Quotient TravelPlanner is pleased to unveil its first-ever annual A-Z of travel! The 2013 edition features plenty of exciting destinations and experiences, even a couple of unexpected choices. Part 1 focuses on the first 13 letters, A to M.
A curious leopard seal meets diver Kevin Lee. This photograph was first published in the online article Diving Antarctica: A guide to Antarctic underwater photography & marine life. Photo copyright: Jeffrey Bozanic
Antarctic diving: Heading underwater in sub-zero temperatures may sound crazy, even life-threatening, but in the right gear and under the guidance of professionals diving in the White Continent can be an amazing experience. Think about it, there aren’t actually any human residents in this vast land, save for a fluctuating population of scientists and support staff whose numbers peak around 5,000 in the summer time, so untouched is an understatement. The landscape, both above and underwater, is incredibly gorgeous and the range of flora and fauna, overwhelming. Besides encountering uncommon species, divers have the opportunity to really be up close and personal with wildlife. Research divers often report curious animals appearing near their equipment and dive holes.
There are caveats of course. The travel season is between the summer months of November and March; it takes forever to get there; Antarctica is a big-budget expedition and diving packages can double the cost.
Boat expeditions and experiences: Remember how you used to dismiss people who go on cruises as old fogies or gamblers? Well, boating is coming back in a big — or rather, exotic — way, so think twice before you pass a snide remark about cruise-goers. It’s not quite private yachting experiences, but intimate, small-group encounters in typically unique vessels that journey to places less travelled or harder to access. The focus is always on quality experiences — be they the attractions covered, the off-boat activities, gourmet and the cabin or living quarters — and never on trying to fulfill a checklist or fill your time with as many different activities as possible. Sometimes, it’s about being in the company of experts, learning and doing with skilled fishing and wildlife crew. Whether you explore the Amazonian rainforest, sail to exotic oriental islands or dabble in deep sea fishing, be prepared to say ahoy to a newfound love for boating.
Caño Cristales: Also known as the “River of Five Colors”, Caño Cristales is a river located in the Sierranía de la Macarena (Macarena Mountains), a designated national park of Colombia. For most parts of the year, this waterway looks just like any other river, but during the transition between wet and dry seasons, there is a rare and spectacular explosion of colours that give it jaw-dropping rainbow hues. Here’s the technicality: a unique plant species called Macarenia clavigera exists in the river bed and when the water conditions such as flow and volume are right, it turns a brilliant red. Contrasted and blended with and the yellow, green, blue and black from the sand and other algae present, the river blossoms into a vivid phenomenon.
Darién Gap: This large undeveloped piece of swampland and forest separates North and Central America from South America, stretching from Panama’s Darién Province to Colombia. It covers a distance of 160km and extends in width to about 50km. Efforts have been made throughout the years to develop and construct roads here, but to little avail. As a result, the Pan-American Highway, the world’s longest motor road link which begins in Alaska and ends in the southern reaches of South America, maintains an un-passable gap. Undeterred, adventurers have successfully crossed the Darién Gap over the years, using off-road vehicles, motorcycles and even on foot.
Eritrea: Sometimes referred to as the North Korea of Africa, Eritrea is a country pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. There is no private news agency in the country and the government runs a tight control over the entire economy. Ironically, the country warmly welcomes visitors, who find virtually no hassle at immigration points manned by courteous officials. In fact, as long as you do not interfere with its politics, you will find Eritrea a very hospitable host. Its diverse topography is enviable, as is its climate, which ranges from desert to Mediterranean to tropical. Its Red Sea-hugging coastal stretch is home to pristine beaches, rich marine life and unspoiled coral reefs. Visit colourful markets and learn the art of Eritrean coffee-making from locals; chill at sidewalk cafes armed with vintage Italian coffee machines or hop into quaint pizza parlours and charming pastry shops, which are all a throwback to the time of Italian colonialism.
Film festivals: Cannes may roll off your tongue faster than you can catch yourself for this entry, but who’s to blame? It is the world’s most prestigious — and most famous — film festival after all. The honour of the oldest international film fest, however, goes to the one in Venice, which was inaugurated in 1932; the Berlin International Film Festival is also highly regarded by industry players. Over the last few decades, many quality events held to honour and screen original works have gain traction. Some names include the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival in Utah, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the UK’s Raindance independent film fest, and TropFest short film fest held in several countries including Australia, New Zealand, India and Israel. With so many opportunities year-round to view films or perhaps rub shoulders with prominent artistes, it’d be wise of film enthusiasts to plan and time their holiday based on festival schedules.
