Go Beyond Baklava in Azerbaijan

Its origins are rather hazy. While the flaky pastry rich with nuts and honey is eaten in many parts of the world, no one agrees on where or when the first incarnation of what we now call baklava developed.

Some claim the Assyrians were the first to layer flat bread, honey and nuts as far back as eighth century BCE. In the second century BCE the Romans prepared the honey-covered placenta cake, which thankfully bore no resemblance to any part of the female anatomy. Then came the Byzantine Empire, with its heart in what is now modern-day Turkey. It spread its influence across parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, so it’s no surprise there are countries in all of these parts claiming the oozy, nutty pastries as their own.

For now though I’m in Azerbaijan and my attention is focused on one regional variation, Baku pakhlava. My first stop is Ichari Shahar, the ancient walled city at the heart of modern-day Baku. The architecture of the atmospheric, UNESCO-listed old town almost distracts me from my calling until I catch a sight to behold: row upon row of glorious, shiny pakhlava.

There is, however, more than one variety on display. That’s because each of Azerbaijan’s regions has its own style of pakhlava, food photographer and recipe developer Samira Damirova tells me. Samira, who was originally from Baku but now lives in Australia, explains there’s also brightly coloured Quba pakhlava filled with coriander, walnuts and saffron, Gandja pakhlava resplendent with its 18 layers of filo, and the famed Sheki pakhlava, made from rice flour and finished with saffron decorations.

We continue on to a bakery called Sunbul where I’m to learn how to make the delicacy. I arrive at the address expecting an elegant shopfront; instead, it’s an apartment block. The industrial staircase leads towards the gentle hum of female voices, and I’m welcomed warmly into Elmira’s home, where three aproned women await, rolling pins in hand.

“We do things a bit differently here,” baker Nigar tells me with a big smile. “The main two products we make are Shirvanshah pakhlava and Semeni halvasi.”

The dough for these sweets is made using the ‘milk’ produced when sprouted wheat is ground and strained, which is then mixed with flour. “We only sweeten them with a little honey,” Nigar continues. “They are so healthy for you.”

The aim at Sunbul is to create handmade Azerbaijani treats for visitors to take home rather than a box of mass-produced sweets. “This is the real deal,” says Nigar. “When most tourists come they don’t know what they are buying and how it should taste. Some makers will not put nuts in every layer – they’ll scrimp on the ingredients. It compromises the taste and quality. We are keeping to the old traditions and you can taste the difference.”

As I pop a piece into my mouth, I nod in agreement. The flavour is intense. The spices sing, the pastry flakes and melts in my mouth, and I’m not left with a layer of sugar masking my taste buds.

We spend three hours in the kitchen. Every step in the creation of the pakhlava is carefully undertaken by one of the women: grinding the walnuts by hands, kneading the dough, rolling out the pastry into eight fine layers, sprinkling each with just the right amount of spicy nut mixture, then cutting, baking, pouring over melted butter and finally drenching the cooked pastries with syrup. Traditionally, this process would bring women together, with each one taking control of one part of the method.

“At home we can’t make it as beautiful as a factory,” says Elmira. I beg to differ. These are the most beautiful pakhlava I have ever seen. “It’s still our first year of business and things are growing so fast,” she continues. “Next time you visit we hope to be in an industrial kitchen.”

Just a few months later, I check back and they have indeed moved into new, expanded premises. More pakhlava for all can only be a good thing.

SWEET SENSATIONS

Here are two of the best spots to try pakhlava in Azerbaijan.

SUNBUL AZERBAIJAN SWEETS
This boutique bakery in the heart of Baku’s old town specialises in handmade pakhlava and halva from traditional recipes.
Karvansara Bazaar, Icheri Sheher, Baku

ALIAHMED SWEETS
It’s not uncommon for people to drive here from all over Azerbaijan to get a fix of Sheki pakhlava. The line out the door all day speaks for itself.
122 Mirze Feteli Axundov küçesi, Sheki

Soaking It Up in Sabah

It’s a lovely countryside drive past colourful weatherboard houses, followed by a 30-minute boat journey through Kimanis Bay, to reach the destination. When they arrive on aptly named Pulau Tiga, a group of islands of the west coast of Sabah, guests of Borneo Eagle Resort are greeted at a large hut that’s said to resemble the wings of an eagle landing in its new nest.

It’s small, considered details like this that make the resort so breathtaking. Like the first few minutes of a yoga class, arriving at the long timber jetty mimics one extended exhale into relaxation. From here, you have the choice of staying in a calming child’s pose equivalent by soaking up the sun’s rays alongside your private pool while gorging on fresh fruit platters or diving into a more adventurous flow with an island trek, diving, snorkelling and kayaking.

On my first night Benny, the resort’s manager, joins me for dinner at The Eagles Nest restaurant, which features a delectable menu using produce from the resort’s own farm, One Green. Benny tells me the overall goal of the destination is to get guests to relax. “You can tell,” he says. “When they get off the boat they’re full of stress, and we want to give them an opportunity to unwind.”

He insists I’m here to do the same, but I’ve never been good at relaxing travel and ask if we can arrange a snorkel safari followed by jungle trek … following my private in-room massage, of course.

The pathway back to my luxurious spa villa is every bit as exciting as the days to follow. To my right, through rustling leaves I spy monkeys playing hide-and-seek. Opposite, the ocean meets soft yellow sand, blanketing the shore in its crystal blue before receding back out to the reef that lurks below the glistening surface.

Sebastian, my personal attendant, warns me that while the monkeys may look cute, they’re actually quite aggressive: “You’re from Australia, so nothing probably scares you, but don’t get too close to them.”

“A little while ago, I saw a crocodile here,” Sebastian adds, glancing at me with a smile. “I’m not sure if it’s from the ocean or the freshwater inland, but either way, look out for the little guy.”

I’m glad my manicured pink nails and colourful floral kaftan does nothing to disguise my true identity and somewhere deep within me wants to respond with, “Yeah mate, that’s not a knife, this is a knife. But seriously, please don’t leave me in the jungle!” As we continue up the path, I sidestep away from a small monkey hiding in a nearby bush.

My villa’s courtyard is taken up by a private saltwater pool, fed directly from the ocean just metres ahead of me. I have the option to spend the following afternoon lazing on a bright yellow outdoor bed or flippering up to explore the reef. Of course, I opt for a date with the fish and hope Mother Nature pulls through with the weather goods and provides a clear, calm ocean.

With my fins on and mask as ready as it can be, I walk backwards into the enticing cool of the not-so-calm waters. My hopes fade and Jane, my guide, yells over the crashing waves, “We’ve had a bit of wind so it might be a bit dusty.” We venture out as deep as we can go anyway. There are moments of clarity, but mostly it’s a particle-fuelled haze.

No matter, we keep trying and after seeing endless corals in browns, yellows and dusty pinks, a giant clam and a couple of colourful fish, we decide to retreat from the sea and venture further inland in search of monkeys, snakes, monitor lizards and the hornbill eagle. I’m thankful Jane is there to guide me and share her knowledge. “I learned from my dad who is a ranger on the island,” she tells me. “They originally discovered this island by accident. A fisherman got lost and, in the search, they found Pulau Tiga. They also found the fisherman who survived.”

She points out a liana, a long woody vine that clings to the trees and produces two types of liquids: one is safe to drink, the other poisonous.

“Only drink the clear,” Jane warns. “If it’s black or murky, it will be bad.” Suddenly, I feel like I’ve entered a game of Jumanji and everything is a test of survival. Jane points to a termite mound, standing among trees that dwarf it. “If you’re lost in the jungle, you can eat them,” she says. I take her word for it, since getting lost in the jungle isn’t high on my priority list.

The trek is an easy one, and the only obstacles are some fallen trees and vines that occasionally catch my foot and send me tumbling. The air is thick and humid, and sweat covers every exposed inch of skin, offering up a gold mine to the local mosquitoes.

As we pass a long vine hanging from a tree, I contemplate channelling my inner Tarzan. “How sturdy are these vines?” I ask Jane, hand on the woody vine ready to launch. “I wouldn’t pull too hard,” she responds quickly. “There are two things you’ll find up there: snakes or a hive.” I pack away the loincloth, step away from the not-so-sturdy rope, and shield my face from a possible falling snake.

“Are the snakes here deadly?” My Australian ‘nothing scares us because everything is deadly in my country’ confidence has waned. “Yes, on snake island [one of the three islands that make up Palau Tiga] there are the yellow-lipped sea kraits.

“I don’t know why they call it yellow,” she explains. “It’s black and white. Anyway, they try to bite you between the fingers because it’s venom gets into your system quicker. They’re very dangerous. More poison than a cobra.”

Deadly snakes aside, I’m quickly distracted by the beauty of the jungle. It’s far greener than I ever imagined, with tall trees forming a lush emerald canopy that occasionally parts to reveal a glimpse of blue sky and sun. Vines weave their way from branch to branch, like purposefully placed decorations. There’s the occasional hoot of a monkey or squawk of a bird, but the jungle of this small island is otherwise peacefully silent bar the rustling of leaves.

Eventually we make it to the mud volcano area, for what’s known as virgin mud. Don’t let the word volcano fool you. When we arrive, I’m shown to a small mound that’s been pushed up through the earth by the pressure of sulphur gas, forcing mineral-rich mud to flow from the top. It’s unsightly and reminds me of a very specific part of the human anatomy, thankfully without any offensive smells. The mud is said to have therapeutic properties, and is not out of place in Borneo Eagle’s spa features.

Jane tells me to scoop up a handful of the grey mud and smother it over my skin. “It’ll make you look 10 years younger,” she insists. I’m hesitant. Sticking my hand in a gurgling hole as if it’s the fountain of youth seems more akin to an Indiana Jones movie than a Sunday trek, but I do it anyway. I slather the grey paste on my face. It is smoother than I expected and glides over my sweaty skin like clay. It feels surprisingly comforting and calming and, as an added benefit, instantly shields my body from the thickening heat of the day.

On the trek back to the resort, the mud’s cooling effect works so well, I almost need a jumper in the 30ºC heat. As a bonus, it also acts as a natural bug repellent. When we arrive back at the resort, I enter the ocean a swamp monster and imagine re-emerging a youthful, toned Bond girl. Alas, the mirror’s reflection tells a different story – I look like the same version of me, only a little less stressed and puffy around the eyes. Benny was right, maybe there is something to this relaxation thing after all.

Hike the Swiss Alps

For someone who considers herself relatively fit, it’s safe to say I’m struggling. I take a moment to stop and catch my breath, mumbling something about “that view!” and taking a couple more photos – an excuse I’ve now rolled out an embarrassing number of times – and stand there panting as quietly as possible.

It’s not like I’m lying about that view though, or the fact that I can’t resist whipping out my camera time and time again. Surrounded by jagged, snow-capped mountain peaks, pea-green hills and the prettiest cows I’ve ever seen – seriously, they’re wearing embroidered cowbells around their necks – it’s near impossible to walk around and not feel the urge to capture this sublime, takes-your-breath-away beauty at all times.

I’m huffing and puffing and admiring the view along the Bear Trek, a section of the 5,000-kilometre Via Alpina, a long-distance hiking route that links Monaco on the Côte d’Azur with Trieste on the Italian and Slovenian border. This particular portion of the trail begins in Meiringen, a Swiss village in the Interlaken–Oberhasli administrative district, and ends in Lenk. We’ll only be going as far as Mürren though.

