Our first-ever annual A-Z of travel features plenty of exciting destinations and experiences, even a couple of unexpected choices. Ice-road driving, Colombia’s River of Five Colors and the Honduran Rain of Fish were among the highlights in Part 1 of this series, which focused on A to M.
Nicaragua: Sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua is an adventure tourism gem renowned for its volcanoes, lakes, rivers and forestry, which spawns outdoor pursuits from trekking to mountain biking t0 sport-fishing to bird watching. It shores both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean, luring professional and enthusiast surfers with world-class waves and superb beaches. Just as, if not more, impressive is Lake Nicaragua, which has over 300 islands and is the only freshwater body in the world that hosts sharks.
The country is also replete with culture and heritage — evident from its wealth of historical monuments, lively festivities and traditions, and a multiracial and multilingual people. Not to mention, it is considered the safest country in Central America and easy to get around despite being the largest in the region.
The best thing about Nicaragua is it’s still regarded as a well-kept travel secret. But not for long, we say.
Orca-mingling in Tysfjord: They may be termed killer whales, but it is entirely possible to swim with these Orsinus orcas or oceanic dolphins — on a killer whale safari in Norway’s deepest fjord or Tysfjorden, that is. Organised by the Tysfjord Turistsenter since 1990, the three-hour safaris is a combination of nature exploration and extreme sport. In case someone failed to mention, it does take some guts — and insanity — to jump into frigid waters to accompany black and white mammals several times the size of humans!
Penghu Islands: Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islands scattered in the Taiwan Straits between Taiwan and China, is in a distinct class of beauty. A 45-minute flight from Taipei or 3.5-hour ferry ride from Kaohsiung Away will elevate you from the hustle and bustle of the city to embrace the tranquillity of the islands. At hotpots such as Qimei Island, Xiyu Island and Lanyu Island, travel back in time to a land of ox-carts, fish-traps, stone-walled fields, basalt cliffs and ancient temples dedicated to the sea goddess Matsu. Apart from sightseeing and cultural experiences, Penghu offers an array of activities such as trekking, kayaking, windsurfing, caving and soaking in hot springs. During the nesting session between May to October, Wangan Island’s western and southern beaches will be transformed into a huge nesting ground for endangered green turtles — a chance for curious nomads to witness newly-born baby turtles paddling clumsily towards the ocean.
Queen Elizabeth: The Queen’s travel resume is certainly something worth boasting about, even among the world’s head of states. She does so with the added benefit of having no need for a passport since all British passports are issued in the name of Her Majesty, and being Her Majesty herself, it was unnecessary for her to use one. Since becoming Queen in 1952, her personal interest to interact with the world made her the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe. To date, Queen Elizabeth has visited over 160 countries.
Over the years, the queen has also witnessed a vast change in technology and transportation modes — she is a seasoned passenger on naval vessels, and has rode in a 1842 horse-pulled phaeton, been on the back of an elephant in India, and journeyed with common folk in less glamorous scheduled train services. Age is catching up however and the 87-year-old monarch is finally cutting back travelling, with the Buckingham Palace announcing in May that it is reviewing the amount of long-haul travel she has to undertake.
Raja Ampat: Loosely translated as Four Kings, Raja Ampat is commonly used to refer to the four main islands of Salawati, Waigeo, Misool and Batanta — out of over 1,500 — in Indonesia’s West Papua province. The beauty of the archipelago is phenomenal, to say the least. Imposing geological formations such as karsts, caves and waterfalls as well as unadulterated vast greenery typically reduce visitors to a state of awe and insignificance at first, but the true ethereal pleasure sets in only when the underwater world has been explored. A diver paradise, Raja Ampat has the world’s richest marine biodiversity with over 1,500 fish species and close to 540 coral reef species or three-quarters of all recorded coral reef species in the world.
The islands’ busiest months are October and November, which is the best period for diving but visitors are welcomed year-round. Around the end of each year, a strange phenomenon called the Sea Ghost occurs at eastern Waigeo, where a strange beam of light appears to rise onto the water surface and disappears after about 10 to 20 minutes.
Sagra di’Pinolo: Take a short ride away from Florence in mid-June to the small town of Chiesanuova for the annual week long Sagra di’Pinolo or the Pine Nut Festival. First organised in June 1977 by pioneers Franco Bartalucci and Paul to celebrate the town’s heritage of producing pine nuts for consumption, the festival is now a regular fixture on the Italian festival calendar. The authentic festival reflects the solidarity of the townsfolk and local committees in celebrating their way of life, and the party that they throw each year includes comedy, cabaret, and live bands that are guaranteed to make each festival as vibrant and unforgettable as anything else you can find in Italy. Needless to say, food and drink such as the Rosticciana (pork ribs roasted with rosemary), Vinsanto (sweet wine made from slightly dried grapes) and Pinocchiati (sticky dessert confection made from pine nuts) are widely available and will keep you coming back to the festival for a couple more days.
