Thursday, September 29, 2011

Majestic Marlborough Sounds (New Zealand)

The tangled maze of aquamarine waterways and tiny islands makes the Marlborough Sounds, gateway to New Zealand’s South Island one of the most idyllic and rewarding island passages anywhere in the world. Verdant green land and glistening blue-green waters combine for a journey of visual splendour.

While a number of options are available to experience this marine travel wonder, the Interislander ferry makes multiple trips each day from the capital city of Wellington through the Marlborough Sound to Picton, regularly travelling within metres of the rocky outcrops and jagged foreshores. The coastline is so pockmarked with bays and inlets that the Marlborough Sounds are less than 200 kilometres long yet the coastline of the area is over 1750 kilometres, more than the length of Portugal’s coastline.

The wooded islands rear sharply out of the water, their deep black-green foliage highlighting the geological history of the area when waters flooded the unshapely river valleys millions of years ago at the end of the ice age. Walking tracks also crisscross the region, the 70 kilometre Queen Charlotte’s Walk being highly recommended.

Tiny bays define the rugged coastlines, small holiday houses sitting in idyllic verdant patches overlooking the majestic waters. Small marine farms in the area produce the envied green-lip mussels though a decent share of the area is preserved in conservation zones.

While the Maoris have navigated these waters for centuries, Captain Cook skilfully mapped the area in 1770 on his circumnavigation of New Zealand, claiming the lands for England and assuring sailors for years to come of the passageway between New Zealand’s two main islands. He immodestly named it Cook Strait! Cook returned to the area on all three of his remarkable world journeys.

Wildlife is regularly sighted from the various vantage points of the ferry including whales, dolphins and abundant seabirds. Playful tiny Hector Dolphins, only seen in New Zealand and the world’s smallest dolphins, leap playfully in small groups, their backs sharply arched almost turning on themselves as they leap along the water’s surface.

Nearing the sound, splendid vistas of snow-capped mountains complete the panoramic views.

Gliding quietly through sparkling waters and weaving around tiny bays, I can imagine no better way to greet New Zealand’s less discovered stunning South Island.

I travelled as a guest of Qantas Airways on The Great Crusade, a promotion highlighting the best of New Zealand while following the endeavours of the Qantas Wallabies to win the Rugby World Cup. The journey can be followed via Twitter hashtag #greatcrusade.

A few extra photos appear below. All photos can be expanded by clicking on the photo.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Climbing and Diving in Sabah (Malaysia)

guest post by Samantha Deavin

Climbing and diving are two of the main attractions of Sabah – the Malaysian state located on the northern point of the island of Borneo. The famous Mount Kinabulu is a magnet for adventurers and climbing enthusiasts while the stunning underwater ecosystem of the Sipadan reef lures avid divers.

For those who have walked the well trodden tourist path of South East Asia, Sabah presents a refreshing alternative and a chance to get off the proverbial ‘beaten track’. Borneo’s north eastern area is rich in treasures, so if you have a bit of time up your sleeve you won’t want to limit yourself to Mount Kinabalu or Sabah’s diving Mecca. But for first time visitors or those with a limited time budget, Mount Kinabalu and the Sipadan reef should be top of the list.

There are a number of cheap flights available to Malaysia and nearby areas that will put you in easy reach of both Mount Kinabalu and the tropical island of Sipadan – two of Sabah’s main attractions.

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the tallest climbable mountain in South East Asia, rising 4,095 m above sea level. Many tourists flock to Sabah’s capital city Kota Kinabalu before heading into Kinabalu National Park to attempt the eight kilometre climb to the peak. Generally the climb takes two days, and no climbing experience is necessary. On the mountain’s tourist trail, climbers spend one night at the huts in the vicinity of Laban Rata before reaching the summit at sunrise for spectacular and breathtaking views over the Crocker Mountain Range. On the walk, climbers will make their way through five different vegetation zones.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a rewarding experience. Not only will you meet great people along the way and enjoy majestic and magical views, but you’ll experience a very special place to the local people in Sabah, Malaysia, who believe that the souls of their ancestors have gone up the mountain.

