Water: Cruise on the Amazon
I’LL be honest, a cruise wouldn’t normally be top of my wish list when it comes to booking a holiday. But the Grand Amazon is no ordinary cruise liner; as its name suggests, this 144-passenger ship navigates the wild waters of the Amazon.
And by taking a cruise, I’d be joining a revolution. An impressive 1.5 million Brit holidaymakers took to the water last year. No matter that most will have sloshed around the Med rather than braving piranhas on the world’s second-largest river, there’s something irresistibly romantic about the idea of a cruise, and before heading to Manaus, in Brazil — the starting point for this particular expedition — I took refuge in some stereotypes of my own, imagining myself swanning round the deck, enjoying the scenery over a sunset G&T as the Amazon slips by beneath us.
As with all cruises, our itinerary was based around waking up somewhere new each morning. But the Grand Amazon differs from the average cruise boat in one important respect. As well as the usual cruise amenities, she has her own small fleet of tiny vessels with which to explore the surrounding areas.
Our cruise took us along the Rio Negro, a northern tributary of the Amazon, and it didn’t take long to slip into a pleasurable on-board routine, punctuated with daily boating excursions that allowed passengers to escape the rarified atmosphere of the five-star vessel and get a taste of local life: human, animal and plant.
The highlight came early, on day two, in the village of Novo Airão, where, we’d been told, we’d have the chance to see some pink dolphins — the largest of the world’s river species. As we approached the wooden dock, I was frankly dubious — these elusive animals are hard to spot, surfacing less frequently than their grey cousins. But there they were, cheekily poking their heads out of the water. To the locals, they’re known simply as boto, but they’ve put this part of the world firmly on the tourist map.
These excursions were designed to plunge us into the heart of the Amazon. Evening or twilight missions were best for spotting wildlife. As we delved further into the lush tangle of vines and creepers, our guides revealed the secret world of the rainforest: edible plants, nasty- looking insects, colourful toucans and macaws; even, at one point, a startled-looking juvenile caiman, hauled out of the water by our macho guide.
Back on board, life settled into a pleasing round of expansive dinners, sprawling on pool-side sun loungers, the occasional lecture by the on-board naturalists and, in the evening (my favourite part of the day), sunset sailing. Up on deck, we’d watch as the Grand Amazon slipped its moorings and set its course for the next destination. With a drink in hand, birds flitting across the surface of the river and the sun setting over the Amazon, those pre-trip reveries didn’t seem so far-fetched. By Matt Barr.
Surfing In Robertsport, Liberia
Bondi, Malibu, Waikiki… Robertsport? The West African country of Liberia may not be the first place that springs to mind when planning a break for you and your board. But the city of Robertsport — situated between Lake Piso, the Grand Cape Mountains and the rolling breakers of the Atlantic — has two surfer resorts, three sandy point breaks and waves to rival those in better-known surf spots across the globe, especially during the dry season between November and April.
The details: For the real surf camp vibe, stay at Nana’s Lodge in one of its luxury tents. For your own beachfront villa and something a little more high-end, try Gertrude’s Oceanview Resort. Both look out onto the waves. Brussels Airlines flies from Heathrow to the Liberian capital, Monrovia — 60 miles from Robertsport. www.nanalodge.com www.gertrudesoceanviewresort.com
Alternative: For something similar, try Busua, in Ghana, for pristine, deserted waves, and friendly locals. Stay at the Green Turtle Lodge, right at the heart of the action.
Night Kayaking in Cork
All kayaking expeditions offer the chance to get close to nature, but on a ‘Light to Darkness’ trip with Atlantic Sea Kayaking in West Cork, Ireland, you do so with only the moon and stars to guide you. With the sun dipping below the horizon, nocturnal paddlers cross Lough Hyne, a unique semi-enclosed lake three miles west of the town of Skibbereen, stopping en route for a picnic.
The details: Book through Atlantic Sea Kayaking, from €95 (£83) per person, and stay at the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen from £89 a night B&B. Aer Lingus, Ryanair, Jet 2 and Air Southwest all fly to Cork. www.atlanticseakayaking.com www.westcorkhotel.com
Alternative: Closer to home? Try kayaking off the Pembrokeshire coast. www.preseliventure.co.uk
Scuba Diving: Cayman Islands
I slowly descend through a turquoise underworld, past schools of sharp-toothed barracuda towards the looming superstructure of the MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts. I’m a short distance off the coast of Cayman Brac, 66ft down, and just about managing to keep my breathing relaxed as I float through the submerged wreckage of the warship.
