Take A Few Free Off-Season Days And Venture Out to Cape Town

MAY TO SEPTEMBER: The Southern Hemisphere winter is the perfect time to explore Cape Town, South Africa. Temperatures are mostly moderate, and visitors can take on the city without having to brave crowds of tourists or shell out for the peak pricing markup.

cape-town-camps-bay

Cape Town’s Camps Bay is prime for biking in cooler seasons

DINING

Cape Cuisine

la-mouette

La Mouette Restaurant

Winter in Cape Town serves up a smorgasbord of more affordable tasting menus and available tables at some of the city’s top restaurants. Chef-owner Harald  Bresselschmidt creates menus featuring seasonal ingredients at Aubergine in the historic Gardens district. “South African black truffles lend themselves to veal and springbok dishes, perfect for winter,” he says. At French hot spot La Mouette, chef Henry Vigar prepares a special winter six-course tasting menu that includes mushrooms with salt-and-pepper chestnuts and house-barbecued beef brisket with fermented car-rots and cauliflower-cheese puree.

 LODGING

Stay in a Silo

V&A Waterfront

V&A Waterfront – Cape Town, South Africa

 Cape Town will welcome its most exciting new hotel in years when the Silo opens at the V&A Waterfront in March. The 28-room accommodation will reside on the top six floors of a historic 1924 silo complex that also houses the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (due to open in September). Rates will start at 12,000 rand (about $850) in May (versus 18,000 rand/$1,274 in the high season).

 ACTIVITY

Winter Wave Rider

muizenberg-beach

Muizenberg Beach – False Bay, Cape Town

“Because of the shape of the peninsula, we always have waves in Cape Town,” explains the owner of Gary’s Surf School, Gary Kleynhans. “But winter is when we get all the swell because of the cold fronts.” So suit up, since water temperatures hover around 60 degrees, and head to Muizenberg Beach in False Bay, where the waves are big enough to be thrilling, but gentle enough for beginners.

 FLIGHTS

Routing Rewards

There are more options for flying to South Africa than ever before. South African Airways flies nonstop to Johannesburg from New York JFK and Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta. Discounted business-class fares (around $2,400 round-trip versus the $6,000-$10,000 norm) on a variety of carriers are also periodically available if you can get to a Canadian hub such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Discovering Tokyo – Japan

The capital of Japan is a happy, exciting place, with tonnes of cheap and free things to do. Start with a free guided tour led by volunteers and become familiar with the layout of the city.

Stroll through the vast green spaces and foliage of Meiji Jingu and neighbouring Yoyogi Park; the latter featuring cosplay at times, which makes for a great evening. Tsukiji fish market is a must-see, and the best time is early morning. A session at the relatively cheap Jakotsuvu Onsen will help you get to sleep early.

meiji-jingu

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Tokyo

During the day, you can take a free guided tour of the Imperial Palace grounds, conducted by the Imperial Household Agency. Plan to go on a Sunday, when you can rent a cycle for the picturesque moat-and-pine-tree-view 3km course around the grounds. Do also visit Sensoji Temple, then wander its nearby winding lanes that offer bargain shopping, and head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building sky tower for stunning and importantly, free, views of the city at night.

Imperial Palace - Tokyo

Imperial Palace – Tokyo

If it’s your thing, lose yourself in yourself in anime at the Tokyo Anime Centre, and trawl the streets of Akihabara for the latest in gadgets and toys. Or pick up arty skills at Origami Kaikan and watch sumo wrestling practice sessions at Arashio Beya. But, most importantly, download a translation app at Narita Airport, so you can take a screenshot of the Japanese translation for “Is it free of charge?” and travel smart.

arashio-beya

Arashio Beya

LEAVE ON A JET PLANE: Return flights start at 557 USD from Mumbai and New Delhi VISA: 7USD

GET AROUND: Tokyo’s metro system is sugoi (wonderful). Taxis will burn through your entire budget. Get a SUICA Pass, which also works at convenience stores. For train travel outside of Tokyo, get a Japan Rail Pass and plan your dates carefully.

