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Monthly Archives: September 2016

Best Coastal Hikes in Sicily

Stromboli, Aeolian Islands

Start/End: Stromboli town | Length: 8km | Duration: five to six hours | Difficulty: moderate-demanding

For sheer excitement, nothing compares to Stromboli. Sicily’s showiest volcanic island has been lighting up the Mediterranean for millennia, spewing out showers of red-hot rock with remarkable regularity since the age of Odysseus.

Set off a couple of hours before sunset for the spectacularly scenic trek (guide required) to Stromboli’s 924m summit. Climbing through a landscape of yellow broom and wild capers, the trail eventually opens onto bare slopes of black volcanic rock, revealing fabulous vistas of Stromboli town, the sparkling sea and the volcanic islet of Strombolicchio below, and a zigzag line of fellow hikers slogging steadily towards the summit above.

Round the last bend and emerge into a surreal panorama of smouldering craters framed by the setting sun. For the next hour you’re treated to full-on views of Stromboli’s pyrotechnics from a perfect vantage point above the craters. The periodic eruptions grow ever brighter against the darkening sky, changing with the waning light from awe-inspiring puffs of grey smoke to fountains of brilliant orange-red, evoking oohs and aahs that mix with the sound of sizzling hot rocks rolling down the mountainside.

Fossa delle Felci, Salina, Aeolian Islands

Start/End: Valdichiesa | Length: 4km | Duration: three hours |Difficulty: moderate-demanding

The ancient Greeks dubbed this island Didyme (the twins) for its verdant pair of dormant volcanoes. These days Salina remains theAeolian Islands’ greenest island, dotted with wineries that produce the region’s renowned Malvasia wine. For sweeping views of the vineyards and the surrounding seascape, climb Salina’s highest peak, Fossa delle Felci (962m).

Starting in Valdichiesa, the trail switchbacks steeply up the mountainside, climbing through fern-carpeted evergreen forest to the summit. Up top you’re rewarded with jaw-dropping views of Salina’s shapely second cone, 860m Monte Porri, backed by the distant volcanic islands of Filicudi and Alicudi.

Pianoconte to Quattropani, Lipari, Aeolian Islands

Start: Pianoconte | End: Quattropani | Length: 8km | Duration: four hours | Difficulty: moderate-demanding

Fabled since ancient times for its rich obsidian deposits, Lipari also boasts some of the Aeolians’ most stupendous coastal scenery. This classic hike starts in the highlands around Pianoconte, descending past the ancient Roman baths of San Calogero to reach the cliffs and sea caves of Lipari’s western shoreline.

After levelling out along a series of coastal bluffs – with tantalising perspectives on the neighbouring islands of Salina, Vulcano, Filicudi and Alicudi – the trail climbs steeply inland again to the town of Quattropani, revealing yet more dramatic vistas of flower-covered slopes cascading to the cobalt sea below.

Vulcano, Aeolian Islands

Start/End: Vulcano port | Length: 4km | Duration: two to three hours (return) | Difficulty: moderate

Volcano hikes don’t get much more satisfying than the gradual climb upFossa di Vulcano (391m), the smouldering grayish-orange peak that dominates the island of Vulcano. Belching out a steady stream of noxious sulphurous fumes, the crater – mythologized by the ancient Romans as Vulcan’s forge – is only a 45-minute jaunt up from Vulcano’s port via a wide, signposted path.

Once up top, circumnavigate the rim for spectacular views of the cavernous crater in the foreground, with the Mediterranean, the cliffs of Lipari, and the distant silhouettes of the remaining five Aeolian Islands aligned symmetrically on the horizon.

Capo Milazzo                                                              

Start/End: Chiesa di San Antonio | Length: 3km | Duration: one hour | Difficulty: easy-moderate

You couldn’t ask for a more scenic hike than this easy loop around the hook-shaped Capo Milazzo peninsula north of Milazzo. The trail initially passes through a level landscape of olive groves, cactus and stone walls before beginning a steady descent towards the surging sea.

