Saturday, July 30, 2011

Photo of the Week: Little Piece of Paradise (Bay)? - Antarctica

The brooding mist hides all but the very peak of this small mountain in Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. Antarctica is an unparalleled continent, a dramatic mixture of grandeur, size, wonder, hostility and utter emptiness. Not something that any other place could be described as.

The fair breeze blew,
The white foam flew,
And the forrow followed free.
We were the first to ever burst into the silent sea.

- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Best Wine Regions in France

guest post by Sea France

It would be extremely difficult not to experience some of the local wine while holidaying in France, and lets face it, you probably wouldn’t want to. With some of the most delicious wines produced anywhere in the world, tasting wines is one of the best things about holidaying in France.

Holidaying in the different wine making regions of France has never been easier due to the many options for getting there. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to make the trip is by ferry and with many ferry to France deals appearing every day you can really make the trip at very little expense leaving more funds available to spend on wine!


The vineyard area in Champagne has around 14,000 growers and 300 villages spread across three main growing areas. The majority of the growers here sell to the Champagne houses or co-operatives which are then blended into the famous brands or the supermarket labels we all know.

Of course this area is a great place to experience some of the world’s best champagnes, so if you like your fizz this may well be the place for you.


Bordeaux is synonymous with fine wine but often demand can outstrip what is produced by the wine growers, meaning the top chateaux often charge very high prices for their wines. However, if you take a little time and look around you can often get very good Bordeaux while spending time in France. Make the trip to the outskirts of the region to visit the smaller grape growers and you’ll be sure to get yourself a great deal.

The Loire Valley

As this is one of the biggest wine producing regions in France, you’ll be safe in the knowledge that the wine will be delicious. Not only is the wine a real draw for visitors here, the scenery will provide stunning backdrops to the drink and the fine French food which accompanies it.

The region stretches from the coast near Nantes where you can experience Muscadet wine, through to Saumur, Anjou and Vouvrav where the wines of Cabernet Franc and Gamay reds can be enjoyed. If Sauvignon Blancs are you favourite then make sure you make the trip to Touraine.


The Burgundy region, located in central eastern France, is famous all around the world for its Chardonnay whites and Pinot Noir reds. In the same area though typically separately promoted are the Gamay red Beaujolais and chardonnay-based Chablis sub-region wines. Burgundy produces many different tasting wines despite the fact they are from the same grape. This is down to the different wine making practices of the individual growers and other factors such as the difference in climate, soil and drainage in the different areas.

The area stretches in a long narrow strip from Dijon in the north to Lyons in the south with a history that runs many centuries.

Photo Credits: bottles, grapevines, old bottles, tasting

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Magic Carpet Ride Through Agadez (Niger)

Only with travel for days through the Sahara Desert are the dusty streets of Agadez a welcome sight. Belying its history as a grand city on the Saharan trade route, the dust and unrelenting heat grants no relief from the Sahara but the adobe architecture gives Agadez an almost fanciful Arabian feel as if Aladdin and his magic lamp could be wandering the streets.

The stifling conditions (well over 110 degrees) and flurries of dust slow Agadez into a dawdling city. People walk patiently along the sandy ramshackle maze of streets and past centuries-old adobe houses (some decorated with beautiful fascias) while others lean on mud walls in disinterested conversation. Only the children appear to the energy to defeat the heat with simple but competitive games on the wider streets, their smiles seemingly radiating even more heat. Their earnest pleas of donnez-moi un cadeau are easily ignored before they quickly resume their entertaining activities.

Like a porcupine standing tall on its hind legs, the highlight of Agadez is the 500 year old adobe Grand Mosque. Large wooden poles protruding from all sides provide the spine for the magnificent minaret giving an appearance of a spiky tree. Standing proud and central among the low-set maze of adobe buildings, the minaret is clearly visible from far around, highlighting the Islamic heart of Agadez.