STAY: Tokyo’s hostels are some of the nicest you could find. Look in the central Ikebukuro area, which is cheaper than overpriced Shinjuku. Options include Book and Bed Tokyo, Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro, Bunka Hostel Tokyo and The Ryokan Tokyo Yugawara.

EAT AND DRINK: When in Japan, eat ramen – it’s cheap and delicious. Grab breakfast at a 7-Eleven, where you will also find bento boxes for days on the go, or beer at half the rate when compared to bars. Fast food chain MOS Burgers has cheap, delicious burgers made to order, with a vegetarian option. Oh, and don’t forget to treat yourself to sake at an izakaya (local pub).

WHEN TO GO: Not during sakura (cherry blossom) season for sure. Despite rain and typhoons, June to July and September to December respectively are better.

Patiala: The Place That Will Give You The Whole Energy

The bite-sized city of Patiala has given its name to the generous Patiala Peg and the voluminous Patiala salwar. There’s nothing otherwise oversized about this old-fashioned city, so I conclude it must be because of the legendary Punjabi spirit Indeed, this is easy enough to spot in the hospitable people of Patiala—in the broad smiles, hearts’ greetings, and ever-open invitations to down a big brass tumbler of thick, frothy lassi. Patiala was established in 1763 as a military stronghold by Baba Ala Singh, its first maharaja; and the name literally means “land of Ala.”

The fledgling kingdom became one of India’s most powerful princely states, fending off repeated assaults by the warlords of Afghanistan, the Mughals, and the advancing Marathas. During the 20th century, Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, who ruled Patiala at the time of Independence, played a prominent role in the formation of the Union of India. Today, the city’s spruce polo field, parks, and cricket grounds exude gentility and wholesomeness. The quiet homes and peaceful, tree-lined neighbourhoods are resolutely serene in a fast-paced world.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

WALK DOWNTOWN – The State Tourism Department organises an excellent 1.5-hour heritage walk of the old Patiala area. It starts at the Royal Mausoleum or the Shahi Samadhi, and is led by a knowledgeable guide. I enjoyed listening to gripping tales from Patiala’s 300-year battle-scarred history as we wandered through 18th-century neighbourhoods and markets like Bajaja Bazaar and Bartan Bazaar. After passing through Darshini Deori, the ceremonial gateway from which commoners once watched royal processions, we arrived at the sprawling Patiala Fort or Qila Mubarak.

FIERCE FORTRESS – Patiala Fort, built by Baba Ala Singh in 1763, is divided into two precincts that are both hauntingly desolate. Enter through a majestic gate to visit the first, the vast Qila Mubarak (for receiving state guests), which includes the Lassi Khana (kitchen), Sard Khana (cool rooms), Ran Baas (guest quarters), and the Durbar Hall. A flight of stairs leads to the second precinct, the Qila Androon, which consists of a succession of interconnected gardens, courtyards, and palaces. Along the perimeter of this massive ten-acre fort are its lovely, tree-shaded grounds, from which the Persian and Rajput architectural elements of the walls and; harokhas can be admired. The once resplendent Durbar Hall has stunning chandeliers, and a museum with quaint, slightly dusty treasures: a solid silver carriage, a jade dagger that belonged to Guru Gobind Singh, and the sword of Persian emperor Nadir Shah who invaded India in 1739.

Patiala

ATMOSPHERIC ALLEYS – Atmospheric Haveliwala Mohalla, barely a kilometre from Patiala Fort, was once the city’s poshest neighbourhood. The now fading havelis with ornate doors and delicate lattice-work balconies were the homes of the court aristocracy. Though frayed at the edges, the haveIis still suggest their erstwhile stately aura. The quiet lanes are full of discoveries like Chhata Nanumal, a private archway built over a public road, where public hearings were conducted. Another unusual feature is the narrow Sappan Wali Gali or Snake Lane; jewellers intentionally designed the 1.5-kilometre street to be no more than two metres wide and zig-zag crazily, possibly to slow down any fleeing thieves.

Wandering Around Newcastle And Discover Its Gems

It takes a strong city to reinvent itself. When the recession forced Newcastle’s steel, coal, and copper industries to downsize or close, the city took a creative approach to the problem.

Novocastrians (as Newcastle, Australia, residents are known) channeled their artistic energies by developing Renew Newcastle and Newcastle Now, organizations that take run-down spaces and lend them as pop-ups for makers such as liners, writers, painters, and furniture designers. By showcasing its craftsmanship, Newcastle has positioned itself as a regional hub of innovation.

Located a hundred miles north of Sydney, Newcastle is Australia’s seventh largest city. The revitalization has colored the city with the cultural vibe of Melbourne and Sydney, but with a fraction of their population. “Newcastle has this   sense of discovery about it,” says local Rachel Svenson. “There are lots of places to discover just by wandering.”With golden beaches, smart galleries, and organic eateries, Newcastle is drawing both residents and tourists back to the city’s center.

Eat!

ORGANIC? CHECK. LOCAL? CHECK.

Newcastle’s restaurants and cafes reflect Novocastrians’ active lifestyles, broad tastes, and laid-back attitudes.

blue-door-cafe-newcastle-breakfast

Breakfast at Blue Door cafe

The popular Blue Door cafe, located in the historic Fred Ash building, prides itself on “simple food, done well,” like spiced butternut pumpkin and ricotta fritters and fried buttermilk chicken burgers. Located in a restored warehouse with timber floors and art deco details, the Grain Store Craft Beer Cafe pairs Australian craft beers with new takes on old favorites: battered barramundi, crab burgers, and slow-cooked brisket subs. For those who prefer surf over turf, the waterfront Merewether Surfhouse cooks up seafood dishes like yellow fin confit and flathead fillets.

 Stay!

LIVE LIKE THE NOVOCASTRIANS

For a beach stay, the Caves Beachside Hotel offers an oceanfront collection of suites, villas, and townhouses. Terraces for Tourists are designed to help visitors live like locals, with fully furnished apartments and houses set in the historic East End of town, an easy walk from Newcastle’s city center. Nestled in the central business district, the Lucky Hotel is quirky and affordable, with on-site entertainment like courtyard movie screenings, live music, and poker nights.

Ecletic decor at the Lucky Hotel

Ecletic decor at the Lucky Hotel

From top left:, eclectic decor at the Lucky Hotel, and breakfast at the Blue Door café

 Play!

BEACHES, BIKES, AND BRIMMING COCKTAILS

merewether-ocean-baths

Soak up the sun in the Merewether Ocean Baths in Newcastle

With Newcastle’s generally sunny weather and long stretches of beaches, residents don’t shy away from outdoor activities. The Bathers Way Coastal Walk is a three-mile historical and scenic hike, leading from Nobbys Headland past heritage sites that make up Newcastle’s history. Or stop by one of Inter bike’s 24-hour, swipe- and-ride bike share terminals, and pedal out to the Merewether Ocean Baths, the largest open-air ocean baths, or public pools filled with seawater, in the Southern Hemisphere. Wrap up the day with kayaking or a cocktail in the revived industrial Honeysuckle area, now a harborside hot spot of restaurants, bars, and public spaces.

 Shop!

PARADISE FOR ETSY ENTHUSIASTS

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Shopping selection at Willows Home Traders

The Emporium is Renew Newcastle’s revamp of a former department store building, packed with distinctive shops like Jodie Louise Millinery, COY Studio’s handmade leather goods, and With Love Bree-Lacey’s vintage-inspired clothing. Darby Street features more than a hundred independently owned businesses and boutiques, like Cooks Hill Books & Records and fashion destination Abicus, and is also stocked with plenty of eateries to help you fuel up for more shopping. Keep an eye out for Sunday markets at the Newcastle Showground, such as the Newcastle Farmers Market and Makers Market, where you can find everything from quilts to spices to produce.