Tunnel of Love: Nestled in Klevan, 30 minutes’ drive from Rivne in northwest Ukraine, the Tunnel of Love is the glamorised section of a 3km stretch of private railway described as one of the most romantic spots on Earth. In reality, it is a pretty, fairytale-like span of greenery — but only in the warmer months when it’s at its most luscious — with an interesting story of how trees, left to grow freely around the track, eventually formed a tunnel shaped by the train, which runs three times a day. Well, it has certainly attracted many lovers and courting couples and is the scene of many a proposal; as per urban legend, lovers also dutifully make a wish, cross the tunnel hand in hand and wait in anticipation of their dream fulfilled.
Umbrella Street, Águeda, Portugal: Since 2012, the Portuguese city of Águeda has welcomed a colourful art installation in the form of a canopy of umbrellas along select streets such as a shopping promenade. Presented as and anchoring the Agitagueda Art Festival, the Umbrella Sky Project from July to September brings a splash of colour to otherwise typical thoroughfares and not only charms, but uplifts the spirits of locals and tourists alike. The myriad of bold colours and odd shadows on the ground compel many to stop in their tracks and relish the sight, if not snap away with their mobile phones or digital cameras. And in this case, it doesn’t quite matter if it does rain on the parade.
Vienna: With centuries of history in peace, war, royal marriage, court composers and intellectual thought, Vienna is the quintessential European destination for anyone seeking an introduction to fine culture and living. Vienna was where Mozart, Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss chose to ply their trade in music, and it also hosted thinkers such as Freud, Wittgenstein, Hayek and Mises whose writings have had a major impact on today’s world. When it comes to food and drink, the city has a fine history of producing the Wiener Schnitzel, Apfelstrudel and the Sachertorte. It is also home to a proud café culture that dates back to, as its proud café owners claim, after the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 where the process of filtering coffee was invented. To add to that, there’s been a boom in the city’s hotel sector in the last couple years with a number of hip and luxurious properties — finding your ideal accommodation has never been easier.
Whakarewarewa: This tongue-twisting name of a place is short for Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahia, which translates as Uprising of the Warriors of Wahiao. Located in Rotorua in the North Island of New Zealand, it is a living thermal village set in the middle of hot thermal geysers and bubbling pools that number around 500. Among the geothermal highlights is the mighty Puhutu Geyser, New Zealand’s largest geyser, which erupts almost 15 times a day spouting hot water up to 90 feet high! Other than immersing (pardon the pun) in the thermal theme, visitors to Wakharewarewa will be warmly treated to its unique Maori culture and can certainly look forward to indulging in a traditional Hangi meal cooked in a hot pit under the earth.
Xe Ôm: Zipping through the streets of Hanoi on a motorbike taxi can be quite an interesting albeit harrowing experience. A cheap (just make sure you haggle hard before hopping on) and efficient way to get around the city it may be, but be forewarned: the drivers are almost guaranteed to take on more than one or two passengers! Hold on tight as your driver swerves and snakes through oncoming traffic in all directions, make illegal U-turns and in general, go against all traffic rules and your instincts. Not to forget the non-stop honking of the cars – you’ll be wishing that your ears could get a rest. Once you get past these annoyances however, you’ll notice that, very interestingly, there is some sort of order in this chaos. At the end of the ride, you’ll not only be tremendously proud of yourself but also have a newfound respect for your co-rider(s).
Yerevan: An off-the-beaten-track destination but one that has been slowly attracting travellers over the years, the vibrant capital of Armenia promises excellent value for visitors seeking a relaxing and enjoyable cultural experience in the Caucasus. It was only in the last 50 years that Yerevan was transformed from small town into a major cultural and industrial centre of the Soviet Union and Armenia, and since the fall of the U.S.S.R. the city has undergone an extensive renewal process whilst keeping many elements of its past. Today’s central Yerevan is home to well-preserved early Soviet Architecture, magnificent brick squares, large Neoclassical avenues, major cultural museums, a growing theatre scene and a growing number of fine-dining establishments. Spectacular views of the mystical Mount Ararat can be had as you walk along the restored boulevards of this laidback capital. If you’re feeling adventurous, take your pick amongst the countless day tours to the surrounding regions of Armenia.
Zipping the Eye of the Jaguar: The world’s longest zip line, the Eye of the Jaguar in Ccorca Valley 45 minutes north of Cuzco, makes for a befitting end to your Incan explorations at Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Extending over 2.1 kilometres, the zip line takes you on an exhilarating descent over the gorgeous, steeply undulating mountains of Peru. At speeds of up to 110km/h, the zip line is a sensational marriage of the pulsating wave of adrenaline and the powerful rush of wind. You can still hear the furious thumping of your heart long after the ride is over!