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Monthly Archives: December 2016

7 unforgettable experiences in the Florida

1. Meet its endangered residents

Sea turtles are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, but at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon you can meet the whole gang: Bubble Butt, Blinky, Spartacus and even the malodorous Smelly Cat.

Since firing up its first orange-and-white ambulance in 1986, the hospital has helped injured loggerheads, greens and Kemp’s ridleys, and returned over 1500 of its “patients” to the Keys. Take one of the hourly guided tours to get up close with some of the residents in the tanks, or re-enact everyone’s favourite Free Willy scene (with a less acrobatic protagonist) at one of the popular releases.

2. Kayak in the mangroves

The Lower Keys backcountry is full of secret waterways, accessible only to the most adventurous paddlers. For starters, join Big Pine Kayak Adventures and follow Captain Bill Keogh and canine first mate Scupper through the dense tangle of mangroves in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.

Within live the tiny Key Deer, an adorable but endangered species, as well as all manner of curious creatures like alien-looking horseshoe crabs. The salty channels here are knee-deep and fringed with overhanging branches and roots, which are so thick in places that you’ll have to drag yourself along.

3. Become a night rider

You can still make the most of the ocean when the sun goes down – providing you’re using a kayak or paddleboard that lights up like a Christmas tree. A night tour with Ibis Bay Paddle Sports will see you manning one of these souped-up watercraft and sailing across the murky flats to a deep shelf on the ocean floor, spotting all manner of nocturnal critters along the way.

Look out for colourful sponges, sea cucumbers and upside-down jellyfish, as well as stingrays and small sharks. On the route back, you’ll pass shadowy mangrove islands blanketed with snoozing pelicans, ibises and herons.

4. Cook your catch at Robbie’s Marina

Usually, there’s nothing more impolite than striding into a restaurant and slapping a fish on the table, but this is expected at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada. Equal parts fishing port, restaurant and souvenir stand, the Marina sits squarely in the self-styled sport fishing capital of the world and invites budding anglers to enjoy their fresh mahi-mahi or yellowtail snapper with a side of fries.

It’s a popular spot (with queues to match), but you can while away the wait by feeding the freakishly large tarpon under the dock. They’ll jump for a handful of herring – but watch out because the bolshy pelicans will, too.

5. Snorkel America’s first undersea park

To see the Keys’ sea life for yourself, all you need to do is slip on your fins and dive in. The best place to try snorkelling is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater reserve in the US and home to one of the largest living barrier reefs.

In fact, the reef’s vivid yellow coral formations, purple-veined sea fans and warm, clear waters, teeming with tropical fish regularly gain it plaudits for being among the best.

6. Try SNUBA in Duck Key

Whether you want to explore the Dry Tortugas’ shipwrecks or get closer to the reefs at John Pennekamp, there are countless opportunities for diving in the Keys. But if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge, or simply want to try something new, then SNUBAcould be your answer.

A cross between diving and snorkelling, SNUBA loses the traditional heavy equipment in favour of a twenty-foot hose, which is connected to a float and towed behind. Complete beginners can take part as there’s no need to be certified.

7. Cruise the Overseas Highway

The Overseas Highway, a camera-ready stretch of road spanning 113 miles straight across the water between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, is the only road to bridge the seemingly endless expanse of ocean between the islands of the Florida Keys.

The water on either side, broken up only by the shadows of reefs, is so dazzlingly blue it’ll seem like you’re in the Caribbean – though you may as well be. Key West, the Highway’s terminus and the southernmost city in the US, is just 90 miles from Cuba.

Northern Territory holiday guide

Parap village market, Darwin

A friend of mine is faithful to the rice ball dessert at the Cambodian Delights stall at Saturday’s Parap village market, and when I finally had a taste, I understood why: the glutinous rice balls come swimming in a palm-sugar syrup spiced with ginger and are simply delectable.

There’s a reason Pee Wee’s is a three-time winner of restaurant of the year at the annual NT Gold Plate awards: the restaurant’s chefs draw inspiration from Darwin’s multiculturalism and local produce, perfectly capturing the spirit of the city on a plate. All this at East Point Reserve away from the city’s hustle and bustle, overlooking the turquoise waters of the Arafura Sea.

Sometimes the supporting act steals the show and that’s the case with Pee Wee’s entree menu – luckily there’s the option to try it all with the “taste plate” ($42 for two people, $63 for three). The platter changes seasonally but may include the likes of crocodile wrapped in betel leaf, cooked with chilli, ginger, toasted peanuts, coconut and kaffir lime.

Rapid Creek market, Darwin

Darwin is a city of markets and the oldest is the Rapid Creek market, popular with locals on the hunt for Asian fruit and veg you won’t find in the produce aisle of the supermarket giants. The run-down building at Rapid Creek could do with a revamp but inside it bursts with life. Asian granny hawkers cram their goods on to small tables lining the hallways while buyers sip coconut shakes from takeaway cups.