Words of encouragement from our fearless leader, Birgit, ring out across the valley. “Not far to go now,” she calls out to our group of four women, pointing to the chalet-style building in the distance. Considering she hasn’t hiked in her native Switzerland in years, Birgit sure knows her way around these high-altitude tracks. She turns and powers up the incline ahead of us with such ease and lightness I can’t help but feel equal parts impressed and envious.

Trying to match Birgit’s energy levels I soldier on, one foot in front of the other. And she’s right, within 15 minutes we’ve made it to Grosse Scheidegg, a mountain pass that sits at an elevation of 1,962 metres and boasts epic views of the Eiger peak and Grindelwald, a postcard-perfect village in the valley below.

After leaving Meiringen bright and early at around 9am, this is our first major stop for the day, so we settle in for lunch at the Berghotel. With just over six kilometres under our belt (mostly uphill, I should add) we’re suddenly ravenous, and Birgit orders accordingly. An enormous platter of cheeses, cured meats and pickled vegetables arrives first, followed by steaming hot bowls of gerstensuppe, a hearty barley soup served with a side of sausage that proves the ultimate hiking fuel. It’s all washed down with a round of Rivellas, a Swiss soft drink made from milk whey that’s kind of like a healthy version of Red Bull.

And because this is Switzerland, no meal is complete without a hot chocolate and a slice of cake – or, in our case, two slices: pflaumenkuchen, a traditional plum tart, and cremeschnitte, a custard, Chantilly cream and puff pastry creation.

Our bellies well and truly full, we roll out of the Berghotel and make tracks for Grindelwald, all of us grateful the next eight or so kilometres are downhill.

While organising a hiking trip like this by yourself isn’t an impossibly hard task, we’ve been lucky to have a bit of a helping hand. UTracks is a Europe-based active travel company that specialises in walking and cycling itineraries. Offering 450 small group and self-guided tours across almost 50 countries, its aim is to provide travellers with as much – or as little – assistance, flexibility and freedom required in order to best explore the most incredible corners of Europe.

In our case, this means our accommodation along the Bear Trek has been booked in advance (all charming Swiss-style residences with breakfasts included). A welcome pack featuring maps, a guide book, luggage tags and other handy tips is provided. Then there’s my favourite UTracks inclusion: every morning our luggage is picked up from our hotel and transported to the next one. That’s right – there’s no need to haul 23-kilogram backpacks along these tough routes since all we need to take with us every day is a small daypack containing our walking essentials.

You could say it’s hiking made easy. All the stress of finding and booking places to stay overnight is removed, and the already well-marked and well-maintained routes are made all the more navigable thanks to the immense amount of helpful information on offer. As a hiking novice who’s never tackled more than a couple of laps of Melbourne’s Tan track, it’s the ideal entry point to a surprisingly addictive world of switchbacks, false peaks and fancy Kathmandu gear.

After a good night’s sleep at Hotel Kirchbühl, a blindingly gorgeous alpine lodge complete with brightly coloured geraniums cascading over the balconies, I pull on my newly purchased hiking boots – now looking slightly more worn after a day’s worth of trekking – and head down to meet the group for stage two of our journey.

The Grindelwald to Wengen section of the Bear Trek is the most well known, passing by the world-famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. It’s also the busiest part of the trail, and you can’t move more than a couple of hundred metres without hearing a cheerful “grüezi!” (a casual Swiss-German greeting) as someone walks by.

With 16 kilometres ahead of us, and everyone feeling a teeny bit fatigued in the legs, we decide to save about two hours of uphill climbing and catch the train to the small settlement of Alpiglen. It’s worth it for more spectacular valley views, and it’s nice to be able to enjoy the scenery without the worry of tripping over our own feet.

Once off the train the hard slog begins again, although having now properly acclimatised to the altitude and with a couple of good, filling Swiss meals powering us, we find ourselves setting a cracking pace up to Kleine Scheidegg. If it wasn’t for that familiar urge to stop and take a million photos again, we joke, we could set a record pace.

As the gateway to Jungfraujoch – a glacier saddle connecting the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains that’s also known as the Top of Europe – Kleine Scheidegg is swarming with people even though it’s almost the end of the summer season. Home to several restaurants and shops, the historic Hotel Bellevue des Alpes (built in 1840) and a railway station that connects with the Jungfraubahn, it offers plenty to see and do.

Keen to continue our good hiking form, we resist the lure of an ice-cold Rivella, take our snaps of the legendary Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau summits (Kleine Scheidegg is the best place along the trail to capture gorgeous, unobscured shots of the trio) and continue on. Once we have moved through the bustling mountain pass it gets a lot quieter on the trail, and our group of five moves into single file, each of us happy to plod along in silence for a while, simply content with walking in the shadow of these majestic marvels, enjoying nothing more than the region’s natural beauty.

There’s something almost meditative about this particular section; the trees get thicker, the ravines steeper, the path narrower and the views more dramatic. It doesn’t have that classic Swiss feel about it – there’s hardly a cow or flower-adorned house to be seen – but it’s special in its own wild way.

Unsure of just how far we have left on the trail, we turn a corner and spot Wengen in the distance, but a far more welcome sight in the foreground: Restaurant Allmend. This delightful wooden inn is a cosy mecca for skiers during winter, as well as exhausted hikers like us who are in desperate need of a cake break.

We settle in on the balcony, which overlooks the magnificent Lauterbrunnen Valley, and much to our relief Birgit once again takes the lead on food choices. She orders what is fast becoming our staple hiking diet: a cheese and meat platter, cake and hot chocolates. Although this time there’s an added kick: a few cheeky shots of schnapps “to make sure we make it the rest of the way to Wengen”, Birgit justifies.

As delicious mouthfuls of food are shovelled down, schnapps necked and the conversation turns to tomorrow’s plans (an excursion up to the Schilthorn), I can’t help but think that if this is what hiking is all about in Switzerland – walk, eat, admire the scenery, repeat – then sign me up for the next trek. I’m sold! 

Step Out (and Off) in Donegal

At the base of a 25-metre sea stack, surrounded by the pounding ocean, I ponder my life choices. “I honestly don’t think I can do this,” I scream up at Iain Miller.

I am just metres from the surging waves of the wild Donegal coastline. It’s so close I notice the salt in the air lingering a little longer on my lips while I plot where next to move my hand. The whitecaps match the colour of my knuckles and bull kelp laps angrily at my toes. The only thing keeping me attached to the rock face is Iain’s smile and a will to survive.

“Yes you can, mate,” the Unique Ascent guide shouts back. “Push your shoulder into the crevice, use your legs and remember I’m not going anywhere. You’ll have to pull me down with you!” His response is a mixture of candour and comedy I’ve come to expect from every local I meet on this hidden piece of coastline.

It’s at this point Iain’s smile, reminiscent of that of a cheesy game-show host, begins making me want to throttle him the moment we are finally standing face to face again. Still, I know his demeanour is all theatre in an attempt to allay the obvious terror he can detect from my voice.

With a deep breath and the slack on my belay line firmly in Iain’s grip, I heave my wet, trembling body up Tor na Dumhcha. It’s the name given to this particular sea stack, which rises from the ocean like a dark clenched fist punching through the waves.

Ten minutes of climbing later, I finally drag my limp torso onto the ledge where Iain has been patiently waiting. At the top we embrace like old friends, and I feel the adrenaline surge through me as if I’ve just conquered my own Mount Everest.

The view in front of me is the Atlantic, but just behind me are the unmistakable rolling emerald hills bleeding over the grey basalt cliffs of the Irish mainland.

This is the second time in an hour I’ve had to literally “step off” and push through the fear that this might well be my last-ever travel adventure. But first I had to get to this precarious outcrop surrounded by ocean by traversing a makeshift slackline in a harness Iain had set up the day before.

But perceived fear is very different to real danger, Iain later tells me. He assures me after my climb that at no point was my life ever in real danger. In fact, tucked around the corner of the sea stack, out of sight, is the inflatable lifeboat he was going to use to rescue me if I had given up at any stage.

I trust what Iain is telling me because people in this part of Ireland know a thing or two about struggle, survival and real danger.

Donegal is an ancient land, both in its topography and culture. People have always lived their lives here in balance. When you meet locals, there’s an obvious mixture of those who are thriving and ones who are merely surviving in a place very different to the rest of the country. Its geography is partly responsible for this, but because it shares most of its border with Northern Ireland, County Donegal has a distinct cultural identity and pride of place in the country’s Gaelic community.

It was the people of Donegal who suffered the worst during the cataclysmic potato famine of the 1840s, leading to starvation and mass emigration to the Americas. Spend a day in the nearby Doagh Famine Village, a makeshift museum-cum-memorial of life in those dangerous times, and you begin to realise partly why they are who they are today. In contrast, the place brings my recent experience of stepping off the edge of a sea stack into stark focus and it makes it look as if I had simply walked off my front porch.

Sea stacks like Tor na Dumhcha are formed when a part of a headland is eroded by wind and water. An arch slowly forms then eventually collapses leaving just the stack perched as an island out at sea. Iain has explored and climbed every single one of the near hundred sea stacks along the Donegal coastline, including the undisputed king of stacks, Cnoc na Mara – the name means hill of the sea.

Unique Ascent collects its semi-adventurous, zero-experience clients from the nearby Teac Jack hotel in Glassagh and, along with company from Iain’s friendly Australian sheepdog, provides guests with all the necessary kit and climbing equipment they might need for an exhilarating day out.

“For most Irish, adventure is a brisk afternoon walk in the sunshine,” Iain tells me once we are both safely back on terra firma. “But there is so much more to see and do here.”

Most visitors know this region for its tourist trail, the Wild Atlantic Way. Donegal’s coastline forms a large part of the more than 2,500-kilometre route. The reason for its popularity is that driving in Ireland is easy once you become accustomed to navigating the tight roads and stone walls that threaten your hire car’s duco on just about every corner.

The distances between marked tourist destinations in Donegal are short too, but to understand the real story of this county and the Wild Atlantic Way you need to push your exploration off the main inland roads and right to the edge of the coast.

One such spot is Donegal’s hidden Magic Road, which is accessed through the breathtaking Mamore Gap. Without a car, it’s impossible to witness this seemingly gravity-defying experience, where you stop on what appears to be an uphill slope then release the handbrake and magically roll forward towards the coastline. It’s an optical illusion I have to repeat no less than three times in a bid to ensure I haven’t gone mad.

But it’s the entirety of the jaw-dropping Inishowen peninsula that has captured the imaginations of writers, as well as modern-day filmmakers like Rian Johnson who, in 2016, filmed sections of Star Wars: The Last Jedi at Malin Head, the most northerly point of mainland Ireland. As I pass through, dodging wandering sheep that are another danger to my rental car, my eye is caught by a giant Yoda emblazoned on the side of the pub. It makes it impossible not to stop at Farren’s Bar for a beer with a few local farmers. It also confirms my suspicion that the Guinness tastes better the further north you travel.

From Malin Head, my journey takes me to the very tip of the adjoining peninsula. After a near two-hour drive through Letterkenny I reach Fanad Lighthouse for an overnight stay. Perched on the headland with commanding views of Lough Swilly, this structure has stood here for more than 200 years. A sign on the door asks guests to be kind to its imperfections – a nice reminder you’re entering a building that’s as much a historical entity as a guesthouse.

There are three styles of self-catering accommodation for both families and couples – all have peat fires and a soundtrack of crashing waves – at Fanad Lighthouse, offering the perfect off-the-grid escape. It also makes real my childhood fantasy of Round The Twist-style adventures in a working lighthouse. That is until a young Irish couple staying in the next-door room invites me over for an Irish whisky and we muse about local banshee spirits, who are believed to wail along parts of this coastline.

Thankfully morning breaks before I have to deal with screaming spirits, and the lough is flat right to the horizon. I brew the fresh coffee provided in the kitchen and stumble outside in my pyjamas where I catch sight of a pod of dolphins breaking the surface of the water like lumps in freshly blown glass.

Sliabh Liag (pronounced slee-ve league) is yet another chance to go right to the edge on County Donegal’s coastline. It’s a hikers’ paradise, but even the walk up to the main viewing point is not for the faint of heart. At 596 metres high, these fog-covered mountains plunging steeply into the sea are almost three times bigger than their more famous southern counterparts, the Cliffs of Moher. Plus, these sea cliffs come free from tourists and fees.

From the very top of Sliabh Liag, I take one last glance across an angry Atlantic. I feel like I’ve seen it in all shapes and colours during this road trip. More importantly, though, just below the viewing point is a set of modest, very climbable sea stacks. I think back to Iain’s cheeky game-show–host grin and once again feel ready to step off. 

Louisiana’s Other Mardi Gras

There is a precise moment when I regret leaving my tutu, butterfly wings and Game of Thrones crown at home. Although roaming aimlessly, I am surrounded by what seem to me to be hundreds of colourful aliens who have touched down for a colossal drinking festival.

Dressed in worn jeans and tattered shirt with loads of camera gear strapped to my back, I feel like a bore. I zoom in on a gent pulling a pair of tighty-whities over his costume. They have a set of red balls hanging from the crotch. And I thought New Orleans was wild!

The cause for celebration is Courir de Mardi Gras, or what some call Cajun Mardi Gras. It’s held in towns throughout southern Louisiana, but one of the bigger events takes place right here in Eunice, about 250 kilometres west of New Orleans.

The day, misty and moody, began at 6am at the town’s community centre. Inside I asked the friendly folk who appeared to be in charge if there was any coffee. They pointed to a table lined with whisky shots. Partaking didn’t seem quite right since the sun hadn’t yet risen above the horizon, so I declined. Once dawn broke though, I reassessed the situation and helped myself to several. Hey, they were going fast.

Suitably buzzed, my friend Sarah and I climb aboard the float we’ve been invited to join. It’s actually a trailer with a corrugated tin roof and walls decorated with 3XL underwear, and is being hauled by a pick-up truck. Almost immediately we make friends with those already in position. They pass a Crown Royal jug from which we dutifully down a couple of swigs.

Cajuns are giving people and fiercely loyal to their European traditions. Many of them are descendants of the Acadians, French settlers exiled from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-eighteenth century, while others’ families came from Quebec and even France itself. Their Mardi Gras is a completely different beast compared to the one celebrated in New Orleans.

It’s a tradition that dates back to medieval France. The rural poor, dressed in masks to hide their identities, trailed from house to house begging for food and money. The garb worn in Eunice these days is much the same, with the body covered in scraps of material, some of it turned into fringing, simulating the rags used centuries ago. The signature hats – conical caps called capuchons – add a whimsical flair as their wearers dance and beg along the parade route.

In Eunice, the revellers trail along the back roads, past acres of prairies and shallow ponds used for crawfish farming. All along the route, families lounging on lawn chairs or piled into the trays of their pick-up trucks await the parade. In another tradition that dates back generations, many of these homeowners offer food, everything from sandwiches to full buffets, to those on the move.

The Cajun people we’re with today bring new levels of artistry to pleading. The men crouch low on the bitumen, moving slowly toward the spectators much like hungry alligators hunting prey. Coins shower down on the footpath and the drunken fools scurry to gather them up. Further along the road mature ladies seem to know how to handle the younger men. They hold up coins and command them to roll across the road like trained mutts.

A horde of eager participants races after the bird through slush and mud. In what seems like no time, the winner stands triumphant, holding the rooster in the air like a prized trophy.

Remember the tighty-whitey guy? He decides to craft a musical instrument (of sorts) to join those playing tunes along the trail. He walks up to a home, asks for a black gumboot and PVC pipe, and marches back rocking out with his newfound boot fiddle.

By far one of the most anticipated parts of the day – and they happen at various times – are the chicken runs. Mounted on a horse, Capitaine Pat Frey, who has been in charge of proceedings at Eunice for 20 years, holds a rooster in the air, before releasing it and taking off at a gallop. A horde of eager participants races after the bird through slush and mud. In what seems like no time, the winner stands triumphant, holding the rooster in the air like a prized trophy.

In the past, the chickens were put in a pot of gumbo later that evening, but today they are treated more like poultry royalty. At least one of the victorious chicken-chasers carries the bird along the entire route, stroking its feathers. Several merrymakers take their chickens home to roost in the henhouse.

Two of the more comical chaps on our float have an obsession with muddied mischief. One is dressed in a costume covered with a tiny crawfish print, while the other’s is printed with miniature Confederate flags. They dive into dirty ditches then hop back on board the float wringing wet. It’s only a matter of time before they come crashing down on me, so I curl up in a ball caressing my camera like a sleeping infant.

There is some order to this madness though. The impressive co-captains of the parade – handsome men sitting tall on their steeds with lassos hanging from their saddles – blend in perfectly. With their flowing green and gold capes they’re almost like superheroes, eager to help anyone who finds themself in distress.

At midday, the krewe stops for lunch alongside a vast crawfish pond. Throngs of parade-goers line up like starving zombies, eager to scoff down a lavish link of boudin. It’s made the traditional way – a blend of spices, liver and rice squeezed into a slippery skin of pig intestine. You suck the yummy meat out of the casing into your mouth. Sure, it looks slightly X-rated but no one cares when everyone is this hungry.

As the day wears on, the music gets louder, the lips looser and the beer – well, it’s everywhere. Pick-up trucks bearing eskies filled with cold brews provide refreshment all along the route.

One of our by now extremely muddy cohorts jumps into a ditch and emerges with two crawfish to demonstrate his knack for making creature-feature earrings. “See, look, you just put the claws next to that meaty part of your earlobe,” he says, turning his head towards me and wincing a bit. “Then a quick pinch and you have a crawfish earring.”

By now, we’ve been going for hours and exhausted revellers hop on trailers to rest for a while. Jumping aboard a moving vehicle, however, is a bit tough, especially if you’ve been imbibing all day. They pick up the pace, running as fast as they can. Some have beads tangled around their necks seemingly about to choke them. With one giant leap, they stumble aboard the trailer and everyone cheers, raising their beer cans.

I’m now perched on the edge of an esky, just enough to keep my balance. There’s crazy stuff going on around me, so I scribble some notes to prove to myself later that I wasn’t hallucinating. A strange light is emanating from some silver silos, making them look like spaceships. “Hey, y’all, I need another swig of that Crown,” I yell, believing yet more alcohol might sharpen reality.

The landscape slowly changes from farmland to a few scattered homes before we finally enter downtown, where families with young children eagerly await the floats. With that, the masked marauders retreat to their roots.

One lively Cajun approaches a small boy and falls to his knees with hands clasped, begging for money. A bit timid, the youngster creeps forward then slowly drops a few coins into his hands. The masked gent bows his head in thanks, and slowly steps away. The minute his feet touch the road once more, he breaks into a Cajun jig. 

After Dark: Copenhagen

Could Copenhagen be the European capital of cool? Oh, yes, it could. Beyond the rich ribbons of history and picturesque neoclassical architecture of the city centre, former industrial areas are being revitalised. Hunt them out and you’ll discover slaughterhouses and factories finding new life as nightclubs and beer bars.

If it’s actual after-dark action you seek – dark being the crucial word – then eschew the endless summer sunlight and beeline here in winter when the sun sets early and the hygge (cosy) hipster nooks spark with action.

Socially progressive, design forward, global thinking and life loving, it’s no wonder the Danes are consistently rated as among the happiest people in the world. Rug up and head out to discover the warm embrace of Denmark’s hottest ’hoods.

4pm
In keeping with other global creative urban centres, formerly dilapidated areas are being transformed into hamlets of hip. Jægersborggade is the ultimate strolling street. The cobble-stoned strip in Nørrebro sprouts more than 40 art galleries, vintage shops, bars and restaurants in just 300 metres. There’s Grød, a porridge-only restaurant, and an all-female jewellery collective at Lady Fingers. But fuel the night with caffeine at Coffee Collective, the crown jewel of Copenhagen’s third wave coffee movement.

➥COFFEE COLLECTIVE
Jægersborggade 57, 2200 København
coffeecollective.dk

5pm

Oh, happy accident. Opposite Coffee Collective is wine bar Terroiristen, studded with tiny tables and saturated with vinous aromas. As other shops pull their shutters, the windows of this small space begin to fog as the crowd packs in. Natural wines are the heroes here and small yield, small batch grapes from Eastern Europe are being thrust into the limelight like startled showgirls. Expect the unexpected as varieties like Serbian kadarka – it’s a bit like pinot noir – or a melnik from Bulgaria are recultivated post the Iron Curtain. And if you haven’t heard of Czechian wines yet, we’re tipping they’re about to enter stage left.

➥TERROIRISTEN
Jægersborggade 52, 2200 København
terroiristen.dk

6pm

If being adjacent to a skate park with a graffiti-covered halfpipe is the Copenhagen zeitgeist, then former blacksmith workshop Friheden (meaning The Freedom) is a microcosm of all that makes the city pulse. A DJ starts spinning vinyl at 10pm on weekends, but earlier it’s a rendezvous point for laid-back locals. Few know about this mini cantina, which by day services the former warehouse turned workspaces behind it. Yet there are multiple reasons to hunt down this newbie: the cheapest (and best) filter coffee in town, wines also sold by restaurant Noma (but a lot cheaper), truffle oil and cheese toasties, and views of the skaters.

➥FRIHEDEN
Esromgade 15, 1 1, 2200 København
frihedenkbh.dk

6.30pm

Hello, happy hour! Bodegas, or brown bars, would be called dive bars anywhere else in the world and visiting one is a Danish cultural experience. They’re murky and mysterious, usually featuring varnished wood, snooker tables, low ceilings and clients ranging from Faro fishermen to beer-swigging politicians. Plus, they’re cheap. At Gensyn Bar you’re in good company. This is where bartenders tend to go before or after a shift (it won Best New Cocktail Bar in the 2017 Bartender’s Choice Awards). A recent injection of chic means that, apart from beer and violently hard liquor, there are 150 types of whiskey on its shelf.

➥GENSYN BAR
Rolighedsvej 20, 1958 Frederiksberg
facebook.com/gensynbar

7pm

We’re slowly sliding down a southwest arc across the city, and the hip-o-metre is high in Vesterbro. If it’s froth you seek, the most famous place for beer is Mikkeller Bar, with 20 beers on tap. When arranging to meet be specific – as well as Mikkeller Bar, there is a Mikkeller cafe, fine-dining restaurant and Chinese eatery all on the same block. In fact, there are 51 Mikkellers around the world, but this one is the original and where founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø comes to pour beers himself. If a NY Blueberry Cheese Cake with Chocolate & Maple Topping – it’s a stout, if you’re wondering – doesn’t tempt you to try beer nothing will.

➥MIKKELLER BAR
Viktoriagade 8 B-C, 1655 København
mikkeller.com

8pm

Drifting further south still, just as empty bellies begin rumbling, you’ll find the smorgasbord of the Meatpacking District. Focus on Restaurant Kul. Kul means charcoal, and all the restaurant’s dishes flirt with the flame, whether prepared on the grill or in the Josper oven. For more than a century this area was a rough industrial ’hood, but today the former meat halls are considered prime functionalist architecture. Inside, the decor champions the raw-materials aesthetic, but the food is far from basic – sophisticated dishes like Ibérico ham with tempura squid and oyster soy foam are delicious flights of fancy.