The 330ft decommissioned Russian frigate became the Cayman Islands’ flagship dive site when it was scuttled in 1996. As I edge around the wreckage, a lobster scurries into a hole in the algae-covered hull and a spotted moray eel darts from its lair in a gun turret. It’s a spectacular locale; the desolate grandeur of the vessel’s superstructure only adding to the natural beauty of its surroundings.
This is just one of the world-class dives on offer in the Cayman Islands — rightly regarded as one of the planet’s best scuba locations. The islands — Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman — offer more than 300 sites, with everything from steep, deep walls descending spookily into the dark depths, to easily accessible reefs and shipwrecks — all in 30C water that’s famed for its clarity. Diving doesn’t get much better.
As a beginner, I build up to my frigate dive with a couple of the country’s stellar deepwater plunges: Stingray City and Northern Lights — both dives off Grand Cayman. The former, as the name suggests, involves stingrays. My initial fear of their sharp poisonous tails disappears as I watch the beautiful fish swim past, almost to within touching distance. We click away with our underwater cameras and keep our eyes peeled for some of the inquisitive moray eels that have been known to pop by.
After Stingray City, I’m feeling confident and begin to see diving as a peculiarly sedate kind of ‘extreme’ activity. I am, of course, displaying the classic symptoms of over-confident amateuritis, as my dive on the spectacular Northern Lights confirms. As we drop from our boat and begin to descend 65ft along a darkening wall that disappears down into unfathomable depths, a strange sense of underwater vertigo kicks in. Up or down become interchangeable concepts. For an inexperienced diver like me, not used to the equipment and checks, it’s an edgy experience: enjoyable yet eerie. I come up from this dive feeling a little like I’ve been standing on the edge of a steep cliff for 30 minutes. I’m tense yet exhilarated; the adrenalin is still coursing through me long afterwards.
The MV Keith Tibbetts is my final dive of the trip, and it’s fair to say I’m torn — sad not to be exploring any more of the country’s diving bounty, while also relieved that I’ve managed not to kill myself through decompression sickness; the dreaded bends. Still, armed with my new PADI qualification and a newfound respect for this compelling sport, I’ve got around 297 more reasons to visit, and put my newfound skills to the test. By Ben Mondy.
Snow: Winter Sports Swedish Lapland
“I use my knife for hunting, eating… just about anything you can think of,” says Goran, waving his Sami blade over my plate of elk fillet. Once upon a time, men would castrate reindeer with their bare teeth and drink bear bile mixed with vodka for strength, he adds. Right.
It dawns on me that the men of Swedish Lapland are of the macho persuasion. Goran is a man, after all, who routinely cuts through 3ft-thick ice for fish, with just a hand drill, and hits breakneck speeds across the ice on his snowmobile.
As a reluctant skier but a lover of crystallised, wintry landscapes, I’ve flown into Luleå, 70 miles below the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland, for a weekend of winter sports, fuelled by melt-in-the-mouth reindeer steaks and crackling log fires. It doesn’t matter that days are short — with the sun rising around 10am and setting just five or six hours later; or that temperatures often dip to an icicle-inducing -27C, because, at times, the landscape borders on a CS Lewis fantasy: hushed silences, blue skies and herds of reindeer make trudging through two foot-deep snow a Narnia-like experience.
Wearing luminous-orange dry suits, we board an icebreaking tug off the coast of Pite Havsbad and slip into the watery crevices carved into the frozen wastes of the Baltic; our guide seemingly oblivious to the forest of icicles forming in his beard.
From December to April, when the sea transforms into an inert sheet of ice, the archipelago scattered between Pite and Luleå becomes a winter playground. Here, frozen shores are dotted with log cabins that form a cosy base for Arctic sportsters: ice fisherman, snowshoers and husky trekkers, to name but a few.
Go-karting on ice is offered at Camp Ebbenjarka, while at Camp Brändön, on the northern shores of the Bothnic Gulf, I discover I’m not bad at snowmobiling. In my all-in-one snow suit, helmet pinching my red-flushed cheeks, we set off in convoy behind Goran. Timidly tapping the throttle with my thumb, the vehicle judders from side to side as it accelerates across the pockmarked ice. Fast-forward a few months and it’s hard to believe this vast white membrane of ice will have transformed into a landscape of calm blue water and lush green islands.
But, for now, we’re in a land of ice with a well-trained team of huskies. We climb into wooden sledges for a ride through solitary wilderness of frozen lakes and petrified forests, led by Caisa Ohlsson, a champion ‘musher’ who regularly runs her beloved dogs at midnight beneath the incredible Northern Lights. By Helen Warwick.