The range of exotic produce is boggling. Even if you’re not planning on cooking, there are plenty of brightly coloured, tastebud-tingling fruits to try. Durian, starfruit, jackfruit, dragonfruit, mangosteen and rambutan are all served skinned, sliced and spiked with toothpicks, ready to eat. I won’t forget my first taste of a sapodilla – the grainy-skinned brown fruit isn’t much to look at, but inside its ultra-sweet flesh has a malty, caramel flavour. There are also lots of Asian desserts on offfer such as the Filipino classic ampaw (puffed rice cooked with brown sugar), while food trucks out back sell lunch, including curries, noodles and rice paper rolls.

Daly Waters pub

You’ll find Daly Waters off the Stuart Highway, somewhere in the middle of an unending stretch of nowhere – or more specifically, 600km south of Darwin or 900km north of Alice Springs. Billed as the “original outback pub”, this quaint watering hole is the ocker, outback boozer of our dreams.

According to the website, since its inception in 1930, the pub has “witnessed murders, shootouts in the main street, cattle stampeding through town and the odd drunken brawl”. These days the clientele is more likely to be cheerful grey nomads and well-heeled Asian tourists than hard-drinking stockmen or truckies with their bums hanging out.

Karrke Tour, Kings Canyon

Not far from Kings Canyon is the Karrke Aboriginal tour, a small, family-owned business run by Arrernte man Peter Abbott and his wife, Christine Breaden, a Luritja traditional owner of the Wanmarra lands. Together they take tourists on an hour-long tour of the region covering bush foods, medicines and other cultural knowledge.

Among the bush tucker, you’ll encounter a quandong – a fruit with tart, edible flesh (the wrinkled seed is used in jewellery making) – the kutjera or desert raisin that will give you a bellyache if you eat too much, the cottony sugar bag left on a gum leaf by the lerp insect, and a bush plum soaked in water to make a sweet drink. The guides don’t recommend tasting, and it is only done at your own risk.

Field of Light, Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, Uluru

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more spectacular dinner and show than A Night at Field of Light. Australia’s most famous big rock takes centre stage and, as the light in the sky dims, you’ll nibble on canapes (think paperbark-smoked crocodile frittata and poached prawn with native finger lime) and sip chilled sparkling wine. By the time Uluru becomes nothing but a silhouette, 50,000 frosted-glass spheres elevated on stems will begin to glow, an acclaimed work by the British light-installation artist Bruce Munro.

Hanuman, Darwin and Alice Springs

I’m sceptical about pan-Asian restaurants – so often the quality of the food proves inversely proportionate to the size of the cuisine’s footprint. Hanuman, however, is a happy exception. Perhaps it’s because the decorated Australian restaurateur and chef Jimmy Shu is committed to excelling at all three of Hanuman’s three styles of cooking (Indian, Thai and “Nonya” – a pan-Asian cuisine mixing Chinese, Malay and Indonesian influences) by bringing in chefs from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Hanuman in Darwin has been around for more than 25 years, but it was the Alice Springs branch that finally took the top gong at NT’s 2016 Golden Plate awards, winning restaurant of the year. The menu isn’t particularly innovative, preferring to present classic dishes such as green chicken curry ($24.50), pork belly ($24) and beef vindaloo ($25) – but with far much more flair than your local shopping centre food court.

Top 5 national parks in California

Death Valley national park

It sounds like a place to avoid, but don’t let the ominous name scare you away. Most of the year, this vast and rugged expanse of east Californian desert is brutally hot, but visit in winter or early spring (though even in the dead of winter, midday temperatures can hit 30C) and you’ll find a surprisingly beautiful and vibrant place. First-time visitors are often awestruck by the desert’s vivid colours. For thousands of years, the people of the Timbisha tribe thrived here, migrating seasonally between the valley floor and more fertile mountains. The name Death Valley was bestowed in 1849 by a band of lost California-bound gold rushers, one of whom did actually die while trying to cross it. The legend doesn’t seem to deter runners of the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race across the vast valley held in mid-July.

Yosemite national park

With its stunning glacier-sculpted geology, abundant wildlife and world-class recreational opportunities, Yosemite, 200 miles east of San Francisco, is one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. Yosemite’s granite wonderland was carved by massive glaciers around three million years ago, when ice covered all but the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada.

Today, Yosemite valley is known for fantastic hiking, rafting, fishing and wildlife watching, not to mention being a mecca for big-wall rock climbing. A year-round destination, Yosemite is resplendent but often crowded in the summer; winter transforms the park into a quiet snowy paradise. Many park roads and trails are closed or inaccessible from mid-November until late spring, but Yosemite valley stays open year-round for snowshoeing, cross-country and backcountry skiing.