Giant’s Causeway: Since the late 17th century, this natural phenomenon has delighted and inspired all manner of people, who travel from near and far to gawk at its basalt columns, which number over 40,000. The surreal rock outcrop came about from an ancient volcanic eruption and is truly a sight to behold along Ireland’s scenic Causeway Coastal Route. As you traverse the terrain and walk in the “footsteps of giants”, you can’t help but marvel at the “Eighth Natural Wonder of the World” and UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.
Honduran Rain of Fish: Every year in May or June, Yoro, the capital city of the Yoro department in Honduras, experiences an interesting phenomenon, where living fish appear on the streets after heavy storms. What’s interesting is that the fish are approximately the same size, are of the same species and come from none of the nearby waters. According to locals, the first rain of fish occurred around 1860, after a Spanish Catholic missionary moved by the plight of poor people prayed for three days and nights.
Ice-road driving: Ice road driving, a natural phenomenon during winter, allows access to otherwise hard or impossible to reach small villages. During the coldest months, the lakes and rivers freeze over and snow blankets the entire region, and the frozen tundra creates driving routes. The ice roads not only gain visitors entry to remote villages but also open up access to winter adventure destinations. You can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, dog sledding and sightseeing but if you ask us, the real fun is the journey and the thrill of navigating your vehicles in icy conditions!
Julian Alps: Part of the Alps’ alpine arc, this mountain range named after the Julian Dynasty stretches from northern Italy but is situated mainly in Triglav National Park, Slovenia’s only national park. Within the Slovene Julian Alps, there are some 150 peaks towering over 2,000m, of which 25 are at least 2,500m tall; the tallest, Mount Triglav, stands at 2,864m. For jaw-dropping views, head on Route 206 for the Vršič Pass, the highest in the mountain pass country and often impassable for much of winter; be prepared for some 50 hairpin bends, though! Nearby, the two resident lakes of Bohinj and Bled offer excellent areas for skiing and other recreational activities, providing some creature comforts from the stark wilderness.
Komodo: The name conjures up images of gigantic lizards with highly venomous bites, affectionately referred to as ‘dragons’. It should, however, also transport you to a cluster of paradisiacal islands off the northern coast of Flores, the namesake of the islands’ resident lizards. Komodo is part of Indonesia’s golden circle of underwater wonders that divers utter with reverence; its diversity of marine life is mind-blowing, putting it on par with other renowned destinations such as Manado and Raja Ampat. Above the water, activities are rather limited even at the nicest resorts, but come on, it’s after all a tiny land mass fringed with pristine coral. Throw caution to the wind and try out diving, or pick up a snorkel and explore the usually excellent house reefs that accompany each resort. With an international airport opening sometime this year and direct flights expected from Singapore, this is a spot you can soon strike off your bucket list.
Leuven: This small university town just 30 minutes from Brussels is home to a mix bag of history and tradition — the oldest functioning Catholic university in the world, the bloody Viking battle from the late 9th century, and the world’s largest beer brewer with about a quarter of the global market share. The Leuven brewery of Anheuser-Busch InBev, better known for its labels such as Stella Artois, Budweiser, Hoegaarden and even Harbin, has a chronicled history dating back to 1366. Stella Artois has been manufactured here for several centuries and the plant is just one of two Belgian facilities producing the brew for international markets — making it an essential stop for beer pilgrims. The Grand Béguinage of Leuven, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, is a preserved historical quarter first inhabited by an informal group of religious women. Located with the town’s university, it is today regarded as a rare architectural gem with houses mostly dating back to the 17th century.
Musandam Peninsula: Piercing the Arabian and Persian gulfs, the sleepy peninsula of Musandam is characterised by towering mountains and windy inlets, which have earned it the nickname “Norway of the Middle East”. Beyond this ethereal mountain and water landscape of Oman, there are archaelogical sites to explore, coral reefs to dive and remote villages to pay homage at. Portuguese colonialism has also added to the character of the peninsula, which is interestingly several latitudinal degrees — or 570km — away from Oman’s capital Muscat with the two separated by the United Arab Emirates. This European influence is most evident in the port city of Khasab, home to the busy Strait of Hormuz.