Ski, the Vallee Blanche in Chamonix, France
Chamonix’s flagship off-piste run is skiing’s most notorious for a reason. Before you even get to the slopes, you have to ascend the rickety Aiguille du Midi lift to 12,600ft. Then there’s a scary walk along a treacherous arête to the breathtaking 11-mile run back down to the valley, fording glaciers, passing ice cliffs and some of the Alps’ most iconic peaks. If conditions are good, the route is accessible to most intermediate skiers.
The details: Mountain guides are essential. Book with www.chamonix.net. Stay at Le Labrador Hotel, in Le Praz. BA and EasyJet fly from various UK airports to Geneva; about an hour away by road. www.hotel-labrador.com
Alternative: If this sounds too extreme, head to the gentle Sella Ronda circuit
in Italy, which takes in the starry resorts of Selva Gardena, Corvara, Arraba and Canazei. Crystal Ski offers a week in
Val Gardena from £613. www.crystalski.co.uk
Cross-country skiing in Austria’s Leutasch valley, Seefeld
Are you ready to don lycra and take on a serious physical challenge? It might seem inexplicable to the average Brit, but cross-country (‘XC’ to the initiated) is the most popular form of skiing across Scandinavia and the lower Alps. And you could do worse than head to the Leutasch Valley in Austria’s Tyrol region. The 155 miles of blue, red and black trails criss-crossing the flat plateau here are widely regarded as being among the best in Europe.
The details: Headwater offers complete XC packages, including full-board accommodation at the Hotel Xander, with flights and transfers from £1,239per person. www.headwater.com
Alternative: If you prefer wintry transport of a more mechanised kind, try a five-night Snowmobile Adventure Holiday in Finland with one night in the Icehotel from £2,442 with Mighty Fine. www.mightyfinecompany.com
Active: Canyoning Madeira
Madeira is probably best-known for being one of the Saga crowd’s walking hot-spots and the birthplace of footballing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Which is why I’m surprised to find myself — within hours of my first visit to the Portuguese island — dangling by a rope above a raging, 65-foot-high waterfall. There are no pensioners or Real Madrid players in sight. And with very good reason.
This Atlantic isle is keen to shed its random list of associations, and instead wishes to be known as an adrenalin junkies’ paradise. Not a tall order: it’s as if the island’s interior has been designed expressly with the increasingly popular sport of canyoning in mind. As the name suggests, this precarious pastime sees participants scrambling, abseiling, jumping and generally clambering their way up, down, through and over water-filled gorges using a number of different techniques — many of which, just to warn you, involve the use of your bottom.
But there’s another, subtler appeal at play: the chance to literally immerse yourself in the region’s unique ecosystem. Here in the Ribeiro Frio, a leafy paradise in the heart of the island, we’re taking the plunge with Ventura do Mar. This local company specialises in trips that explore the island’s rich Laurel Forest, a humid, subtropical woodland that has been on the UNESCO Natural World Heritage List since 1999.
Pulling myself together and putting my trust in the instructor, Carlos, if not the rope and harness, I step backwards into the abyss. It takes a second or two for the rope to jerk and tense against my fall. I’m speechless but my face must speak volumes. “Yeah, most people are terrified at the start,” says Carlos, shouting over the din of the waterfall, whose spiralling eddies I’m looking directly down at. He shoots me a grin. “But they soon get into it.” I can see what he means. I’m beginning to enjoy hauling myself through slimy chutes and dropping off small cliffs into chilly water. Perhaps this explains why the sport has grown so rapidly. Made popular in the US, it can be done anywhere there’s great scenery, fast-flowing water, and a canyon.
And despite the jagged rocks and bruised bottoms, done properly it’s all pretty harmless. The intensive safety briefing made it clear the guides would be in complete control, reassuring stuff, given what we’re about to get up to. And I’m well and truly trussed up in a wetsuit, boots and gloves, and protected by a helmet and a harness dangling with all manner of technical paraphernalia. I look like a rock-hopping, sub-aqua superhero.
By the time I reach the end of this Madeiran canyon, I’m soaked, half-terrified and covered in mud, but I’m well and truly hooked and already mentally scouring the internet for similar operations back home. By Chris Moran.
Kung Fu training in China’s Fujian Province
For many travellers, an adventure holiday is a chance to step outside normal life for a couple of weeks. But how about taking on a trip that could change the whole way you view things? Try spending four vaguely terrifying weeks receiving training from kung fu masters in China’s Fujian Province. As well as learning the historical, physical and mental aspects of the martial art, you’ll also learn Mandarin and get to explore this fascinating mountainous region. How’s that for a month well spent?