Reputedly, the minaret is the tallest mud building in the world. Several times a day, a steady, unhurried bustle of folks quietly leave the homes or market stalls and proceed to prayer. Mind you, the wonderful minaret is less welcome at dawn as the harmonious chanting of the muezzin and the call to prayer echo through the narrow streets awakening everyone for miles around. Outside of prayer a small fee to a minder allows interested visitors to stroll the narrow dingy staircase barefooted to the top of the minaret for a view over the labyrinthine lanes of the Old Quarter (Vieux Quartier) and the shimmering beauty of the Sahara Desert.

Unkempt corrugated sheds mark the two main markets selling the usual array of food (mainly trucked in from the fertile south and nearer oasis villages) and other goods. The colourful outfits and people are far more interesting than the goods for sale.

Featuring an arid, dusty paddock full of camels, goats and sheep baking in the harsh desert sun, the Camel Market has provided centuries of trade for the nomadic Tuareg people. Oblivious to the stench, all the animals appear to mill around together though the owner will miraculously materialise from the relative cool of a shaded tree as soon as any of his brood are approached. Occasional deals take place after quiet, almost surreptitious negotiation, a handshake and tiny rolls of weathered banknotes are passed.

A strong case for conversion to vegetarianism is the butcher’s area. Goats (and probably other animals) are butchered in surprising numbers, razor-sharp knives skilfully carving cuts of meat on rickety tables with occasionally specks staining the protective robes. No part of the animal is wasted though there is little in the way of sales activity and a complete absence of refrigeration (which begs the question – where does all this meat end up?). The smell permeates the entire area, whole carcasses hanging from posts throughout the area.

A familiar symbol around the necks of many inhabitants is the famed Agadez Cross (croix d’Agadez). Each Tuareg town has its own unique cross still made in the same ancient manner by family silversmiths. A wax model of the desired design is artfully carved before encasing it in a clay mould. The clay is baked in ovens, the wax slowly melted and dripped out through weep holes to leave the final mould. Molten silver is poured into resultant clay mould, cooled with the clay broken away to produce the final silver Agadez Cross. Further carving, scraping and polishing leaves the final beautiful jewellery piece.

While the process is fascinating and the artisan’s skills undoubted, the sales pressure is intense, making Moroccan carpet shop keepers appear shy and retiring in contrast!

Niger is one of the ten poorest countries on Earth with many palpable signs of poverty. It rarely features on a travel itinerary. However Agadez is a remarkable town with superb mud architecture, a photogenic mosque, a lively market and a cultural melting pot where Arabic Africa meets dark Africa. Jump on a magic carpet and enjoy a memorable experience in the grand Saharan city of Agadez.

Photo Credits: Street life, panorama

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Photo of the Week: Colourful Lion Guard (Kathmandu, Nepal)

In a scanned photo from a trip some years ago, I love the colours of this mythical lion guarding one of the numerous temples in Durbar Square in the heart of Kathmandu. Durbar Square is a full assault on the senses - saffron-robed Sadu priests, a living goddess, occasional monkeys and people all in a square awash with historic pagoda-style Hindu temples, some with quite startling erotic carvings.

Extremely well dressed students battle with hawkers selling all kinds of accoutrements and paraphernalia, men coaxing tunes from enchanting singing bowls and pious older folks trying to simply pray in the Kathmandu mayhem. Somewhat voyeuristic, I'd suggest finding a cafe a few floors up and enjoy a cup of steaming masala tea and some quiet contemplative moments and watch the fascinating scenes of Kathmandu life unfold before you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Splendours of Makadi Bay (Egypt)

guest post by Red Sea Holidays

Egypt is home to many ancient splendours and modern attractions, making the country a favourite Middle Eastern holiday destinations. And why not? Situated between the Mediterranean Basin and the Red Sea, Egypt has a great range of tempting locations in which to stay for a short break or for a long holiday – the choice is up to you. And if Egypt’s the destination, make Makadi Bay, on the eastern coast, the travel base.

