Fiji’s sea spray of more than 300 scattered islands means this South Pacific nation is more water than land – and diving, snorkeling and other outdoors adventures reign supreme.
North of Pacific Harbour on Viti Levu, these steamy highlands have compelling mountain scenery—dense rainforests, deep river canyons and tall waterfalls. Rivers Fiji offers excellent kayaking and white-water rafting trips into its wilds. For gorges and grade two/three rapids with entertaining local guides, try the five-hour trip along the Upper Navua River.
KAYAKING THE YASAWAS
Separated from each other by a deep, narrow channel, the volcanic islands of Kuata and Wayasewa are the first stop in the Yasawa chain coming from Nadi. Kayaking between the two is a great way to spend a calm-water afternoon; many local resorts offer free kayaks. For multi-day safari trips skirting the Yasawas, try Southern Sea Ventures. Tailor-made trips start at four days, and include stops for snorkelling and village visits.
SURFING CLOUDBREAK IN THE MAMANUCAS
Tubes of up to 250m can form on this colossal left-hand break in the Mamanuca chain, off Fiji’s western edge. Experienced board riders don wetsuits daily in an attempt to catch the perfect wave and professional surfers are regularly drawn to its magnetic blue waters. Although there is no scenic beach-break for picnicking spectators, non-surfing mortals who want to get close to the action can join the flotilla of small boats that makes the daily pilgrimage offshore.
The fringing soft coral reefs off Viti Levu’s Coral Coast are heaven for divers. The lagoon by the offshore island of Beqa (‘Be-nga’) is one of very few places in the world where you can dive with uncaged bull and tiger sharks. Beqa Adventure Divers is a sustainable operator that offsets its carbon footprint; two-tank shark-feeding dives cost £125.
The limestone island of Sawa-i-Lau in the northern Yasawas houses two gorgeous grottoes. Shafts of daylight enter a great dome-shaped cave where you can swim in a beautiful natural pool. With a guide, torch and courage, you can also swim through an underwater passage into an adjoining chamber, decorated with carvings of unknown meaning. Most Yasawa resorts run trips here.
The Great Astrolabe Reef hugs the southeast coast of Kadavu island for about 60 miles and is home to a vibrant assemblage of hard- and soft-coral formations. On the western side of the reef, Split Rock is the most coveted dive site, but others include Broken Stone and Vouwa, and all have similar characteristics: twisting canyons, tunnels, caverns and arches. Most Kadavu resorts run trips from around £160 for a two-tank dive.
SIGATOKA SAND DUNES
These impressive dunes skirt the shoreline near the mouth of Viti Levu’s Sigatoka River. Windblown and rugged, they are around three miles long, up to half a mile wide and on average about 20m high, rising to 60m at the western end. Walking trails lead to the coast across open rolling grassland; allow one or two hours for the self-guided walking tours.
Taveuni’s three-mile Lavena Coastal Walk follows the forest edge along white- and black-sand beaches. It passes peaceful villages before climbing up through a landscape straight out of Jurassic Park to a gushing waterfall, reached via a clamber over rocks and a swim through two deep pools. The walk is managed by Lavena Lodge and entrance is £10; you can also arrange take a boat one way and walk back.
Despite being just half an hour’s drive from Nadi airport, Koroyanitu National Heritage Park seems deep within Viti Levu’s interior. It’s very beautiful, with walks through forests of native dakua trees, birdwatching, ancient sites and waterfalls. There are six small and largely self-sufficient villages within. Most visitors get here through Abaca (‘Am-ba-tha’) village, but you’ll need a guide.
Cathay Pacific flies to Nadi International Airport on Viti Levu (Fiji’s main island) from London via Hong Kong. Other one-stop routings go via Los Angeles, Seoul or Singapore. Factor in 25 hours or more (including transfer time) to reach Fiji. From Nadi and Suva airports onViti Levu, Fiji Airways runs flights to outlying islands such as Taveuni and Kadavu. The Yasawas and Mamanucas are accessible by frequent ferries, including Awesome Adventures Fiji.
WHERE TO STAY
LA’s central districts burst with vintage-inspired drinking dens, glitzy clubs and casual boozers, plus not surprisingly in the home of Hollywood theatres and cinemas galore.
The splendidly restored Pantages Theater is an Art Deco survivor from the Golden Age and a fabulous place to catch a play or Broadway musical. Oscars were handed out here between 1949 and 1959, when Howard Hughes owned the building. Also check out the uber-noir Frolic Room bar next door, which featured in LA Confidential.
An old, shingled Victorian house has been converted into LA’s hottest night out. Even the entrance is theatrical: you follow a rickety staircase into the room of a would-be madame dressed in fishnets, who presses a button to reveal another staircase down into the living room and out into a courtyard. There are bars in every corner, plus burlesque dancers and a tightrope walker. Book a table to ensure entry.
During summer, this pop-up cinema occupies a to die for’ location at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the place of perpetual slumber for a galaxy of old-time movie stars. Classics by Milos Forman, Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock are projected onto a mausoleum wall around 9pm, but crowds line up long before gates open for picnics and cocktails while a DJ spins smooth tracks. Winter screenings are hosted by old Downtown LA theatres.
ANGEL CITY BREWERY
On the edge of the Arts District, this wonderful microbrewery has tours running Thursday to Sunday, but you can always stop by its Public House bar for beer, occasional live musk and food trucks that descend with welcome flavours.
A homage to Old Mexico, a chalkboard menu of more than 80 tequilas and mezcals (try a neat highland variety), and friendly bartenders who mix ingredients such as egg whites, blackberries and port syrup into new-school takes on the classic margarita. There are many reasons we love this tequila bar.
Restaurateur and interior designer Dana Hollister has turned a rundown deli in the Arts District into a dark-wood and iron den of bluesy cool. There’s a salvaged bar top, church-pew seating, vintage chandeliers and an open-air patio where live blues rocks the stage. Pub food and late-night snacks to soak up the liquor include corn dogs and nachos.
Elegant, but not stuck up, the Marmont in has been around but remains a cherished spot. Thanks to high ceilings, molded walls and terrific martinis, all inside the ritzy Chateau Marmont hotel, the famous (and wish-they-weres) still flock here. Reservations are taken for tables; come midweek if you can .EL
A pair of mounted bull heads, black-and-white posters, and lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) masks create an over-the-top ‘Tijuana North’ look at LA’s ultimate tequila and mezcal den, with more than a hundred varieties to choose from. Tacos are served and there’s a happy hour 5pm to 7pm Monday to Friday for snacks and bargain £4 margaritas.
Built in 1937, Mint is an intimate, historic music venue in Mid-City. Legends such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder played here on the way up, and axeman Ben Harper got his start here, too. Expect a packed slate of terrific jazz, blues and rock shows, and sensational sound. The best part? You’ll never be more than ten metres from the performance stage.
Air New Zealand, American, BA, Norwegian, United and Virgin Atlantic fly from London to LA in 11 hours. Door-to-door shuttles from Los Angeles International Airport (‘LAX’) are good for getting to the city; Prime Time charges £18, £22 and £14 for trips to Santa Monica, Hollywood or Downtown respectively.
LA is a large city and a lot of people drive, though the traffic is terrible; avoid rush hour. Most public transport is handled by Metro.
WHERE TO STAY
Andalucia’s charismatic capital is a good-time getaway of steamy barrios, salt-of-the-earth tapas bars, culinary alchemists, stylish watering holes and layers of city history.
CAFÉ BAR LAS TERESAS
The hanging hams in this Santa Cruz stalwart look as ancient as the bar itself, a wraparound affair with just enough room for two stout waiters carrying precariously balanced tapas plates. Inside, the atmosphere is dark but not dingy, the food – such as shrimp fritters – highly traditional, and the crowd a mix of tourists and locals.
At this long-standing Triana restaurant, massive glass windows overlook a crowded plaza, mirrors artfully reflect framed bullfighting posters and flamenco iconography, and gold beer pumps furnish a wooden bar shielding bottles that look older than most of the clientele. Both bar and restaurant, Casa Cuesta has that wonderful sensation of sevillano fun and authenticity.
BODEGA SANTA CRUZ
Eating tapas becomes a physical contact sport at forever-crowded Bodega Santa Cruz Watch out for flying elbows and admire those dexterous waiters who bob and weave like prizefighters amid the chaos. The traditional tapas, such as montaditos (tiny rolls) or cheese and ham platters, are best enjoyed alfresco with a cold beer as you watch marching armies of Santa Cruz tourists go squeezing past.
Seville’s crown as Andalucia’s tapas capital is regularly attacked by well-armed rivals from the provinces, so it constantly has to offer up fresh competition. Enter La Brunilda, a font of fusion tapas sandwiched into an inconspicuous backstreet in the Arenal quarter.
REDHOUSE ART & FOOD
With its mismatched chairs and abstract wall art, Redhouse, in El Centro, flirts with hipster territory, yet inside you’ll find everyone from families to students and seniors enjoying tea, coffee and Andalucia’s best homemade cakes.
Eslava shirks traditional tilework and bullfighting posters to deliver fine food backed up with equally fine service. There’s a ‘nouvelle’ tinge to the costillas a la miel (pork ribs in honey and rosemary glaze), but there’s nothing snobby about the local atmosphere. It’s on the Alameda de Hercules.
The Alameda de Hercules was once a no-go area reserved for the city’s painted ladies, pimps and shady characters, but after a makeover it’s crammed with fashionable bars. This place gets busy at night but is pleasantly chilled in the early evening. Its spirit-reviving breakfasts pitch earlybirds with up-all-nighters.
CAFE DE LA PRENSA
Triana’s Calle del Betis is second only to the Alameda de Hercules as a major communal Seville watering hole. Café de la Prensa is perfect for kicking off a riverside bar crawl. You can sit inside between walls covered in old newspapers or squeeze outside for better views of the Guadalquivir River, and admire the Giralda bell tower beckoning beautifully in the background.
Dedicated entirely to the iconography, smells and sounds of Semana Santa (Holy Week), El Garlochi in EI Centro is a true marvel. Taste the rather revolting-sounding cocktail, Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) and Agua de Sevilla (Seville Water), both heavily laced with vodka, whisky and grenadine. It’s a little expensive here, but undoubtedly one of a kind.
BA and easyJet fly direct to Seville in under three hours from London Gatwick, and Ryanair flies to Seville from Stansted. The Especial Aeropuerto bus makes the trip between the airport and the Plaza de Armas bus station in central Seville roughly every 20 to 30 minutes throughout the day, with a slightly reduced Sunday service. Seville operates a sleek tram service in the city centre.
WHERE TO STAY
Jutting out of the Med like an impregnable fortress, this French island is beloved for its beaches but also has saw tooth peaks, pretty valleys, dense forests and enigmatic villages.
With its grey granite houses, secretive dead-end alleys and sombre, introspective air, Sartene has long been said to encapsulate Corsica’s rugged spirit. There’s no doubt that it feels a long way from the glitter of the Corsican coast; the hillside houses are endearingly ramshackle and life still crawls along at a traditional tilt. It offers a much more convincing glimpse of how life was lived in rural Corsica.
OTA & ÉVISA
High up in the hills above Porto, the villages of Ota and Evisa make a fabulous day trip. Ota is quiet, mountainous and unperturbed by the ebb and flow of seasonal visitors. Further up the mountain on the D84, Evisa is a trekking hotspot. It’s also known for its chestnuts, which are turned into flour, jam and candied sweets. The scenic and informative Sentier des Chataigniers (Chestnut Trail) crosses some of the village’s groves; find the start opposite local restaurant A Tramula.
STRADA DI L’ARTIGIANI
This signposted route links the Balagne region’s most attractive villages, and details workshops of artisans inspired by the hinterland. Particularly charming is Pigna, a mirage of burnt-orange rooftops and blue-shuttered houses, just over four miles south of Tie Rousse via the D1 51. Artisan workshops are scattered among the sweet cobbled streets both here and in the hamlet of Sant’Antonino, a little further south along the D151.
VALLEE DU TAVIGNANO
Corsica’s deepest gorge is an off-the-beaten-track wonderland only accessible on foot, despite being on Corte’s doorstep. From the town, a signposted track leads to the Passerelle de Rossolino footbridge, idyllic for picnics and dips in natural pools. The valley can also be explored on horseback; enquire at local b&b L’Albadu.
AIGUILLES DE BAVELLA
L’Alta Rocca, north of Porto-Vecchio, is a world away from the bling-bling and bustle of the coast. It’s a wilderness-like mix of dense, evergreen-deciduous forests and granite villages strung over rocky ledges. The jagged red peaks of the Aiguilles de Bavella (Bavella Needles) jab the skyline at more than 1,600m. This is one of Corsica’s most iconic landscapes, as well as being prime walking and climbing territory.
FORET DE VIZZAVONA
South of Corte, the cool mountain hamlet of Vizzavona is a mere cluster of houses around a train station, and an ideal base for exploring the Fork de Vizzavona. Here, 1,633 hectares are covered by beech and laricio pines, and threaded with lots of excellent hikes. Look for the signpost to a short, gentle path that meanders down through beautiful forest to Cascades des Anglais, a sequence of gleaming waterfalls.
HÔTEL-RESTAURANT LA CORNICHE
Perched in the hilltop village of San Martino di Lota, La Corniche is close to the Cap Corsewilderness. Family-run since 1934, it woos travellers with a fabulous location and locally sourced food such as fish soup or ravioli with Brocciu cheese. A CASARELLA
Flee the coastal hullabaloo at this lunch place in the Balagne interior, down a serpentine country road that trails countless valleys. A Casarella is a gorgeous informal eatery with tiered terraces and fine views. The menu features tapas-sized local charcuterie and cheese, along with a salad of the day and a wide-ranging drinks selection.
AUBERGE DU COL DE BAVELLA
This rustic roadside inn near the summit of Col de Bavella is the spot to slake post-hiking hunger. Here you can feast on roasted baby goat, wild-boar stew and other hearty Corsican food, and there’s a particularly welcoming fireplace for cooler days. If you’re staying overnight, the auberge also has swish dorms.
Flee the coastal hullabaloo at this lunch place in the Balagne interior, down a serpentine country road that trails countless valleys. A Casarella is a gorgeous informal eatery with tiered terraces and fine views. The menu features tapas-sized local charcuterie and cheese, along with a salad of the day and a wide-ranging drinks selection.
Corsica has four airports but the two main ones for UK arrivals are Ajaccio and Bastia, both of which are sewed by easyJet with direct flights from around April to October. Bastia can be reached from Manchester and London Gatwick, and, with Flybe, from Birmingham and Southampton. Public transport in Corsica only operates between large towns and cities, meaning car hire is a must for rural forays. A detailed road map is indispensable, such as Michelin’s Corse-du-Sud, Haute-Corse, which covers the entire island in a scale of 1 : 150,000.
Caught between an ancient fort and an ultramodern waterfront, the compact Welsh capital has a new-found confidence that makes it a thoroughly fun weekend getaway.
There’s a medieval keep at its heart, but it’s the later additions to Cardiff Castle that capture the imagination. During the Victorian era, extravagant mock-Gothic features were grafted onto this relic, including a clocktower and a banqueting hall. Flanking the castle is Bute Park.
A haven for cool kids about town, the laid-back Buffalo features retro furniture, burgers and other comfort food, life-affirming cocktails including a rhubarb and blackberry sour, plus alternative tunes. There’s a small beer garden at the rear, while upstairs a roster of cutting-edge indie bands takes to the stage. Friday clubnights often feature drum and bass.
Hunt down this solidly traditional wooden-panelled pub with armchairs, a fireplace, sports on screens and Brains beers on tap. The Goat Major’s gastronomic contribution comes in its selection of savoury pot pies served with chips. If it’s on the menu, try the Wye Valley pie: buttered chicken, leek, asparagus and Tintern cheese.
Take a morning browse through Cardiff’s historical network of Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades either side of St Mary St. Start at the Royal Arcade, which connects to Morgan Arcadevia covered lanes to form a ritzy precinct selling big-name fashion brands alongside skateboards, vintage books and antiques. The most decorative is Castle Arcade.
In the namesake arcade that begins just south of the castle walls is one of Cardiff’s best delicatessens, with a wide range of charcuterie and French and Welsh cheeses, and tables spilling outside. Read French newspapers and try a mixture of Breton and Welsh dishes, including rarebit, lamb cawl (a stewlike soup) and bara brith – traditional Welsh fruit loaf.
NATIONAL MUSEUM CARDIFF
Devoted mainly to natural history and art, this grand Neoclassical building is the centrepiece of the seven institutions that form the Welsh National Museum. It’s one of Britain’s best museums; allow at least three hours to do it justice. Welsh artists and ceramicists are well represented. Look out for the 9m-long skeleton of a humpback whale that washed up near Aberthaw in 1982.
What it lacks in size, this market by the River Taff makes up for in sheer yumminess, its stalls heaving with cooked meals, cakes, cheese, organic meat, charcuterie and bread. There are lots of options for vegetarians, an excellent coffee stall, and even Welsh cakes – hot off the griddle.
Lined with the Senedd and other important national institutions, Cardiff Bay puts the modern Welsh nation on display in an architect’s playground of intriguing buildings, open spaces and public art. The centrepiece of this area’s regeneration is the Wales Millennium Centre, an architectural masterpiece of stacked Welsh slate; wander the lobby or catch a free performance.
DOCTOR WHO EXPERIENCE
The success of reinvented classic TV series Doctor Who, produced by BBC Wales, has brought Cardiff to the attention of sci-fi fans. City locations have featured in Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood. This interactive exhibition includes a Tardis hovering outside.
There are direct two-hour train services from London Paddington to Cardiff Central Station, on the southern edge of the city centre, with Great Western Railway. National Express runs direct buses from cities including London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester. Most central city streets are closed to traffic. Local buses are operated by Cardiff Bus; you can buy tickets from the driver. Capital Cabs is a reliable taxi company.
WHERE TO STAY
Ty Rosa is a good, gay-friendly b&b with affable hosts and sumptuous breakfasts, a half hour’s walk from central Cardiff. Thoughtfully equipped rooms are split between the main house and an annexe opposite; some of them share bathrooms.
A touch of Georgian elegance in the heart of Cardiff Bay, Jolyons Boutique Hotel has seven individually designed rooms with antique furniture and modish colours. Front rooms face the Millennium Centre.
Somewhere between a large b&b and a small hotel, Lincoln House is a Victorian property with heraldic emblems in its sitting room’s stained-glass windows. For extra romance, book the four-poster room.
Cardiff is a prodigiously boozy city with a lively alternative scene, swish bars and old pubs.
Gwdihw: At the charming last word in Cardiff hipsterdom, with an eclectic entertainment line-up.
Pen &Wig: Latin legal phrases are printed on walls at this traditional pub, but there’s nothing stuffy about the beer garden or entertainment roster.
Bunk House: Strewn with fairy lights, candles and bells, this hostel bar is cosy, kooky and cool. There’s even a made-up bed for lie-downs.
Porter’s: This attitude-free bar runs events most nights. Come for film screenings or ‘bandaoke’.
The gorgeous villages, graceful churches and rolling hills of the Cotswolds are a vision of old-world England — and there’s plenty to enjoy without a lord-of-the-manor price tag.
Since 1890, Huffkins has been baking delicious scones, cakes and pies. There are branches across the Cotswolds, but Burford’s is the original. More substantial dishes include quiches, soups, omelettes, all-day breakfasts and full-blown afternoon teas. Burford itself is a delight, with its cottages of pale golden stone.
JAFFE & NEALE BOOKSHOP CAFÉ
The town of Chipping Norton (`Chippy’, to locals) has handsome Georgian buildings and old coaching inns clustered around a market square, but none of the Cotswold crowds. This brilliant, busy independent bookshop serves delectable cakes and coffees to tables squeezed between the bookshelves or in the cosy upstairs reading lounge with sofas.
STROUD FARMERS’ MARKET
Hilly Stroud once hummed with the sound of more than 150 cloth mills. Its still one of the Cotswolds’ most important market towns – best evidenced on Saturdays when dozens of stallholders converge on the town for the weekly farmers’ market. Hosting a multitude of local producers selling seasonal delights and homemade crafts, the market is undoubtedly the best of its kind in the Cotswolds.
GUILD CRAFT WORKSHOPS
This former silk mill (c 1790) in Chipping Campden was the home of Charles Robert Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft from 1902 until it went bust in 1908. Many artisans stayed on. Downstairs, there’s a café, along with a gallery showcasing the work of a cooperative of local craftspeople.
MUSEUM IN THE PARK
Set in an 18th-century mansion, half-a-mile northwest of Stroud’s centre, this museum tells the cloth-making town’s history, and has interactive displays ranging from dinosaur bones to Iron Age relics from nearby Uley Bury (a prehistoric hill fort). A separate gallery hosts contemporary art exhibitions.
Unusually fora stately home, the Earl of Bathurst’s mansion sits right on the edge of town, hidden and off-limits behind a giant yew hedge (allegedly Britain’s tallest). The extensive landscaped grounds, however, are open to the public and make a lovely spot for a stroll. Under the Romans, elegant Cirencester (then Corinium) was second only to London in size and importance.
BELAS KNAP LONG BARROW
Dating from 3000 BC, Belas Knap is one of England’s best-preserved Neolithic burial chambers. Views across the countryside to Sudeley Castle are beautiful. The barrow is accessed by a 21/2-mile hike from Winchcombe along the Cotswold Way; otherwise park on Corndean Lane.
ST MARY’S CHURCH
Chipping Norton’s secluded church is a classic example of a Cotswold wool church, with a magnificent perpendicular nave and clerestory (upper row of windows), alabaster tombs and fluted pillars. While it was mostly built in 1448, two of the chancel arches date to 1200. In the hexagonal porch, carved 15th-century ceiling bosses include the Green Man.
MINSTER LOVELL HALL
This 15th-century manor house by the River Windrush was originally home to Viscount Francis Lovell; Richard III stayed here in 1483. Abandoned in 1747, the manor is now in ruins. You can pass through the vaulted porch to peek past blackened walls into the roofless great hall, the interior courtyard and the crumbling tower, while the wind whistles through gaping windows.
Oxford, Moreton-in- Marsh, Stroud, Gloucester and Cheltenham have direct trains to London (London Paddington—Stroud from £25 return; gwrcom). Other direct trains go to Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle (from Oxford), and Cardiff and Edinburgh (from Cheltenham). National Express coaches head from London and other UK cities to Oxford, Cirencester, Stroud and Cheltenham. For exploring the Cotswolds without your own wheels, the Cotswolds Discoverer provides unlimited travel on participating buses and trains.
WHERE TO STAY
Attached to a busy Chipping Campden pub, the Volunteer Inn’s simple rooms are favoured by Cotswold Way walkers and cyclists.
Stow-on-the-Wold’s Number 9 is all sloping floors and exposed beams inside an 18th-century townhouse that was once a coaching inn. There’s a lounge with a crackling fire.
In Fulbrook, a mile northeast of Burford, the wonderful old Star Cottage has two brilliantly comfortable, character- filled en suite rooms, a four-person barn apartment, and fantastic homecooked breakfasts.
Bibury: Once described by William Morris as England’s most beautiful village, Bibury is the Cotswolds at its most picturesque, with a cluster of riverside cottages and a tangle of narrow streets flanked by attractive stone buildings.
Stanway: Just a few thatched-roofed cottages, a church and Stanway House, a magnificent Jacobean mansion; its Baroque water gardens feature Britain’s tallest fountain.
The Slaughters: The villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter maintain their unhurried medieval charm. The Old Mill houses a museum and cafe.
Stanton: A little stunner with golden Cotswold-stone houses and not a quaint tearoom in sight. Look for Jacobean Stanton Court and St Michael & All Angels’ Church, with its fine Perpendicular tower and medieval interior.
Often confused with the Maldives, its distant and decidedly flat Indian Ocean neighbour, Mauritius couldn’t be more different (blissful beaches and underwater natural treasures aside). Bursting dramatically from the waters east of Madagascar, this island is no coral atoll – jagged peaks of unimaginable shapes rise above tropical forests, sugarcane plantations carpet rolling hills and rivers cascade off 100m cliffs to frothing pools below. Exciting activities away from the beach abound.
Many of the wild expanses, such as Black River Gorges National Park, are criss-crossed with trails for hiking (and a few for mountain biking, too) that will take you through verdant, flowering foliage and deposit you at viewpoints that will vanquish what breath you have left. Looking down over Mauritius’ coastline and seeing the kaleidoscopic collision of blue hues between the encircling reef and coastline is simply spellbinding. And it’s those protected, shallow waters that are perfect for water-based activities, beneath or atop the surface.
Culturally, Mauritius is bursting with diversity, with Indian, African, Chinese and French ancestries at the fore. Taking the chance to embrace this ever-peaceful society, by visiting communities or dining on cuisine as colourful and ethnically varied as the population at family-run tables d’hote, is one of Mauritius’ true honeymoon rewards.
Flanked by the mighty Zambezi River and the impressive Zambezi escarpment, Lower Zambezi National Park is gorgeous and crawling with iconic African wildlife.
What’s more, the guides are trained to offer you more than just the traditional wildlife drives – you can slide silently in a canoe past elephant, relax with a G&T in a guided powerboat, hike the escarpment for stunning views or track wildlife on foot.
Having this menu of activity options allows you to customise each day to suit your level of energy (after all, you may still be catching our breath post-wedding). And rest assured, even spending the entire day relaxing at the riverside camps is richly rewarding, with wildlife always in sight on the Zambezi.
Do try to wake prior to dawn for safari activities at least once or twice, though, as sunrise is a glorious moment in the African bush, with perfect light for photography and many animals at their most active. Combining an enthralling safari with luxurious beach time is a well-regarded honeymoon favourite, and in this regard Zambia pairs incredibly well with neighbouring Malawi. The ‘Lake of Stars’ has long proved that some of Africa’s most beautiful beaches are not on its coast, but inland, and it is now home to some sumptuous accommodation options.
At the end of every April, the quiet, half-timbered towns of Saxony-Anhalt, in eastern Germany, are suddenly overrun. A vast coven of witches, warlocks and minor devils descend in a blur of brooms and face paint for one of Europe’s oddest celebrations: Walpurgis Night.
By mid-morning on the last day of April, the cobbled streets of picturesque Wernigerode are thronging with people in costume. An informal parade snakes up the steep path to the central courtyard of the town’s castle, which was founded in the 12th century. A band called La Marotte (The Crook) is playing a version of medieval funk, while people dressed like extras from Game of Thrones eat bratwurst and drink mead. Pallid with white make-up, Frank Wilhelm from Berlin is here as his alter ego, Necronomos, a warlock who carries a horned skull on a long staff. “It’s cos-play. It’s fun,” he tells me. “It’s like World of Warcraft, but in real life.”
A pair of tiny horns sprout from Rico Bernhagen’s crimson forehead. Rico comes from Hamburg and works in logistics. He’s walking arm in arm with a green-faced witch who’s wearing a six-inch branch on her nose that’s so realistic you expect robins to perch on it. “It took us five hours to get ready,” says the witch, who’s a hairdresser called Carolin Blank. Carolin has to tip her head back so she can sip her beer without getting her prosthetic nose wet.
“She likes to make potions,” says Rico. “She grows herbs in the garden. You know rune stones? She’s very good at those.”
Carolin may dabble in the magical arts, but for most people, Walpurgis, like Halloween, is just a one-day commitment to the supernatural. The event has more to do with drinking beer and having a good time than any real interest in the occult.
From a lookout point on the castle wall, I can see the rounded top of the Brocken, the highest mountain in the Harz range, eight miles to the west. A version of Walpurgis Night is observed in many parts of northern Europe, but the inhabitants of the Harz Mountains claim the Brocken is its epic entre. According to custom, its summit is where Germany’s real witches meet in order to consort with the devil, dance round fires and do unspeakable things with goats.
In fact, the details of this legend don’t go back much further than Germany’s most famous national poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his masterpiece, Faust, Goethe dramatises a Walpurgis Night celebration taking place on top of the Brocken. Goethe’s Walpurgis Night is funny and quite rude: more Carry On than Aleister Crowley. Clearly, it was never Goethe’s intention to inspire a group of middle-aged motorbike enthusiasts from Berlin to dress up as devils and put on novelty contact lenses. But if his story has proved unexpectedly compelling, it might be because it tapped into a vein of authentic folk belief that predates the coming of Christianity.
Saint Walpurga’s day, 1 May, happens to fall exactly halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Before the church named it after a saint, it was a pagan spring festival, celebrated across Europe with dances, maypoles and ceremonial bonfires. To the Celts, it was the feast of Beltane. Up in the remoter corners of the Harz Mountains, winter tends to cling on for a while and so, perhaps, did old customs. It’s not hard to imagine the region’s newly Christianised inhabitants muttering, ‘Witchcraft!’, when they saw the spring bonfires of their mountain neighbours. Until relatively recently, the suggestion of something uncanny swirled around the ancient woods and those who lived there.
“Harz comes from the Old German word hardt,” says Maik Thiele, who is dressed in monks’ robes and carrying a huge staff. It’s a mountain forest. It means: “Attention! Go not in or you come not out!”
In fact, you’d be foolish not to venture into the forests of the Harz Mountains. They have some of the finest hiking trails in the whole country, with more than 5,000 miles of marked paths through extraordinary scenery. I spent a happy afternoon following the route of the Bode River as it descends from the tiny village of Treseburg.
For long months summer has been building to a crescendo in northern Thailand, slowly filling the bowl of mountains that surrounds Chiang Mai with soupy heat. By the middle of April, a sticky, wilting haze dulls the glint from the gilded Buddhas that gaze serenely out from the city’s 300 temples. The scents of frangipani, mango and hyper-spiced street food have been slow-cooked to a ripe miasma; the contents of the four-mile moat that girdles the Old City simmered to a green broth. Something has to give and it can’t wait until the rains come down in late May. At dusk on 12 April, the downtown pavements begin to mass with excitable water warriors, fingers on plastic triggers, thumbs pressed over hose tips, buckets abrim. Ahead lies a four day, man-made monsoon, which will saturate the city’s streets and all who sail in them.
By tradition officially stretching from 13 to 16 April, Songkran is the spray-and-pray festival that marks the Buddhist New Year on 15 April. It’s a bewildering, but glorious fusion of dignified religious faith, familial devotion and deafening, technicolour aquatic madness. As a celebration of towering national importance, Songkran is like a Western Christmas and New Year rolled into one, with a soggy side order of trick-or-treat Halloween mayhem. Every dawn, families file soberly into temples with offerings and votive decorations. Every afternoon, rather less soberly, they rush through the streets toting triple-chamber water pistols. The first activity endows good karma and the second good luck. Though it might not seem so at the time, ahead-to-toe slapstick soaking is the best start a year could bring.
Around 95 per cent of Thais are Buddhist and Chiang Mai — for 500 years capital of the old Lanna kingdom, the nation’s rural heartland — prides itself as a repository of spiritual and communal tradition. Nowhere is Songkran celebrated so wholeheartedly: here, the festivities are strung out for an extra day and with an enthusiasm that draws crowds from right across the land. Initiate conversation on the street — ideally during the buckets-down ceasefire that tentatively holds from 8pm to 10am — and you’ll often find yourself talking to one of the countless northerners who’ve relocated to Thailand’s more prosperous south, returning to their ancestral homeland for a uniquely profound New Year experience. It’s an opportunity to renew and reaffirm traditions, and the family bonds that Thais hold so dear. Even at Songkran, blood is much thicker than water.