➥RESTAURANT KUL
Høkerboderne 16B, 20, 1712 København
restaurantkul.dk

9.30pm

A night has many stages, and Curfew is for when it’s time to whisper sweet nothings into a lover’s ear. If you can get in. Hidden behind wrought iron doors and accessed by ringing a doorbell, it has space for just 70 to be seated, so book ahead. It’s a step back in time to when barmen wore braces, the music was jazzy (sorry Britney fans, there are no post-1970s tunes here) and the menu hinged on cocktails. Everything murmurs gangsters, from the Prohibition-style bar to the velvet couches in tucked-away corners. And the scent? That’s licorice. Danes are lovers of the salty confectionery and a smoking licorice root sits atop the signature tipple, the Unfaithful. But you’ll never cheat on this cocktail bar – it’s a keeper.
➥CURFEW
Stenosgade 1, 1616 København
curfew.dk

11.30pm

All roads lead to Jolene. Set in a supermarket car park, it’s at the end of the road, literally. If you want grit, this is it, confirmed by a sign specifying there are no f*$%ing cocktails here. What you will find here is buckets of tolerance from the LGBTQIA staff and actual buckets. Below the disco ball remain the floor and wall tiles that nod to its slaughterhouse origins. “No one dies here any more, but we still hose it down sometimes,” says bartender Alicia. Last call is at 4.30am when the first delivery vans arrive, because even Jolene needs to sleep.

➥JOLENE
Flæsketorvet 81-85, 1711 København
facebook.com/jolenebar

2.30am

Even more than licorice, Danes love dogs. Hot dogs. But not mongrel dogs; more the purebred sausage variety containing organic applesauce sausage or beef from the island of Funen (well, that’s this week – it changes constantly). A hot dog from John’s Hotdog Deli is an amazing experience sober, but in the wee hours that same meal becomes outstanding. Located no more than 50 metres from Jolene, it also represents urban planning at its best. If the 15 toppings don’t whip your taste buds into a frenzy, two skips away is Warpigs Brewpub, Tommi’s Burger Joint and Bollyfood.

➥JOHN’S HOTDOG DELI
Flæsketorvet 39, 1711 København
hotdogkit.dk

MALAWI
Colour therapy

Returning to her childhood home, Helena Smith dives into Malawi’s major attraction.

On the white-knuckle drive down the dirt road to the shores of Lake Malawi, childhood lore about the country’s roads resurfaces in my mind, decades old but surprisingly still helpful. Don’t slow down on the bone-hard corrugations or you’ll skid – drive at them. I push the pedal down, and my Malawian friend Tio and I laugh and screech our way down to Cape Maclear, a little fishing village enclosed by forested mountains that is the closest thing the languid lake has to a resort.

Since I lived in Malawi as a child much has changed – including the fact that people now talk politics freely and passionately – but plenty has stayed the same. Lake Malawi, which cuts a watery swathe through the country and is the third largest lake in Africa, has a wonderfully serene quality, its waters meeting wide sweeps of golden sand. The visual icon of the lake are its dugout canoes, cigar-shaped vessels made from hollowed logs that are paddled by the local fishermen. In this deeply poor country, motorised boats are not an option for most, and the canoes have helped to protect the lake’s clear waters from pollution.

Rattled and rocked by our bumpy drive, Tio and I relax with a sundowner Malawi gin and tonic and a pizza. The next day we hitch a ride on a sailboat to Thumbi Island, which rises in a satisfyingly neat triangle from the water. From the boat we jump into the lake for the rainbow vision of Malawi’s cichlid fish, whose dazzling hues rival the beauty found on any coral reef.

Pronounced ‘sicklids’, these creatures make a fascinating study for nature lovers, having evolved from a handful of river fish two to three million years ago into a vast array of separate specialised species. The cichlids comprise the greatest freshwater fish diversity in the world: the variety known as mbuna are the colourful ones, but Lake Malawi’s trademark dinner dish chambo are also cichlids, as are the equally tasty tilapia.

We spend hours dipping in and out of the water, with the bright little fish darting round the rocks in stunning shoals of turquoise, cobalt blue, lemon yellow and tangerine. Mighty fish eagles soar above. At the end of the day the boat makes a slow, graceful sweep back to Cape Maclear. A rapid and fiery equatorial sunset rivals that on the Malawi gin label, another thing about the country that hasn’t changed since the days my parents quaffed their evening drink looking down the garden over the sweet sleepy town of Zomba.

In recent times Malawi and its neighbour Tanzania have been on the verge of war over the rights to minerals buried beneath the lake. Thankfully this conflict has abated, and the cichlids continue their rainbow journeys largely undisturbed.
malawitourism.com

PHILIPPINES
Split the difference

You could be forgiven for equating scuba diving in the Philippines with endless tropical fish and perhaps a whale shark or two. When you strap on a tank to explore Coron’s Barracuda Lake, however, you are plunging into very different surroundings. The lake was formed by a sinkhole and, both above and below the surface, the limestone cliffs are stunning. But for divers, the unique aspect of this particular lake is invisible; because it has layered fresh and saltwater (an underground river links it to the ocean) it’s subject to thermoclines and haloclines. The top freshwater layer is about 28ºC, but that changes at about 14 metres when the temperature rises to about 39ºC and the water becomes saline. So stark is the difference between the two types of water you can actually see where it changes (that’s the halocline). At the bottom, about 35 metres down, there’s deep silky silt into which, should you be an advanced diver and feel the need, you can plunge. There’s also the opening to a cave where the resident barracuda the lake is named for is said to lurk. Most of the dive operations in the area will offer a dip into Barracuda Lake as part of a package that also includes trips to World War II wrecks off the coast.

If you’re not a diver though, find yourself a guide with a boat to take you to this stunning location. You’ll definitely want to spend some time swimming and snorkelling in the crystal clear water and marvelling at the underwater cliffs and karst formations. The boardwalk and swimming area does become crowded mid-morning, so either organise to head out really early or go after lunch when most of the tour groups have moved on.

If you want to get away from all that, consider a three-night trip with Big Dream Boatman (bigdreamboatmancoron.com). Krish and Oli started the company to create socially responsible trips that give back to local communities. There’s no real itinerary, but know that you’ll get to see the best of the Calamian Islands, including Barracuda Lake, while sailing on a traditional banka boat during the day. At night, you come ashore and stay in either simple huts or tents by the ocean.

RUSSIA
Get on Siberian ice

Chances are none of your adventurous mates will have done this. Lake Baikal, north of the Mongolian border, is a long way from just about everywhere. In winter it freezes over completely, and that’s when you can explore it to your heart’s content. BaikalNature (baikalnature.com) offers a guided seven-day Grand Crossing of Lake Baikal exploring this huge expanse that stretches almost 80 kilometres from east bank to west at its widest point. The tour explores towns in the region and the spectacular wilderness of this part of the world, but the part most participants become excited about is time spent on the ice. You’ll drag your own personal sled for the seven-hour trek to the camp in the geographic centre of the lake before making that your home for a couple of nights. Day four is free and most people elect to get up early to take photos then spend the rest of the day playing ice hockey, ice skating, getting into the bania (bath) cut into the ice or relaxing at the Ice Bar with a measure of Russia’s finest. While out in the middle of the lake, where the water beneath the frozen layer is 1,500 metres deep, you’ll stay in heated tents to keep the chill – the tours run in February and March when temperatures hover well below freezing – at bay. That vodka helps, too.

SCOTLAND
Loch stars

Look, no one loves exploring a watery destination by canoe or with a snorkel
more than us, but when it comes to the vast expanse of Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of water in Britain, it’s best to get up high. All the better for seeing some of the 30 small islands that dot its surface. Some do it the hard way by hiking up Ben Lomond armed with binoculars. On a clear day, though, why not take a flight in a Cessna 208 Caravan. The flying machines of Loch Lomond Seaplanes (lochlomondseaplanes.com) take off from Cameron House Hotel near Balloch in southern Scotland before flying at a height of between 500 and 3,000 feet over a number of lochs – Long, Fyne and Striven, as well as Lomond – tiny villages, Rothesay Castle, the highlands and quite a few islands. You’ll finally splash down 30 minutes later back where you started.

INDIA
Float on by

Forgive us for the folly, but this could be one of the most romantic places on Earth. Set near Srinagar, one of the world’s oldest tourist destinations and the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Dal Lake is flanked by the snow-capped Pir Panjal mountain range and its shores are lined with lavishly carved and decorated houseboats serviced by flower-strewn, gondola-like boats called shikaras. Kashmir was one of the few parts of the country where English colonisers couldn’t buy land, so to get around the rules and escape the summer heat they built flotillas of floating holiday homes that remain tethered to the shoreline. In 1966, Ravi Shankar brought George Harrison to one of the houseboats where he taught the Beatle how to play the sitar. The boats all but rotted away in later decades, but the area saw something of a renaissance early this century and many of them, along with the extravagant lakeside hotels, were restored.

Now, visitors take a room on a houseboat – many are a riot of colour and textures, although the standards do vary dramatically – as their base and, like George and Ravi, spend their days taking languid rides on shikaras to floating markets, islands and Srinagar. In the city, visit carpet makers and wood carvers in workshops, stroll around exquisite Mughal gardens and sip namkeen chai, made using local green tea, almonds, pistachios, cardamom, salt and baking soda, which gives it a pink colour.

Of course, there’d be some who would tell you that Kashmir, something of a flashpoint for hostilities between India and Pakistan, is not the safest of holiday destinations (including our very own DFAT). Local tourists are heading back there in numbers though, so if you fancy visiting check the situation on the reg and don’t do anything stupid.

CANADA
Floating on ice

It’s the deepest lake in North America and you better believe there are plenty of fish swimming below the surface. In fact, the human population in the Northwest Territories is so sparse, species like arctic grayling, northern pike and lake trout thrive in Great Slave Lake. Flying to Yellowknife (population 20,000) to test your luck with rod and reel is popular during the summer, but why not go when the temperatures drop? In winter, the lake freezes over forming a good, thick layer of ice and turning houseboats to cabins. This is the time to try your hand at cutting a hole in the crust and dropping in a line. Some people choose to dangle outside; others fish from inside a heated tent or cabin. There are a number of operators like Great Slave Lake Tours (nwtfishingtours.com), which operates across the lake from Yellowknife at Hay River, that can organise day trips or overnight ice-fishing excursions. The other option is to book a stay in one of those houseboat/cabins (search Yellowknife houseboat rental). Do that and chances are high that while you’re cooking up your catch the aurora borealis will light up the sky above.

CHILE
Smooth operator

Take the country’s largest glacial lake then add some majestic caves in all shades of blue and you’ve got a sure-fire drawcard for travellers. Except that Chile’s Marble Caves are accessible only by boat or kayak on Patagonia’s Lago Gral Carrera (General Carrera Lake), and you’ll already have been on quite the adventure when you arrive at Puerto Rio Tranquilo to get out on the water. Tranquilo is a four-hour, bone-jarring drive from Balmaceda, which is a two-hour-and-15-minute flight from Santiago.