One of the new resorts springing up along the Red Sea, Makadi Bay is an experience in Egyptian luxury and hospitality that shouldn’t be missed. Based around leisure, shopping, and activities, Makadi Bay is the perfect destination for those seeking escapism, pampering, relaxation and something a little different. The resort is home to bars, restaurants, shops, bazaars, and the latest in relaxation facilities; there are also amazing beaches and stunning views of the arid land between the Nile and the Red Sea. Just south of Hurghada, the capital of the Red Sea governorate and site of the closest international airport, the resort is incredibly easy to reach. If none of that sounds ideal enough already, the resort acts as a fantastic base for trips to other places of interest in Egypt and out in the Red Sea.

Due to the nature of the resort, the quality of accommodation is really high; you can book with complete ease of mind that, whatever your budget, your stay will be comfortable and of a superb standard. Egyptian service is beyond compare, as all visitors are welcomed here and every need is catered for. Looking for adventure and activity? The water sports are incomparable: the Red Sea is one of the most fascinating dive sites in the world, and Makadi Bay is perfect for beginner and professional alike. Swimming, horse riding, tennis, indoor climbing, whatever particular thrill you’re seeking, Makadi Bay offers it. As well as entertainment on tap, the resort has some of the best spa and relaxation facilities in the area. For those needing pampering, the massages, spas, indoor pools and health gyms will provide the relief necessary for a true holiday.

The bars, restaurants and shops located with the resort-town are definitely recommended. A world of cuisines is available, with a restaurant to suit every taste and enough places to experience a different flavour every day for at least a month. Don’t miss the local restaurants offering authentic Middle Eastern fare. The shops are individualistic and fascinating, enough to tempt even the most retail-resistant partner into browsing for hours. Finding a souvenir was never so easy. And at night, the bars and clubs come to life: the nightlife is vibrant and fun, so expect to make new friends and enjoy new experiences during a stay in Makadi Bay.

However long the visit, whatever your budget, and whatever personal taste, there is something here for everyone. Makadi Bay is considered part of the Red Sea Riviera for a reason: visit and experience the comfort and the exquisite beauty on offer in style.

Photo Credits: sunrise, resort, fish, bar

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Medieval Pilgrimmage (Rocamadour, France)

Over the centuries, pilgrims crawled up the 216 stairs on their knees to view and pray for a buried saint and a remarkable statue in this cliff-bound travel wonder. Today, bus-loads of “camera pilgrims” crowd the small hamlet of Rocamadour, shop enthusiastically at the throng of market stalls and take a private lift to even avoid expending energy walking.

From the nearby vantage points, Rocamadour is an awe-inspiring sight, perched precariously on a 150-metre cliff face of grey rock over four distinct levels. On the highest level called L’Hospitalet lies a château which offer a vista over the muddled complex of old houses, church spires, chapels, towers and staircases all threaded together via a single lane ancient street which curls through the levels of the township in a series of switchbacks. The middle layers contain a network of seven religious buildings including the Shrine of Notre Dame.

Avoid the peak hours favoured by bus tour groups and this tiny village (population is only 600) develops a pious charm. Occasional devout pilgrims (wearing knee-pads) still crawl the Giant Escalier praying at the Stations of the Cross before reaching the chapel complex. Walking slowly up the narrow main artery of Rocamadour to savour the effort and feelings of centuries past, I can start to picture the pilgrimage some 800 years ago. In those times people had probably walked many hundreds of miles just to get to Rocamadour.

The centre of attention is the venerable Black Virgin statue and its claimed miraculous powers including curing King Henry III of England in the mid-1200s. Also significant is the tomb of the Christian hermit Saint Amadour (where the township obtained its name) and some notable frescoes.