The views get truly dreamy near the peninsula’s northern tip, where you’ll find the Piscina di Venere, an idyllic rock-fringed natural pool that’s perfect for a swim. Loop back along the peninsula’s western shore, stopping en route to visit the cactus-covered ruins of the 13th-centurySantuario Rupestre di San Antonio.

a guide for newly-weds abroad

Schedule in some downtime

You’ve just thrown the biggest party of your life. You’ve people-managed warring family members, negotiated hard with scores of suppliers, and spent entire evenings hunched over a table plan. You’re pretty much a multi-tasking superhero. But even superheroes need to recharge their batteries now and again.

So even if you’re both full-on adventure junkies, don’t plan to rush headlong into a jam-packed schedule of activities, especially if you’re in a new city where you haven’t found your feet. Trust us: leave the first couple of days fairly free. Acclimatise, get to know one another again in a pressure-free zone and bask in all those wedding memories. Your brain will thank you for letting it catch up. Then chuck yourself into the fun feet first.

Resist the ‘should’ brigade

A two-week beach break doesn’t quite float your boat? Don’t feel you have to cave to others’ expectations of what a honeymoon ‘should’ be. Make no mistake: the wedding business is a booming industry, and there are plenty of people chomping at the bit to profit from your love for one another. If what you both truly desire is an all-inclusive trip to a far-flung white-sand wonderland, go for it to your hearts’ content. If the idea of lying on a beach for longer than five minutes makes you break out in a rash, don’t sweat it.

Stats show that more couples than ever before are looking for adventure and activities on their honeymoons. They’ve figured out what the packaged holiday companies don’t want them to: that romance is whatever you make it, whether that’s a dozen roses, a canyoning day trip, a windy clifftop walk, or (ahem) screeching Pulp’s Common Peopleat each other at the tops of your voices in a private karaoke booth.

Make your budget go further

If you’re on a tight budget, the idea of throwing caution to the wind and treating yourselves can be a major source of stress. Consider setting up a honeymoon-funding wedding list. Not only will it take the pressure off your finances and let you splurge guilt-free, but it’s a wonderful way to incorporate those you love into a very special trip. Set up your list to allow contributions to specific activities: your guests will feel they’ve given you a tangible experience (especially if you add a personal touch and send them a photo of you enjoying their gift), and you can toast each present-giver as you go and feel almost as though they’re with you on your trip.

A touch of luxury is well-justified on a honeymoon, but don’t forget about the budget options too. You may well find it’s at street stalls you find the best, most authentic meals, and in the most pedestrian of experiences that you meet the most genuine people and create memories that last a lifetime.

Watch out for decision fatigue

You’ll probably have made a lot of decisions in the course of your wedding planning. Colour scheme, venue, menu, flowers, pocket squares, chair covers, table runners, lighting, favours, cutlery… It’s exhausting to even think about. And if you jet off on honeymoon straight after the wedding, it can lead to an extreme case of Decision Fatigue Syndrome (DFS). It’ll hit you at the oddest times: you’ll be happily exploring, not a care in the world, when all of a sudden you’re faced with a simple choice – ‘will it be beer or wine?’ – and BAM. Your mind empties. Your eyes glaze. You don’t know. Wine’s nice. Beer’s nice. Choose one? You couldn’t possibly! What do you want? Beer. No, wine! No, beer! Your palms become slick. You can’t. Panic.

Wildlife and Nature Places in February

Head to Ladakh, India, for snow leopards and ice trekking

Brrrrrrr! It’s not warm in the Himalayan heights of northwest Indiaright now (days around 21°F; -6°C). But it’s worth braving the cold for a couple of very special experiences. Wildlife fans should head for Hemis National Park, home to a 400-year-old monastery, and one of the few places on the planet where the elusive snow leopard isn’t quite so elusive. During winter mating season – which peaks in February – the high-dwelling big cats descend to the valleys here to find mates, making them easier to spot. Alternatively, trekkers can check out the Chadar. This challenging winter hike starts near Leh, and uses the frozen Zanskar River as its path – walking on this icy meander is the only way to access the highland villages at this time. February is when the ice is at its most stable; the temperature is biting, but the snow-cloaked mountains spectacular.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Leh. Hemis is 6 miles (10 km) south, where guided treks in the Tarbuns Valley may yield leopards. The Chadar hike starts in Chilling, 40 miles (65 km) from Leh, and takes six days.
  • Need to know: Leh is at 11,483ft (3500m) so stay well-hydrated to help altitude acclimatisation.
  • Other months: Nov-Mar – cold, snowy (Jan-Feb: Chadar possible); Apr-May & Oct – quiet, cool; Jun-Sep – best for regular trekking.

