Monthly Archives: February 2017
1. Gothenburg and the west coast, Sweden
In the space of a couple of decades, Sweden’s second biggest city has reinvented itself as one of Europe’s coolest city break destinations. It’s still a big industrial hub with a busy port at its heart, but the focus is increasingly on tourism. Why should you go? For the super-fresh seafood, for the locally brewed beer and laidback bars, and for the car-free islands that lie just offshore, where you can swim in cool, clear waters.
2. Skagen, Denmark
Set on a narrow spit of land with breezy beaches on both sides, Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town – and one of its prettiest, too, with mustard-yellow houses lining the streets. Since the Nordic Impressionists arrived here more than a century ago, attracted by the big skies and soft golden light, the artists have kept on coming. Now the town is dotted with galleries, workshops and antiques shops. Cycle a few kilometres northeast of town to the sandbar called Grenen, where Denmark ends, and you can watch two separate seas sloshing together before your eyes.
3. Bergen and the fjords, Norway
Bergen looks like it was built for a photoshoot, but its beauty pales in comparison to the epic fjords nearby. You might find that the staggering views are rewarding enough (imagine soaring mountains reflected in mirror-smooth water), but otherwise there’s a whole host of adrenaline-pumping activities to keep you occupied. Anyone for paragliding?
4. Stockholm, Sweden
Sprawling across low islands that are stitched together by passenger boats and bridges, with views of soaring spires around almost every corner, Stockholm sure is a looker. But beyond the medieval lanes of the old centre, the self-proclaimed Capital of Scandinavia is a slick, forward-thinking city, home to some of the world’s coolest tech and fashion brands. It’s pricey and pretentious, sure, but there’s a reason young Swedes flock here from all four corners of the country.
5. Lapland, Norway & Sweden
Wood-fired saunas, shivering forests, reindeer meat and steaming cups of lingonberry juice: Lapland manages to roll Scandinavia’s most exotic bits into a single epic landscape. Challenging weather conditions and the area’s vast size can make exploring a slow process, but with a long weekend you’ll be able to get a decent flavour for life in the north. Watch the northern lights, try ice fishing or snuggle down for a night at the Icehotel. Come back in summer when the sun reappears, nourishing the valleys with meltwater, and the possibilities for hiking are endless.
6. Copenhagen, Denmark
When it comes to art, design, fashion and food, no other Scandinavian city can compete with Copenhagen. Yes, Noma is here, but most visitors experience a more laidback version of the city, where bottles of Carlsberg are still swigged at canal-side bars, and where pushbikes – not limos – remain the favoured mode of transport. Give the famous Little Mermaid statue a miss, and instead make time for the galleries, food carts and design shops. A weekend here is barely enough to scratch the surface.
7. Österlen, Sweden
Home to rolling fields of poppies and cornflowers, rather than the usual dense pine forests, Österlen is the gorgeous chunk of land in the far southeast of Sweden. It’s one of the best parts of the country to explore by car, with farm shops and orchards sprouting up at the side of the road, and powder-fine beaches hugging the pristine coast. Head to Stenshuvud Nationalpark on a warm summer’s day, squint just a little, and you might think you’ve landed on some languid Thai island.
Best for sightseeing: Spandauer Vorstadt
Arcing elegantly above the Spree between Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz, theSpandauer Vorstadt was an eighteenth-century suburb that today serves as Berlin’s primary “downtown” area, and is the heart of the Mitte district.
This is the most obvious area to stay in Berlin, particularly if you’re after a major hotel. There is also a good selection of hostels and boutique hotels here – all within walking distance of many city-centre attractions, and near good eating and nightlife options.
Best boutique: Hackescher Markt. Quirky little hotel on a quiet side street, in the middle of the Hackescher Markt bar scene.
Best for families: Prenzlauer Berg
If you are going to be in Berlin a little longer than a weekend or prefer a quieter, less touristy but equally happening residential neighbourhood, Prenzlauer Berg is a good choice.
Built in the nineteenth century as a working-class district, the area has seen huge gentrification. Today’s refurbished buildings and handsome, cobbled streets create an attractive Alt Berlin atmosphere beloved by wealthy creative types and middle-class families, who gravitate towards leafy, laidback squares like Helmholtzplatz and Kollwitzplatz.
Apartment stay: Ackselhaus. Offbeat hotel and apartments on an attractive residential street in the heart of the lively Prenzlauer Berg scene.
Best for choice: City West
Four boroughs make up City West: Wilmersdorf, Schöneberg, Tiergarten and Charlottenburg, known for its wealthy residents and expensive shops.