Scuba Diving

Diving is the other premier attraction of Sabah with its waters home to fantastic marine diversity. There are a range of scuba diving landscapes to explore, from coral reefs to wreck driving to stunning drop offs. The most popular and coveted dive spots are around the islands of Sipadan, where the reef drops down spectacularly and huge schools of barracudas and mackerels are seen on nearly every dive, as well as turtles and large sharks.

There are various dive sites around the island – all of them different, but offering an amazing array of underwater attractions. The Sipadan reef is a world class dive spot – not to mention a beautiful one!

Once you get to Sabah, you’ll want more time to explore all that this rich and diverse region has to offer.

Have you ever been to Sabah? What are your tips for climbing and diving in this area?

Photo Credits: sunrise, turtle, kota kinabalu, fish,

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Photo of the Week: Clown Triggerfish - Clever Camouflage or Outlandish Outfit?

Despite it exotic appearance, the clown triggerfish is actually remarkably camouflaged. Photographed in an aquarium, this tropical fish is found in the reefs of coastal warm waters between east Africa, through Asia and the Pacific islands. Scientists consider the clown triggerfish to be a master of disguise. Despite its bold colouring, the clown triggerfish has a mottled yellow and black back to blend with the coral reef sea-floor, its eyes fade into a black stripe and its large uneven white spots blend with the reef as its swims among the corals and the surface of the water when viewed from underneath.

Their teeth grow for life so a diet of hard-shelled sea creatures is essential to keep their teeth ground down. Water is squirted at the seabed to unmask shelled clams, molluscs and snails hiding under the sandy bottom. The clown triggerfish's eyes move independently allowing them to patrol for food and predators without the need to travel in groups. And finally, to continue in their celebration of vivid colour, these fine fish lay green eggs.

Sadly the clown triggerfish are endangered but are a joy to see with its wild circus outfit and vibrant approach to life.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Swimming with Whale Sharks (Western Australia)

guest post by

If asked whether or not you fancy swimming alongside a 10 metre long shark with little else to protect you other than a wetsuit and a snorkel, it would be no surprise if there were very few takers. In reality, thousands of people book their long distance flight all the way to Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef every year between March and July to do just that.

Whale Sharks are the ocean's largest fish and they come complete with 3,000 tiny teeth and a fin that’s taller than most adults. Terrifying as that may sound, these gentle creatures have very little interest in dining on us and their diet consists of plankton and little else – thanks goodness!

Although similar experiences can be enjoyed around the world in places like Honduras and Cuba, Western Australia is unique in the fact that the whale sharks venture so close to the shore. The sharks feed just beyond the reef, which at its closest is just 300ft offshore meaning there is no need for long boat rides in order to get to where these giants roam.

A typical trip will involve heading out to sea, being told to get your wetsuits on and be ready at any time for the call from the spotter plane. Whale sharks can dive down to 2000 feet (600 metres) but come to the surface to feed, therefore it is important that when they are spotted you jump in straight away so that you can swim with them for as long as they allow before they dive back down to the depths.

Although the crew are quick to remind you that these sharks feed on nothing but plankton, the word shark still sends shivers up the spine. You have little time to think about it as no sooner have you been told that a shark has been spotted than you are rushing towards the back of the boat to hop in and see for yourself.

As you go under, you will be disorientated by the waves lapping at your snorkel and the bright sunshine darting through the surface and momentarily blinding you. Hang in there because as the water clears you will be greeted by one of the most spectacular sights any nature lover can hope for. These calm ocean giants, covered in spots and stripes like to take their time, they glide along with their impossibly large mouths agape in an attempt to make the most of the plankton rich water so prevalent in Western Australia during this time of year.

Although encounters with whale sharks can be brief, it is something that simply must be experienced. Very little is known about the whale shark, no-one knows how many exist or how long they live which makes them all the more fascinating to us. One thing is for certain, they have no interest in you. All they are doing is having their lunch so get over those fears and hop on in. It’s an experience of a lifetime and not to be missed.

Photo Credits: lead photo, blue depths, snorkel

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Open Air and Nose Museums (Lund, Sweden)

Fresh from seeing the brooding Lund Cathedral and its stunning astronomical clock, a block east is a superb collection of historic Swedish buildings over two city blocks. Kulturen was the brainchild of Georg Karlin. On seeing the death of old farming practices through mechanisation and the gradual migration of people from the rural villages to the towns and cities in the late 1800s, Karlin made a determined effort to preserve the older Swedish culture.

