1. Canada’s National Parks
Why they’re hot? They’re free and ready to party!
Canada’s national parks are spectacular, from the dinky 15 sq km Georgian Bay Islands National Park to Alberta’s vast Wood Buffalo NP – the size of Denmark. But their scale is rivalled by the variety of geography available, taking in snow-swept tundra (Wapusk NP, Manitoba), Rocky Mountains (Jasper NP) and the dense old-growth rainforest of British Columbia (Pacific Rim NP). And to top it off, admission will be free during 2017, to mark 150 years of the Canadian Confederation: the perfect reason to find yourself celebrating in ‘the Great White North’.
From capital Ottawa, head south to Ontario’s Thousand Islands NP and grab a kayak to explore the titular chain of granite that pierces the St Lawrence River. Further west, Bruce Peninsula NP lies along the western shoreline of Georgian Bay, with fine trails and a marine park to explore, while Point Pelee NP is home to some of Canada’s best birdwatching. Alternatively, Mont-Temblant NP in Quebec boasts one of the most dramatic via ferrata on Earth. With so much choice on offer, this is a party you won’t want to miss.
2. Patagonia, Chile & Argentina
Why it’s hot? It’s 40 years since Bruce Chatwin explored the region, and you can too with new flights
Back in 1977, Bruce Chatwin shook travel-writing with the release In Patagonia. Hitting readers like a hard shot of pisco sour to the soul, four decades on, travellers still cling to tattered copies, as ripe a glimpse into Patagonia’s history, people and myths as anything since. So what better time to follow in his footsteps – especially with the launch of direct flights to Santiago, Chile?
Stand on the beaches of Argentina’s Puerto Madryn, as Chatwin did, where Welsh pioneers first landed in 1865 and continue to Trevelin, the archetypal green valley the settlers sought. Track Ruta40, meeting gauchos and stopping at estandas (ranches) en route; visit Mylodon Cave, where Chatwin sought his mythical sloths, in sight of the white-dusted peaks of Chile’s Torres del Paine NP; and cross into ‘Fireland’ (Tierra del Fuego NP).
But don’t stick to the book: this is a place to forge your own adventure, exploring sub-polar magellan forests, whale-rich seas and sweeping glaciers. Chatwin would heartily approve.
Egypt has been steeped into history for the longest time. Because there has been a lot of interest in Egypt’s history, historians coined the term “Egyptology,” which is the study of pharaonic Egypt. Egyptology spanned the period between c. 4500 BCE and CE 641. How did Egyptology begin? Scholars going with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt published the Description de I’Égypte (1809-1828); this publication made huge quantities of source materials about ancient Egypt available for Europeans.
Did you know that written Egyptian documents dated to c. 3150 BCE? This was the first time that pharaohs developed the hieroglyphic script in Upper Egypt. These scripts provided the source material for Egyptological study.
Following the Arab conquest, only the Copts kept the ancient language alive (written in Greek characters). Coptic texts taken Egypt during the Renaissance awakened interest in the Egyptian language. German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher published a Coptic grammar in 1643; European travellers returned to Egypt with antiquities and stories of wondrous ruins. What’s more, Egyptology became an academic discipline in France, England, and Germany.
American museums opened Egyptian collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The University of Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum are some of music collections that have done a lot of work in Egypt.
On the geographical front, Egypt has two coastlines on the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It borders Libya to the west, the Gaza Strip and Israel to the east, and Sudan to the south.
Egypt has an area of 1,001,449 square kilometres. The longest straight-line distance from north to south is 1,024 kilometres, and the straight-line distance from east to west is 1,240 kilometres long. The country’s maritime boundaries measure more than 2,900 kilometres of coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Red Sea.
Most of the country is made of desert. Thirty-five thousand square kilometres (3.5%) of the total land area is cultivated and permanently settled. Most of Egypt is located within the desert zone that runs east from Africa’s Atlantic Coast and connects with southwestern Asia.
Four leading geological regions are present in Egypt: Nile Valley and Nile Delta, Western Desert (also known as Libyan Desert), Eastern Desert (an extension from the Nile Valley until the Red Sea Coast), and Sinai Peninsula. Of the geological regions, the Nile Valley and Nile Delta are the most significant areas, though they cover only 5.5% of the country’s total area.
Although tamed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Nile has not changed much since the distant days when Ramses was a boy. In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus described Egypt as “the gift of the Nile,” and to sail along the river’s ageless green shores is to understand why the ancient Egyptians worshipped it.
The river remains the lifeblood of Egyptian civilization, the heart and soul of its people. The languid tempo of huddled riverside While the Nile’s east bank, where the sun rises, holds the crowning achievements of ancient Egyptian architecture, Luxor’s fascination continues across the river on the west bank.
There Thebans built their City of the Dead, the largest and most famous necropolis of ancient Egypt. Of the many royal tombs excavated in the Valley of the Kings, only that of Tutankhamen was found intact. Visitors can only speculate sadly about what must have disappeared from the plundered tombs of more powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II.
The seven-chambered tomb of Ramses’ consort Nefertari— reopened in 1995—in the nearby Valley of the Queens, is believed by art historians to be the finest now on view to the public, a vividly and intricately painted labor of love by the pharaoh for the favorite of his forty wives.