Watch millions of monarch butterflies take flight in Mexico

Visit Michoacán’s forests on a sunny February morning and you’ll witness an astonishing spectacle: hundreds of millions of orange-black wings flexing then fluttering as vast clouds of monarch butterflies take to the air. Each winter up to a billion of these incredible insects migrate thousands of miles from northeastern North America to the warmer climes of Mexico, specifically, Michoacán Province’s Oyamel fir forests, some of which are now protected as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve; head to the El Rosario or Sierra Chincua sections. Here the monarchs breed before returning to their summer grounds far, far to the north.

  • Trip plan: The butterfly reserves can be visited on a day trip from Mexico City or Morelia, but better to stay nearby, perhaps in Angangueo or Zitácuaro. Another option is a clockwise circuit from Mexico City, taking in the butterflies, the colonial charm of Morelia, artsy San Miguel de Allende and the Toltec/ Aztec pyramid site of Tula.
  • Need to know: Wildlife fans travelling now could combine butterflies with whales – either humpbacks off Puerto Vallarta (Pacific Coast) or grey whales off Baja California.
  • Other months: Oct-Apr – butterflies present; May-Sep – wetter season, hot.

Swim with big fish in beautiful weather in the Philippines

Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish, growing up to 13m long. Snorkelling alongside one is more like finning with a slow-moving train than a living creature. Simply, it’s up there with the greatest travel experiences. Donsol, a coastal village at the bottom of Luzon island, is one of the world’s best places to do it. During whaleshark season, which runs November to June (peaking February to May), there might be more than 10 whale sharks in the water at a time. Plenty of eco-operators run boat trips that allow you to snorkel with the fish in a sensitive fashion. Being the middle of the dry season, this is also a good time to explore further – the Philippines has over 7000 islands to choose from!

  • Trip plan: Fly from Manila to Legazpi, near Donsol, for whale sharks. Then fly south for cultural Cebu, the ‘Chocolate Hills’ and wildlife of Bohol, and the dazzling beaches of Panglao.
  • Need to know: Before embarking on a whale-shark trip, you must attend a briefing on how to behave around them.
  • Other months: Nov-Apr – dry; May-Oct – wet.

Visit Hokkaido for perfect powder, bird love and a whiskey or two

Hokkaido is Japan, but different. The northernmost of the country’s main islands is a wild, mountainous region with spectacular wildlife and a reputation for some of the finest powder snow on the planet. Snowstorms from Siberia sweep across and dust the west of the island – head to Niseko in February for world-class powder, with three large ski areas and plenty of backcountry to explore, with ski, board or snowshoe. Naturally there are steaming onsens in which to soak those weary bones after a hard day on the slopes – and plenty of spots to sip the local Nikka whisky. Winter is also the time for two of Japan’s most spectacular wildlife encounters. Head east across Hokkaido to Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary to witness the extraordinary courtship dance of the 5ft-high (1.5m) red-crowned crane and to the small town of Rausu to see hordes of white-tailed and Steller’s sea eagle – with a wingspan of up to 8ft (2.5m), arguably the world’s largest.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Sapporo for a few days on the slopes before crossing the island to explore the wilder reaches of the east.
  • Need to know: Refuel with Hokkaido cheeses or Ishikari nabe – salmon hotpot.
  • Other months: Dec-Mar – snow; Apr-May – spring, blossoms; Jun-Aug – warmest; Sep-Nov – fall colours.

Best Cocktail Bars in San Juan

El Batey, for dive bar vibes

Chandeliers made of old business cards, walls filled with graffiti and cryptic messages (some from the 1970s and 80s) and a vintage record player featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Draco Rosa albums – these are all part of the delicious mashup that is El Batey, a dive bar found on Cristo Street. The place is tattered, scribbled on, and bewitchingly dark in the best possible way; as soon as you cross the dilapidated door of El Batey, you get into their groove, and everyone else here seems to be under the same spell – soulfully jamming to the vintage music, sharing deep thoughts with the bartender and writing stories on the walls. The bartenders are good at crafting the classics (like homemade mojitos), but when left to their own devices they improvise based on a patron’s mood, coming up with adventurous concoctions.

