Readers’ travel tips: life-changing trips
WINNING TIP: Amazon rainforest, Manu, Peru
When I joined a conservation project it wasn’t the jungle that was the best bit – it was the people. They taught me how big life can be, even with very little. On my last day we went to a natural oil spring – our guide said that in 50 years an oil firm would be drilling here. Upriver at Shintuya I saw a macaw painted on the side of a boat. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I realised there are all kinds of marks we can make on the world. I knew then I wanted to leave a brightly coloured one.
Norway – Hunderfossen winter park, Lillehammer
The ice hotel in Hunderfossen winter park is truly magical. The park is set in a forest with little log cabins dotted around the area with their lights twinkling in the soft white snow. The castle as you enter the park draws you into the exciting world of fairytales, and you tour the park in a horse-drawn sleigh, watching the amazing firework display. Then you stop at the ice hotel and snuggle into a warm, cosy sleeping bag for a peaceful night’s sleep It was a wonderful, exciting trip that I will cherish forever.
The Netherlands – Riverside cycle, Rotterdam-Vienna
Rivers have been trade routes since ancient times and they flow downhill! When I retired, this realisation prompted me to pedal – with no previous cycling experience – from Rotterdam to Vienna, following the rivers Rhine, Main, Tauber, Altmühl and Danube. Nearly all of the route was on dedicated cycle tracks or quiet country lanes. Wayside B&Bs and hotels were plentiful. Highlights were the view from Passau castle of the confluence of the Danube, the Ilz and the Inn rivers; and the baroque monastery at Melk. Above all though, I came to enjoy the simple pleasure of passing through fairytale landscapes under my own steam. Life-changing? Oh yes: this year I’m setting out to dawdle the length of the Danube, on a smaller budget but taking more time.
France – Camino de Santiago, from Paris
Most people think that doing the last 200km to Santiago is what the Camino is about. Instead, start in France (from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy or Arles) and do part of it this year. You need a guide and a Pilgrim Passport (from the Confraternity of St James). Accommodation and travel are cheap, and once you’ve started you’ll want to go back and complete the journey. That is when it will begin to change your life.
Greece – Pitsidia, Crete
This is a village to open you up and re-affirm what you have always believed life should be like. Chancing upon a Cretan means, at the least, a friendly “kalimera” (good morning) and a wave, sometimes an invitation to come in and drink tea. Bars and Cretans really move the welcoming spirit another notch; if the owner is not around, then customers are trusted to simply help themselves and pay their bill later that day … or even the next. The most seductive Cretan music just helps to confirm what you have always wanted to believe – that life and people are beautiful.
Bosnia-Herzegovina – Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo
Visiting this museum is a deeply moving, eye-opening and inspiring experience. Documenting the atrocities of the Bosnian war with a touchingly impartial pathos, the exhibition stopped me in my tracks. For someone born in 1990, the images, artefacts and written accounts of the conflict brought home the reality of these horrors, which occurred within my lifetime.
Cambodia – Siem Reap, Angkor Wat
The immense Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat has been cited by many as being the world’s “eighth wonder” – with good reason. Its vastness and grandeur envelops you from the moment you leave the canopy of the long, straight road from Siem Reap, and you can’t help but feel you’ve stepped far back into a magical time.
I decided to hire a bicycle and set off at 4am from Siem Reap to reach the temple while it was dark. It was incredible being able to sit back and watch the sunrise unfold with the temple’s silhouette slowly coming into view, hearing only the flutter of dragonflies hovering over the pond in front of me.
US – Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada
“Festival” doesn’t even come close to describing it. Around 50,000 people from all over the world come together in the harsh Nevada desert to create a temporary city for a week. Burning Man describes itself as “an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance”. And radical it is! It’s also crazy, beautiful, safe, generous and buzzing with life, love and laughter. Dress up like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or ride around under the stars on a giant neon spider. Climb up a carved wooden temple and scrawl your deepest secrets on the walls, then watch the temple catch fire a few days later, taking your secrets with it forever. Then if you get tired, just take a seat on a huge red velvet sofa that happens to be rolling past …
Somehow, what rises from the hot desert sands (apart from sand, which does get everywhere) is a marriage of liberation and personal responsibility, an outpouring of creative inspiration, mutual support, pure joy and fun.
Mexico – Zapotec ruins, Monte Albán, Oaxaca
Monte Albán is less well known than many other pre-Columbian sites in Mexico but it is in a spectacular location on top of a levelled-off ridge at the point where three valleys meet, just outside Oaxaca city. Views from every vantage point are magnificent, with forest-clad mountains seeming to stretch infinitely towards Guatemala and beyond. The feeling of eternity among the ruins with the stunning Sierra Madre backdrop made me feel insignificant, overwhelmed by the vastness of nature. However, I was surprised at how comforting this was. Truly awe-inspiring.
Canada – Nelson, British Columbia
This small town, wonderfully designed by the architect Francis Rattenbury, will make you reassess what you think civilisation should be like. It was made unique by a huge influx of American draft-dodgers during the Vietnam War, and has been kept unspoiled by constant overshadowing, courtesy of the Rockies and their ski towns. Its many intellectual inputs (Russian pacifists settled there, sponsored by Tolstoy himself) and its beautiful setting, on the shores of Lake Kootenay by the underrated Selkirk Mountains, combine the majestic Canadian wilderness with the best minds and values our species has created. To top it off, the most beautiful YHA hostel I’ve ever seen, The Dancing Bear, is right in the centre.
Australia – Far North Queensland
Far North Queensland has the tropical luxury of Port Douglas, with cocktails and fantastic food, but also back-to- basics four-wheel driving beyond Cape York with hidden pristine beaches. The Coral Sea is the most eye-catching aquamarine but take heed of the signs warning of salt-water crocodiles (salties.) The realisation that you’re no longer top of the food chain gives you a whole new perspective on life. Still wanting to feel small in the marine world but much safer? Take a trip to the Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas. Choose a boat with a marine biologist on board and swap watching on BBC2 for a snorkel and flippers. Climate change might mean it’s all gone in 30 years …
Réunion – Cirque de Cilaos, Saint-Pierre
Everyone in the world should visit the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, specifically the volcanic craters in the middle of the island. Hosting two volcanoes (one live and one dormant), it’s full not only of idyllic beaches but also of fairytale craggy peaks and deep valleys. Piton des Neiges, the dormant volcano, is surrounded by three craters (called cirques) that are all big enough to house several villages, and each is breathtaking. Being surrounded by the walls of the crater induces a realisation of the transitory nature of human existence that is calming and refreshing. What’s important here is enjoying nature, whether it’s canyoning through rivers and waterfalls, hiking to peaks or just sitting back and taking in the view.
Japan – Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Tochigi prefecture
Japan is a complex and fascinating country where an intriguing mixture of old and new co-exist side by side. The Nikko Toshogu Shrine, high in the mountains north of Tokyo, used to be the Shogun’s spiritual retreat. The beauty of the colourful decorated carvings of flowers, Buddhas and beasts is very elaborate and magical. Close by is the enchanting Lake Chuzenji, with many unusual wild birds, and the Kegon waterfall, an excellent place to relax. Book a dogo onsen (spa) which will invigorate you, enjoy the mysticism of the culture and the scent of the oils and flowers.