Rocamadour is a worthwhile diversion if travelling through central France. Enjoy the locally produced Rocamadour cheese and soak an evening away in this medieval travel wonder.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Orderly Washing at Marble Temple (Bangkok, Thailand)

Marble Temple is one of Bangkok's most popular wats or Buddhist temples. While the temple has moving images of Buddha, typical Buddhist Thai architecture and gleaming gold window decorations, I am most taken by the monks' washing and the fact that it appears to be sorted by colour range from the deepest reds through sunburned oranges to delicate pastel yellows.

Is this pure coincidence or are monks that orderly?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tenerife for Thrillseekers (Spain)

guest post by Amy Baker

Aspiring Tiger Woods’ may be unable to think of anything better than a holiday chock a block full of Tenerife golf but what does the island offer for those who like something a little more adrenaline fuelled? Well, this volcanic Canary Island is just the spot for a multitude of activities designed to get those pulses racing and year round sunshine guarantees that it will always be a pleasurable experience.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned surfer there are numerous beaches dotted around the island that are perfect for all abilities and that aren’t too far from the famous Tenerife bars which ensure a raucous evening is had by all.

Great surfing spots include El Socorro in the north of the island where there are consistently good waves and despite its name, Los Gigantes beach doesn’t always have waves big enough to send even Kelly Slater running for the hills in fear, in fact this is a great spot for beginners and it is easily accessible by car. El Medano is another good beginners beach but is perhaps better known for windsurfing and kite-surfing allowing you to turn up and figure out which activity you fancy having a go at that day.

Rock climbing is big business in Tenerife due to the warm climate and some of the most challenging climbing in Europe. There are over 900 different routes to explore ensuring that beginners and advanced climbers are catered for.

Arico Gorge is the largest climbing area on the island and is home to the most challenging routes. Arico is a dried up riverbed full of huge boulders, pine trees and crazy overhangs up to 30m high. Certainly not for the faint-hearted! Another great spot is Cañada del Capricho at the base of Mount Teide where there are spirals of volcanic rock up to 300m high to tackle.

The only problem with rock climbing holidays is that you need to lug your equipment around – adventure travellers have gotten around this by taking up new craze – bouldering. There are eight good bouldering sites where all you need is your upper body strength and a crash mat and you’re away.

Lazing on one of Tenerife’s beaches may be sufficient entertainment to some but more adventurous tourists may opt for only visiting the beach as they come in to land from a skydive. There are a multitude of skydiving schools to choose from all offering you the chance to go against all your body’s natural instincts and fling yourself out of a plane.

If that’s not for you then paragliding is another popular activity in Tenerife and rewards adventurers with a slightly more relaxed birds eye view of the island. The islands unbeatable weather guarantees warm thermal currents perfect for paragliding.

No matter what activity you are a fan of or would like to try, Tenerife is bursting with options which will allow you to enjoy the glorious year-round sunshine whilst working up an appetite which means you will be able to put away a few beers and some hearty Canarian fare without any guilt. For more information about the activities offered on the island visit

Photo Credits: sunrise, rock climbing, paragliding

Amy Baker lives in London and works as a freelance writer and editor for a variety of magazines and online media. She enjoys a good book, photography, eating out, getting to know new people and places and aims to travel the World.

Monday, July 11, 2011

In Search of Lyrebirds (Minnamurra Rainforest, Australia)

Two hours drive south of Sydney is a magnificent stretch of ancient rainforest (protected as part of Budderoo National Park). A four kilometre loop boardwalk and forest trail leads through the towering trees of this rainforest remnant that once coated this highland area. Tangled vines of strangler figs, huge buttress roots, vibrant birdlife dancing among the branches and dense green moss on primeval rocks litter the pathway leading to the veil-like elegant Minnamurra Falls.

Strangler figs are remarkable, germinating in a niche of another tree and spreading its roots in a knotted gnarly tangle down the sides of its host in search of nutrition and upwards in search of light in a battle a share of the sun’s life-giving rays.