The Jaw-Dropping View of Peru’s Sacred Valley

 Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba is a gateway to Peru’s bountiful Sacred Valley

The Urubamba River curves through Peru’s Sacred Valley, eddying and splashing toward Machu Picchu. Tourists seem to follow its momentum. They touch down in Cusco and hurtle through the Sacred Valley to get to that Inca citadel in the sky. Beyond a token stop at an alpaca farm or a weaving workshop, the valley rarely gets more than a passing night’s stay. Anywhere else, this fertile land of quinoa, sweet potato, and purple corn would be the main attraction. Here, ignored by most tourists, Quechua farmers tend their crops amid Inca ruins, 16th-century Spanish churches, and mountains said to embody the spirits of ancestors.

inkaterra-hacienda-urubamba

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba offers guided hikes around the Sacred Valley

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, a National Geographic Unique Lodge, celebrates this often overlooked region. Lodge owners Jose Koechlin and Denise Guislain-Koechlin combined Inca-inspired masonry with Spanish colonial architecture, commissioned locals to weave textiles, and worked with area farmers to plant a 10-acre organic garden filled with native species such as golden berries and tree tomatoes. Guests go biking in the valley; learn to make chicha, or corn beer, on site; or follow a naturalist on a lantern-lit hike. And on their return to the lodge, Alfredo Quispetupa concocts a glorious pisco sour at the hacienda bar as the sun sets on the Andes.

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba offers 36 rooms and suites with panoramic views. Naturalists provide information on lodge conservation projects, including Inkaterra Asociacion, which helps protect the biodiversity and local communities of the Peruvian Andes.

peruvian-andes

Peruvian Andes

The glorious Choco: Just an hour from Quitos urban core, lies a land of birds, bears and astounding biodiversity…

The cloud forests that drape the rolling mountainsides to the northwest of Quito’s Metropolitan District hold record-breaking biological diversity. An enigmatic world covered in mist where thousands of tree, plant and orchid species abound and unfathomable bird variety thrives. Many municipal, state-run reserves and private conservation projects harbor excellent opportunities for adventures in nature, and a range of accommodation options for all budgets.

 World of Birds

Quito is one of the most megadiverse cities on our planet in terms of bird species: a world bird capital, home to an unparalleled variety. Countless bird-lovers have turned Ecuador’s capital into one of the highest-ranking bucket-list destinations in the world.

 Bear Necessittes

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Andean Spectacled Bear

The Andean Spectacled Bear, the only South American bear, is one of the Quito region’s most emblematic creatures. It’s amazing to think that over 45 bears live in the wild just 2 hours from the city. The city’s Andean Bear Conservation Program aims to consolidate a corridor for bears, through research, monitoring, education, communication and sustainable management.

Although elusive, several conservation projects exist that allow visitors the opportunity to spot bears in the wild, or at least see them through the images captured by dozens of camera traps.

The Surreal Flavours Of Gruyeres

I am in the midst of a torrid affair. Two days ago, it was a hunk of young Brie in the park, yesterday, a deliciously mature Cheddar captivated my attention after dinner, and this afternoon at lunch, I was reduced to a blubbering mess when I encountered gooey raclette. So when my friend Irma Delacombaz suggests we spend my last day in Switzerland exploring the town of Gruyeres, famous for its namesake cheese, all I could summon was a soft sigh.

La Maison du Gruyere

La Maison du Gruyere

Three days later, Irma and I are walking through the La Maison du Gruyere cheese factory, nibbling on sticks of cheese, and straining to hear the audio tour, narrated by a cow named Cerise. “Me and my girlfriends have three stomachs,” she says chirpily, mooing every now and then, “which is just one of the reasons we’re superior to humans.” I roll my eyes at Irma, but despite the cheesy narration, the walkabout is actually quite interesting. Through large panes of glass, we see uniformed cheesemakers turning vats of creamy milk into hunks of sweet, slightly salty Gruyere. At an installation nearby, we sniff the scents of Alpine wild flowers, their floral notes conjuring images of grassy mountainsides, despite the fact that we are in a sterile factory. Meanwhile, a giggly Cerise explains that cheese made in summer is sweeter because the cows eat wild flowers every day. Alter the diet, and the flavour and richness of the milk changes. Cheesemaking, I realise, is a craft that takes generations to master.

With a bag full of cheese and little tubs of double cream (another local speciality), Irma and I set off to explore the rest of Gruyeres. The medieval town, set within the Swiss district of Gruyere, is perched on a hill at the foot of Moleson mountain. There is only one main street, and it is car-free, paved with cobblestones, and lined with traditional Swiss chalets that are now cafes serving pots of fondue. Every time we walk past an open door, we are hit by the rich fragrance of molten cheese. I presume we’re going to the medieval castle, but a 20-minute walk later, the castle still looms in the distance. Instead, we halt outside what appears to be a modest museum, near a sculpture of a very naked, very emaciated, and incredibly bizarre-looking lady alien. A discreet signboard to her right welcomes us to the Museum HR Giger.

Moleson Mountain

At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t so much as googled Gruyeres before getting into Irma’s nifty little car. I imagined we’d visit the cheese factory, load up on wedges of Gruyere to take home, and maybe have a small picnic before I caught a train back to Zurich. I hadn’t considered that Gruyeres might have more to offer. Artisanal garden gnomes, perhaps—the Swiss are besotted with garden gnomes—but an entire museum dedicated to the fantastic artworks of H.R. Giger? Famous for creating the extraterrestrials for the movie Alien (1979), the Swiss artist is also worshipped in the sci-fi world for his surreal art which features creatures that are part-human, part-machine, and entirely unsettling. This museum is the largest repository of his works in the world. We walk through a charcoal-coloured room, dimly lit and lined with canvases, acclimatising ourselves to the dark, menacing womb of Giger’s imagination.

From the walls, hermaphrodite beings with spiralling horns and metallic tentacles seem to examine us. We see a row of disfigured babies that appear to be melting, and a painting of a magnificent battle sequence between extraterrestrial tanks and armoured soldiers. Most figures have the disproportionately oblong skulls we’ve come to associate with alien life forms, thanks to Giger and Hollywood. The artworks are explicit and deeply sexual in nature, but they’re also mesmerising. In another room with blood-red walls, I see paintings of female warriors being inseminated in ways that make my thighs clench. Giger’s depiction of the feminine seems particularly twisted, yet these beings do not seem subordinate, but fierce and powerful; willing participants in their subjugation. It makes me question my understanding of pleasure and pain, my opinions of right and wrong, and the thin line between fascination and revulsion. Irma wiggles her eyebrows at me and laughs: This is more than I ever expected of Gruyeres.

Gruyeres

Gruyeres

When we exit the museum, the sun seems too bright, the chalets too perfect A silly part of me wants to shake the obliviously happy tourists by their shoulders, so they know how rattled I feel. It’s the same urge I have when I finish a gut-wrenching book, and look up to see the world is still the same. “After that,” Irma says patting me on the back, “I think you need something a little calming, no?” She hands me apiece of chocolate. Sharing a boundary wall with the museum is another of Gruyeres’ better-kept secrets: the Tibet Museum, which houses over 300 Buddhist artefacts. Most of the pieces belong to a gentleman named Alain Bordier, a voracious traveller who acquired them in Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Kashmir, and northeast India Like a really exquisite souvenir collection, I think. Some of us bring back turquoise pendants from Ladakh, and some, priceless 15th-century thangka paintings.

The corridors are filled with forest sounds and piped music. Glass cases on either side contain bronze and brass sculptures of demons, yoginis, and avatars of the Buddha. Some are small enough to fit in the palm of my hand; others, larger than life. It takes me back to Leh, Spiti, Sikkim, Bir, Bylakuppe: all the Buddhist colonies I have visited back home in India. A familiar glimmer of Buddhist sanctity reverberates through this space. As if a building dedicated to Buddha weren’t odd enough in an Alpine town, the Tibet Museum is located in the renovated Christian chapel of St. Joseph.

The main chamber is particularly breathtaking, with its gleaming wooden floors, deep purple walls, and magnificent stained-glass panels of Jesus and Mary. Instead of church pews, there are tantric Buddhist figurines wrapped around each other, rich thangka paintings, and meditating Buddhas, deep in contemplation. Examining the thangkas, I’m suddenly overcome with fondness for Gruyeres. It looks like a cookie-cutter Swiss settlement, with its perfectly trimmed flower hedges and fondue chalets, but it’s actually a rather feisty and odd little town.