The details: Book through Real Gap, which offers a four-week, land-only package from £799, including five days’ training a week, accommodation, meals and transfers. Fly into Wuyishan with Xiamen Airlines www.realgap.co.uk www.xiamenair.com.cn
Alternative: Have lessons in hand-to-hand combat at the Gladiator School of Rome, 1.5 miles from the Colosseum. www.viator.com
Trek: Everest Base Camp
I’ve experienced a few challenging moments trekking in Nepal, but waking up at 2am with what our group later euphemistically terms ‘the treks’ at 12,300ft is definitely one of the worst. The air outside the tent is a raw -15C, making my dashed toilet trip more than a little uncomfortable. If I didn’t have to spend the next eight hours trekking to Dingboche (2,625ft higher), it probably wouldn’t be so bad. Nevertheless, my pre-trip boast about Everest Base Camp being ‘just a walk’ is starting to seem like schoolboy bravado.
The epic feats of endurance that have unfolded on these Himalayan slopes are the stuff of legend. Compared with these, my late-night dash to the latrine is a risible footnote. Nonetheless, the opportunity to test one’s own personal limits is what continues to attract visitors to the Nepalese trekking circuit. I’ve certainly wondered how I’d react when faced with a proper physical and mental challenge. As I shoulder my pack, gather my bowels and trudge up the path, it looks like I’m about to find out.
Today, trekking to Everest Base Camp has never been easier, and my trip is fairly typical. My fellow 15 trekkers and I are supported by a 35-strong Sherpa team who run the camp and keep us to the time-honoured Himalayan trekking schedule. At dawn, they wake us with bowls of washing water and cups of tea. Breakfast is followed by a four-hour hike. There are 90-minutes for lunch, then we’re off again for a further four hours; arriving at camp for sunset.
For the first few days — until I’m struck down by the dreaded high-trail lergy — this military routine is quite fun. But then things get tough, and I start to ask myself seemingly alarming medical questions: why has my left hand swollen to twice the normal size? The headache that kicked in at 16,400ft — it’s just a headache, right? Not acute mountain sickness caused by excess water on the brain? Just how many times is it healthy for one man to urinate when he’s downing six litres of water a day?
The lack of oxygen that comes with high-altitude trekking is often accompanied by some pretty paranoid internal monologues. It’s a good job I have some of the planet’s most sublime natural scenery to take my mind off things. The highlight of this picture-perfect distraction comes when we make the trek to Kala Patar, a mountain overlooking Everest at a lofty 18,190ft above sea level. That’s a full 0.6 miles higher than Europe’s most famous peak, Mont Blanc. But surrounded by Himalayan giants such as Pumori, Everest and Nuptse, it looks piddling. Still, it’s a supreme viewing platform and the ascent marks the high point of our trip, literally. From here, it’s all downhill, back to our starting point at Lukla.
By the time we arrive, five days later, I’ve lost a stone and gained a beard Sir Edmund Hillary would’ve been proud of. But I’ve made it back, with my mental and physical faculties just about intact. The metropolitan comforts of Katmandu, and a long-awaited lager, are my very welcome reward. By Ben Mondy.
Tramping in New Zealand
New Zealand is one of the most exotic destinations for serious walkers, which is why the authorities there have created nine ‘Great Walks’, spread across both the North and South islands — affectionately dubbed ‘Classic Tramps’. Walks take in all sorts of terrain, from snow-capped peaks to pristine beaches. Each tramp ensures walkers leave with an intimate understanding of the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The details: Discover The World offers the Abel Tasman walk from £608 per person including guides, accommodation, and food. Air New Zealand, Emirates, Qantas and Cathay Pacific all fly from the UK to New Zealand.
Alternative: If New Zealand seems a little too far, why not try something closer to home? Iconic UK treks include the Pennine Way, Coast-to-Coast and South West Coast Path.
www.nationaltrail.co.uk www.coast2coast.co.uk www.southwestcoastpath.com
Trek Italy’s trio of south Med volcanoes
Intrepid volcano-mad holidaymakers can find Europe’s Big Three — Vesuvius, Etna and Stomboli — all sitting pretty around southern Italy. Etna, on the island of Sicily, is Europe’s largest volcano and easily the most spectacular, while Vesuvius, on the Bay of Naples, is perhaps the best known, thanks to the pyroclastic blast that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. A little trickier to get to is Stromboli, a small island off the north coast of Sicily usually accessed by hydrofoil.
