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Monthly Archives: September 2016

5 things you need to know about hygge

In case you’ve been living in a cave (probably unknowingly having quite a hyggelig time while you’re at it), hygge is the Scandi word that translates to being comfortable, content and – paradoxically – antisocial amongst friends. It is a spiritual turning inwards, or a literal turning towards the nearest candle; a concept casually applied by Danes for decades before the rest of the world caught wind last year.

Lovers have flocked to the shops to buy handsome books, thick woolly socks and as much cocoa as they can get their cashmere mitts on. Haters claim that the concept has been exploited by publishers and clothing companies in a cynical bid to sell more stuff.

So, just before hygge reaches ultimate saturation point, we decided to talk to the global spokesman for hygge, CEO of the Institute of the Happiness Research Institute, Meik Wiking, to settle the score.

Before you listen to our podcast, here are 5 things you need to know about hygge to get you up to speed.

1. It rhymes with “cougar”

“Higgy”, “herger”, “hig” are all wrong.

It’s “hoo-gah”, people.

2. It’s not new

The word hygge has been part of the Danish language since the early 1800s, when the word first appears in written records. Meaning it took the rest of the world a mere two hundred years to catch on.

3. It was the 2016 Word of the Year

Every year, Collins English Dictionary publishes a list of the ten most popular new words and expressions of the year, and hygge made the cut. The 2016 list also included the words “Trumpism”, “Brexit”and “uberization”.

4. But some people think it’s an over-hyped trend

After a swathe of articles and magazine pieces on hygge, the press quickly turned on hygge, calling it “overhyped”, “a conspiracy” and one article even went so far as to brutally proclaim “Hygge Is Byllshytte”.

5 Hygge’s not just for winter

In our podcast interview with hygge spokesman, Meik Wiking, he explains that Danes embrace hygge throughout the year. Sitting outside a café in Copenhagen, supping a beer in the July sunshine – it turns out that’s hygge too.

the world’s least romantic experiences

1. Exploring the Museum of Broken Relationships, Croatia

There’s plenty to ogle at this unique museum in Zagreb, where any amorous feeling will be shattered by illuminating stories of relationship failures and disasters. The trauma is further embellished by the display of associated artefacts. Once-treasured mementoes are now just creepy relics of pain and broken promises – a gross spectacle to be sure, but perhaps you’ll leave feeling mutually confident that yours is a love which will endure?

2. Getting serious sunburn, Australia

If there’s one way to set you apart from the locals, it’s getting sunburnt. As a nation of surfers and sun worshipers, beach life in Australia is par for the course. But be warned, twenty minutes in the powerful Oz sun is enough to scorch you senseless. Once burnt, you can wave goodbye to most activities, so spare your partner the task of gingerly applying aloe lotion to rupturing blisters before bedtime. It’s a total mood killer.

3. Celebrating Holi Festival, India

This colourful Hindu festival is celebrated every year in March to commemorate the victory of good over evil. You can expect high spirits and vibrant revelry as multi-coloured powdered paint is thrown about in joyful abandon. The sight is thrilling, but handfuls of paint smacked vigorously into the face will work its way into every orifice. Be on your guard as crowds enjoying the festivities might become overzealous, and losing your partner in the rabble is a real possibility.

4. Boating on the Broads, Norfolk, England

Norfolk is an ideal destination for couples looking for a slice of English countryside and navigating the waterways of the Broads by boat doesn’t get more quintessentially British. However, a narrowboat can sink in less than a minute and there are various ways of accomplishing that job with a rookie at the helm. Other snares include seasickness and cabin fever. It’s an intimate experience to say the least.

5. Motorbiking, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is famous for street food, bargain shopping and chaotic traffic. Motorbikes swarm like angry hornets, vying for space and jostling to squeeze through gaps in the congestion. Biking in this urban jungle is stressful to say the least and at worst, deadly. So keen motorcyclists should head for the highway between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi instead, for memorable scenery and an open road without exhaust fumes clouding the horizon.

6. Digging into Sichuan food, China

Powerful combinations of garlic, chilli and Sichuan peppers make this cuisine quite possibly the boldest and most pungent of chows. Originating in the South Western province of Sichuan and today available widely across China, its fiery flavour will quite literally knock your socks off. When dining out, we advise to taste tentatively, thus avoiding unappealing chilli sweats and the unmentionable after effects.