Chateau de Gruyeres

Chateau de Gruyeres

By the time we leave the museum it’s nearly sundown, so we skip the tour of the medieval castle of Chateau de Gruyeres, and take a leisurely walk instead. The tourist crowds have thinned, the temperature has dropped, and all I can hear is the crunch of snow underfoot and the occasional chirrup of birds. Irma finds a quiet spot near the Tibet Museum with a view of a church, a charming old cemetery, and the mountains. There we finally have the picnic of my imagination. With a spread of cheese, Swiss chocolate, and double cream, Irma and I spend the rest of the evening dissecting Giger, Guru Padmasambhava, and the flavours that make Gruyeres so addictive.

The Love For Breakfasts – Singapore  

Here’s what my first breakfast in my new home of Singapore looked like: sticky, slime-colored coconut custard jam slathered over a thin crisp of toasted brown bread, served with a side of two eggs so undercooked that their whites retained the clarity of newly dead fish eyes. Alongside, a small cup of coffee with an oleaginous blackness that rejected the advances of condensed milk. It was not love at first sight.

And yet, in a way that only travelers can appreciate, a passion was born. The basis of a classic Singaporean breakfast, kaya is a custard of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, flavored with pandan leaf, which gives the jam the perfume of freshly cut grass and the flavor of the underside of a lawn mower. In the Malay language, kaya means “rich.” But the richness doesn’t end with the jam. It’s served with barely boiled eggs, cracked into  the runny eggs served in cups. The jam was so fresh I ate three helpings and ordered another tapow (to go).

kaya-jam

Fragrant, earthy, and sugary, kaya jam is the star of a stack of toast

After more than three years of obsessing over breakfast, I reached the apotheosis of my kaya quest. A search for the oldest kopitiam in Singapore led me to Heap Seng Leong, a flashback to a world of “uncles” in pajama pants, milk-can ashtrays, and old men lingering over newspapers as the day turns from balmy to incendiary. Decades of dietary fads have gone unnoticed at this kopitiam, which specializes in kopi guyou-coffee with an oil slick of butter on top. The taste is just what you’d expect: black coffee plus butter. There’s a reason you don’t do this at home. The most amazing thing I saw here was the ancient proprietor hand-slicing a loaf of bread the size of a cocker spaniel. It was not the best kaya toast, but the improbable fact that this mid-century holdover is in business at all is astonishing.

When friends visited me, the first thing I would do is whisk them off to Tong Ah. I told myself I was showing them a Singaporean secret. But I was also revealing a bit about myself, and that’s the point of obsessions.

My passion for kaya—a food item my father found so inscrutable he put it on ice cream—really has nothing to do with jam. And everything to do with my love for and fascination with Singapore and Singaporeans. Along the way I discovered how to disappear into a faraway place and come away with a rich experience.

 Breakfast spots in Singapore

HEAP SENG LEONG:

HEAP-SENG-LEONG

Entering this kopitiam is “like stepping into a time portal,” writes Leslie Tay, the Singaporean behind food blog ieatishootipost .sg. “We need places like this so that our kids know where we came from and what it was like in the past. 10 North Bridge Rd.

TONG AH EATING HOUSE:

TONG-AH-EATING-HOUSE

Local kaya-philes love the extra-crispy toast served at this iconic kopitiam located on a street lined with old shophouses. Breakfast is not the only specialty- dinner features home-style dishes. 35 Keong Saik Rd.

CHIN MEECHIN:

For deliciously messy breakfasts served on weathered marble tables, try this old-school kopitiam in the Joo Chiat neighborhood, which specializes in toasted buns topped with custardy kaya jam. 204 East Coast Rd.

This Mini-Guide Will Help You to Discover The Real London Air

Brexit may have been controversial for the Brits, but travelers eager to visit London have reason to celebrate. Politics aside, the aftermath of Brexit brings tourism benefits to Americans because of a favorable exchange rate and more affordable transatlantic airfares.