The details: An eight-day trip with Explore starts at £1,219 including flights. www.explore.co.uk
Alternative: Mountain Kingdoms offers an 11-night trek up Mount Toubkal in Morocco from £935 including flights. www.mountainkingdoms.com
Nature: Orangutan Safari Borneo
In the heart of the Tanjung Puting National Park a small group of orangutans are tentatively making their way towards our wooden feeding station to snaffle the fruit we’ve left for them. “Now,” says our guide, “wasn’t that worthwhile?” It might have taken us three days to get here, by air and native riverboat, via the Indonesian hubs of Kumai, Jakarta and Pangkalan Bun, but our answer is a collective “yes”, or at least it would be if our group weren’t too busy feverishly snapping photos to reply.
This type of experience has been drawing visitors to Tanjung Puting for years: the chance to rub shoulders with some of the jungle’s most prized residents, while experiencing a completely different way of life. It’s certainly why I’m here.
The journey begins once you board a local Klotok riverboat at the seaport of Pangkalan Bun. Conditions onboard are basic — my bed is a simple mattress-and-mosquito-net combo on deck — but they make for a really immersive experience, bringing us within eyeballing distance of proboscis monkeys, with the sounds of the forest lulling us to sleep each night.
But the real highlight of the trip is the chance to get up close to the orangutans. The journey takes three days and two nights, with ample time to find out more about the park and its efforts to safeguard its orangutan population. Human contact is the biggest danger, whether through logging, poaching or simple contact, which can kill the animals by exposing them to cold and flu bugs against which they have no natural immunity.
Centres like this used to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans by nursing them back to health, but today this approach is being phased out. The animals we have contact with are rehabilitated ones that are used to human contact. Their wilder cousins stay well away.
It’s debatable whether interactions such as this are a good or bad thing. The rehabbed animals become so used to being fed they lose the ability to forage for food — a process very difficult to reverse. Then again, if increasing numbers of tourists pay to visit the animals in their natural habitat, it’s less likely loggers will continue to clear their habitat, further endangering the great apes. Whatever the answer, I leave hoping our closest cousins will be the eventual beneficiaries of this wonderful experience. By Matt Barr.
Omo Valley wilderness experience, Ethiopia
Today’s adventure traveller can struggle to feel they’re actually pushing any boundaries. Not so if you take on a trip to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Tourism is in the process of becoming one of the country’s key industries and yet travel here still feels far removed from any established trail, especially when you enter the Omo Valley itself. This fascinating region, situated right on the edge of the Rift Valley, is home to more than 20 tribes (including the Oromo, the Dorze, Mursi and Hamer people) who still live largely traditional lives.
As well as enjoying unique cultural insights, visitors also get the chance to take safaris through the Nechisar and Mago Parks.
The details: Exodus offers a 15-day trip to the valley from £2,349 including accommodation, food, 4WD transfers, guides and flights. www.exodus.co.uk
Alternative: For something closer to home, trek through the Rhodope Mountains, spanning Bulgaria and Greece, among Europe’s wildest fauna and an unspoilt, rural way of life. www.exodus.co.uk
Safari in the Zambezi Valley, Zambia
Forget those Hemingway fantasies. Today’s safaris are a more sophisticated offering — plus the animals don’t end up as mantelpiece decorations afterwards. Here in the wild, unspoilt Zambezi Valley, the only noisy neighbours you’ll notice are the lions strutting around your tent and the raucous elephants sounding the morning call for breakfast.
The details: Bales offers a week-long Zebra Plains Walking Safari from £3,795 per person including flights, transfers, accommodation, meals, walking safaris and guides. www.balesworldwide.com
Alternative: Head to the Indian subcontinent to spot tigers, leopards and have a colourful cultural experience to boot, as well as brush up on your photography skills. www.safariindia.co.uk
Save the Turtles in Costa Rica
As this Latin American country finds itself becoming increasingly popular with tourists, there’s a need to ensure its delicate ecosystem remains intact. A trip like this is a brilliant way to get two distinct travel experiences for the price of one — offering you time to catch some waves, as well as the opportunity to work with local conservation groups to help save our little-flippered friends.
The details: Volunteer specialist i-to-i offers a week in Samara or Matapalo, on the country’s Pacific coast from £699 per person, including full-board beach hut accommodation, conservation training and surf lessons. Continental Airlines flies from the UK to San Jose Santamaria. www.i-to-t.com www.continental.com
Alternative: Head into the mountains and trek beside gorillas and golden monkeys with Responsible Travel. www.responsibletravel.com
Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK)