BEST FOR… Drama, caves, trolls
WHY GO? It’s worth risking their wrath, though, to crunch along the pitch-pebbled shore, watching guillemots and fulmars wheel among the basalt columns, and to see waves crash against the offshore rocks – allegedly trolls creeping inland.
WHAT TO DO: This isn’t hidden – the Vik end of the beach, home to the best caves, is tourbus-tastic. But hit the south coast a little further west and you (or, better, your guide) can 4WD onto a seemingly endless expanse of empty ebony sand.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Take an ice-hike on Solheimajokull glacier. Walk behind the water at Seljalandsfoss.
GET THERE: Reynisfjara is 190km from Reykjavik. A daily bus connects Reykjavik and Vik.
BEST FOR… Kayaking, hiking, isolation
WHY GO? The hairy hairpin roads and crinkled topography keep crowds away from Corsica’s south-east edge. Here, fragrant maquis-cloaked valleys scrunch behind an azure sea, hiding perfect portions of sand. Better, beach beauties such as Cala di Conca and Cala di Tivella can only be reached by boat or on foot, keeping them quieter still.
WHAT TO DO: Hire a kayak in Tizzano to paddle to Conca, or walk the coast path between the two (5-6hrs return) via granite outcrops, a 17th-century Genoese tower and many beaches.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Visit the secretive hilltop town of Sartene (pictured). Go wine tasting in the dramatic Vallee de I’Ortolo.
GET THERE: Tizzano is a 60km drive north from the cliff-perched town of Bonifacio.
BEST FOR… Coast hiking, seafood, waves WHY GO? Leave the Algarve to the mob – head west instead, where the Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Nature Reserve shields a shore rich in wildflowers, birdlife (including leggy cliff-nesting storks) and hidden coves. Accessed by creaky wooden steps, Praia da Carraga is one such golden haven, but there are plenty more.
WHAT TO DO: The Rota Vicentina long-distance trail, opened in 2012, follows the Alentejo coast, giving access to countless secret beaches.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Eat fresh fish at nearby Entrada da Barca. Surfers will find many good spots.
GET THERE: The Costa Vicentina is between Lisbon and Faro; trains run from both to Funcheira (inland). Buses reach coastal villages such as Porto Covo and Odeceixe.
BEST FOR… Escaping, snorkelling WHY GO? It’s the 300-plus steps down the cliff-face (or, more accurately, back up again) that keep the masses from Green Bowl. Those who brave the staircase will find quiet golden sand, crystal waters, crabs and starfish, and caves full of bats.
WHAT TO DO: Surf (there are good waves here). Snorkel amid colourful coral and hundreds of tropical fishes.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Visit clifftop Uluwatu Temple, which hosts nightly kecak (music drama) and fire-dance performances. Eat a seafood supper on Muaya Beach.
GET THERE: Green Bowl is near Uluwatu, South Kuta.
BEST FOR… Penguins, more penguins, wow-factor
WHY GO? Simply, penguins. Over 100,000 kings (the second-largest species) gather on this raucous beach, squawking and waddling before a landscape of fearsome mountains and creaky glaciers.
WHAT TO DO: Sit down – you’re not supposed to get within 5m of the penguins, but the curious birds will often approach you.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Immerse yourself in the Shackleton story – retrace some of the explorer’s footsteps by walking from Fortuna Bay to Stromness; visit the Shackleton museum and grave at Grytviken.
GET THERE: Some cruises from Ushuaia, Argentina, include stops at South Georgia, en route to Antarctica.
BEST FOR… Culture, scenery, starfish WHY GO? This beach is well-named. It’s ridiculously good-looking: a mile of pristine sand, bright-green trees, gentle blue waters, islands just offshore. This is the stuff that postcards are made of yet, on a weekday, there will be no one else there.
WHAT TO DO: Take a dip. Snorkel. Look for starfish, which like to hang out in the shallows. Pinch yourself (yes, it’s real).