Point Reyes national seashore

California is known for its beautiful beaches, but those preferring seals and solitude to bikini babes and boardwalks should head to Point Reyes national seashore, 37 miles north of San Francisco. Protected in 1962 to save the area from residential development, the peninsula is one of California’s few wild beaches. The 180-square-mile park is nearly cut off from the mainland by Tomales Bay, an elongated body of water that sits in the rift zone created by the San Andreas fault.

Headlands and sea cliffs provide a sanctuary for wildlife, including raptors and nesting sea birds. A large herd of tule elk – a subspecies that once roamed throughout California – grazes in the northern highlands of the peninsula. Point Reyes is popular year-round, but especially from late December to mid-March, when as many as 20,000 grey whales migrate past the peninsula from their Alaskan feeding grounds to their breeding grounds off Baja California, in the longest migration undertaken by any mammal.

 

Joshua Tree national park

The park was named after the otherworldly trees that dot the landscape – actually an unusually tall species of yucca – but the real stars here are the rock formations: jumbled piles of outsize boulders that glitter with crystals in the southern Californian sun. Rock climbers come from all over the world to scale these boulders, but you don’t have to be a pro to have a blast scrambling around this pink granite jungle gym.

The other stars of Joshua Tree are the stars themselves: with no humidity and skies devoid of light pollution, the Milky Way is overwhelmingly vivid. For an out-of-this-world experience, try scheduling your trip during a meteor shower, such as the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November, or the Geminids in December. Summers in the Mojave Desert are sweltering, but the weather in early spring, late fall and winter is usually delightful.

Lassen Volcanic national park

Yellowstone national park in Wyoming is world-famous for volcanic features such as geysers, fumaroles and mud springs, but  northern California boasts its very own version: Lassen Volcanic national park, 50 miles east of Redding.

The park is capped by 10,462-foot Lassen Peak, the world’s largest volcanic dome. Lassen’s 1915 blast makes it one of only two volcanoes to have erupted in the continental US in the 20th century (the other being Washington’s Mount Saint Helens in 1980). After the eruption, which laid waste to vast swaths of surrounding land, Lassen Volcanic national park was created to preserve the devastated areas for future observation and study. Visiting the area now, nearly 100 years later, is a dramatic lesson in the Earth’s own healing powers; it still bears vast scars of hardened lava, but between the rocks, the flora and fauna are flourishing.

 

Where to go on Holiday in March 2017

One for the beach bums
Sayulito, Mexico

Hit the beach in Mexico for some March sun – but we recommend you skip the well-known resort areas like Acapulco and Cancun and instead head for the Riviera Nayarit on the Pacific coast. You’ll be able to find an all-inclusive or luxury hotel here if you wish, but the real appeal is a 200-mile stretch of coastline where you’ll discover authentic beach towns backed by jungle-clad mountains.

Probably the most popular is the bohemian surfer’s mecca of Sayulito, less than an hour north of Puerto Vallarta. Stay in a simple bungalow by the beach and feast on tropical fruit and seafood at one of the many alfresco restaurants, and look out for artworks by the local Huichol Indians, who use peyote-inspired visions for inspiration.

One for the thrill seekers
Death Road, Bolivia

Avid mountain bikers: how about Death Road in Bolivia? This 64km (40 mile) downhill stretch hurtles intrepid cyclists down a twisting descent of 3,600m (11,800ft) in 4-5 hours, from the chilly highlands to the humid Amazonian jungle, via a narrow road that’s 8ft wide on average and has sheer drops of up to 1,000m (3,280ft) on one side.

Many people have died on this route – it isn’t called Death Road for nothing – but since a new road for vehicles has been built, cyclists don’t have to swerve out of the way of trucks and cars coming in the opposite direction anymore.

If that’s not enough adrenaline, the ride ends in the town of Yolosa, where a 1,500m (5000ft) long zip-line whizzes eager participants over forest and valley.

Still widely known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh feels in places like time has stood still – even if the people haven’t. Shabby French colonial villas and incense-filled pagodas sit in between shiny shopping malls and skyscrapers, and the streets are frenetic with the noise of moped horns. March is the perfect time to visit, as it’s less humid than at any other time of the year.

History buffs can walk back through time at the Reunification Palace, the largely unchanged former presidential palace where the final days of the Vietnam War played out, and underneath the city the vast, snake-like tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war can be visited on a tour. Back above ground, escape the midday heat at the Dam Sen Water Park, a huge outdoor pool complex with giant water slides and killer wave machines.

One for the avid skiers
Bansko, Bulgaria

A recent report from The Escape Travel Card found that a family ski holiday for four could cost nearly £3,500 more at a French resort than an Eastern European one. With such eye-watering figures being bandied around, we investigated where best to feel the powder and forget about the wallet.

Bansko resort in Bulgaria, set between the Rila and Pirin mountain ranges, peaks in March, plus more than a third of the slopes are designed for the beginner too; there’s also a lively après-ski scene.

The Rila Mountains are also home to the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Today listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monastery dates back to the 10th century and is home to approximately 60 monks. It’s the ideal day trip – a place to get blessings before your next black run.