold as the dry low season (May to August), and afternoon rainstorms have little impact on wildlife viewing. What’s more, you’ll miss the crazy rush of the of South African school holidays – in popular tourist areas, accommodation can go for up to 50 percent less outside of the December to March high season.

Fewer crowds in Costa Rica’s shoulder season (May to July) mean increased hotel availability and low season discounts on both beds and tours. The rainy season has only just kicked in and days are mostly sunny, with occasional heavy, but short-lived, downpours. If you don’t mind getting a little wet, you can get up-close to plenty of critters at Costa Rica’s big-hitting natural attractions, such as Manuel Antonio National Park. The tail end of rainy season in November brings with it similar bargains, plus the added bonus of tons of migratory birds.

September for the journey

Ever dreamed of hopping between sun-kissed Aegean islands or making tracks of your own along the Silk Road? If a great voyage beckons on your bucket list but you don’t know where to start, here are four epic experiences to tantalise intrepid souls.

 

Island-hop between whitewashed fishing villages and gorgeous beaches

In the 1970s Aegean island-hopping was a backpacker’s rite of passage; today, with flights and fast ferries, it’s easier – and more popular – than ever. But despite the numbers of tourists, Greek and foreign, thronging the best-known islands in high season, there’s still magic to be found – particularly if you arrive in September, when the weather is still balmy and the seas calm, but prices and visitor numbers fall.

You might not have the picture-postcard views across whitewashed, blue-roofed Oia on Santorini to yourself, but on many islands you can find an empty beach, a traditional taverna, and a working harbour with fishing boats bobbing at anchor.

  • Trip plan: There are international airports on Mykonos and Santorini. A busy ferry network links the islands with each other and to mainland ports including Piraeus for Athens. A tempting itinerary might include Mykonos for nightlife (plus a trip to ancient Delos), Paros for hillside villages, beaches and windsurfing, Naxos for hiking and diving, Santorini for those views from Oia across the crater, and one of the Little Cyclades to step off-grid.
  • Need to know: Hotels, tavernas and other services on most islands close from mid-October to Orthodox Easter.
  • Other months: May-Sep – hot (Jul-Aug: busiest); Apr & Oct – mild; Nov-Mar – cool, sleepy.

 

Traverse the ‘Stans in mellow autumn

Traders had been criss-crossing Asia for over 1200 years before Marco Polo’s 13th-century odyssey to the court of Kublai Khan in Běijīng. The allure of the Silk Road hasn’t waned, especially Central Asia between the Caspian Sea and the ancient trading city of Kashgar in west China, where conditions are best in September – not meltingly hot in Turkmenistan’s deserts or the fabled cities of Uzbekistan, not too snowy in the mountains and turquoise lakes of Kyrgyzstan and remote western China.

  • Trip plan: Popular overland routes run from İstanbul through Turkey and via Iran or Georgia and Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan. Visit the Darvaza gas crater and quirky Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, the tiled medressas and minarets of Samarkand and Khiva in Uzbekistan, the mountain meadows and Song-Köl lake in Kyrgyzstan, and Kashgar’s Sunday Market en route to Xī’ān and Běijīng in China. Can’t spare three months? Two weeks could take you from Ashgabat to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), or Tashkent to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).
  • Need to know: You’ll need a visa and/or letter of invitation to enter Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and China.
  • Other months: Apr-May & Sep-Nov – moderate heat; Jun-Aug – deserts fiery; Dec-Mar – below 0°C (32°F) at altitude.

Guide to gluten free travel

Feasting in foreign lands is one of travel’s great pleasures. But if you follow a gluten-free diet, the prospect of indecipherable menus and unknown cuisines is enough to send you rummaging for an emergency snack bar (trust us, every gluten-free traveller has one).

The gluten-free diet eliminates wheat, barley and rye, the building blocks of most pastas and breads (and the secret ingredients in countless sauces and soups). Some people voluntarily follow the diet but others have no choice, like sufferers of coeliac (or celiac) disease. With good preparation and a steely eye on the menu, there is no destination you can’t devour – though if your health is on the line, always use resources like language cards to ensure your needs are understood. Here’s how to be a gluten-free glutton in eight very different countries.

Sushi, sashimi, rice dishes galore… you could be forgiven for picturing Japan as a dream destination for coeliacs. In reality, it’s extremely challenging. Blame the post-WWII influx of wheat to Japan, which established ramen noodles as a staple food and sprinkled flour into every sauce. Kindly chefs will do their darndest to feed you (especially if you’re armed with a language card) but facing unfamiliar dietary constraints, they are likely to make a mistake. Donburi bowls in which sashimi is laid across rice are often a safe and delicious option, while chewy mochi (rice-flour dumplings) make moreish desserts (or breakfasts, or bedtime snacks, we don’t judge). Tokyo has a minuscule range of gluten-free eateries, including rice-flour bakery Comehiro.