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Quiet, laid-back Carriacou has a real Afro-Caribbean feel. Go there to lime with the locals, watch the boat-builders at work and seek out traditional drumming.
GET THERE: Carriacou is a 90-minute ferry ride from Grenada. Local buses run to Paradise.
BEST FOR… Atlantic rollers, red rocks, super sunsets
WHY GO? While Agadir caters to those wanting package-hol Morocco, Legzira (160km south) caters to no one. The sea rules here, smashing the sand, daring you to take a dip, and carving the cliffs into dramatic arches. Pack the camera before thecossie.
WHAT TO DO: Take a walk along the sand, making sure you take note of tides first so you don’t get marooned beneath an archway. Make sure you position yourself for that perfect sunset shot, when the red rocks glow.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE: Hang out in faded art-deco-feel Sidi Ifni. Take a surf lesson.
GET THERE: Legzira is 10km north of Sidi Ifni.
We lined up in the hot Pyongyang sunshine facing 2om-high bronze statues of the ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il-sung, and the ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-il. Recorded funeral music wafted across Mansudae plaza. A nearby inscription read: ‘Let us drive out American imperialism’. “We must show our respect to this sacred statue,” urged Guidel. With bouquet laid, we bowed deeply in unison. Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Just curious – It seemed I’d travelled back to Stalin’s USSR or the demagoguery of Mao’s China. In Beijing, two nights before entering the DPRK, our tour leader, Julia, had briefed us about visiting the world’s most secretive state: “No leaving hotels without a guide. No photos of soldiers. No smirking at memorials.
No creasing newspapers featuring images of Kim Jong-un – you can be arrested for that.” Strictly itemised group travel is the only way to see this totalitarian autarky sandwiched between eastern China and South Korea. So I’d joined a group of eight travellers and was on my way in. As you might imagine, journalists are frowned upon, so I concealed my occupation from our two enchanting local Korean guides. Guidei and Guide2 waited for us at Pyongyang Airport – and certainly weren’t the automaton minders I’d expected. Testimonies given by defectors condemn North Korea as a serious human rights abuser: a country that indoctrinates citizens from birth into the Kim personality cult; that detains and executes dissenters in inhumane labour camps; that, spurred by its failed socialist policies, has caused its people to endure famine and starvation.
So was it ethically right to be visiting – and thus handing over hard currency to – this international pariah? However hard I moralised about this I couldn’t dress up my justification for going as anything other than selfish curiosity. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, drawn by DPRK’s unremittingly negative and often bizarre publicity. Also, is imposing isolation on a country already suspicious of foreigners a helpful way forward? Guidei laughed when I said I’d heard that North Korean men were required to get Kim Jong-un haircuts: “That’s your propaganda. Tell me if you see anybody with this haircut.” I never did.
Big Brother is watching… Showcase capital Pyongyang immediately triggered flashbacks of the Moscow I once visited pre-perestroika. It was a vertical, airy city of grandiose squares, fountains, parks and marble-clad monuments, with apartment blocks organised as urban collectives incorporating government shops that ration everything from rice to state-manufactured underwear. Broad avenues with little traffic rattled to occasional antique Czech trolleybuses. Everywhere, Big Brother watched on. Giant billboards in Socialist Realist style depicted the omnipresent Kim Il-sung alongside militaristic murals of revolutionary fervour and anti-imperialist slogans. Many comrades wore uniforms: from marching soldiers in khaki to Youth League schoolchildren in red neckerchiefs and blue – suited traffic ladies twirling their batons.
Above all, Pyongyang was spotless – and oddly empty given its reputed three million inhabitants. Those inhabitants are said to be the privileged caste of the ruling Workers’ Party possessing a positive songbun – filial loyalty towards the regime accrued over family generations. We were accommodated in the colossal 47-floor Yanggakdo Hotel, which sits on an island in the River Taedong (thus ensuring we couldn’t go walkabout). The hotel’s entertainment complex is the opium of the tourist masses: ten-pin bowling, karaoke, a casino and cheap beer to keep us amused while Pyongyang slept. My 19th-floor view over Taedong’s skyscraper-fringed riverbank was ever so slightly Manhattan. During three days in Pyongyang there was no escaping the Great Leader’s gaze. Pyongyang’s supersized Arch of Triumph glorified Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary path towards liberation from Japan.
We were pinpricks on the immense 75,000 sq m Kim ll-sung Square (site of goose-stepping military extravaganzas). We visited Kim’s idyllically propagandised birthplace, an immaculately reconstructed adobe-walled farmstead. The most propaganda-drenched experience was the bombastic Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, recently opened to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War’s end in 1953. A young female army guide offered a partisan slant on the war, not least underplaying China’s intercession to ensure the stalemate between the two Koreas that remains today.
We were shown around captured American military hardware used by the “puppet South Korean regime”, including an American spy ship, USS Pueblo, genuinely caught snooping off the coast in 1968. A drawer in the map room marked ‘TOP SECRET’ possibly gave the Americans’ game away. On another day we took in citywide views from the 170m-high Juche Tower. It commemorates Kim Il-sung’s state philosophy, Juche, a nationalistic self-determination preaching that Koreans must be masters of their own destiny without foreign interference. “We must fight against domination by foreign imperialists and their flunkies,” the tower guide demanded.
Fear factor? An accusation levelled against visits to DPRK is that the Koreans you meet are actors. “People say we’re just robots and spend our whole life living in fear but it’s untrue,” insisted Guidel. Building a rapport with our guides was the highlight of my stay. They were intelligent, mischievous, funny; they liked to tease their charges. Whether they responded to more serious questions with true belief or scripted indoctrination is impossible to say, but they spoke more candidly than imagined on some issues.
For instance, when we asked about North Korea’s terrible famines of the 1990s, Guidel admitted, “Life was difficult then. We suffered shortages because of the collapse of the USSR’s international socialist market and droughts.” However, a bedrock of party loyalty lay beneath their easy charm. Both explained that they volunteered for work details in rice paddies on collective farms. “It’s our duty,” said Guidel. “If you do not work to produce food, you do not eat.” On another occasion, Guide2 casually observed: “I like Americans, they’re cool, but they’re imperialists who want to hurt our country.”
1.AT A COOL HOTEL – And they don’t come much cooler than the ICEHOTEL, a glittery palace perfectly located in Jukkasjarvi, north Sweden – prime aurora territory. Not only will you have a night like no other, bedding down on a frozen divan and reindeer skins amid a gallery of snow sculptures, you can join aurora-watching trips straight from the door, and celebrate a successful night’s viewing with a cocktail at the ICE BAR. Norway’s Kirkenes Snowhotel offers a similarly spectacular set-up, its sparkling suites created by ice artists from the Chinese city of Harbin. From here, nightly trips take guests out to scout for aurora in the surrounding wilds.
2. BY HUSKY-SLED – Well worth the splurge, the most exhilarating way to explore the frozen north is by puppy-power – either as a passenger to an expert musher or by driving your own team of dogs. Short husky excursions run from many Lapland lodges; Sweden’s ICEHOTEL even offers transfers from Kiruna airport by sled. However, perhaps the best husky-aurora combo is to join a multi-day safari, mushing your own pack between stove-warmed wilderness cabins, far from light pollution and other people, ensuring that – if the lights do come out – you see them undiluted and without the crowds.
3. BY SNOWMOBILE – Some northern lights safaris use buses and jeeps to take you away from towns and position you in the best aurora spots. Perfectly fine, but not as much fun as roaring across frozen lakes and glistening tundra on your own snowmobile. This way you get to drive out to the darkest, clearest spots, perhaps stopping somewhere remote and northfacing en route to drinking a hot berry juice while you wait for the lights to show; if they don’t, at least you’ve had a thrilling ride. Just be sure to wrap up warm (balaclava essential) and select a machine that has heated handlebars. Alternatively, join a snowmobile-pulled sleigh excursion to be whizzed into the wilds by someone else.