The result is a collection of over 30 buildings in the world’s second oldest open-air museum and a superb extended half day wandering through the pleasant virtual town of Kulturen (the map is courtesy Kulturen and like all photos can be clicked to enlarge). With the traditional class structure of the time, Karlin collected a mix of characteristic buildings, tools, clothing, furniture and artefacts representing everything from the aristocratic and religious to the burghers and peasants.

In a short stroll, a professor’s elegant house and merchant’s quarters both sit near a crofter’s turf-roofed cottage (top photo), a dean’s residence (photo) and church are only a short walk from a clog maker’s workshop. Most buildings are open inviting people to wander freely seeing the fittings and living conditions and tell their human story.

Several buildings contain fine displays and exhibitions on topics as diverse as the weights and measures of the day, fishing techniques, underwear through the ages, cultivating tools, glassware and ceramics. Various live demonstrations keep dying skills alive.

In the centre are beautifully manicured gardens also representing different ages from Viking rune stones and a medieval fragrant medicinal herb garden to sculptured French style gardens and a hedge maze.

Unsurprisingly as a town with one of the world’s most prestigious universities (and a cathedral school dating from 1085), Lund is full of museums. The most surprising collection, found within the university is the Nose Museum or Nasoteket. Yes, an entire collection dedicated to that esteemed central facial feature! Not documented in any of Lund’s tourist brochures, I lucked in to a visit with a student I met in a bar (but had no camera with me). The university collection includes over 130 plaster cast noses displayed with mirrors so that you can see the nose in profile and front-on. The collection is managed by the Nasal committee (I kid you not!) and includes peer-reviewed academic works on various attributes of noses (one article was about the nose in heraldry) and their place in history.

The science (and I use that term a little flippantly in this case) of casting noses started centuries ago to help reconstruct broken marble elements of ancient Roman and Greek statues that often lost their protruding parts over centuries of wear.

Today, prospective nose models to join the august collection are anointed by the Nasal committee, typically for excellent service to Lund and are announced at a nasifieringstillf√§llet, surprising the candidate. Most castings today are performed publicly with great fanfare. Those in the collection include notable figures such as astronomer Tycho Brahe, botanist Carl Linnaeus, former prime ministers, Sweden’s first female archbishop, authors, TV personalities and significant university people.

The Museum of Sketches (Skissernas Museum) is also highly recommended with a collection focussed on preliminary sketches and models of artworks. The museum endeavours to capture the creative process of the artist from the inception of an idea to the final product and includes four rooms covering Swedish art, Mexican art, international art and sculpture.

In the best traditions of the British university towns, Lund has a lively free spirited feeling with plenty to do for a couple of days - a chance to wander medieval streets, study a stunning astronomical clock, view a fine collection of historic Swedish buildings and enjoy an eccentric and unusual collection of noses.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Five Magical Experiences in Marrakech (Morocco)

guest post by Low Cost Holidays

Part of Marrakech’s appeal is its mystique; behind the Atlas Mountains what lies in wait is a gateway for some unforgettable experiences in Africa’s most northerly state. Marrakech is a destination to suit many, offering a break in the sun, a cosmopolitan weekend or a short break to experience Africa. Holidays to Marrakech delight, offering equal measures of thrill and tranquillity that are unique to the bustling centre of Morocco. Although luxurious, Marrakech is low cost and is certainly the cheapest way to experience Africa.

Upon reaching Marrakech you will be welcomed with an array of sensual delights, and no doubt mahabba - the warmth of the Marrakechi people. What to experience first, and where to visit will be questions running through your mind as excitement builds when you land. What follows are five unforgettable experiences in Marrakech.

5. A unique view of Marrakech - Hot Air Balloon Above the City

Experience Marrakech from a unique perspective, hot air balloon rides 30 miles west of Marrakech let you experience dawn in Africa and form a close relationship with Marrakech’s landscape. Float gently into the morning sky and see the prevailing views of Marrakech, the surrounding desert and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. This excursion is a prime example of how and why Marrakech drifts effortlessly between thrill and tranquillity.