“We just don’t have temples like this in Bangkok,” says Chiang Mai-born Kompun, admiring the weathered dragons that guard the 19th-century Wat Ton Kwen. “And the people up here are more kind and respectful, they always have time for you.” With its sombre dark-wood gables and scattering of silent, orange-robed monks, the temple is a model of ascetic restraint, just a few miles outside the city, but a world away from the power-shower delirium. Only the colourful and intricately cut paper flags that sprout from towers of sand acknowledge the festivities. Kompun and her son Wasin have already added their contributions: the flags are themed to their respective zodiac signs, and an enshrined Songkran tradition is to bring a bucket or bag of sand to the temple, replacing the earth that worshippers have carried out on their feet over the previous year. Now, she sprinkles saffron perfumed, jasmine-petalled water on the golden head of the temple’s Buddha.
“It’s a blessing, to wash away the old year and make a good start for the new one.” With a nervous smile, she admits she won’t be participating in the super-soaked anarchy that has burst forth from this graceful, symbolic act.
Clean-slate renewal and ritualised ‘merit making’ are the twin spiritual cornerstones of this festival. The former manifests itself in the redecorating of temples, intensive spring cleaning and the wearing of garish new clothes: families congregate in matching Hawaiian shirts and drape floral garlands around each other’s necks. The latter, the earning of good karma for the coming year, begins in earnest on the penultimate dawn of the old one, on 13 April, when a long line of monks files through the red-brick columns of Tha Phae gate, one of the four entrances to Chiang Mai’s lath-century Old City.
Dawn is tinting the Atlas Mountains rust-red as the rose-pickers of Hdida set out for work. Dressed in flip-flops and jellabas, they follow a dusty path down to the fields, and before too long are lost in foliage. Fruit trees teeter over the trail, laden with figs, dates and oranges. Barley and alfalfa sprout from the orange earth, watered by channels beside the path. Pomegranates dangle from overhanging branches. But the women aren’t here to pick fruit; they’re here to harvest something more fragrant.
“Can you smell them?” asks Ait Khouya Aicha, as she pads into a meadow fringed by walnut trees, and heads for a tangle of shrubs. She pulls down a branch: it’s covered by flowers from trunk to tip, shocking pink against the deep-green leaves.
“These are the roses of the Asif M’Goun River,” she says, cradling a blossom in her hand. “They are famous around the world. But to understand why, you must smell them.” Pulling on thick gloves, she snips off the flower and breathes in the scent. The perfume is heady and sweet, with notes of honey and treacle.
“The fragrance is best in the morning, but we must work quickly,” she says, dropping the flower into a robe gathered around her waist known as a tachtate. “The sun will burn the petals, and then the perfume will be ruined.”
Within half an hour, Aicha and her companions have stripped the bushes of blossoms and four sacks have been filled to the brim. They head back to the village, sharing round a bag of dates and nuts for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, they arrive at a backstreet garage that doubles as the village’s rose co-operative, where owner Ahmid Mansouri inspects the blossoms, weighs them on battered scales, and adds them to a heap covering the concrete floor. “These are good roses,” he says, puffing on a crooked roll-up. “But last week we were harvesting twice as many. Next week they will be gone. And that means one thing. It is time for the Festival of the Roses to begin.” No-one is sure how roses first came to this remote corner of Morocco, high in the Atlas Mountains, six hours’ drive southeast of Marrakesh.
According to legend, they were carried here centuries ago by a Berber merchant from Damascus; the species that grows here is Rosa damascene, the Damask rose, which originates from ancient Syria and has been celebrated for centuries for its intense perfume. However they arrived, the M’Goun Valley — or the Vallee des Roses, as it’s known in Morocco — has become famous for its flowers. Every year during the main growing season between April and mid-May, the valley produces between 3,000 and 4,000 tonnes of wild roses. They’re everywhere: sprouting up from the hedgerows, blooming along stone walls, tangling the borders between farmers’ fields. Each day before dawn, women gather the roses by hand, and sell them to co-operatives dotted along the valley. Some are bought by local distilleries to make rose water, soaps and pot-pourri, but the majority are bought by big French perfume houses, for whom the M’Goun roses command a special cachet. It’s an intensive – and expensive — business: around four tonnes of fresh petals, or 1.6 million flowers, are required to make a single litre of rose oil, and with each litre fetching around 12,000 euros, the rewards are obvious. But with intense competition from other rose-growing areas, especially in Turkey and Bulgaria, the M’Goun. Valley needs to find ways to catch the noses of overseas buyers — and that’s where the Festival des Roses comes in.