There are half-hour trips in local fishing boats from the port but it’s far more fun if you hire a guide and kayak there. Glide into the grottos and caverns formed by 6,000 years of punishment by waves, and marvel at the smooth walls in all shades of shimmering blue. Conditions are best between spring, when the water is shallow and takes on turquoise tones, and summer when melt from glaciers sends the hue to azure. Go early in the day when the sun is out for the best photos – the lake should be calmer, which will allow you to both see the patterned marble beneath the surface of the water and the reflections of the caves’ intricate patterns on it.

GERMANY
A different kind of metal

In the iron ‘city’ of Ferropolis in Gräfenhainichen, one group of music lovers has turned a deserted industrial landscape almost completely surrounded by Lake Gremmin into the backdrop for the Melt! Festival (meltfestival.de). The annual event, usually held in June, features some of the biggest dance and pop acts in the world, as well as 24-hour dance floors, light performances and fireworks exploding from the huge pieces of machinery that still dominate the site despite having been abandoned in the mid-twentieth century. It’s mid-summer too, so the manmade beach is a popular spot for rejuvenating dips between mammoth dance sessions.

MYANMAR
Scene from above

When it comes to the country formerly known as Burma, there’s one destination on every traveller’s list: Inle Lake in the Shan Hills. Cruising across its expanse, the most common way to explore, takes you past houses on stilts, gardens that float and Intha fishermen who use a leg to row their boat while using both hands to drag in their catch. It’s all pretty magical, but add another layer of excitement to the journey by jumping into a basket. Balloons over Inle (balloonsoverbagan.com) offers early-morning flights that soar across the expanse of water and life on the lake. The pilots will dip down and fly low over golden stupas near the water’s edge and locals rowing their wares to market. Of course, every day’s flight is different, thanks to the wind and weather conditions, but expect to be in the air for between 60 and 90 minutes. You’ll be enjoying a glass of champagne and breakfast by about 8.30am, leaving the rest of the day to explore at ground level.

NEPAL
Room with a view

Sometimes you just want to look at the view, and the Pavilions Himalayas Lakeview (pavilionshotels.com) is just the luxurious spot to do it. Just eight tented villas sit above Phewa Lake, itself surrounded by rice paddies and the Annapurna Mountains. They’re generously spaced, so feel completely private, and deliver all the little luxuries you’d expect from a fine hotel – outdoor rain showers, handcrafted furniture, massages and afternoon tea, diaphanous curtains wafting in the gentle breeze. It’s part of the larger Pavilions Himalayas, so glamping guests can take advantage of the many activities on offer, from gentle bike rides along the shore of the lake to full-day hikes to the Peace Pagoda with its spectacular views of the Annapurnas and Pokhara. On your way back down, see if you can catch the reflection of Mount Machhapuchhre in the surface of Phewa Lake.

NICARAGUA
Natural selection

There’s plenty for a visitor to find fascinating on Lake Nicaragua. Apart from it being the largest freshwater lake in Central America and having an island at its heart with not one but two volcanoes (Ometepe is home to Concepción and Maderas, with the former last erupting in 2010), this is an absolute winner for nature buffs. Head to Los Guatuzos, a reserve on the lake’s southern shore, where there are huge populations of water birds, like the roseate spoonbill and a number of different types of kingfisher. Just southwest of the lake is Mombacho Cloud Forest Reserve, where you can follow trails to see howler monkeys, quetzals (beautiful emerald birds with red breasts) and smaller endemic creatures like the Mombacho butterfly and Mombacho salamander.

It’s the lake’s past life though that makes its present inhabitants so interesting. It was once thought to be an ocean bay until a volcanic eruption shut it off from the sea, trapping all sorts of oceanic creatures in there that slowly adapted to their new freshwater home. In its depths there are marine species like sawfish, tarpon and, perhaps most surprisingly, bull sharks. (In more recent times, scientists think the sharks got in the lake by making their way down the San Juan River, which flows from the Caribbean Sea.) The locals call the sharks tigrones, but heavy fishing has seen their numbers drop and attacks on swimmers are rare.

PERU
Take it to great heights

A visit to Lake Titicaca is high – forgive the pun – on many people’s wish lists. Not only is this the largest lake in South America, but it’s also at 3,800 metres above sea level and surrounded by an amazing landscape of mountains and villages. Some of those villages have been built on the water. The Uros Islands – there are about 70 in all and each one is inhabited by between one and 10 families – have been handcrafted from totora reeds by the Uros people whose ancestors pre-date the Incan civilisation. But it’s not just the islands that have been hewn from reeds collected near the shore. The Uros build houses, fences, water tanks and boats from them as well.

Most people visit the Uros Islands on a day trip from Puno, but if you really want to immerse yourself in the ancient culture of the people – much about their way of life has remained relatively unchanged for almost 4,000 years – book a homestay. You’ll reside with a family and might end up going fishing, visiting their friends on other islands, learning how to knit the reeds or simply chatting about your respective lives, especially if your Spanish is good. The vast majority of people who live on the islands make their living from tourism, so you’ll be well looked after. Check out Airbnb to find a family offering rooms, often for as little as AU$50 a night. From the moment you hear the distinctive cracking as you step on to the island to waking up with the dawn and watching the sun rise over this vast, deep blue tract of water, this is one experience you’ll find hard to forget.

PORTUGAL
Double dose

In fact, you could almost call Lagoa das Sete Cidades (Seven Cities Lagoon) and Lake Santiago, on the Azores island of São Miguel, a triple treat. Why? The former body of water is actually two smaller lakes set in a volcanic crater and connected by a narrow strait. Thanks to different ecology, though, one is coloured blue and the other is green. The best place to witness the distinct shadings is high up another crater’s lip above Lagoa Verde where, remarkably, should you turn and face the opposite direction, you can also see Lake Santiago. There is a great 20-kilometre loop hike that follows the high points right around all three lakes, but you’ll need a good level of fitness and at least six hours to make it all the way around.

USA
Depth charged

Wreck divers usually head to oceans wild or once wracked by war to explore ships and planes that have settled on the bottom and become ecosystems for marine life. But in the northern states of the USA, where the Great Lakes and connected locks and rivers create a waterway that stretches from Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean, plenty of ships have come to grief since the 1800s hauling ores, wheat and cement . In fact, the lakes are home to more than 6,000 shipwrecks, although there are surprisingly few divers aware of the treasures not far off shore and close to some large towns and cities. Do a search for Great Lakes dive shops and whichever one is closest to your destination will be able to help you out. We like the idea of heading to Lake Huron. It’s the second largest of the Great Lakes and lies across Michigan and Ontario. In its depth are more than a thousand wrecked ships, including 116 historically significant ones in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve. Among them is the Lucinda Van Valkenburg, a wooden three-mast schooner that sank in 1887 when it was hit by the Lehigh while en route to Chicago loaded with coal. She now lies at a depth of about 20 metres.

NEW ZEALAND
On reflection

Just west of the deep waters of Lake Taupo is the ancient Pureora Forest Park. Its densely packed trees create an emerald ecosystem that is home to some of New Zealand’s most rare and beautiful creatures, including kaka (parrots), piwakawaka (fantails) and the rare kōkako (blue-wattle crew). Get Logan Devine of Go Explore NZ to take you on a hike through this pristine swamp forest and you’ll end up at Waihora Lagoon. It’s like a jewel in the park’s crown and, from the boardwalk, you can see the tall rimu and kahikatea trees reflected in its mirror-like surface.

CANADA
The fast and the envious

Look, we’re not saying the folks at Mercedes-Benz are touched, but would you let a bunch of randos drive your new vehicles at top speed around an ice track? It happens each winter, when, as part of the AMG Driving Academy (amg-experiences.com), a racetrack is created on frozen Lake Winnipeg near Gimli, Manitoba. Those signing up for the three-day pro course – it costs about AU$6,500 – get individualised coaching in oversteering, drifting and driving in these types of conditions. Which should come in super handy when you’re back in your Suzuki Swift and stuck in a Sydney traffic jam.

A cool guide to Europe

ART
Brest Hero-Fortress, Belarus

Here’s a lesson in how to make a 19th-century fortress even better. The original Brest Fortress, constructed in about 1830, helped protect the Soviet Union from marauding European invaders, including during World War II, the Germans. Eventually, having been battered by thousands of Hitler’s troops, it fell. When it was liberated once more, the Soviets decided to turn the crumbling hulk into a memorial for fallen soldiers and called it Hero Fortress. Then they added not one but two humongous Brutalist statues. One, called Thirst, depicts a dying soldier crawling towards a river; the other (pictured here) is just the head and shoulders of a square-jawed giant looming over the scene and threatening you to take a swing at what is now Belarus if you dare. We wouldn’t.
brest-fortress.by

FROM THE SKY
Heli Skydiving, Hungary

Sure, if you’re after a buzz you can always have a crack at normal skydiving, but anyone already game enough to jump out of a plane and plummet to earth probably won’t mind taking the adrenaline levels up another notch. Enter heli skydiving, which – you guessed it – involves a helicopter instead of a small plane. The Millennium Tandem Team in Hungary are the thrill-seekers behind this venture, and will take you up in a Mil Mi-8 troop transport helicopter. The one-minute freefall takes place over Lake Balaton, an hour’s drive from Budapest, and the scenic views from an altitude of 4000 metres are out of this world – if you’re brave enough to keep your eyes open.
skydivingbudapest.org

ADRENALINE RUSH
Paragliding, Georgia

Forget the Swiss Alps. Word on the street is that the hottest new paragliding playground in Europe is Georgia. With the rugged, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains providing a near-perfect setting for high-flying antics, there are multiple locations, including Gudauri and Mestia, where anyone seeking an adrenaline rush can take to the skies. Fly Caucasus is the go-to paragliding team in the region and flies year-round. Its experts are more than happy to cater to your anxiety levels – if all you want is a relaxing experience they will glide you through a super cruisy scenic flight, but if you’d prefer to soar off the highest point in Georgia, they can make that crazy wish happen, too.
flycaucasus.com

ANCIENT RUINS
Pula Arena, Croatia

If you think Rome’s Colosseum is impressive, wait till you get a load of the Croatian version. Of the approximately 200 Roman amphitheatres left in the world today, Pula Arena is the only one to have four complete corner towers. Much like its Italian cousin, gladiators took to the amphitheatre, cheered on by 20,000 spectators sitting on the stone tiers or standing in the gallery; in the Middle Ages, it was used for knights’ tournaments. These days, as well as being the starting point for most visitors coming to the city, it hosts replica gladiator duels during summer, the Pula Film Festival, concerts, ballet and sporting events.