Sightseeing in Luxor can be taxing: Wake-up calls at the crack of dawn will help you achieve some degree of solitude by the ruins before the hordes and the heat arrive. After a long, dusty day, repair to the Old Winter Palace.
Bypass the new wing and ask for a room in the original wing of the hotel (founded in 1886) for nostalgia’s sake. Its high ceilings, giant armoires, Oriental carpets, and ornate crystal chandeliers hark back to the early days of British imperialism. The garden at the Old Winter Palace, the largest and most beautiful in Luxor, has a dozen full-time gardeners who ensure that this is the coolest place in town for tea.
Covering two thirds of Egypt and the very antithesis of the green Nile Valley, the Western Desert (an extension of the Sahara) is punctuated by only a handful of exotic oases. Picturesque Siwa, located near the Libyan border on a centuries-old caravan route, is famous for its dates and olives.
Despite the recent arrival of television and a steady trickle of adventure tourism, this lush oasis remains an intriguing desert outpost, where the unique Siwan culture and customs continue much as they did when Alexander the Great passed through in 331 B.C. (the discovery of his alleged tomb here made international headlines in 1995).
Siwi, a Berber tongue, is spoken instead of Arabic. Women veiled in raven black still wear the traditional complex braids and cover themselves with Egypt’s largest, most ornate silver jewelry—a local craft whose examples have become coveted collector’s items. The oasis is sustained by 300 life-giving springs and freshwater streams. More than 300,000 palm trees and 70,000 olive trees attract an amazing bird population.
Within this biblical setting, the magical Adrere Amellal Oasis hotel lies within a lush grove of ancient date palms. The lodge is the brainchild of a Cairene businessman bent on proving that luxury and return to nature are not mutually exclusive. There is no electricity, no phones, and no nightlife; instead, there are rock salt houses, candlelit alleys, exquisite meals from the hotel’s organic garden, and fascinating excursions into the Great Sand Sea of Egypt’s Western Desert.
Since their logic-defying construction, the Pyramids at Giza have embodied antiquity, mystery—and far-fetched speculation. “From the summit of these monuments,” cried Napoleon, “forty centuries look upon you!”
The pyramids are the only wonder of the ancient world to have survived nearly intact. The funerary Great Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu) is the oldest at Giza and the largest in the world, built circa 2500 B.C. with some 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing an average 2.75 tons each, and moved by a force of around 20,000 men.
Two smaller pyramids nearby belonged to Cheops’s son and grandson. The Sphinx (Abu ’l-Hol, “Father of Terror”) sits nearby, a strange figure with a lion’s body, a human face, and a royal beard. The booming sound-and-light show that takes place every evening after sundown is a melodramatic display, yet a surprisingly entertaining crash course in pharaonic history. As Cairo’s population passes the 15 million mark, the pyramids’ former isolation in the desert has been infringed on by the suburbs that continue to grow around them.
Touts and persistent camel drivers offer their horses and knackered “ships of the desert” to see the pyramids as they were meant to be experienced. They are most magical at dawn and dusk, or when bathed in moonlight and silence.
Giving new meaning to the real estate dictum “Location, location, location,” the elegant 19th-century Mena House is just a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramids. Set within 40 acres of lush parkland and gardens on the edge of the Sahara, this veritable oasis of escape from the amusement-park atmosphere that now often surrounds the pyramids was once the rest house and hunting lodge of the empire-building Khedive Ismail.
The omnipresent pyramids loom in full, unobstructed view from your hotel room, the breakfast terrace (Evelyn Waugh thought it was “like having the Prince of Wales at the next table”), the hotel’s 18-hole golf course, and the garden-enveloped swimming pool. Maintaining much of its colonial air, the Mena House’s original wing was home to the 1943 “Big Three” conference attended by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, and was the site where plans for D- Day were initiated, as well as the formal signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
The old, refurbished suites that command a view of the pyramids are far more interesting than rooms in the new annex. The Moghul Restaurant offers the finest Indian cuisine in Egypt, a culinary reminder of the hotel’s membership in the prestigious, Indian-based Oberoi hotel chain.
An amble through this overwhelming medieval microcosm, with what must be the greatest population density in the Middle East, is a remarkable passage through the Cairo of six or seven centuries ago. This ancient quarter of Cairo assails the senses, confounds, and confuses.
Amid barely contained pandemonium, oddly coupled with both intense poverty and one of the world’s lowest crime rates, lies the legendary hospitality of the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, chickens, horses, and sheep walk the narrow, potholed streets, further congested with men on donkey carts collecting garbage, itinerant street vendors, and people going about life as they always have.
The dust and rubble offset the faded architectural grandeur of a city that was once the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world.
Given a daunting number of sites, start at the spectacular 12th-century Citadel of Salah al-Din; its founder was known throughout Christendom as Saladin, the Crusaders’ chivalrous foe. Perched on a steep spur, this heavily fortified bastion offers a matchless panorama of Cairo’s minaret-punctuated skyline and endless sprawl.