4. Cleanse and Relax in the Centre of the City - Hammam in Marrakech

A dose of Marrakech’s tranquil side is the experience of a hammam, a heaven of body washes and relaxation. Hammams in Marrakech are prevalent and are one of the highlights of Marrakech holidays, ranging from cheaper public hammams to luxurious private spas. Public spas are common and much cheaper, a full body wash and exfoliation is completed in around an hour. Beware that the public experience is shared, but typically remains to same sex rooms. Luxury spas deliver a fully personable experience, with steam, gommage (scrubbing), full body massage, seaweed wrap and full body and hair wash. What is supplied is personal masseuses and carers at the reasonable western price of around £45 (US$70).

3. Drink Mint Teas as the Jeema El Fna Square Bustles - Drinking in Marrakech

The Jeema El Fna Square truly represents the thrill of Marrakech, but if the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s busiest market places is too much for you enjoy it another way. What is highly recommended on Marrakech holidays is sampling the Marrakech delicacy Mint tea in unique style. Relax on a terrace overlooking the square just as the sun sets and the enticing smells of grilled meat and Moroccan spice pollutes the air sending you into a hypnotic state.

2. Explore the Atlas Mountain Range - Exploring Morocco and Marrakech

The Atlas Mountains stretches an incredible 2,500 km across Northern Africa, and stands tall next to Marrakech providing a home to the Berber population. On tours to the mountains you experience the natural and unspoilt beauty of the region; coloured rock cliffs, natural waterfalls and mountain streams provide spots of tranquillity. Part of the experience also includes the meeting of Berbers and visits to rural markets within the mountains, providing a taste of mountain life and the meeting of new cultures. The best is reserved to last as you peer back across Marrakech and Morocco in awe.

1. Experience the Jeema El Fna Square - The Heart of Marrakech

The Jeema El Fna Square sits proudly in the heart of Marrakech, prominently known as one of the world’s busiest market places and truly unique in the entertainment it provides. Wonder through this maze of market stalls and enchanting entertainment which provides a true taste of Marrakechi culture and the regions renowned hospitality. Orange juice sellers, snake charmers and monkey handlers fill the market during the day providing an environment to shop and sample. By night the atmosphere changes and wild aromas fill the air, local musicians play and the hustle and bustle of the square can truly be enjoyed.

Photo Credits: hammam, atlas mountains

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Keeping Medieval Time in Lund (Sweden)

The southern Swedish town of Lund buzzes with a bohemian university atmosphere that permeates its medieval streets. Packed into a few streets are an array of museums, a grand cathedral and a fine collection of preserved Swedish buildings from the past.

The spires of the grey monochromatic cathedral (built during Danish rule) tower above the town. The exterior of the cathedral is decorated with an array of dramatic carvings of grotesque animals and birds to help keep the evil spirits at bay.

Standing alone in the cathedral’s crypt is an eerie experience. The floor is covered in tombstones. In limited light, the spirits of its 900 years moodily wander among the thick stone pillars – the crypt seems unchanged since it was built. Two stories emanate from the crypt to add to its mystique. One tells of a proud but tiny archbishop Gunnarsson so chastened by his lack of height that he demanded that his effigy should be tall and dignified.

The other has a more traditional Norse flavour. A giant troll, named Finn, wandering past the site of the cathedral offered to build a church. The payment would be the priest's eyes and heart unless he could guess the troll's name. Alarmingly, the troll was powerful and an adept builder, quickly assembling the cathedral. With only the final pillar to set, the priest lay down in a field in an abject state of panic, fearing a loss of his eyesight, when the tuneful words of a troll-woman included the troll's name. He rushed back to the church and yelled Finn when the troll tried to pull a pillar out of the ground to knock over the cathedral. At that point Finn was turned to stone with his towering figure still in evidence in the crypt with empty eye sockets.

While the story is clearly fanciful (and the figure is likely to be Samson), I love the mix of pagan saga mixed with the history of this fine cathedral.

The interior of the cathedral is extremely plain but has a feeling of grandeur. However the undoubted highlight is a fascinating astronomical clock located near the entrance. Built in 1423 (though hidden in boxes in the cathedral vault for a number of centuries), the extraordinary mechanisms for the time slowly move a variety of dials and wheels that unveil a plethora of astronomical information from phases of the moon, the location of the astrological signs and the position of the sun at sunset.