Oveja Negra, for turn-of-the-century charm

Oveja Negra, meaning ‘black sheep’, was created as a nod to the speakeasy, Prohibition style of the 1920s. The bar is known mostly by word of mouth, as the owner refuses to promote it anywhere and asks for a password to get in. Follow them on Instagram to get the password and then head to Bartola restaurant in Miramar. Once inside, look for a liquor shelf by the restrooms and knock as if it were a door. The shelf will open to let you inside Oveja Negra, with its burgundy wallpaper, early 20th century furniture and mixologists clad in film noir fashions and attitudes. You can stick to what’s on the menu – like the ‘Malas Palabras’, the ‘Something Sexy’, or the ‘Nutcracker’ – or ask for a drink to be invented just for you right on the spot by one of their award-winning mixologists.

La Factoria, for bar-hopping in one place

The suspender-wearing bartenders and the decaying glamour of the decor will help you identify this bar on San Sebastian street. An intriguing red bulb by the bar table goes on after 6pm, signaling the opening of three additional bars hidden behind a crooked door next to the restroom. Layers upon layers of peeling paint from decades past help set the mood, as well as the penciled name of the previous bar – the beloved Hijos de Borinquen – that peeks through the plasterwork. La Factoria is famous for their ‘Lavender Mule’ (vodka, ginger beer, and a homemade lavender infusion), but the ‘Ginger Spritzer’ (vodka, German Riesling, Cava and ginger) and the ‘Spiced Old Fashioned’ (aged rum, homemade dried herbs syrup, and bitters) will take your tastebuds on a wild ride.

Bar La Unidad, for relaxed glamour and Sinatra tunes

Following the same thread of Prohibition-era bars, this atmospheric speakeasy establishment lies hidden beside a restaurant named Soda on Cuevillas street. A minimalist symbol (three interlocking circles) is displayed on the door and is the only reference to the bar. The brainchild of restaurateur Mundi Morin, La Unidad resembles the lobby of an old hotel with over-sized vintage couches, moody decor and lighting, and Sinatra tunes enveloping it all. The same philosophy about cocktail improvisation holds true here – ask your bartender for something tailored to your taste or try one of their famous concoctions, like the ‘Cortadito’, their version of an ‘Old Fashioned’ made with hand crafted bourbon, espresso, and chocolate bitters and shavings.

La Coctelera, for a chic escape into the gastrobar world

Because it’s disguised as a run-down venue from the outside, it’s hard to believe the pristine interior of La Coctelera. With a clean industrial look and well dressed mixologists (the uniform consists of suspenders, a bowtie, and a beret), it’s obvious this is not your average cocktail bar. They call themselves a gastrobar, and serve high-end food and inventive drinks like the ‘Reina de Carnaval’, a mix of rum, lime, pineapple and a touch of ginger, and the ‘Tesla’, made from vodka, limoncello, tonic, and Jenever, served inside a light bulb.

El Bar Bero, for a drink and maybe a haircut

Need a drink and a haircut? El Bar Bero can give you both. This is a barbershop during the day and a high-end cocktail bar at night. Hair is a theme here: the perennial mustache symbol serves as decoration and barbershop chairs serve as bar stools. Three different Carlos’ run the place and they are all chatty and welcoming. The ‘Tiki Man’, ‘La Vieja del Barbero’ and their homemade ginger beer – all served in vintage flasks – are worth a sip.

Cinema Bar 1950, for rocking mojitos and a movie

Tucked inside the Ballaja barracks, by the San Felipe del Morro fort, Cinema Bar 1950 gives cinephiles a place to drink and watch foreign and independent films in the heart of Old San Juan. The place is filled with film memorabilia, styled with vintage chairs and artifacts, and it features two theaters that resemble cocktail bars from the 1950s. There’s an antique lamp for every seat and enough space to enjoy a drink with food while watching your movie. Their mojitos are simply the best in town and the food menu will take you on a journey through Puerto Rican tradition with their calamaditos (codfish fritters with shrimp), pork mofongo (garlicky mashed plantains) andchicharrones (deep fried breaded chicken with aioli).