OFF THE GRID
Punta Grande Hotel, Spain

There are hotels by the ocean, but there are not too many hotels in the ocean. Punta Grande Hotel, in El Hierro in the Canary Islands, is one of the rare latter varieties. The accommodation, which currently holds the record for smallest hotel in the world, literally sits atop a lava rock that extends into the sea. If you choose to secure one of only four rooms, each one facing the ocean and nautically inspired, be prepared for a truly off-the-grid experience.
hotelpuntagrande.com/rooms

TREEHOUSE
Cabane 7eme ciel, France

If you’re aching to be at one with nature but are too fancy for camping, then this treehouse getaway is exactly what you need. Located in the historic region of Aquitaine, Cabane 7ème Ciel sits seven metres above the ground and is an evergreen destination for two. Plus, the tree trunk goes right through the room for genuine treehouse vibes. Couple that with the stunning views of the Gave d’Oloron and you’ve got yourself a pretty relaxing time.
abracadaroom.com

COASTAL DIGS
Dexamenes Seaside Hotel, Greece

What do you do with an abandoned wine factory located on a prime stretch of untouched coastline on the Greek mainland? Turn it into a super luxe hotel, obviously! And that’s exactly what acclaimed architecture firm K-Studio has done, transforming the dilapidated 1920s property into Dexamenes Seaside Hotel. Old wine tanks have been converted into 34 boutique guestrooms, while adjacent buildings have been renovated into a taverna, history room, bar-lounge and bakaliko (meeting point) where local crafts and produce are sold. Design wise, it’s all muted tones, clean lines and plenty of timber, glass and steel finishes – think a Greek take on the minimalism aesthetic. With the Ionian Sea just a stone’s throw away, this is barefoot luxury at its best.
designhotels.com

HOTEL POOL
Monte-Carlo Beach, France

You can almost imagine the Hollywood starlets reclined on chaises longues at this classy boutique hotel that sits atop a rocky outcrop on the border with Monaco. Built in the 1920s and reimagined for modern luxury travellers in 2009, this 40-suite bolthole is the place to be in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. And while we can all appreciate that the best way to arrive is on a yacht – there’s a private dock, of course – the only place you’ll want to be once you set foot on dry land is by the pool. Its expansive dimensions coupled with its proximity to the shimmering Mediterranean Sea – oh, and the old-school high-dive platform, ample loungers and poolside bar – offer up charm and ambiance relaxante in spades. Monte-Carlo Beach and its pool are open to guests from March to October.
relaischateaux.com

LIGHTHOUSE
Viirelaid, Estonia

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live near a lighthouse, here’s your chance. Across the sea, on the Islet of Viirelaid, both the lighthouse keeper’s house and the lighthouse complex offer accommodation for the nautically inclined traveller. With every window looking out to the sea, the keeper’s house comes with seven bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, separate fireplace room, and wood-fired sauna and hot tub. The complex is more suited for company events or private parties, with a whopping 50 beds.
viirelaid.ee

ANCIENT CITY
Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Get this: the first evidence of habitation of what is now Bulgaria’s second-largest city has been dated back to the sixth millennium BCE during the Neolithic era. Then it was a Thracian settlement and ever since has been home to a mess of invaders, from Goths to Turks. These days in Plovdiv it’s possible to explore a Roman amphitheatre – built by Emperor Hadrian when the city was called Philippopolis, and only excavated in the 1970s – and the atmospheric Old Town with beautifully painted wooden buildings and cobbled laneways.

PARTY
Sparty, Hungary

What do you get when you combine an ancient bathing culture with free-flowing booze, laser lights, cracking DJs and hundreds of people in various states of undress? Only the biggest SPArty in Europe! It’s wet, it’s wild and it’s a rite of passage if you’re ever passing through Budapest on a Saturday. Held in the historic Széchenyi Baths, which is the largest medicinal bath complex in Europe, the weekly parties kick off at 10.30pm and rage long into the night. There are two thermal pools to swim between – you better believe the temperature of both is cranked up to hot and steamy – set against the epic backdrop of an ornate Baroque Revival palace. It makes for a pretty incredible sight, although you’ll probably be too busy knocking back novelty-sized cocktails and splashing water in your mate’s face to notice.
spartybooking.com

MUSIC FESTIVAL
Waking Life, Poland

If Burning Man were underground – hard to imagine, we know – and had a Portuguese accent, it would be this summer arts and music festival set on the edge of a lake in the cultural region of Alentejo. Stretching over five days, Waking Life features a chorus of sound from people, instruments and machines, and provides an intimate and immersive experience for its goers. The lineup is meticulously curated to showcase fresh talent, while the artwork is meant to stimulate and provoke interaction. Did we mention it’s alongside a beautiful lake?
wakinglife.pt

SLEEP OUT
Levin Iglut, Finland

Say hello to the one place where glass ceilings are welcome. The clear domes of the Levin Iglut igloos offer a panoramic view of the Arctic sky and pristine snowy fells of Lapland. If you’re worried about the cold, there’s no need. Aside from heated glass walls, the igloos also boast in-floor heating and luxuriously dressed beds complete with down covers and fur throw. Absolutely perfect for a cosy night in under the stars. Tip: it’s worth spending the extra for a Prime Superior igloo for a front-row view of the stars and snow.
leviniglut.net

TRAIN
Glacier Express, Switzerland

Wind from Zermatt through three stunning alpine cantons to St Moritz on what is possibly Switzerland’s most famous rail ride. Not that express means you’ll be going fast. The 291-kilometre journey takes eight hours, with the express part relating to the fact this train doesn’t stop at any of the local stations. From your comfy seat with panorama windows you’ll see the Matterhorn, cross the highest point of the Oberalp Pass at 2033 metres, traverse 291 bridges and pass through 91 tunnels. It’s such an eye-popping ride you’ll probably want to do it twice – once in the winter when the snow is at its peak, then again in spring when you get the perfect combo of green valleys and snowy mountaintops. Earlier this year, the Excellence Class launched and it certainly ups the ante, with guaranteed window seats, five-course meal, an exclusive bar and a concierge who can fill you in on all aspects of the journey as you roll along. Pro tip: if you’re travelling from Zermatt to St Moritz try to snag a seat on the left-hand side of the train.
glacierexpress.ch

DIVING
Blue Hole, Malta

Carved over the centuries by the forces of wind and water, the Blue Hole on the island of San Lawrenz is part of a limestone rock formation that makes for a spectacular entry and exit point for divers. Colourful coral, tubeworms, sponges and marine life cover the walls of the 15-metre hole, plus there’s a large cave and archway to explore. With diving here available year-round, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the islands’ most popular and stunning dives. Tip: it’s common for the Blue Hole to be busy in the afternoon, since divers will come here as the wind picks up and makes other dive sites around the islands less accessible.

HIKE
Ladder of Kotor, Montenegro

Not so much a ladder as a whole lot of stony steps, this hike isn’t the longest you’ll ever do but it is one steep mofo, rising 940 metres from Kotor’s Old Town along the old city walls and up to the Krstac Pass. For centuries, it was the only connecting road between Kotor and Cetinje, the former Royal Capital of Montenegro. As you’re traipsing up the 70-plus switchbacks, just imagine what it would be like if you and your donkey were carrying bounty for the king – Petar II Pertrovic-Njegos, the prince bishop, once ordered a billiard table be bought over the pass – as well as your bottle of water. The hard work is worth it for the spectacular views of the Bay of Kotor and the mountainous landscape surrounding you.

MUSEUM
Museum of Broken Relationships, Croatia

You may think nothing good can come from a break-up, but this quirky space, located in Zagreb, celebrates the art of hearts rent asunder and romantic dreams dashed. Fun fact: when their four-year relationship broke down, artists Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic joked they should put the possessions left over after their split into a museum. Now, this crowd-sourced collection has been recognised as one of the most innovative museums in Europe. Probably not the place for a first date, though.
brokenships.com

PHYSICAL
Canyoning, Austria

Look, we admit it’s probably going to get a little chilly, but for adrenaline junkies and lovers of extreme water sports, leaping into rapids, abseiling down waterfalls and slip-sliding down gullies should shove any thoughts of the cold to the back of their minds. Area 47 offers the chance to get wet in the Ötzal Valley, which runs through Tyrol. With tours ranging from beginners to expert level, there’s a full day of peak excitement waiting for everyone.
area47.at

LANDSCAPE
Faroe Islands, Denmark

Fast catching up to Iceland as one of Europe’s most Instagrammable locations, just one glimpse of the Faroe Islands is all it takes to understand why. Wild, untouched and insanely beautiful, this rugged cluster of 18 volcanic islands has an otherworldly feel about it, and a magic you don’t just find anywhere in the world. Located somewhere between Norway and Iceland, in the North Atlantic Ocean, its total isolation adds to the drama of the scenery, which is all craggy cliffs, green valleys, snow-capped mountains and deep fjords, with a smattering of shaggy sheep (fun fact: there are more sheep than people here). Even the small towns and villages, made up of colourful buildings and grass-roofed cottages, are ridiculously photogenic. We could go on, but it’s one of those places you just have to see for yourself.

COUNTRY
Slovenia

What if someone told you there was a secret European country with a classic medieval capital, a mini Venice without the crowds and 2017’s World’s Best Female Chef (trust us, she’s only gotten better since then)? Oh, and it also has one of the longest cave systems in Europe, world-class wineries and as many adrenaline thrills as you can chase.

Do all that and you’ll still only have scratched the surface. And it’s all within just a couple of hours’ drive. Capital Ljubljana is a tale of two cities separated by the winding Ljubljanica River. Cafes line its banks with spritzes lighting up like beacons in the afternoon sun as the young Ljubljana population jostles for the best seats. Stroll the cobblestone lanes past buskers and artists and find a seat in one of the many quaint restaurants for a Slovenian seafood feast. There’s a handy underground craft beer scene, too. Get along to Lajbah for a selection of the country’s best and some local live music. It’s very cool.

Now head south and in about 45 minutes you’ll arrive at Postojna Cave Park, a 24,000-metre-long karst system with a rickety train dating back to the mid 1800s that transports visitors deep into the darkness. Keep an eye out for the five-metre-high bright white stalagmite called Brilliant. It grows at less than 10 centimetres every thousand years, so we’ll let you do the numbers. Also find the eyeless baby dragons that live deep in the bowels of the cave. Yes, we did say baby dragons.

The same distance south again will see you arriving in Piran. Part of the Slovenian Riviera and sitting on a peninsula that juts into the Adriatic Sea, it was ‘owned’ by Venice in the 15th century and shares certain architectural characteristics. It has its own charms though, not least of which is the lack of crowds. Starting at Tartini Square, stroll through the maze of Venetian-style buildings housing shops, bars and cafes. Be sure to catch a sunset from an outdoor table at Cafinho – it has the best music selection in town.

Speaking of the best, in 2017 a former diplomacy student was awarded the world’s best female chef on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Located in the stunning Soča Valley – itself surrounded by the snow-capped Julian Alps – chef Ana Ros’s Hiša Franko is a gastronomic experience like no other. With dinner consisting of 23 courses and a matching wine option – her specialty is tortellini, but not as you know it – make sure you have a designated driver. Even more so if you decide to stop in the Goriška Brda region on the drive in. It pays to spend a night in what is the Slovenian equivalent of Tuscany, since the wine on offer is world class.

The lush Soča Valley offers a lot more than simply food and wine. Go white-water rafting on the ridiculously emerald green Soča River, zipline across 250-metre-high gorges, mountain bike, skydive, kayak, ski, snowboard… If you base yourself in Bovec, you can pick a different adrenaline thrill each day. You’ll probably want to finish up with a crafty at the Thirsty River Brewery as the sun sets.

Slovenia’s size allows for a full tour of the country to be accomplished in under a week, but that would hardly be cool. Take your time and discover your own secrets in the coolest of the cool European destinations. Oh, did we mention Žalec’s beer fountain?

MARKET
Markthal, Netherlands

If you’re anything like us, a trip to the local produce market is always high on our just-got-here-need-to-eat agenda. Sometimes, however, the unusual aromas and slippery floors of death can put a damper on our hunger. Not Rotterdam’s high-end offering, designed by local architects MVRDV and combining food hall, art space and apartment building. It’s the first of its kind in the world, and features a mural of market produce created by Arno Coene and Iris Roskam that’s been printed on aluminium panels and set into a huge internal arch. When you’re done ogling the roof, there are more than a hundred fresh food stands, as well as restaurants, food shops and a massive supermarket.