The holiest and most awe-inspiring of the city’s places of worship is the 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, notable for both its grand scale and extreme simplicity. The Islamic Art Museum’s collection, the most extensive of its kind in Egypt, spans the 7th to 19th centuries.
The Khan el-Khalili’s maze of bazaars is another mind-boggler for its sheer size alone. The richly ornamented Qualawun el-Nasir complex includes a madrasa, or theological school, and mausoleums. Built by three of the most important Mamluk sultans, it is considered a large-scale masterwork of their lavish architectural style.
The list of Islamic Cairo’s highlights goes on, but culture shock may have caught up with even the most intrepid visitor, who by this point has likely had his or her fill of noise, belching bus fumes, and ornery livestock demanding the right of way.
Noisy, wonderful, chaotic, and awash with the smells of spices, incense, and leather, Khan el-Khalili is one of the world’s great bazaars— a sprawling, confusing, enclosed city-within-a-city first set up as a caravansary in 1382.
Everyone here wants your business, your money, your time for a glass of mint tea. Whether you’re shopping or not, bypass the tiny stalls and workshops on the most trammeled pathways (which have become highly touristed) and penetrate deep into the bewildering warren of back alleys, where Cairenes still shop for their dowries, cotton galabiyas, fezzes, and sheehas, or hooka water pipes.
This is the place to practice your haggling technique, but don’t expect to win against merchants with thousands of years of practice in their blood. Almost everything is available here. Mini bazaars within the bazaar specialize in such goods as carpets, gold, fabrics, perfume, and cosmetics (where the tiny pots of eye-lining kohl, Cleopatra-style, are made from burned, crushed olive pits).
Open round-the-clock since 1752, El Fishawy is still the Khan’s most famous coffee and tea house, immortalized by Lawrence Durrell. In a rich 19th- century European ambience of gilded mirrors, hammered brass, and cracked marble-topped tables, puff on a water pipe, have your fortune told, people-watch, and order what is said to be the best coffee in the city, delivered in little brass pots.
Most tour groups head straight upstairs for the gallery dedicated to the mind-boggling treasures of boy-king Tutankhamen. Others make a beeline for the mummy room, only recently reopened after fifteen years.
Regardless of your viewing strategy, the museum houses such an unparalleled collection of treasures (arranged chronologically from the Old [2700—2200 B.C.], to Middle [2100-1800 B.C.], and New [1600-1200 B.C.] Kingdoms) that, allowing just one minute to examine each of its 136,000 pharaonic artifacts, it would take a visitor nine months to see it all.
Another astounding 40,000 items remain crated in the basement, evidence of the chronic space shortage that has plagued Egypt’s greatest museum since it was founded in 1858. A visit here is overwhelming, to say the least; so are the crowds.
After viewing the 1,700 objects unearthed in 1922 in the small tomb of the relatively insignificant pharaoh Tut and the two rooms of twenty-seven mummified royal pharaohs and their queens, the rest of the museum’s exhibits can seem lackluster. A more relaxed return visit can do justice to these other masterworks.
Ranking with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as the world’s best place to dive, the Red Sea was described by no less an expert than Jacques Cousteau as “a corridor of marvels—the happiest hours of my diving experience.”
The sea is famed for its diverse marine life and the spectacular clarity of the water, with visibility often in excess of 150 feet. (The lack of rain in the surrounding desert means no runoff to degrade visibility.) Much of the uniqueness of a Red Sea dive derives from the dramatic juxtaposition of the stark beauty of the Sinai Desert above and the veritable Garden of Eden below. About 10 percent of Red Sea species are found nowhere else on earth.
At the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula, dive resorts such as Sharm el-Sheik offer a range of day boats out to the spectacular dive sites of Ras Mohammed, Egypt’s first national marine park. But live-aboard boats can bypass the underwater crowds and head for even more pristine reefs, steep drop-offs, sea mounts, and wrecks.
Those who head to the mountain-lined coast of the Red Sea for diving and snorkeling holidays should consider an unprogrammed off-road segue into the Sinai’s desert wilderness with a Bedouin guide. On the Gulf of Aqaba, Nuweiba is the best jumping-off point for treks by foot, jeep, or camel.
It’s near the ancient Byzantine monastery of Santa Katerina, located on the slopes of Mount Sinai, from whose summit God is said to have delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, and Colored Canyon, where the rock strata contain an outstanding spectrum of colors that change with the light.
Members of some of the fourteen indigenous tribes of nomadic Bedouins have chosen to take up the opportunities offered by tourism, most commonly as guides for overnight (and longer) trips to oases and nomadic camps.
There you can experience life as the Bedouins have known it since biblical times. Book your trip to Nuweiba for mid-January, in time for the annual camel races at Wadi Zalaga, when tribes converge from across the southern Sinai.
Anywhere from 60 to 100 camels race 12.6 miles, while honking jeeps and fellow dromedaries race alongside to cheer on their favorite mounts. The barbecue and party the night before rivals the post-race celebration.
Nuweiba, long a popular ferry departure point for Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca, is now aiming at more of a resort and diving village atmosphere. The nicest top-end hotel option is the beachfront Hilton Coral Resort, which can arrange any of your Bedouin fantasies.