Highlight of walking in Minnamurra Rainforest is searching for the Superb Lyrebird. Well camouflaged in the dingy light-deprived forest floor, these greyish-brown ground dwelling birds can be heard scratching and pecking through the leaf litter of the forest undergrowth constantly hunting for little insects flinging leaf matter aside with its powerful claws. Excitingly we didn’t wait long for our first sighting, a lone female scratching and digging for a meal expertly dodging the thicket of branches and sticks near the start of the trail.

Outstanding mimics, the lyrebirds tuneful songs are mixed with convincing copies of many other bird calls along with any human sounds it experiences. Chainsaws, barking dogs, clicking cameras, chatting forest workers, mobile phone rings and car alarms are blended into its wonderful symphonic repertoire (David Attenborough presents a video example here). Throughout the walk, the melodic tunes can be heard echoing through the rainforest canopy.

Further along the path, a male lyrebird (see top photo) walks near the trickling river. The male boasts an aristocratic fan of tail feathers that it presents in a mesmerising courtship dance to attract females. With two striking orange feathers and a bridal veil of delicate feathers, it supposedly appears like a Greek lyre that gave the bird its name (personally, I can’t see it). The lyrebird's distinct plumage is denoted on the Australian ten cent piece.

Arriving at the end of the trail, Minnamurra Falls throws fine silky streams of water tumbling down a layered cake of rocks. Glittering in the dappled sunshine, rainbows dance in the misty spray as the water carves its way through the rainforest floor.

Not on many visitors’ agendas, escape the bustle of Sydney and enjoy walking the refreshing ancient Minnamurra Rainforest keeping an ear for the telltale haphazard scratching and the choral rhapsody of this superb Australian bird.

Friday, July 8, 2011

My Seven Links

I was pleased to receive an invite from one of the finest travel bloggers, Barbara of Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel to participate in a fun initiative. The brainchild of TripBase and titled "My Seven Links", it offers a method to unearth and dust off old blog articles based on a series of questions. Barbara's can be found here while mine appear below. To finish off, I'll tag a further five bloggers to keep the chain going. It is a great way to learn about a few new travel blog.

1. My Most Beautiful Post

One of the most striking and naturally beautiful countries I've ever visited is the Iceland and its natural wonders. Littered with waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, weird rock formations and geysers all explained in Icelandic sagas and all left in their wild natural state, I can heartily recommend Iceland to any traveller.

2. My Most Popular Post

With help from lots of Google hits, I am surprised that my most popular article is on the artistic optical illusion art of M. C. Escher and his museum in The Hague. As you stare at Escher's art, you notice waterfalls that constantly travels down-hill or connecting staircases that forever lead upwards.

3. My Most Controversial Post

I don't tend to write controversial articles preferring to focus on the wonderful sights and treasures, both popular and little known, that the world has to offer. So very few articles have provoked even an occasional distasteful comment or upset email. A couple upset remarks arrived by email on discussing Peru's national dish of guinea pig or cuy. While cultures and nationalities, within reason, are entitled to choose what they eat, I can't see anything distasteful about trying Peru's national dish but a few weren't happy.

4. My Most Helpful Post

I received three wonderful emails from fellow Australians who lost beloved relatives in World War One in a savage battle for a small French village in the north of France. Whether reminding or helping someone relive memories of or in one case triggering an email exchange for them to eventually visit the tiny town, my article on a day in Villers-Bretonneux helped readers out. A humble plaque in the museum says "they gave their today for our tomorrow" - a simple and wonderful tribute.

5. A Post Whose Success Surprised Me

Travels has been featuring a Drink Around the World series for around 18 months that highlights a monthly iconic or unusual drink that I've tasted in my travels. The Scottish bright orange soda Irn-Bru and their creative ads triggered memories for lots of travellers who ventured to Scotland.

6. A Post I Feel Didn’t Get The Attention It Deserved

Early on in the life of the blog, it often felt articles that had a lot of time invested received little traffic or comment. One favourite place is the rarely visited Lofoten Islands in the north of Norway in an article that I (immodestly) believe captured some of the wild natural beauty and life on these remote Norwegian wilderness islands.

