Monthly Archives: March 2017
1. Creating parks in Patagonia
The Parque Pumalín is not the end, but the beginning: Tompkins Conservation, which was the subject of our latest travel podcast, will continue its rewilding mission in Patagonia. But the organisation can’t do it alone and is encouraging volunteers to come to Chile or Argentina, where they can get involved in tree planting, wildlife monitoring and, sometimes, reintroducing locally extinct species.
2. Going on safari in Laos
The last remaining home for tigers in Indochina, Nam Et-Phou Louey is a hotbed of biodiversity and an unexpectedly brilliant place to go on a safari. And we’re not talking about any old safari; we’re talking about the Nam Nern Night Safari and Ecolodge, which ploughs most of its profits into local outreach programmes that educate locals about conservation and sustainability. Twice a winner at the World Responsible Tourism Awards, guests on the safari not only support admirable conservation work but also have the opportunity to spy endangered species, mingle with locals and sleep in low-impact bungalows.
3. Crashing with locals in India
For remote Himalayan communities there can be scant opportunity for employment. However, thanks to an organisation called Village Ways, some of these isolated societies now have a steady income from sustainable tourism. The organisation puts intrepid explorers into homestays in India and Nepal, providing locals with a revenue source and an opportunity to celebrate their Himalayan traditions, culture and cuisine.
4. Supporting Maasai landowners in Kenya
The Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya is a 50,000-acre reserve created by 500 Maasai landowners. The park is home to bountiful wildlife – including big cats – and revenue from tourism provides the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood, which in turn helps preserve this diverse corner of Kenya. The conservancy’s stellar work was rewarded in 2016 with a gold medal at the African Responsible Tourism Awards.
5. Trekking with ethnic minorities in Vietnam
As tourism booms in Vietnam, not everyone is feeling the benefit: some of the country’s ethnic minorities are reportedly being left behind. However, Shu Tan, from the Hmong ethnic group, is trying to address that. The former street vendor has set up an award-winning social enterprise, Sapa O’Chau, which offers guided treks and homestays for tourists in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Managed by ethnic minorities, her organisation generates revenue for impoverished communities, where some people can’t afford to send their children to school.
6. Turtle conservation in Mexico
The deserted shores of Veracruz are just the tonic for hectic lives. They’re also a breeding ground for endangered turtles, which face a range of challenges including pollution and habitat loss. Cue the Yepez Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has spent the best part of half a century safeguarding turtles and their habitats in this corner of Mexico. They’re always on the lookout for volunteers who can help with a range of projects, from beach clean-ups and community outreach programmes to coastal reforestation.
7. Conducting reef research in Malaysia
The world’s coral reefs are, alas, in grave danger, as pollution, disease and climate change wreak havoc with these underwater ecosystems. Cue Biosphere Expeditions, which is running an eight-day excursion to the colourful colour gardens of Malaysia, where participants can help collect data from reefs, which could be used to preserve the beleaguered ecosystems. Open for qualified scuba divers only, the 2017 expedition takes place August 15-22.
Glen Tilt, Blair Atholl
One of Scotland’s lesser-known glens, this magnificent walk begins at the Old Bridge of Tilt, a hint of many ancient stone bridges hunkered in widescreen landscapes to come. This is Big Tree Country, populated by the tallest trees in Britain. Stay in a Scandinavian-esque woodland lodge on the Atholl Estates, which has been visited over centuries by everyone from Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Victoria.
Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Bleak and lunar-like, this bracing hike is punctuated by glimpses of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath on the horizon. Here, at the exposed north-western tip of Scotland, the rewards are great and hard-won. Sandwood Bay is one of Britain’s most inaccessible beaches, flanked by a skyscraping sea stack – a ruin said to be haunted by the ghost of a shipwrecked seaman – and sand dunes the size of houses. It’s perfect for wild camping, if you can face carrying your gear in and out of the boggiest of moorland. Make sure you go for a pint and plate of langoustines.