Anglophiles drawn to the English capital will find that the city is still an eclectic mix of royal, modern, and indie. Even native Londoners would need more than a lifetime to uncover everything that their city offers.   Venturing beyond the historic center and popular must-see spots can feel as though you’ve wandered past a series of connected villages that sport football scarves as flags. Sometimes, it can seem like you’ve even, in the tradition of British television treasure Doctor Who, traversed through time and space itself.

red-phone-box-london

London’s calling. Answer in a classic red phone box

In spite of the current legislative upheaval, visitors will discover a welcoming city. Diversity is diffused throughout London’s 60,000 winding streets, from the experimental artist spaces to neighborhood ethnic eateries to the stocked stalls that line Saturday markets. In London, hipsters, global finance leaders, and expats convene as equals with a pint in hand at the local pub.

And that, Brexit or not, is a pretty great deal.

Situate your stay along the Thames, the aquatic artery that threads through the heart of London. Just steps from both the river and Trafalgar Square, the CORINTHIA boasts Victorian architecture, a planet-size crystal chandelier, a florist, and a swanky spa featuring an ice fountain and sleeping pods. Across the street from the Tower of London and a few minutes’ stroll from the river is CITIZENM. The 370-room hotel includes a lobby made to feel like your living room, if your living room were outfitted with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and Union Jack accent pieces.

citizenm-hotel

CitizenM Hotel’s Tower of London location is both proper and plush

Plus, there are Instagram-ready workspaces with complimentary espresso, a library saturated with style books, and a selection of iMacs in case you left your laptop at home. For an alternative stay, try the GOOD HOTEL, a floating former detention center for illegal immigrants. This new not-for-profit hotel will spend five years in the Royal Victoria Docks, serving up local craft beers in what was once the mess hall and waterfront views on its rooftop garden. Better yet: All the Good Hotel’s profits go into an education and entrepreneurship program for its staff.

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer Train Explores Beauty

The next step up Mount Norquay requires a lunge of faith. Looking over my sunglasses, slipping in sweat, I see I must now go left and out, across an outcrop of rock that juts some 200 feet above nothingness. I look at my red knuckles, gripping the tiny iron rungs bolted on the face of the cliff, and utter an expletive. (My mind knows I’m safely harnessed and tethered, but my body doesn’t believe a word of it.) I swing my left foot across the brittle rock, landing it on an inch-shallow ledge. I stay like that, hanging on, straddling a mountain face outside the town of Banff in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, as close to spread-eagle as my 47-year-old frame gets.

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer Train

Wait, wasn’t I supposed to be on a train trip? It started that way. In three days, I got to Banff in Alberta, Canada from my home in Portland in Oregon, U.S.A.., partly by rail. It’s not only a gorgeous ride, cutting across the snow-capped Rockies and river gorges, but also a historic one. Sir John Macdonald, Canada’s beloved first prime minister, built the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the 1880s to turn Canada into a unified, transcontinental nation. Eventually it spawned the country’s national park system, opened up the mountains to tourism, and led to the development of Canada’s first luxury hotels. The only way to traverse the historic railway’s most rugged stretches is the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury excursion train from Seattle to Banff (with overnight stops in Vancouver and Kamloops in British Columbia). That gives plenty of opportunity to consider the essence of Canada Oh, yes, and dine on three-course meals while sipping Okanagan Valley wines.

U.S. AND CANADIAN flags stand on either side of the Rocky Mountaineer’s eight cars in Seattle, as I— and about 150 others—board the train. Soon the rails take us alongside the Puget Sound, where we pass stacks of crab pots on the water and barns labelled “APPLE” and “CIDER.” By the time we pass the “Peace Arch,” built on the two nations’ border, passengers have loosened up. When we chug toward Vancouver’s glittering glass skyline, a father of a family from Mumbai breaks into a lullaby. The 60-something couple from Boston across the aisle asks what it says. “It means, T love you, but don’t make me wait.’”

I CHECK INTO the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, then rush off to a downtown bar above a 7-Eleven. Opened as a members-only club for (male) Canadian Pacific railway workers in 1931, the Railway Club is now a music venue with wooden floors, a small stage area, a nook for darts, and a hidden lounge. It’s Friday, it’s busy. And not everyone is sober. I’m listening to an indie music band playing from the bar. “Did you know this is where pop star k.d. lang got her break?” a woman next to me asks. I didn’t. Samantha Kuryliak, an Ontario expat and off-duty bartender, says new bands begin here, and she loves it because all sorts of people come. “I have one regular who has come three times a week for 30 years. He’s 75.”

rocky-mountaineer

We have a full day to explore Vancouver, so in the morning, I hop on a free shuttle to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver’s most popular attraction. It was built from hemp rope and cedar shortly after the railway reached town. First Nations groups called it the ‘laughing bridge” for the sounds the wind made whipping through its loose planks. It’s sturdier now, running 450 feet above a canyon and leading to elevated walkways between 250-year-old Douglas firs. Later, from the former CPR train station, a neoclassical building now serving as a Sea Bus ferry terminal, I cab it to Yaletown in downtown Vancouver. It’s there I find a 19th-eentury roundhouse, constructed to service trains.

It’s home to Engine 374, the first train to pull into town (in 1887). Inside, Craig McDowall, a grey-haired volunteer with a handlebar moustache, has been a train spotter since he was five. He played on the 374 as a kid when it was stationed in Kitsilano Park. Misreading me as a fellow train aficionado, McDowall calls up some steam engine videos on his laptop, then points me to the steps of the steam engine cab to pull the whistle. “Go on,” he says with a nod. I don’t think I have a choice, so I step forward, pull a cord, and reward myself—and a couple of Texan visitors loitering nearby—with a bellow that echoes across the brick floor.

The Most Amazing Railway Stations In India

Sawai Madhopur Junction, Rajasthan – When passengers alight at Sawai Madhopur station, gateway to Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, they’re struck by the bright murals that adorn its walls. There is a giant painting of a banyan tree that covers the entire ceiling of a central hall. It is modelled after a real tree inside the national park, one of the largest in India. A number of forest dwellers inhabit its branches. Paintings of tigers, flocks of birds, and sloth bears cover platform walls and pillars of the small station, offering a colourful peek into life in the jungle. Painted by the artists from the Ranthambore School of Art, the spectacular murals capture the hearts of all who visit this National Tourism Award-winning station.

Autumn-railway

Royapuram, Tamil Nadu – The very first train to run in South India rolled out of Chennai’s Royapuram station in the monsoon of 1856 and travelled to the town of Arcot in Vellore district. Royapuram was southern India’s first station, in what was then known as the Madras Presidency. The original structure still stands today, making it the oldest functional railway station in the country. The simple red-and-white colonial building with grand Corinthian pillars is a heritage structure. The station underwent extensive restoration in 2005.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Maharashtra – Without a doubt CST is Mumbai city’s busiest railway station. But the metropolitan city’s transport hub is also a UNESCO World Heritage structure and one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in India. Gargoyles jut out of the high walls of this 19th-century masterpiece; they often spout water from their mouths during the monsoon. A high-arched ceiling painted with golden stars covers the ticket counter, while statues and carvings of peacocks, tigers, and other wildlife cover walls and crevices. An octagonal ribbed dome atop the structure is its crowning glory. Known as Victoria Terminus until 1996, CST is an arterial city station, one which took almost a decade to build.

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh – The city of nawabs welcomes passengers in style at the splendid red-and-white Charbagh Railway Station. Built in 1914, the sprawling structure blends Mughal and Rajasthani architecture, and overlooks a huge garden located outside its front entrance. It was here, under the station’s cupola-studded structure, that Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1916. In aerial views, the structure with its small and large domes resembles a chessboard laid out with pieces.

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh

Howrah Junction, West Bengal – With a mindboggling 23 platforms, this is one of the busiest stations in India. A melee of bookshops, tea stalls, and fast-food stands provide succour to passengers. This is one of the oldest stations in India, and the first train from Howrah ran on 15 August 1854, to Hooghly. It was the proverbial feather in the cap for British engineers, representing a new era in the colonial dream of expansion. Located on the banks of the Hooghly River, with the Howrah bridge leading up to its cherry-red facade, the station has starred in many a poster shot promoting the state. Its architecture is a mix of Romanesque and traditional Bengali styles, very much in sync with its surroundings.

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