7. A Post I'm Most Proud Of

To my mind, the finest one day travel experience available anywhere is to trek through rich jungle and spend an hour with the endangered Mountain Gorillas. I'd like to think that my article captured some of the effort, excitement and uplifting experience of seeing a group of gorillas in their natural habitat, the trekking fee helping preserve the last few hundred of these majestic primates.

And finally to hand the baton on to five fellow bloggers who host excellent travel blogs:

Vera at A Traveler's Library
Eunice at TravelerFolio
Ryan at Pause the Moment
Folie à Deux

Enjoy reading and please subscribe if you are keen to get regular updates.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Top Five Fairytale Castles in Europe

guest post by Travelex

Whether you are still living the Disney dream or you have a little princess desperate to visit a castle like the one in her favourite fairytales, this guide will provide you with the best fairytale castles to be found in Europe. Pick your favourite, check currency exchange rates, pack your tiara, and visit some of the most beautiful and historic buildings on the continent.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Steeped in history, this beautiful castle is the embodiment of 19th century romanticism and thanks to its stunning position atop the Alps, its towers and spires and magnificent landscape, Neuschwanstein has become one of the most popular destinations in Europe. The structure was also the inspiration behind Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, it doesn’t get much more fairytale than that!

Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg, France

Built in the 12th century, the Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg in France offers spectacular views of the Alsace Valley, a sight that stretches all the way to the Rhine River. Attacked and badly damaged by fire in 1462, the castle was then rebuilt only to be left abandoned some 200 years later. Over the years it was left empty and overgrown and as such, drew similarities with Sleeping Beauty’s abandoned castle.

Alcázar of Segovia, Spain

One of the most famous castles in Spain, the Alcázar of Segovia has a beautiful exterior and lays nestled at the base of the Guadarrama Mountains. It is suggested that construction of the castle began as early as the 11th century and was then rebuilt following original sketches after a fire in 1862. Once the residence of many Spanish kings and the site of Isabel’s proclamation as Queen of Castile, you can’t help but feel like fairytale royalty at the Alcázar of Segovia.

Bardi Castle, Italy

Surrounded by legendary stories, the medieval structure dominates the small town of the same name and lies approximately 50km from the city of Parma. Step back in time and visit during the summer months, when you might be lucky enough to witness one of the many medieval festivals hosted at the castle.

Vaduz Castle, Lichtenstein

Perched on a rock terrace, this fairytale castle can be reached via a beautiful tree lined footpath. The castle remains the true residence of royalty and today houses the Prince of Lichtenstein. As such, it is not open for viewing by the public, but there are beautiful views to be had of Vaduz Castle from anywhere within the capital and August sees it host to a spectacular fireworks display that illuminates the entire city.

Photo Credits: Neuschwanstein Castle, Haut Koenigsbourg Castle, Alcazar of Segovia, Bardi Castle, Vaduz Castle

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Customs House gets an Electronic Facelift (Sydney)

As part of Vivid 2011, various Sydney buildings were lit with a dazzling array of colour and imagery. The highlight was Sydney's stately Customs House where the grand 19th century colonial building was given a 21st century electronic facelift. Eight projectors were carefully aligned with a fine precision to the various columns, and levels of the building to create a visual feast. To ensure perfect alignment, the projectors were held into place with ballast as the slightest move would have thrown the whole image out (see the setup in more detail)

The result was a ten minute visual degustation menu as Customs House sneezed, bulged, melted, vapourised, filled with water, crinkled, flamed, crumbled and was splattered with paint bombs (pictures below can be expanded by clicking on them). The clock wizzed around at break-neck speed like a Mad Hatter's timepiece while the stately coat of arms irreverently glowed all colours of the rainbow.

More description of Vivid 2011 and the lighting of the Sydney Opera House is highlighted in an earlier article.

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