You’ll find plenty of options in every category here, although it’s a little away from Berlin’s brightest lights, so nightlife is very thin, but the restaurant scene is generally very good and transport links first-class.
Pick of the hostels: Jetpak Flashpacker. Western Berlin’s best hostel is scrupulously clean and in a quiet residential neighbourhood.
Best for bar-hopping: Friedrichshain
Though part of an ensemble of former East inner-city areas, Friedrichshain has developed a slightly differently mien than that of neighbouring Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. A magnet for lefties, anarchists and students, it has managed to resist the same levels of gentrification thanks to an organised squatter scene, activist demos and the occasional car-burning frenzy.
It’s most popular for bar-hopping and clubbing, but the area does offer some heavyweight public monuments, the world-famous East Side gallery and the imposing Karl-Marx-Allee among them. It’s also home to – indeed named after – the lovely, sprawling Volkspark Friedrichshain.
Warehouse cool: Michelberger Hotel. Modern, trendy and relaxed haunt with anything but workaday accommodation.
Best for cutting-edge culture: East Kreuzberg
An isolated section of West Berlin throughout the Cold War, Kreuzberg has since grown into one of Berlin’s most colourful districts – a magnet for left-wing anarchists, gays, turkish immigrants (it’s sometimes called little Istanbul) and, increasingly, hipsters and tourists.
Much of the eastern part of Kreuzberg abutted the wall on the West side and was strongly associated with Berlin’s squatter and anarchist scenes. Though the area has gentrified somewhat since those heady days, it maintains a grungy, vibrant feel, fuelled by an ever-expanding series of excellent independent bars, clubs and restaurants.
Flashpacking: Jetpak Alternative. Slick branch of Berlin’s best hostel chain that offers a pretty stark contrast to Kreuzberg’s gritty but happening Wrangelkiez neighbourhood.
1. TYNEMOUTH, TYNE & WEAR
A 25-minute drive or Metro hop from central Newcastle, Tynemouth lies exactly where its name suggests. Of its beaches, surf-hub Longsands gets most of the accolades. But clamber down the stairs from the clifftop to King Edward’s Bay, and you’re in for a real treat. This is where Geordie foodies flock, in fine weather or otherwise, to enjoy superb seafood and real ales at Riley’s Fish Shack, a simple hut-kitchen that is the beach’s lone structure. Tynemouth also has a ruined priory and castle to enjoy, plus a Sunday flea market.
2. SOUTHWOLD, SUFFOLK
Perched on the east coast of England, the small town of Southwold offers typical seaside merriment with its sandy beach, traditional pier and candy-coloured beach huts. A working lighthouse (open to visitors) stands sentinel, surveying the bay, while the Adnams Brewery, which still operates on the same site after 670 years, wafts early morning hops into the sea air. Plenty of excellent eating and accommodation options range from the smart Swan Hotel, situated on the picturesque market square, to a nearby campsite – all a pebble’s throw from the sea.
3. PORTHMADOG, GWYNEDD
If Porthmadog is handsome, it owes at least a portion of its good looks to the magnificent views all around – from town, you can gaze up the Vale of Ffestiniog and across the estuary of the Glaslyn River to Snowdonia’s mountains. Indeed, there’s no finer base for trips into Snowdonia National Park, and Porthmadog is also the terminus of a fabulous narrow-gauge rail line – the 22km-long Ffestiniog Railway is the finest of its kind in Wales, and runs from Porthmadog harbour to the slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. A mile south of Porthmadog, Borth-y-Gest is little more than a semi-circle of low, brightly painted Victorian houses lining the beach – and utterly charming in its simplicity.
4. WHITSTABLE, KENT
Whitstable, on the north Kent coast, is a popular London escape route – but don’t let that put you off. One of the major attractions here are the local oysters, which the town has been famous for since Roman times. The annual highlight is the Oyster festival (last two weeks of July), when you can expect oyster-eating competitions, parades and performances. At any time of year, however, this is a great place to come for fresh seafood and windswept coastal walks.
5. ABERYSTWYTH, CEREDIGION
Two sweeping pebble bays, soft-hued Georgian houses lining the promenade, the nineteenth-century Royal Pier – Aberystwyth has all the hallmarks of a traditional British seaside resort. Yet this mid-Wales hub offers more than just bucket-and-spade amusements. Aberystwyth is a blast of fresh salty air with a lively student population, plentiful pubs, booming café culture, and a strong sense of national pride, which combined with the thriving art scene, make this one of the best places to enjoy live Welsh music.