4. IN BED – Don’t fancy freezing outside until the wee hours, waiting for the lights to appear? Then watch the aurora from the comfort of your own bed. Lapland has accommodation options that offer warm and lazy gazing via see-through, frost-free, steam-proof roofs. They come at an extra cost, but if you’re lucky enough to watch a long display from under a duvet, you won’t regret a penny. Finland’s Hotel Kakslauttanen has an array of glass-topped igloos, well spaced to ensure the privacy of those lying inside. Also in Finland, Nellim Wilderness Hotel (nellim.fi) is home to a handful of Aurora Bubbles -simple wood-and-perspex pods, with excellent heating, perched beside a frozen lake, under supremely dark skies.
5. BY SNOWSHOE – More active types might like to hike for their aurora. Guided night-time walks, using easy-to-master snowshoes to help negotiate the powder, will lead you away from any street or lodge lights; you can tramp to the ideal aurora-viewing spot, exploring the eerie lunar-lit wilderness as you go. Being on the move will also keep you warmer than just standing out in the cold for hours, potentially increasing the length of time for which you can keep a hopeful eye on the sky.
6. ON A CRUISE – For some of the darkest skies -and thus the finest aurora canvas – get away from land entirely: being out at sea ensures low light pollution. Plus many cruise ships in Arctic regions will have onboard northern lights experts, regular aurora lectures and passenger announcements when the lights are spotted, so you don’t have to spend hours freezing out on deck if you don’t want to. Hurtigruten, which runs voyages along the Norwegian coast, even offers a ‘northern lights promise’: if you don’t spot the aurora during its 12-day Classic Round Voyage, it will give you another six-day voyage for free.
7. THROUGH A LENS – Of course you can take your own aurora photos. But in order to get the very best shots of this magical phenomenon, you might want the help of a pro. Some Arctic lodges run aurora photography courses – lasting anything from a few hours to several days -offering tips on how to snap the lights; some will even lend you equipment, such as tripods, and issue you with an aurora-alert buzzer so you don’t miss a photo op. For example, Norway’s Lyngen Lodge employs an in-house photographer and has special platforms for viewing the aurora in all directions; its staff can also offer advice on post-production editing, so you can maximise the impact of your images with a little computer wizardry. Or try the Aurora Safari Camp, a scatter of remote Sami tipis in Swedish Lapland run by photographer Fredrik Broman, who offers winter workshops to help you capture the light in flight.
How did Orjan, a gruff, weathered man in his 50s, explain his system for rating northern lights displays? A one out often, he said, was a faint smudge in the sky. A perfect ten was when the lights hung around you, 360 degrees, shimmering and cascading like a celestial waterfall. “It only happens every four years or so. And if I see them I don’t tell anyone. People would lose their minds.” I nodded sagely. To the local Sami, the lights represent the spirits of ancestors; pointing at them was regarded as bad luck. “Not the Sami!” he replied, incredulously. “The tourists!” That would be the people spending thousands of pounds to catch a glimpse of such a wonder. I was in Abisko on the cheap – and I’d still be teed off if he didn’t tell me.
The blue hole – I was staying at the hostel run by Orjan and his sons, Tomas and Andreas, in Abisko Ostra in Swedish Lapland. It was part of my attempt to see if it was possible to experience the northern lights on a budget of £250. I’d settled on Abisko because it was cheap to get to, cheap to stay in and regarded by many as the best place in the world to see the aurora. There’s a ‘blue hole’ in the sky over the town lake, apparently, that scientists say keeps the sky clear here even when it’s overcast in surrounding areas. In keeping with my budget theme I’d arrived the day before by bus from Kiruna. It dropped me in front of the MackaMat in Abisko Ostra, a combined petrol station, general store, restaurant and pub overlooking frozen Tornetrask lake and the mountain range to the north.