BEER
Oude Markt, Belgium

Beer, glorious beer – if that’s a mantra of yours, do we have a treat for you. Any good beer aficionado knows that Belgium, and in particular the town of Leuven, is an important location on the ale trail as it’s home to the world’s biggest brand-name brewery, AB InBev. But Leuven also lays claim to having what’s widely considered the longest bar in Europe: Oude Markt. This lively city square comprises 40 bars, with every single building on the pedestrian-only thoroughfare (apart from two pharmacies) serving froffies. Outdoor terraces blend into one another, and patrons – beers in hand – spill out onto the central walkway in what can only be described as one enormous street party. Steer clear of the obvious tourist bars and head to De Kroeg, which claims to be the square’s oldest cafe, or Café Belge and its impressive selection of beers. Proost!

SNACKS
Bear sausage, Slovenia

A hunter in Canada once told us that bears who’ve been stealing local winegrowers’ grapes taste the best. You might have to take his word for it, even in Slovenia where limited numbers of these lumbering beasts are hunted in forests where their numbers have become unsustainable. The best spot to find yourself some bear sausage is direct from the maker at places like Ljubljana’s Central Market. We suspect it doesn’t taste like chicken.

RESTAURANT
Alchemist, Denmark

To even begin to get your head around the concept that is Copenhagen’s most ambitious dining venture, Alchemist, it’s worth looking at the mind-boggling stats: four kitchens, 10,000 bottles in the cellar, 40 seats, 30 chefs, 20 waiters, two sensory experience rooms, 50 courses and one insanely talented 27-year-old head chef, Rasmus Munk. After closing in 2017, Alchemist was due to reopen at press time with a renewed appetite for challenging the limits of a meal. Using a concept called Holistic Cuisine – incorporating ethical and social issues with art, theatre, science and technology (a former signature dish, pictured right, of lamb heart tartare with cherry sauce encouraged diners to become organ donors) – Munk and his army of chefs meticulously create boundary-pushing dishes that stimulate the senses. So how do you finish a five-hour feasting extravaganza? With a traditional Chinese tea ceremony.
restaurant-alchemist.dk

DINNER AND A SHOW
Bar Jeder Vernunft, Germany

Although completely unassuming on the outside, within Berlin’s Bar Jeder Vernunft a glittering festival awaits. Stellar comedy acts and musical performances are staged within a tent festooned by a glitzy sea of mirrors and decorated with red velvet curtains, strings of lights and candlelit tables. Before the show starts, check out the seasonal menu on offer, or book a three-course meal in advance, with the starter and main course served prior to the show, and dessert in the intermission.
bar-jeder-venunft.de

SPECTATOR SPORT
Chessboxing, United Kingdom

Really, it does what it says on the tin. This is a combination of brains versus brawn, mentality versus muscle. In venues across London, hard men get in the ring to move their pieces then slug it out in three-minute rounds. The win comes from either a checkmate or a KO. The next big bout, Oktoberfist, takes place on 5 October, but if you’re keen to give it a go classes are held in Islington on Saturday mornings.
londonchessboxing.com

UNDER THE RADAR
Ghent, Belgium

Competing with the fairytale charm of Bruges, cobbled lanes of Antwerp and all-mighty lure of Brussels, it’s no wonder the medieval city of Ghent has managed to keep a low profile. Currently considered one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets, we have a sneaking suspicion this port town is about to start popping up on must-visit lists everywhere. A wealth of classical architecture is on display in the streets, and as one of Belgium’s oldest cities it’s home to more listed buildings than anywhere else in the country. Don’t miss the chance to feel as though you’ve been teleported back to the Middle Ages with a visit to Gravensteen Castle, while St Bavo’s Cathedral is a stunning example of Gothic design (it’s also home to The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – the most stolen artwork of all time). Speaking of, some of Belgium’s best art collections are housed in Ghent. Get a closer look at them at MSK, the Museum of Fine Arts, STAM, the City Museum and S.M.A.K., the Museum for Contemporary Art. And with the largest student population in the Flanders region, you know there’s going to be some cracking places to eat, drink and let loose. Grab a drink in one of the many bars in the trendy district of Patershol, catch a gig at Vooruit and tuck into a steaming bowl of waterzooi (chicken soup) with a side of French fries and mayo. This is Belgium, after all.

WELLNESS
Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

You’ve probably heard a lot about the benefits of salt lamps and salt therapy rooms, which are said to cure a myriad of allergies, respiratory difficulties and skin conditions. So it should come as no surprise to learn there’s a wellness centre located 135 metres below the ground at one of Poland’s oldest working salt mines. The air in Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is a maze-like subterranean labyrinth of passageways and chambers, is completely pollution-free and rich in micronutrients – the ideal conditions for a successful health resort. Whether you’re visiting for the day or staying overnight, treatments include medical tests, massages, cardio training, aerobics classes and breathing exercises. Look, it may not be considered a traditional pamper sesh (there’s certainly no mani-pedi combos on offer), but we’re certainly not going to complain about a new-and-improved immune system.
health-resort.wieliczka-saltmine.com

ARCHITECTURE
V&A Dundee, Scotland

There must have been a time when the good citizens of Dundee thought their new museum might never happen. Originally slated for 2014, the doors finally swung open in September 2018. But they say good things come to those who wait and Scotland’s first museum dedicated to design is jam packed with inspiring exhibits. Even if you don’t wander inside, architect Kengo Kuma’s jaunty, angled creation that cantilevers, in part, over the River Tay is one worth casting an eye upon. For his first commission in the UK, Kuma looked to nature and Scotland’s rugged northeastern coastal cliffs for his vision. The curving concrete walls of the museum are made from 2500 pre-cast rough stone panels each weighing up to 3000 kilograms. As an added bonus, history buffs will love that Discovery, the ship used by Scott and Shackleton on their Antarctic expeditions, is moored outside.
vam.ac.uk/dundee

CITY
Bucharest, Romania

File Bucharest under Europe’s most surprising city, because this is one destination that doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. Romania’s capital, long thought of as nothing more than a stopover on the way to Transylvania, is finally coming into its own with a lively nightlife, interesting array of museums and galleries, plenty of green space and cheap beers. While the mark of Communism is still evident throughout the city – the menacing Palace of Parliament (the heaviest building in the world, and the second largest administrative structure behind the Pentagon) is the most extreme example – there’s also a beautifully mismatched collection of Orthodox churches, Byzantine apartment blocks and Art Nouveau manors well worth ogling. Trendy cafes, one of the prettiest bookstores this side of Paris in Carturesti Carusel, and a noticeable lack of tourists, long lines or crowded attractions only further validate Bucharest’s newly minted cool status.

ISLAND RESORT
Island Lodge, Sweden

When you picture an island resort, your first thought probably isn’t of a collection of luxury tents tucked away on a forested private island in the Stockholm archipelago. Admit it – you went tropical island vibes, didn’t you? Island Lodge is a 40-minute boat ride from the Swedish capital, and it’s just as indulgent as any five-star beachside resort. There are seven dome-shaped tents, each with a wooden deck. The interiors resemble the set of a magazine shoot and showcase the latest in Scandinavian design – we’re talking plush linen, reindeer skins and wood-fire stoves. Meals are prepared using seasonal, local and organic produce, and served up at a sea-front dining setting. Massages can be arranged, and there’s also a hot tub, floating sauna and wine cellar. Who needs palm trees and fruity cocktails when you’ve got this sort of cosy comfort?
islandlodge.se

ISLAND
St Agnes, United Kingdom

Glittering turquoise waters, secluded sandy coves, sunny days and warm nights – all this and more natural splendour is just a 20-minute flight from England’s Cornish Coast. Yes, you read that right. This is the UK. So what is this secret paradise the Brits have been keeping from us? St Agnes, a tiny landmass in the Isles of Scilly. Measuring less than two kilometres in width, it’s the most southwesterly island in the archipelago and consists of a community of 72 people, a few cute cottages, bird sanctuary, pub and an ice-creamery – you know, all the remote island essentials. You can camp (or glamp) at Troytown Farm, and days become surprisingly busy as you squeeze in kayaking, swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, walking and birdwatching. Don’t forget to have a meal at the Turk’s Head pub either – the views from the beer garden are the best on the island.

CHURCH
Sedlec Ossuary, Czechia

From the outside it looks like your run-of-the-mill place of worship, but step inside and you might find yourself questioning whether you’ve stumbled upon the lair of a prolific serial killer. Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the Church of Bones, is a small chapel in Kutná Hora decorated entirely with human bones. Thankfully, they aren’t the remains of murder victims, and have instead come from the tens of thousands of people buried in nearby Sedlec Cemetery. In 1870 a local woodcarver began working his dark magic on the bones, creating macabre highlights like a fetching 2.5-metre bone chandelier, an insanely detailed family crest, bone candelabras, skull candleholders and crosses crafted from hip and femur bones. Creepy? You bet. Cool? Abso-bloody-lutely.
sedlecossuary.com

ANIMAL ENCOUNTER
Orcas, Norway

Norway may be home to polar bears, walrus, reindeer and moose, but there’s one particular creature that lures animal lovers like no other: whales. On a cruise with Majestic Whale Encounters it isn’t just any old cetacean you’ll be getting to know, though. During this nine-night tour you’ll not only be cruising fjords to spot humpbacks and other marine life, you’ll also be pulling on a wetsuit and actually diving into the ocean to swim and interact with orcas. Taking a dip with these inquisitive and highly intelligent animals is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s no need to worry about these gentle giants taking a cheeky chomp out of you. Norwegian orcas eat only herring.
majesticwhaleencounters.com.au

CASTLE
Pałac Warmątowice Sienkiewiczowskie, Poland

If you ingested a diet of Disney films as a child, chances are you probably dreamed of growing up, meeting your Prince (or Princess) Charming and living happily ever after in a castle. While we can’t do much about the royalty part, you might be interested to hear about Pałac Warmątowice Sienkiewiczowskie, a real-life castle you can stay in. It’s situated in the Legnica region of Poland and was originally built in 1602 as a fortified manor complete with epic moat. Almost destroyed in World War II, it has since been restored to its former glory and now accommodates up to 10 guests across five elaborately furnished guestrooms. If that’s not fairytale-esque enough for you, dense woodlands where deer, birds and small forest creatures reside surround the castle – how’s that for some Snow White vibes?
palac-warmatowice.pl

BEACH
Cala Biriola, Italy

Who said a landslide had to bring you down? In the case of this Sardinian gem, it was the start of something heavenly. Located near the town of Baunei, Cala Biriola was formed when the landscape fell away about half a century ago, leaving behind a semicircle of smooth white pebbles surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and turquoise water. At one end of the beach, there’s also a natural rock arch. The walk in is epic, but you can easily take a water taxi from one of the local villages. Do that early in the morning and you’ll practically have this picture-perfect scene to yourself. Oh, there are plenty of fish in this sea, so don’t forget your mask and snorkel.

Wine Tour Luxury On A Budget

Along with opportunities to taste some of the country’s most tantalising drops, you’ll nibble local delights and dine at hatted restaurants for much less than you might imagine. To top it all off, make a trip of it and stay at charming country cottages and even lavish five-star hotels for prices that leave plenty of cash in the wallet to visit exciting local attractions and truly kick up your heels.

Escape in WA

Heading to the magnificent state of Western Australia, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to wine regions. One great thing about WA is that you can find most of your favourite common wine varieties grown locally, along with your preferred wine-growing climate. From the warmth of the Swan Valley to the cool temps of Denmark, there’s something for everyone.