6. SHANKLIN, THE ISLE OF WIGHT
Possibly the Isle of Wight’s most idyllic seaside resort, Shanklin has an archetypically pretty Old Village with thatched pubs, sweet shops and traditional tearooms. At the bottom of the steep cliffs is a pretty beach, where you can hire kayaks and the like in front of a row of whitewashed guesthouses and cafés. Don’t miss Shanklin Chine, a mossy gorge with fascinating World War II military connections.
7. HASTINGS, EAST SUSSEX
Once seen as a tired and tacky seaside resort, Hastings in East Sussex doesn’t get the love it deserves. The town has the UK’s largest land-launched fishing fleet, which means there’s ultra-fresh seafood on offer just behind the working beach, and a host of small but brilliant restaurants that serve the catch of the day. There are curios and antiques galore on the Old Town’s George Street, and some funny old funiculars to take you up the cliffs for a great view over the town. But it’s not all about the old in Hastings: 2016 saw the opening of the brand new pier, after the previous one was ravaged by fire, and its given the town a new lease of life.
1. Make the journey to Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay is just to the northeast of world-famous Ha Long Bay – and its striking expanse is just as beautiful. However, it sees a fraction of the visitors.
More and more tour companies are now offering trips to Bai Tu Long (“Children of the Dragon”). Or, if you want to go it alone, you can take the ferry to remote Quan Lan Island – the slow boat from Cai Rong has the best views.
Quan Lan has only a handful of hotels, and very little English is spoken – but that’s part of the joy. Once you’ve taken in the bay, bask on the untouched beaches (the best stretch along the east coast) and explore the virtually empty roads by bicycle. You’ll get the impression that little has changed here for decades.
2. Enjoy farm-to-table food in Bong Lai Valley
Phong Nha National Park may already be on your itinerary, but your taste buds will thank you for venturing to nearby Bong Lai Valley. Farming is integral to the community here, and more and more locals are now opening their homes to visitors.
Farm-to-fork restaurants will give you a true taste of the local delicacies; Moi Moi’s speciality is pork slow-cooked in bamboo tubes and delicious veggie peanut dumplings. At The Duck Stop you can feed the ducks and buy drinks and packets of fresh pepper. The legendary Pub With Cold Beer does exactly what it says on the tin, plus there are hammocks and a river to swim in. In the true spirit of farm-to-table, they will kill and cook a chicken for a shared lunch.
3. Visit minority villages around Kon Tum
The lush central highlands are a highlight for many adventurers in Vietnam. The sleepy provincial capital, Kon Tum, with its glorious riverside setting, is particularly lovely.
Curiously overlooked by tourists, the 650 minority villages surrounding Kon Tum are wonderful, welcoming places to visit too. And you’re unlikely to see another foreigner on your travels. You can stay overnight in a communal thatched rong in the Bahner villages, within easy walking distance from the centre of town.
4. Take a road trip to remote Ha Giang
Home to several ethnic minority groups, including the Hmong, Dao and Giay, Vietnam’s Far North is the final frontier for intrepid travellers – and nowhere is wilder than Ha Giang. Mountain roads wind through lush green landscape and open out to incredible vistas, particularly in the rugged Dong Vang Karst Plateau Geopark.
5. Cycle the Mekong Delta’s An Binh Island
To experience a slice of island life on your Vietnam adventure, head all the way south to the languid Mekong Delta. The watery rural idyll of An Binh Island is criss-crossed by narrow dirt paths perfect for exploring by bicycle. All routes are fringed with palm trees, with a backdrop of lush orchards and traditional thatched houses, many of which are open as homestays. Staying here overnight and exploring at your own pace is far more rewarding than a day tour organised from Ho Chi Minh City.
6. Drink homebrew at Hanoi’s other Bia Hoi Corner
Bia hoi can be found all over Vietnam and, in Hanoi, most visitors head straight to the tourist-laden bia hoi on Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien in the Old Quarter. Come evening time, the bars, filled with plastic stools at squatting height, are full to the brim with an international crowd sipping bottled beer.
But, to get a flavour of a real bia hoi, try further west on the corner of Bat Dang and Duong Thanh. Here, room temperature 5000VND (20¢) draught beer is served in sticky glasses to a predominantly male clientele.
7. Experience Mai Chau hospitality
Surprisingly overlooked by foreign visitors considering its proximity to Hanoi (135km southwest of the city), rural Mai Chau is a world away from Vietnam’s chaotic capital. The valley is inhabited mainly by the White Thai minority, many of whom have opened their traditional stilt houses as rustic homestays. You only need to wander the villages that fan out from Bac Ha to find somewhere to get your head down.
Once settled, feast on delicious home-cooked meals before a backdrop of jagged karst mountains.