7. A dip in Totumo’s volcanic mud bath, Colombia

Forget all notions of a spa-like experience. It’s not necessarily the slithering around with strangers in a pit of liquid mud that is most unappealing; it’s probably exiting the ‘bath’ up an awkward ladder, caked in grey, crusty mud-slime. Vigorous (and thorough) scrub-downs are available from locals for a fee after your dip in the gloopy pool, but these obliterate any mineral benefits and leave your skin unattractively raw.

8. Climbing Giotto’s Bell Tower, Florence, Italy

It is 414 steps to the zenith of this stunning Gothic bell tower. Once you reach the top, the views over Florence are undoubtedly rewarding, but first must come the legwork. Even the fittest of couples will be puffing by halfway. Will you see the funny side of your red faces, as you wheeze your way up each narrow flight of steps? For those who are unsure, this magnificent edifice is best admired from below.

9. Stay in a haunted hotel, England

With buildings dating back to 500AD and a long gruesome history, it is no surprise thatEngland boasts some of the most notoriously haunted dwellings in the world. The upside of staying in a haunted house? Your lodgings are likely to be of architectural and historical importance (think romantic Tudor beams and cosy firesides). Downsides include a sleepless night feeling like you’re not the only people in the room…

a magical journey to Norway’s Arctic north

This year, there’s more than the aurora borealis to draw you to ethereally beautiful Arctic Norway. On the shores of Lyngenfjord, two hours from the city of Tromsø, a team of plucky entrepreneurs have opened the northernmost distillery in the world. We went to discover why this is a magical escape for whisky lovers and northern lights hunters alike.

It might as well be midnight as we leave Tromsø. Last night’s snow crunching beneath the tyres, only the pinkish glow of street lights illuminates the ink-blue sky. This close to the winter solstice, the days here have a strange beauty. The first light doesn’t appear until just before 11am; it’s dark by 1.30pm.

We may already be 350km north of the Arctic circle, but today our journey is only just getting started. Striking out from the city, we snake along the shores of placid fjords, passing traditional red clapboard houses, candles flickering in the windows. These are the most northerly reaches of Europe – and fairytale Norway at its finest.

Even at Breivikeidet, where an isolated ferry plies passengers across the glassy expanse of Ullsfjord, the local population stands at just fifty souls. It’s certainly a challenging place to live – with temperatures dropping to -17°C (1ºF) in winter and 24-hour daylight summer – yet speak to most locals, and they wouldn’t move anywhere else.

As we begin the crossing to Svensby, the Arctic day finally gets going, a soft blue light illuminating the sheer, snow-covered slopes that plunge into the channel’s icy depths. This landscape, its intricate geography of fjords and archipelagos carved over millennia, is simply astounding.

And it’s a good thing the views are so mesmerising, as it turns out I’m as over-dressed as a polar bear in a sauna. Despite the snow, it’s so unseasonably warm that kids are getting stuck into the ferry’s extensive ice-cream selection.

Luckily, we’re not setting out for a day’s exploration. Instead, our two-hour journey reaches its conclusion just over the Lyngen Alps, where a team of entrepreneurs have dreamt up a new reason to draw visitors to this magical region.

On the shores of Lyngenfjord, you can now visit Aurora Spirit, the northernmost distillery in the world. It’s fittingly named; on winter nights the northern lights regularly dance in the sky above the strikingly modern distillery building. Nature always makes its presence felt here.

The project was conceived by three friends, Hans, Tor and Tor’s wife Anne-Lise, and completed in 2016. Inspired by trips to the Islay distilleries in Scotland, they wanted to create a similar experience back home. So, they set out to source local ingredients and talent to make “extraordinary spirits in an extraordinary place”.

And this is certainly an extraordinary place. Perched on a spur jutting out towards the island of Årøya, the wood-clad distillery has a location to rival any of its Scottish cousins.

Currently they produce vodka, gin and aquavit, the traditional Norwegian spirit, with their first whiskies maturing in cask in the NATO tunnels that run beneath the site. There’s a reason why this beautiful tract of land remained undeveloped; the site of a Cold War bunker, it was off-limits until 2005.