One wine region that must be on your hit list when you’re in WA is Perth’s closest and most historic. A mere 25 minutes from Perth’s CBD is Australia’s second oldest wine region, the Swan Valley. Established in 1829, this region has been making its mark on the local community for nearly 200 years, and has also been impressing our foreign friends for quite some time. It’s a region that is bursting with vibrant, handcrafted ‘old vine’ wines along with outstanding local produce. The Swan Valley isn’t spread out like many wine regions you see. You can jump from winery to winery within a few minutes. Throw in a brewery, a chocolate factory, perhaps a distillery and you have yourself the perfect day trip from Perth.

When visiting a wine region, many of us like to do it in style. Style can come in many different formats but, no matter what way it’s presented, you shouldn’t have to break the bank. That’s another thing that’s lovable about the Swan Valley – you can luxe it up on a budget. One way of having a more luxurious experience is by joining a wine tour run by Swan Valley experts. Think about it… You don’t have to plan a thing! Only what you’re going to wear and how you’re going to get to and from the pick-up point. Easy! Let someone else organise a day where you’ll taste premium wines, indulge in cheese and chocolate delights, and sit down for a gourmet lunch. How lavish is that?

Finding the right wine tour can be tricky. One that’s popular and well thought out is the d’Vine Swan Valley Tour by d’Vine Wine Tours. d’Vine Tours has been running premium and professional daily tours, as well as fully customised private and corporate tours, for almost seven years. Its tours are fun yet informative and give the perfect snapshot of the Swan Valley region.

This full-day tour includes six stops that are all unique and offer something to tantalise those taste buds. Once you are picked up by your host and whisked off to the Swan Valley, you’ll start the day with a premium wine tasting at a small boutique winery. The first wine tasting is always paired with sumptuous local cheeses (wine and cheese? Yes, please!). Following this, it’s on to another winery for more tastings and a delicious gourmet lunch with a glass of wine, beer or cider to savour. From there you’ll visit more cellar doors, a chocolate factory for decadent chocolate tastings, a micro-brewery for your choice of drink – whether that’s a craft beers, cider or local wine. Also, as a treat on weekdays, you are taken to a French patisserie that specialises in macarons – Perth’s best by the way. Here you can choose from 20 different macaron flavours and try to tell us they aren’t as good as the ones you had in France.

Finish the day by being dropped back to the pick-up location, feeling completely satiated while also having learned a lot about the Swan Valley region and the wine world. Everything from your transport and tastings to your lunch experience and drinks is included in the cost of $120 a person. Now, if that doesn’t sound like luxury on a budget then we don’t know what does.

If your style is to plan it yourself and perhaps spend a night or two in the beautiful wine region then we certainly have some tips for you. One of our favourite luxury places to stay is the Colony Hotel situated at Mandoon Estate. It is the only five-star winery accommodation in Perth – in fact, it’s the only five-star spot in the Swan Valley. It oozes comfort, style and top-class service. You have an award-winning winery at your disposal and let’s not forget that Wild Swan, one of WA’s few hatted restaurants, is situated on the property. You would think with all of this excellence you would be paying quite a lot to stay. Prices, however, start from as little as $169 a night (with inclusions) depending on your method of booking and what deals are on.

Seeing as though you’re staying in the Swan Valley and visiting wineries at your leisure, one vineyard we consider a must for a wine tasting is Faber Vineyard. Faber wines are considered among the best in the region. Its cellar door experience is intimate yet casual – order some delicious grazing platters and a bottle of wine to wash it down. On arrival you’ll be greeted with a friendly smile by one of the owners or winemakers. Cruise through an informative, sit-down wine tasting – there are no tasting fees – and choose a wine to take home if you like.

The style of the property itself is a cross between country Australia and rustic European – sitting out on their back veranda and sipping on the drink of the gods transports you to a Tuscan vineyard. A winery affair like this can feel increibly indulgent, however the gourmet platters at Faber Vineyard cost as little as $40 for two people, and wine starts at $23 a bottle.

The excellent news is that there are many more wineries like this in the Swan Valley.

Head to the Hunter Valley

Just soaking up the rolling vineyard views is enough to give you a sense of luxury in the Hunter Valley. Not only that, but with more cellar doors than any other wine region in the country, your options for tastings are outright lavish. All you need to do is book a Hunter Valley wine tour, sit back, relax and let local guides take you right to the sparkling highlights. Talk about a luxurious treat without the price tag.

You could easily spend weeks sipping and swirling your way through the greater Hunter region. However, the three main areas are Pokolbin, Lovedale and Rothbury. Vineyards like Tyrrell’s and Tulloch bring the history and the fame to gorgeous Pokolbin. It’s often the little things in life that deliver the most decadence, and you’ll find delicious bites at the Hunter Valley Cheese Company and the Pokolbin Chocolate and Jam Company shop.

It’s hard to drag yourself away from so much scrumptiousness, but the effort is worth it to visit the affordable Hunter Valley Gardens. The names alone – the Sunken Garden, the Italian Grotto, the Lakes Walk and more – give you a hint of the extravagant landscapes awaiting your meandering feet.

Lovedale, with its picturesque country scenery and boutique cellar doors, is just up the road from Pokolbin. Pretend you’re in Tuscany, without the cost of the flight, at Wandin Valley Estate  and check out the views of the Brokenback Range from Allandale. The 20-year-old vineyard at Capercaillie Wines offers an Instagram-worthy homestead, and Binnorie Dairy ensures you’ll tuck into as many soft cheeses as you can handle. Even more cellar doors greet you in the quaint town of Rothbury, along with Hope Estate Brewery and breathtaking mountain views around every scenic corner.

All three towns offer luxurious spa retreats, romantic boutique hotels, country cottages and sprawling homesteads for overnight and longer stays. While the top hotels can be pricey, it’s easy to find countryside charm and elegance on Airbnb. To save your cash for guided wine tours, it’s often more affordable to stay on the outskirts of the main tourist towns. Don’t worry about transport, as Tastes of the Hunter Wine Tours offer door-to-door service to the surrounding towns.

If colonial history sounds grand to you, stay in Cessnock. When you’re not sipping, pop into the Marthaville Arts and Cultural Centre and the Regional Art Gallery. A base in the gorgeous village of Broke lets you indulge in cosy cafes and plenty of local olives. For a riverside escape, gather some friends and book a country cottage in Singleton, or unleash your inner artist with a stay in quirky Maitland.

Choosing a luxury base on the outskirts, without that touristy price tag, doesn’t mean missing out on anything. In fact, if you want to sample a little bit of everything, you’ll get the tastiest highlights on a Hunter Valley Wine and Beer Tour from just $79. For this price, settle in for the luxury of door-to-door service, an air-conditioned minibus, a local guide and driver, bottled water and all your bookings sorted for you. It’s your choice as to how much you spend on tasting fees and yummy lunch feasts.

You’ll visit a mix of established and boutique vineyards and taste up to eight wines at each, so get set to discover your new favourite reds, whites and blends. Switch things up with local craft beers, ciders and liqueurs that pack a serious punch for the taste buds. Speaking of which, mouthwatering cheeses and lunch at popular local restaurants help to soak up all that liquid in the most delightful way possible.

If you haven’t stopped reading yet to go and pack your bag perhaps you should. Whether you decide to visit the stunning Swan Valley or head for the undulating hills of the Hunter, a gourmet experience is a given. The best thing is it’s easy to stretch your budget to fulfill your desires, with something for everyone to splash out on. From innovative craft beer to award-winning wine labels, a little luxury in two of Australia’s most dazzling wine regions is a dream come true, without the nightmarish price tag.

Crack open that bubbly, because there’s plenty to celebrate while you’re planning a gourmet wine tour on a budget.

Top 5 Overland Rallies

Put your foot to the floor
Southern Africa

SUV, RV, scooter, 1970s Volkswagen Beetle – anything goes during the annual Put Foot Rally. And entrants can expect the same loosey-goosey approach when it comes to almost every element of the race, which the coordinators declare is definitely “not a race”. A lack of organisation, resources and a general mentality of insouciance is held in high regard on this “roughly, sort of, in the region of 8000-kilometre” rally, and responsibility for organising the route, accommodation, food and insurance rests with you. Meander through six southern African nations – South Africa (Cape Town is the starting point), Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique – stopping at six different checkpoints for six different parties in 19 days.
putfootrally.com

Rove on rickshaws
India

You’re standing at the start line of the Rickshaw Run, 3,500 kilometres of India stretching out before you and all you have to traverse it is a three-wheeled, seven-horsepower rickshaw that is really just a glorified lawn mower. At least your trusty steed looks fly: participants design their pimped-out ride from the comfort of their own home, arriving on the subcontinent to be greeted by a freshly painted set of wheels. You’ll race with two pals for two weeks, crossing paths with other like-minded (read: non compos mentis) travellers, as you putter, slowly, across the country. Between Cochin, in India’s tropical southern state of Kerala, and Jaisalmer, a city almost encroached by desert in the northern state of Rajasthan, riders can choose their own adventure by following the ‘unroute’, i.e. making it up entirely as they go.
theadventurists.com

 

Time warp
Italy

Unlike the infamous Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles) endurance race that was banned in the 1950s following a particularly devastating crash, the annual amateur re-enactment – with the same name – doesn’t slap down a thrill a minute. What it does boast, however, is one of the most beautiful rally routes in the world, traversing a course of cobbled streets, Tuscan hills and lofty mountain passes. The event draws thousands of spectators each year, all of whom share a love of classic cars: only models that participated in the original races – held between 1927 and 1957 – are welcome to enter. Even so, more than 400 teams cruise in with their vintage rides from all corners of the globe. While the route varies slightly each year, these ancient engines always rev to life during May in Brescia, at the foothills of the Alps, where motor races have been held for more than a hundred years. If you don’t happen to own a 1951 Jaguar XK120 or a 1927 Bugatti T40, make for one of the checkpoints and watch these charming beauties roll by.
1000miglia.it

Outback assembly
Australia

Negotiate narrow dirt roads, career around snowy alpine passes and wobble over water crossings in deep rainforest – all from the seat of a diminutive 105cc Honda motorcycle. Alongside 50 other mavericks who have a taste for the open road you’ll tackle 3,500 kilometres of sand, gravel and dust on the Postie Bike Challenge, although mercifully you’ll also have a full support team behind you if (and when) things get a little hairy. After each day spent with wind whipping your face and Australia’s rugged landscapes sailing by, you’ll pitch a tent in rodeo grounds before recounting the events of the past 24 hours with your new pals over a catered dinner. This 10-day outback odyssey traces a different route every year, and has raised more than AU$1 million for charity since its inception in 2002. Rustle up the AU$5,650 entry fee and experience a two-wheeled endurance event like no other.
postiebikechallenge.org

Ice rider
Russia

Quite possibly the most extreme adventure since Shackleton’s polar expeditions, the Ice Run sees motorbike riders careening across a frozen landscape in the depths of Russia’s winter. Form your own team of two and hop aboard a Ural motorcycle to traverse the world’s largest, deepest and oldest lake – a body of water so vast that it’s often mistaken for a sea – in temperatures that can reach –27°C. Three days of training preps bikers for the Siberian slogathon. Sharp gusts of 20 different winds can abruptly materialise, threatening to freeze your face; snow is pockmarked with patches of polished ice, creating a veritable skating rink; and the barren landscape, almost entirely devoid of landmarks, means riders have almost no sense of perspective. Come the big ride, the frosty beauty of Lake Baikal will take your breath away – if the freezing temperatures haven’t already – while the camaraderie will warm your heart, even if every other part of your body is frozen. The entry fee is AU$6,250 per duo, which gets you a bike and all your training. Competitors are also encouraged to raise at least AU$850 for the charity Cool Earth.
theadventourists.com