Ostra is the dowdy practical sister of Abisko Turiststation, the more glamorous, snowbunny resort 2km to the west. As well as the MackaMat, Abisko Ostra has a supermarket, a school and a smattering of quaint clapboard houses painted either red, brown or yellow. It may be utilitarian and functional but it’s still surrounded by the same spectacular wilderness. My hostel, Fjalturer, sat on a hill; snowshoes and cross-country skis hung on the outside wall while the staircase was lined with thermal jumpsuits and snowboots. Tomas explained that I was free to use any of the gear during my stay. “We also have a sauna,” he said. “You have to use it naked.”
Nakedness cuts down on bacteria, apparently. It was a rare overcast evening, so I asked Tomas what people did for fun. “Beer and sauna nights, organised on Facebook,” he told me. However, the next one wasn’t until Saturday, so he suggested I go back to the MackaMat. I ate reindeer linguine in a lounge bar with dim lights and dark-panelled walls; coverage of the Winter Olympics played on a television hung high in a corner. The clouds remained, so the huge photo of swirling green aurora that decorated the bar’s ceiling was the closest I got to seeing the lights that night. But I had tried reindeer. (It tastes like venison, in case you’re wondering.)
Stocking up – While the general store at the MackaMat was where locals shopped for outdoor gear, Coop Lapporten was where they bought groceries, posted letters and picked up their prescriptions. For me, it was the key to eating affordably during my stay. I love wandering around supermarkets when I travel; I love searching for unusual, exotic items, and get a juvenile thrill from everyday products with silly or rude names. Coop Lapporten didn’t disappoint. I found vacuum-sealed reindeer steaks and chocolate bars called Plopp and Kex. As well as pasta, broccoli, cheese and chocolate, I bought Swedish meatballs, a smoked cod roe paste called Kaviar, a packet of vinyl-sized crispbread wafers and a couple of bottles of Julmust, a festive root beer-like drink known as Christmas Sap that was reduced in price because Christmas was well and truly over.
The girl scanning my items was particularly impressed that I’d bought the crispbread. “They’ve got a hole in the middle, you know,” she said. “You slot them onto a pole that hangs across the kitchen.” She told me that she used to make them with her grandmother, using a kruskavel, a knobbly rolling pin, to make the distinctive dimples. Wafers would be taken down as needed, and replaced when the next batch were made, following harvest or in the spring when frozen river waters began to flow again. The tube of Kaviar caught her attention too. “Oh, you must get some eggs,” she said. “Hardboiled, on the crispbread, with Kaviar on top. It’s delicious.”
Snow patrol – Shopping done, and the sky still crisp and clear, I decided to do something active. There is no shortage of things to do in Abisko. For example, it is the head of the Kungsleden Trail, a 450km walk with huts every 20km or so that can be followed in both summer and winter. There’s the Naturum visitor centre, run by the Swedish Environment Agency, which explains about local flora and fauna; there’s a canyon that can be explored, and a chairlift up Mount Nuolja. If you have the cash, you can also go dogsledding, snowmobiling or ice fishing. I decided to take advantage of my hostel’s complimentary gear and go snowshoeing.
Once I figured out how to put the snowshoes on, I was surprised by how much difference they made. Earlier in the day I had ventured out to see the huskies in their kennels, and found myself struggling through a mini snowdrift like I was Scott of the Antarctic. Now I was skipping across the white, heading towards the mountains and their stubble of bare beech trees at a great rate of knots. Tomas had suggested I start in the area at the back of the hostel, just beyond the heliport, that was marked on his hand-drawn map as ‘The Unknown’. Here I would find a number of easy, flat trails. Walking in snowshoes, he said, was like walking on sand, but with poles to help your balance; it only got tricky on rough terrain or going down steep slopes.
The trails he suggested had neither, just the odd stand of pine trees, heavy with snow, and the occasional passing dog sled. I heard the dog sleds coming long before I saw them, the excited yelps cutting the crisp air like a knife. I stepped aside and watched them pass, the dogs running their noses along the snowdrift to cool down; I returned a nod to the musher as he whistled past. After an hour or so, I turned back towards the hostel, stopping only to watch the sun sink behind the mountains, without another human being in sight.