Castle Tioram, Ardnamurchan
Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of Britain, is a slender calloused finger of a peninsula pointing outward to wild seas. For a varied walk through coastline, heathland, moorland and woodland, begin on the banks of Loch Moidart where Castle Tioram, a ruin raised on a rocky tidal island, presides. Meander along sections of one of the Highlands’ most beautiful paths, the Silver Walk, then head into the heather-clad hills, passing lochs, reservoirs and pretty much every marvel of nature that the the area has to offer.
Glen Etive, Glen Coe
The most dramatic of Scotland’s glens, featured in Skyfall, is just as powerfully experienced by walking through its valleys rather than up the giant backs of its mountains. In one day you’ll encounter snow, hail, sleet, rain, the brightest of blue skies and a white-out on this long, consistently jaw-dropping hike. The deer on the steep flanks of the surrounding mountains were so far away they looked like ants on a hill. A walk to end all walks, in all weathers. Stay at the Red Squirrel campsite, make a fire and pour a whisky.
Kyle of Durness, Sutherland
Stand on the tip of Faraid Head, surrounded by nothing but the squall of seabirds and wide open seas, and you’ll feel you’ve found the very edge of the island of Britain. As long as you don’t mind sharing it with an MOD training facility. A remote, surprisingly gentle walk, criss-crossing vast dunes and grassy headlands, happening upon some of the most stunning white-sand beaches you’re likely to encounter anywhere in the UK. Don’t bother seeking paths. This is about dawdling, stopping to pick up shells, and paddling in the coldest and clearest of waters.
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
Robert Louis Stevenson described the extinct volcano forming Holyrood Park as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. The views back across Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament, Leith, the Firth of Forth and out to the Bass Rock are fabulous. There’s no need to climb Arthur’s Seat either. Circle the crags, wander the paths, and take refuge with the dog walkers in Hunter’s Bog. It’s extraordinary enough to find hillwalking like this in a capital city. Afterwards, go for a pint at Swedish hipster bar Hemma.
East of Glasgow‘s old cathedral lies one of the great Victorian cemeteries, a reminder written in 3500 stone monuments, many of them crumbling away, that this was once the second city of the empire. Explore the city on a dark day under low skies, the way many would say is best to enjoy the cheek-by-jowl views of the Tennents brewery, high rises, grand civic buildings, and all that gives Glasgow its burnished beauty. Finish up atGlasgow Green’s West brewery, located in an ostentatious Victorian carpet factory, with a beer brewed on site.
1. Sri Lanka: Kandy to Ella
Starting in colonial-style Kandy, the little train to Ella chugs through tea plantations and up hillsides to reach a remote station in the middle of Hill Country. It takes nearly seven hours to reach the final destination.
Rules around riding the train are lax in Sri Lanka, so you’ll find passengers sitting in open doorways swinging their legs in the sunshine as the train gasps its way into the hills. The last leg of the ride can be misty as the train breaks through the cloud line.
2. China: Jiayuguan to Xi’an
On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the city of Jiayuguan, in China’s far northwest, couldn’t feel more different to the metropolises of Beijing or Shanghai. In the Gansu province, the city is home to the Jiayu Pass, the furthest western end of the Great Wall of China.
The 18-hour train ride to Xi’an, also known as the end of the Silk Road, offers up more of the same. Scenery is bleak and awe-inspiringly vast. This journey – longer than any other in China – will give you a sense of the country’s sheer size.
The train belts along the Gobi Desert, before hitting the Hexi Corridor, the ancient northern Silk Road trading route. It then rattles onwards to the Qilian Mountain range, where snow-capped mountains glowing orange and pink are visible in the dusk. The train itself is comfortable, with a mixture of private compartments, second-class sleepers and hard third-class benches. The dining car offers freshly made stews and stir-fries, and cheap beer can be bought on board.
3. Malaysia: Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is blessed with a cheap and efficient rail service that runs down the west coast of the Peninsular. It’s also an incredibly scenic option.
Run by a series of electric trains that service families and commuters, this route feels just like a normal local’s journey. At least, it does until the train picks up speed and zips past forested hills and verdant tropical landscapes. In heavily populated Peninsular Malaysia, it’s a pleasure to sit back and soak up the tropical vibe from an air-conditioned carriage.
4. Japan: the Gonō Line in Tōhoku
If you ever find yourself in Tōhoku – the most northerly region on Japan’s main island, Honshū – book yourself onto a trip on the Gonō Railway. The line mostly runs through Aomori prefecture, which is surrounded by Japan’s iciest seas on three sides, with snow-capped mountains to the south. Considering how far north Aomori is, snow is pretty much guaranteed for most of the year, but the ride offers some fantastic coastal scenery.
Visitors will need to book onto a special “sightseeing train” called the Resort Shirakami. This line takes you to one of the most remote areas of the country, and it’s so far removed from Tokyo’s manic Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a different country. Its enormous glass windows and comfy booth seats are the perfect place from which to spot snow-topped Mount Iwaki and the craggy coastline.
5. Vietnam: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
More than 1000 miles of railway lines run the length of Vietnam. The lines carry comfortable air-conditioned sleeper trains, making a long distance train journey a pleasure.
You can do the whole route north to south on the Reunification Express train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in three days, but the most scenic part by far is between Hué and Danang. Watch fishermen cast their nets as you pass the South China Sea, just metres away from the tracks, before curving around the coast past deserted white beaches and lush rainforest.
Breakfast in the dining car is pot noodles in broth, served with fresh lime and chilli. Enjoy it with cup of instant black coffee, drunk as the train chugs its way past buffalos grazing in rice paddies.
6. Uzbekistan: Urgench to Bukhara
High-speed trains link most of Uzbekistan’s cities: Tashkent, Andijan and Samarkand are all joined up by super-fast express Afrosiyob trains.
Bukhara to Urgench (the jump-off point for the ancient Silk Road mud city of Khiva) on the other hand, is serviced by a slow, 12-hour service – but that’s the beauty of it. The train runs through the Kyzylkum Desert, and you can spot camels lumbering alongside the tracks. Women in brightly printed dresses sell hard-boiled eggs and pickles from the platform before the train picks up speed, screeching past desert tomb stones and abandoned mosques eroded by sand.
1. Try the freshest seafood
The clear waters around Kyūshū yield an abundance of seafood. There’s Takezaki Crab and super-tender squid, mounds of fat tiger prawns and fugu, Japan’s deadly pufferfish – a popular sushi delicacy. Famous seafood dishes include ikizukuri, a live-squid sashimi typical of Yobuko in Saga – don’t try this if you’re squeamish.
What fresher way to try seafood than in its sushi form. Sushi no Jirocho in Kurume is one of the best sushi restaurants on the island. Here, you’ll sit at the counter and watch chef Ryoji Katsuno preparing immaculate plates. In a silvery flash of his knife, Katsuno presents a steady stream of sashimi: highest-quality “fatty” tuna, tender squid and grilled seabass follow fugu, oysters and the ever-popular horse mackerel. Katsuno then impresses with a selection of miniature matchbox sushi.
2. Taste rare foods
At the source of a river in Asakurashi, southern Fukuoka, an unassuming weed grows in abundance. This is the rare suizenji nori (kawatake) river weed and it’s believed to only grow in this metres-long stretch of clear volcanic spring water. The Endo Kawatake plantation, which harvests the weed here, sells a single sheet of nori for around ¥10,000. It is also prized as an anti-inflammatory beauty product.
Kuzu root starch is another expensive Kyūshū delicacy, known for its healing benefits. It’s served in jelly form with a sweet sauce or as noodles in soups. The country’s largest producer is Hirohachido, a family-run business based in Kagoshima Bay, in southern Kyūshū. Visit the 200-year-old Hirokyukuzu Honpo store in Akizuki.
Look out for kuzu noodles or fronds of suizenji nori in your miso soup at upmarket restaurants across Kyūshū.
3. Feast on the world’s best meats
Wagyu (beef) is one of Japan’s most famous exports and regularly features on world’s-most-expensive-food lists. Myth has it that wagyu cows are raised like emperors, fed beer and massaged to produce the intense marbling that creates an exceptionally tender, almost creamy, texture.
Kyūshū is home to one of the top three brands of wagyu in the country: Saga beef. At Kirarestaurant in Saga prefecture itself, you can flash-fry freshly chopped morsels of beef and vegetables on a hot-plate set into your table. The delicate flavour of the meat is food heaven.
The pork equivalent is Kurobuta (known as “black pig”). Its soft, pink flesh is said to have been a favourite of samurai warriors and, today, it’s still highly regarded. Head to Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū to try Kurobuta, which comes from black-skinned Berkshire pigs that were imported from England to Kagoshima around 400 years ago.
The most popular way to eat Kurobuta is as a tonkatsu breaded pork cutlet or as shabu shabu, dipping succulent thin slices into a hot pot at your table. Try it at Roppakutei in Kagoshima city.
4. Go on a street-food tour of Fukuoka
Fukuoka, a city on the north coast of Kyūshū, has some of the best street-food in Japan. Every night, around 150 yatai food stalls pop up all around the city centre.
Spending an evening touring the yatai is great fun: you sit on a high-stool at the counter and watch the chef in the centre of it all, conjuring up an array of small dishes among the steaming pots and sizzling grills. It’s a sociable, rowdy event, where orders fly and strangers inevitably start chatting. By morning, there’s nothing left. All the street-food vendors have packed up and gone home, taking their yatai with them.
Along with the popular yakitori chicken skewers and gyoza Chinese fried dumplings, theyatai chefs serve many great regional dishes. Be sure to order a bowl of Tonkotsu ramen, a cloudy pork-bone broth, which many claim to be the best ramen in the country. Motsunabeis a one-pot dish that’s served in its pot at the table. Then there’s the Mizutaki, a chicken hotpot; Mentaiko, that salty pollack roe with a chilli kick; and the ever-popular Hakata-styleudon noodles.
5. Take some tea
In Kyūshū, they know how to make the perfect cup of tea. That’s because this is one of Japan’s most important tea-growing regions. It’s no coincidence that the island is also famed for the exquisite ceramics used at tea ceremonies. It is home to such historic ceramicists as Kakiemon and Fukugawa.
Kagoshima, in the far south, is the second-largest tea-production area in Japan, but you’ll also find smaller purveyors in Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Saga. Fukuoka is known for its high-quality matcha tea, used in tea ceremonies, and for Gyokuro Green Tea, considered to be one of the highest-grade green teas in the country.
Konimien Tea, a small award-winning producer in Yame, has been creating tea for around 150 years. Each leaf is picked individually, dried and tossed by hand lovingly over a warm stove. You can visit the tea shop, explore a gallery that explains the history of tea here dating back to the days of the Dutch East India company, or admire the Yame Central Tea Plantation.
6. Enjoy some warming sake
You can’t eat out in Japan without a jug of warm sake to wash down your meal. Fortunately, this feisty drink is not hard to find in Kyūshū. Fukuoka is the centre of sakerice-wine production, with more than 70 breweries packed into the small prefecture.
At several breweries, you can see the complicated brewing process first-hand and taste a few samples, warmed up or cold. Try Minematsu and Hiyuko Tsuru breweries in Kashima or Kitaya Brewery in Yame. You’ll come away knowing your ordinary Fukutshu from your high-grade Daiginjo, or the difference between a dark Koshu and a cloudy Nigorizake.
Kyūshū also the birthplace of shochu, a spirit distilled from various raw materials, including corn, barley and sweet potatoes (yes, really, sweet potatoes). Many of Fukuoka’s brewers create shochu as a by-product of sake, using rice, along with fruity shobun vinegar, which is so delicate that it’s enjoyed watered down as a cordial.