Today, however, their spirits draw on an older history. They’re sold under the brand Bivrost, the name of the mythical bridge that connected the human world to the world of the gods in Norse mythology. You can learn more on their exemplary distillery tours, which explain the processes of distillation and maturation, or at one of their tutored whisky tastings.

If you’re after an adrenalin kick instead, you can use the distillery as a base for a RIB tour of the fjord or try spot of Viking-inspired axe-throwing on their outdoor range. I’m hesitant about a trip into the bunker, eerily left exactly as it was abandoned in 1993, notebooks and pencils still scattered across the command room desks.

It’s more tempting to book a night in one of the luxury cabins currently being built on a hill above the distillery, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the bay. It’s hard to imagine a more serene experience than watching the sun dip below the snow covered mountains, or spotting eagles soaring over the fjord from the waterside jacuzzi.

Puerto Princesa Underground River

Wait, an underground river? How is that possible?

Yep, that’s right. In fact, the river flows directly underneath the St Paul Mountain Range, found on the mid-western coast of Palawan. The river channeled its way through a series of vast chambers and caverns over millions of years ago.

The cave system stretches for a total of 24km underneath the mountains, and the river itself winds its way through 8.2km of it. Besides being one of the longest underground rivers in the world, the PPUR is also one of the very few that outflows directly to the sea.

The river and caves are home to complex eco-system that has adapted to living underground here over hundreds of years. Many of the animals in the caves are found only here, including certain types of giant spiders, crabs, fish and snakes, although bats and swallows are likely to be the only ones you’ll see.

Is it worth the trip?

Yes, absolutely. It’s an otherworldly experience: imagine paddling through the dark in a small boat – the boatman’s headlamp the only light guiding your way – while the soft click-click of bats, chirps of swallows and the echoey drip, drip of water from the roof is your soundtrack. You glide through giant cavernous cathedrals, past mushroom-shaped rocks, in-between candle-like spindles of limestone and into some of the darkest reaches of the underbelly of the cave.

Tours only take visitors up to the 4km mark, but those wanting to apply for a special permit far enough in advance, can tour all 8.2 kilometres. This far into the cave, it’s so narrow that boats can’t pass and you have to swim between the rock walls.

Conquer your fears of small, dark spaces however, and you’ll be treated to the rare sights of waterfalls gushing through the cave walls, a unique 20 million-year-old fossil of asirenia or manatee, and a tiny rock passage that leads into a vast room, carpeted from floor to ceiling in glimmering crystals.

Even the journey to the cave itself is worth it: you’ll enjoy a scenic 20-minute boat ride across the sea, past towering limestone karsts and walk through the national park, home to monkeys swinging through the tree canopies and giant monitor lizards slinking their way through the undergrowth.

So how can I visit?

The jumping-off point is the small village of Sabang, located around 40km north of the capital of the island – Puerto Princesa. You can either choose to visit on a day-trip from the capital or stay in Sabang itself, which also has a lovely beach, a couple of luxury resorts and plenty of cheap beach huts for backpackers.

Everyone wanting to visit the underground river must apply for a permit to do so, and because of limited capacity and high demand, it’s best to book a few days in advance. You can either visit on an organised tour or arrange the permit and boat ride yourself, and pay for everything separately.

OK, I’m sold. What do I need to know?

Tours from Puerto Princesa (around 1800 pesos per person) usually include transport to and from the PPUR, your permit, the boat ride, a guide and lunch. Those staying in the small village of Sabang can also book a tour (significantly cheaper as it won’t include van transfer or lunch) or buy their own permits at the office on the wharf. Permits are 250 pesos for adults and 150 pesos for children, plus there’s an environmental fee of 40 pesos extra to pay per person. Your boat ride to and from the entrance to the park and audio device will also cost extra.

Helmets and life jackets are provided and must be worn for the duration of the tour (lasting around 45 minutes in total). Remember to keep your mouth closed when you look up, as the cave is also home to thousands of bats, who often drop “gifts” (read, faeces) from above.

An audio guide is available and provides lots of scientific information about the river and the caves, as well accompanying atmospheric music. Although informative, at times it’s also a little far-fetched, telling you to look out for rock formations that resemble Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct or Jesus at The Last Supper. If you don’t want to spend your time here looking around in bewilderment or getting frustrated when you can’t spot the formations, remove your earphones and let your imagination take over.