Aurora-ish – Soon it was time to venture out to see the lights, the main reason for my budget Arctic adventure. Tomas had told me that the heliport was as good a place as any, offering views across the lake, so I put on every piece of clothing I’d brought with me and trudged into the -20°C cold. After an hour of shifting from one foot to the other and shaking my hands to keep warm, a greenish-brown smudge appeared in the sky to the east, spreading like a spilt beer, before suddenly disappearing. I waited for it to reappear, but it didn’t. I’d seen the northern lights. I think. The next morning, in the kitchen of the Fjalturer hostel, guests swapped tales of aurora sightings and showed photos of the displays they’d seen. Alan and Seth from Hong Kong had taken a series of spectacular shots down at the lake at around 1.30am. I asked what had possessed them to stay up that late.
“We didn’t stay up,” Seth said. “We got up. The paper said it would be a ‘three’ at around that time.” He pointed to a note pinned to the notice board. Every couple of days, Tomas printed out a report from the local meteorological station that listed the likelihood of displays, their expected intensity and a rough approximation of the best time to see them. I admit I had deliberately steered clear of aurora websites before visiting Abisko. I didn’t want to know if the moon would be waxing or waning, or if a magnetic pulse from the sun was on its way from the sun. I had booked my trip three months earlier, based on when I could get the cheapest flights and a cheap bed in the hostel. I figured that by doing things as cheaply as possible I could increase my chances of seeing the lights by staying longer.
Having said that, I was pleased to see that tonight’s display was expected to peak at the more sociable hour of 9pm. I was less pleased that the lights would be at their most intense on Sunday, two days after I left. I spent the afternoon attempting a snowshoe reconnaissance of the lake, before giving up and going to the local craftshop / cafe for a coffee. It was run by Emma, a blonde Swede who looked like Agnetha from Abba; she chatted with customers as she glued sequins to dolls. She had grown up in Abisko under the northern lights, so I asked her if she got blase about them. “If they’re really spectacular I stop and look,” she said. “But most of the time I don’t even notice them.”
And the sky came to life – At 8pm I made my way down to the lake. I passed the small crowd that had gathered beside the wharf, and headed out to the spot I had found earlier in the afternoon. I had barely arrived when an unearthly green light leaked out from behind the mountain range and across the sky like an alien sunrise. It skittered and flickered, danced and throbbed. By 9pm it had faded and ebbed away. I turned and walked back towards town, content that I had seen the northern lights properly. But the aurora hadn’t finished with me yet. By the time I hit the caravan park – perhaps the least salubrious part of Abisko – the sky came to life. Lights of varying size, shades of green and intensity came at me from all angles. Some shimmied upwards. Others swirled like lava lamps. One transformed into a prehistoric cave drawing of a fox, its endless tail sweeping around the sky.
When I reached town, it was like a scene from Ghostbusters. The aurora appeared out of the top of buildings like ectoplasm, twisting above Abisko before making a dash for the mountains. At the hostel, guests gathered outside laughing, clapping and, I’m afraid to say, pointing like overgrown children. Was this what Orjan had meant when he said the aurora made people lose their minds? Eventually the lights ebbed away, drifting off to play over another part of the northern skies. Maybe they would return. If I ran into Seth and Alan they would probably tell me where and when. But I felt that now I had seen them – really seen them – I could go to bed, content that I had got my £25o’s worth. But the next morning I woke to what felt like a different Abisko, one buffeted by high winds and closeted by cloud.
The wind had blown the top layer of snow off the lake and now it was the exposed chilly blue of a Glacier Mint. Return flights from Kiruna to the UK had proved expensive, so I’d found a cheap fare home from Stockholm instead; my overnight train to the capital left at 2.19pm. On the way to the station I ran into Orjan and asked him how he rated the display the night before. “Eight out of ten,” he said, matter-of-factly. I had thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. Maybe he was right to keep a ten to himself.