Himalayan views, without the danger

a4

Does a low-altitude Himalayan hike that includes gin and tonics and nights in comfortable lodges offer the same rewards as a more challenging journey?

“Ukaalo, oraalo,” said our guide, Naresh Gurung, describing the three-hour hike we’d just begun toward Three Mountain Lodge in central Nepal. He undulated his hand: “up” and “down”.

I’d been on treks in the Himalayas before and wondered if, in a country where the earth rises to the hypoxia-inducing heights of Mount Everest, a word for “flat” even existed. And yet the trail disappearing into distant orange groves before us looked almost flat.

Pink sunset over Annapurna in Nepal (Credit: Credit: Whitworth Images/Getty)

Pink sunset over Annapurna in Nepal. (Credit: Whitworth Images/Getty)

Nepal’s classic Himalayan treks – the Annapurna Circuit, say, and the route to Everest Base Camp – are ard...

Read More

A paradise protected by butterflies

a56

Turkey’s 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, creating a protected oasis where time seems to stand still.

Our boat pulled in about two hours before sunset, when the disappearing light was turning the Mediterranean Sea from sapphire to aquamarine and the descending shadows were creeping up the imposing rock walls that isolate Butterfly Valley. The beach was nearly empty and the water was calm enough to skip stones across. As the sun finally lowered itself into the sea, I dove in with it, floating on what looked like liquid sunshine.

Located on Turkey’s famous, 500km Lycian Way and only accessible by water, the 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, including the endemic orange, black and white Jersey Tiger...

Read More

Vietnam’s prison-island paradise

a17

Despite being a quick 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Con Son is a world away from Vietnam’s well-beaten tourist trail, with inexplicably few Western travellers.

At 5 am and 6 pm, government loudspeakers crackle to life all over Vietnam. Relics of an era before homes had televisions and radios, these public address systems – broadcasting news, propaganda and weather reports – are usually barely audible above the din of this modern nation: a mix of motorcycle engines, truck horns and construction.

But on Con Son, the news carries loud and clear over the tiny township of just 5,000 residents, two sets of traffic lights and one seaside promenade...

Read More

Utopian days in a murder capital

a22

Crime may plague other parts of Honduras, but on Utila, a Caribbean island with a population of just 3,500, the biggest problems are invasive lionfish – and getting a restaurant table.

I felt like I had been shocked; a surge of electric pain seared my thighs. Distracted by a pair of blue-and-white dappled eagle rays, I hadn’t noticed the tumbleweed-sized fire coral I was now practically straddling. Meanwhile, without slowing, the snout-nosed rays glided into the shadows of the Meso American Barrier Reef.

I was skin-diving in Utila, a Caribbean island located about 29km north of Honduras’ mainland port town of La Ceiba...

Read More

India’s temples of sex

a7

This extremely conservative country was once home to the world’s first sex treatise and the erotic art on display is perhaps more shocking now than when it was created.

In December 2013, India’s LGBT community suffered a severe setback as the country’s Supreme Court ruled homosexuality to be a criminal offence. More recently, in August 2015, the Indian government imposed a ban, lifted conditionally a few days later, on more than 800 websites deemed pornographic, in an ostensible bid to curb child pornography and sexual violence.

But India was not always like this. Sexual norms were far more liberal before the 13th Century.

India has been a particularly conservative country for the last few hundred years, influenced by the puritanism of several groups, including Islamic dynasties, Bri...

Read More

An exiled nation turned private Eden

a54

While its former population fights to return home, the Chagos islands are experiencing a remarkable rebounding of wildlife on a reef that’s considered the most pristine in the world.

By the time the moray eel slithered toward me, my walk around Ile Takamaka was already wilder than expected. The eel had been chasing a fast-moving crab out of the water and up the beach when it spotted my toe. I quickly scrambled onto a tree trunk to escape and tried to hide my tender toe from view. Happily the eel settled for the crab, and I went back to contemplating my way forward: through the ocean over jagged coral, or back inland through dense jungle.

A friend and I had set out on a morning stroll to bird watch and check out a boat wreck at the far end of Ile Takamaka in the Indian Ocean’s Salom...

Read More

Inside Spain’s secret food societies

EN2H07 San Sebastian,Spain: the old town Parte Vieja with pintxos bars and restaurants. Image shot 03/2013. Exact date unknown.

Secure an invite to one of these private clubs, and you’ll see how San Sebastian’s proud yet somewhat reserved people open up around the common bond of good food and drink.

With its abundance of Michelin starred restaurants and celebrated chefs, San Sebastian is widely considered one of the world’s premier culinary destinations. But as tourists clog the Old Town, eating and drinking their way through its narrow streets, another world lies hidden in plain sight.

San Sebastian’s Old Town is filled with restaurants – and tourists (Credit: Credit: ilpo musto/Alamy)

San Sebastian’s Old Town is filled with restaurants – and tourists (Credit: ilpo musto/Alamy)

There are hundreds of txokos, or secret gastronomic societies, scattered around Spain’s Basque country...

Read More

A story of rebirth in Nepal

a2

When I think about the chance encounters I’ve had in my travels, dominoes come to mind. Every effect has its cause, sometimes stretching back for weeks, years, or (in this case) eons. It’s as if time itself conspires, wilfully, to set up the cascade that tumbles us into the present moment, as if no encounter truly happens by chance.

The domino metaphor is uniquely appropriate in this story. It’s set in Nepal, my second home since 1979, and to where I’d return as a visitor or resident almost every year for the next three decades. But on 25 April 2015, at 11:56 am, two plates of the Earth’s crust shifted slightly...

Read More

Never drink whisky on the rocks

a5

The Thirsty Explorer heads to the Scottish island of Islay where he learns the important differences between malt and whisky – and how to order it in a bar.

The first time I tasted Scotch whisky I was a broke student, chugging direct from a £3 bottle, lying outside my tent at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.  It was after a meal of tinned macaroni and cheese – hardly a sophisticated sampling considering I was sipping the world’s most venerated style of whisky. I promised myself that the next time I returned to Scotland, I would drink the best the country had to offer, in great abundance and straight from the source, no matter what it took.

The Caledonian Canal with Ben Nevis in background (Credit: Credit: Simon Butterworth/Getty Images)

Entrance to the Caledonian Canal with Ben Nevis in background (Credit: Simon Butterworth/Getty Images)

That first Sco...

Read More

The world’s greatest walled cities

Carcassonne, France, seen over vineyards.

What’s it like to have a towering piece of history surrounding your backyard? We asked residents of five fortified towns across the globe.

Massive stone walls were once the last line of defence for ancient cities – impervious structures built to protect their inhabitants from enemies outside. Over the years, many of these walled cities have crumbled. But those that remain continue to protect a way of life for those living within, providing residents with a daily appreciation for history and influencing various aspects of life, from safety to traffic to tourists and more.

We talked with residents of some of the world’s best-known and best-preserved walled cities – all Unesco World Heritage sites– to find out what it is like to have such a towering piece of history surrounding thei...

Read More