The bottom of the clock shows a huge wheel, good till 2123 (unlike the Mayans, not everyone is finishing their calendars at 2012!!) that highlight the relevant saint day (with every day appears to be assigned to someone) and the various religious holidays and festivals (including those that vary from year to year). The clock is absorbing with many features being discovered the longer that you spend looking at its detail.

Twice a day the clock celebrates the striking of an hour as trumpeters raise their instruments and play a medieval hymn through the cathedral’s pipe organ while the Three Kings and their servants quickly bow and parade past Mary and a baby Jesus.

Read the second article to see an amazing nose museum and Lund's superb collection of old Swedish buildings.

Note: Click here for an excellent 360 degree panorama of the cathedral. Click on the different numbers for different viewpoints including the crypt.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Off to New Zealand on The Great Crusade

I am excited to tell you that I am off to New Zealand at the invitation of Qantas on a Qantas Australian Wallabies supporters tour called The Great Crusade. New Zealand is hosting the four-yearly Rugby World Cup, the biggest sports event in the world in 2011.

I will be travelling in a convoy of 20+ luxury campervans (what is a collection of campervans actually called? convoy?caravan? swarm? pandemonium? confusion?) for two weeks from late September soaking in the best of New Zealand while cheering on the Wallabies in their endeavour to win the World Championship trophy.

Most of the convoy won their journey with clever and entertaining videos showing their support for the Wallabies. Check out The Great Crusade website for the winning entries and also the ongoing saga of fictional Toby Withers. Daily episodes, directed by Gregor Jordan (director of feature films such as Two Hands) will be filmed from The Great Crusade around Toby's quest to understand rugby and experience New Zealand (all shown on the website).

Flying with Qantas to Wellington and with a chance to experience both islands, there is lots of quintessential Kiwi entertainment in store including quad biking, bungy jumping, wine tasting in the Marlborough region, whale watching in Kaikoura, the travel wonders of Wellington, the natural beauty of New Zealand along with many other highlights. I will blog about these and add tweets using the hashtag #greatcrusade in the coming weeks as the tour unfolds.

I am really looking forward to exploring New Zealand in convoy with a bunch of enthusiastic folks all while supporting the Australian Wallabies.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Recapturing the Thrill of Travel with an African Safari Adventure

guest post by Mahlatini

High speed rail, long-haul flights, cruise liners and now social media and the internet; these are things, facets of modern society that today many travellers take for granted. The emergence of new technologies continues to make our planet a smaller place and it seems those frontiers that were once undiscovered and those paths once un-trampled are quickly disappearing. Perhaps it is for this reason that a growing community of travellers are now endeavouring to find new and exciting experiences and unusual ways to interact with the world around them.

One region that does seem to still embody that sense of mystery, wilderness and wonder is Southern Africa and it appears that more and more enthusiastic travellers are looking to the remote and unspoiled nature of this area and its fascinating, if not at times tumultuous history, in order to recapture some of the thrill and adventure that had once defined international travel.

An African safari is a wonderful way to connect with nature; to gain a true insight into the geography and ecology of a nation as well as encounter some of the most iconic wildlife on the planet. The word safari itself in Swahili can be translated as journey but how you make that journey is entirely up to you. From canoeing tours down the great Zambezi to balloon flights over the vast sands of Namibia’s Sossusvlei region; gorilla trekking in the dense forests of Uganda’s highlands to horseback adventures around the wetlands of the Okavango Delta there is something to satisfy every persuasion and predisposition.

As we as people become increasingly conscious of our place within the world and how we interact with the environment around us conservation is becoming an overriding consideration in almost every aspect of our lives including travel. Environmental and zoological research is becoming more and more important as an increasing number of our great animal species come to face extinction. In a move to encourage awareness as well as aid the work of these dedicated individuals a new and rather privileging experience is to take part in an animal research safari.

Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa is particularly renowned for its study of one of the most elusive large carnivores in Africa, the leopard. The continuing efforts of the staff at Phinda has produced invaluable data to help scientists and zoologists understand in much more detail the lives of these beautiful animals and today visitors can too contribute towards this programme. Guests are invited onto the private conservancy to help track, guide and collect information on the community of resident leopards not only promising a rewarding experience but allowing individuals to get up close and personal with these beguiling big cats.

Another way to immerse yourself into the culture and heritage of Southern Africa is to partake in a bushmen safari. These experiences are favoured in countries including Zambia and particularly Botswana. Some concerns often expressed are that these encounters are for the native tribesmen and women a patronizing and rather insensitive ordeal but in reality by moving away from the more choreographed and archetypal ‘cultural tours’ and truly immersing yourself into the every day lives of these intelligent, humble and fascinating people you are able to gain a real perspective into the true Africa.

Walk side by side with real bushmen trackers and observe as they guide their children on a coming-of-age ‘initiation hunt’ providing a rare glimpse of an ancient ritual that has been past down though the years; a transfer of practical skills and knowledge that ensures the beliefs of the tribe will continue into the next generation. Although many Southern African tribes are founded upon a patriarchal concept of society female members of the community have just as important a role to play and guests can join them as they go out into the bush to collect herbs and medicinal plants to be used as part of a traditional healing ceremony.

Southern Africa is an unfettered and beautiful part of the world and having the opportunity to interact with this environment, however you choose to, not only promises a wonderfully rewarding and memorable experience but also helps to educate and instill within people the awareness and need to preserve this vibrant but fragile ecology.

Mahlatini is a luxury tour operator specialising in safari holidays and tailor made breaks to Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands.

Photo Credits: giraffe silhouettes, Sossusvlei, leopard, initiation

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tears at Don Rak War Cemetery (Kanchanaburi, Thailand)

Just a short stroll from the Bridge over the River Kwai is the most moving sight of Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The Don Rak War Cemetery is the final resting place of around 5000 Commonwealth and 2,000 Dutch prisoners of war (the Americans repatriated their war dead), literally worked to death with their military colleagues under a brutal work regime. Their plaques sit on a beautifully manicured and lovingly tendered lawn, each small bronze plaque representing the loss of a father, son, husband and/or grandson. Tiny gardens and colourful blooms interlace the cemetery lovingly tendered by the Thai people.

A few people wander the cemetery in silence reading each plaque and soaking in the ultimate sacrifice made by so many brave men.

The ages of most are so young, men barely out of boyhood living their last months in such awful conditions – it is hardly imaginable. Many feature a short inscription from parents or family which adds an individual touch and character to the valiant soldier who gave his life so we can have a better and freer life today. Each phrase stirs the heart strings. Each epitaph tells a story.

A voice we love is still.
A place vacant that we can never fill.

For your tomorrow we gave our today.

He died that we might live. Ever remembered.

Some day “Tom” I will understand.

Greater Love hath no man than this. That he lay down his life.

It is estimated that one person died for each railway sleeper laid on the Death Railway.

The entrance contains a small altar with a variety of plaques and memorials. At the rear of the cemetery is a plot that carries the ashes of 300 cholera victims from an outbreak in 1943 in the Nieke camp. A large memorial cross stands like a beacon of hope in the centre of the cemetery.

Unlike the famed bridge, Don Rak captures the emotion and feeling of this area. My tears fell as I sat quietly under the tree trying to truly understand what this place means. I cried for the thousands of young men who gave up their lives so my life can be better and that our lives can be lived in freedom.

Every ANZAC Day (25 April) a small ceremony is conducted at Don Rak as it is in many cemeteries and memorials around the world and in towns, big and small, all over Australia and New Zealand. The Ode of Remembrance is read as we recall the brave people at places like Don Rak in their harrowing experiences in building this railway.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Escape the Crowds in Barcelona (Spain)

guest post by Thomas Lukjaniec

Countless numbers of tourists flock to Barcelona each year to catch a glimpse of world famous sights and landmarks such as the Sagrada Familia, Las Ramblas and the Camp Nou. This often leads to swarms of tourists clogging up the city centre (especially during the summer months) and ignoring the many wonderful things there are to see and do that are just a stone’s throw away from the Catalan capital. So, if you’re planning a trip to Barcelona, or if you’re already there, then here are five worthwhile ways to escape the crowds.


This breathtaking mountain is situated just an hour so away from Barcelona and is a must see for all those travelling to the city. It proudly boasts UNESCO World Heritage Site status and rises majestically to 1235m above sea level boasting panoramic views of the surrounding terrain. However, the main attraction is the mysterious formation of rocks found here and the beautiful Royal Basilica. Tours to the mountain are available all year round.


Sitges (top photo) is where locals go to unwind on their days off - a strong recommendation indeed. It is the perfect place to escape the tourist infested beaches of Barcelona. This charming little town is situated just 40km outside of the city and is easily accessible by train. It’s well known as an historic centre with beautiful beaches, a peaceful ambiance and a thriving gay community. It is a true jewel of the coast and is ideal for families and friends to spend a fun and relaxing afternoon.

Illa Fantasia

This water park is located just a 45min drive from Barcelona city centre and makes for a great way to cool down from the sweltering heat during the warmer months of the year. With lots of wet and windy slides, picnic areas and eateries, a trip here is ideal for families, couples and groups of friends looking for a fun day out. Julia Travel will get you entrance, as well as travel to and from the park, at a very reasonable price!

Hot Air Balloon

Tear yourself away from the sights of Barcelona for one day and treat yourself to something unusual by taking a ride in a hot air balloon. Take in unrivalled views of the city from above and enjoy an experience that is truly unforgettable.

Barcelona Cruises

Taking a cruise from Barcelona is the ultimate way to see the city before setting sail on to other stunning Mediterranean destinations. Another excellent option is catching a ferry to one of the nearby Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza), which offer one of either the perfect party or peaceful getaway from the city.

So there you have it - five fantastic ideas to escape the tourist crowds in Barcelona! All that’s left is organising accommodation for your stay in the city. It’s a good idea to base yourself centrally, where the fantastic transport system will allow you to reach all of these destinations with ease. Renting apartments in Barcelona is often a popular choice amongst visitors and will allow you to live close to these transport links, thus leaving you free to explore all of these wonderful places at your convenience.

Photo Credits: sitges, basilica, water park, balloon

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bridge Over the River Kwai (Kanchanaburi, Thailand)

Around 100 humid kilometers north of Bangkok is the bridge made famous by the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Kanchanaburi is the site of the Burma-Siam Railway Bridge built by prisoners of the Japanese in World War 2 under forced labour conditions. Today’s idyllic tropical setting (and even the movie) belies the appalling privations, random punishments, disease, meagre food and atrocities along with the withering humidity and searing heat suffered by the bridge builders. The toll was so large – over 12,000 prisoners of war and around 90,000 Burmese, Thai, Malay and Indonesian forced labourers lost their lives in construction of the railroad – that it became known as the Death Railway.

An excellent and busy tourist train (on weekends only) takes a scenic three hours aimed more at Thais than foreign visitors stopping near the famous bridge. The train nervously slows a couple of times on its journey to a snail’s pace to traverse old and rickety wooden bridges held up more by divine intervention than any expertise in engineering.

The train stops near the famed bridge where the passengers stroll the steel and wooden structure kept immaculate for all the visitors (only the outer spans are original as most was destroyed by bombing raids). Trains chuff across the bridge at regular intervals while the tourist train continues over the bridge to its terminus at Nam Tok with its scenic waterfall.

The gently running placid river and quiet setting give little feeling of the toil and hardship that went into building this key railway link and the plain dark steel arches lack character. Unsurprisingly, it is not the bridge used in the movie, which was fully shot on location in Sri Lanka!!

Nearby is the slightly disappointing JEATH Museum, its unusual name being an acronym of the various nations involved with the bridge (Japan, England, Australia / America, Thailand and Holland). Run by the local monks, there are some moving pictures, sketches and newspaper clippings shown in a cramped humid dingy bamboo hut to resemble the accommodation of the prisoners. Many of the exhibits are masked in plastic to prevent damage from the moisture and so are difficult to read or view properly in the poor light.

The bridge only became famous with the success of the movie. Ironically, for its grand title, the bridge doesn’t actually cross the Kwai but rather the Mae Klong (klong is canal in Thai). The Mae Klong runs into the confluence of the Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi Rivers (literally the big and little Khwae).

Under the mesmerising spell of popular cinema and sensing a tourism opportunity , the local authorities quietly renamed the relevant short section of Mae Klong to the Khwae Yai River, ensuring that there is a Bridge Over the River Kwai for all to visit and enjoy.

Despite its checkered history, the rail journey from Bangkok, the bridge and surrounding area are worthy of a visit, though the undoubted highlight is a short walk up the road to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

The outstanding railway site Seat 61, has a detailed description on the River Kwai rail journey.

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