Dig in: we hope you like protein – sashimi is usually a safe bet (and an excellent conclusion to touring Tsukiji Fish Market).
Watch out: most soy sauces contain wheat, so make sure your ‘safe’ sashimi doesn’t arrive pre-splattered with the stuff.

Seven things to keep the kids happy

There’s no doubt that Bali has all the ingredients for a relaxing holiday. What is entertaining for grown-ups, however, might not always be fun for kids.

Not to worry, the island of the gods offers a wide range of activities sure to put smiles on the dials of families with children in tow. From sliding down exhilarating water slides to scaling tree canopies, Bali abounds in family-friendly activities.

 

Pod Chocolate: bean to bar

Located on the grounds of Bali Elephant Camp, Pod Chocolate (podbali.com) is where Indonesian cocoa is fermented, dried, roasted, ground and turned into a range of delicious gourmet sweets. To share the lip-smacking goodness, Pod offers tours where chocoholics of all ages can not only taste the factory’s myriad chocolate flavours – lemongrass, ginger and coconut amongst them – but also witness the magic behind the chocolate-making process. Best of all, the tours give children a chance to make their own mini chocolate elephants. Those ready to continue their chocolate adventure can visit the attached café, which serves unusual dishes including pizza with chocolate sauce and spaghetti marinara chocolate.

 

Pirates Bay: avast ye seapups!

Pirates Bay (thebaybali.com/pirates-bay-bali) gets the seal of approval from little ones ready for a swashbuckling adventure and grown-ups who love to see their kids kept busy while they feast on some quality fare. With its tree houses, paddle boats, zip lines and replica of a pirate ship, this themed restaurant makes a great playground for aspiring Jack Sparrows. The oceanfront complex also organises two-hour treasure hunts where budding buccaneers are kitted out in pirate gear and sent off in search of a wooden chest filled with gold

 

Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Center: a taste of Balinese culture

Located in Bali’s cultural hub Ubud, the Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Center provides a fascinating insight into Balinese culture through a variety of fun pastimes. While some of the activities, such as multi-lingual song circles, are specifically aimed at little tykes, others are tailored to both the young and the older. Families can sign up for workshops in traditional dance, gamelan playing or canang sari(Balinese religious offerings) making. There’s also a children’s library with books in many different languages that can be borrowed or read on the premises.

 

Waterbom Bali: splashing good times

An oldie but a goodie, Waterbom Bali has been soaking kids, and kids at heart, since 1993. From mini slides to heart-stopping rides, the park has adventures that are cooling and fun for all ages. Thrill-seekers can test their nerve on the Climax, which involves a nearly vertical drop from the height of 16 meters, while younger family members can enjoy more mellow experiences such as tubing down the Lazy River. For really young children there’s Funtastic, a water play area with shallow pools and fountains, and Flowrider where little dudes can learn to surf.

A great art city on the rise

It’s time to hail Havana as one of the world’s great art cities. The Cuban capital has never lacked artistic credentials, but a growing band of small private galleries, fresh interest in outlandish street art and the emergence of the extraordinary art collectives has sparked a creative renaissance that has truly put the city on the map.

 

Artistic roots

Havana’s artistic roots go deep. The city is home to the oldest arts academy in Latin America, the Academia de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, housed in a colonnaded building in Marianao. Founded in 1818, the academy has bred generations of precocious talent, most notably in the 1920s when it spawned the Vanguardia, a loose collection of painters and sculptors who, rejecting the contemporary penchant for mundane landscapes, invented Cuba’s avant-garde.

 

Where to start

For an introductory exposé to the heady world of Cuban art, proceed directly to the bedrock of Havana’s art scene, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, a huge multifarious art museum spread over two campuses in Centro Habana. The ‘Arte Cubano’ section is the finest collection of Cuban painting in the world. Artists to look out for include Victor Manuel Valdés, executor of the haunting Gitana Tropical, a painting sometimes referred to as the ‘Latin Mona Lisa’ that today is seemingly reproduced on every shower curtain and umbrella in Cuba. Another star is Wilfredo Lam, a colleague of Picasso who absorbed his Spanish amigo’s envelope-pushing spirit, but also nurtured distinctive Cuban themes such as Santería. Lam dominates the middle section of the museum with his dark, abstract works, including his most graphic, Tercer Mundo.