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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Where to get your adrenaline rush in Ras al Khaimah

Climb Jebel Jais via car or via ferrata

A bit shy of 2000m, Jebel Jais is RAK’s version of a skyscraper. This rugged peak is the highest in the UAE and home to one of the most thrilling driving roads in the Middle East. Sleek, freshly laid tarmac corkscrews its way through countless steep, camel-coloured canyons and along eroded cliff edges that sometimes see snow and often see passing herds of goats.

To experience Jebel Jais in true Emirati fashion, hire a Lamborghini, Ferrari or Land Rover and weave through the hairpin bends of these usually deserted mountains. The road comes to an abrupt halt 5km from the summit, but rumour has it that it will be completed soon. In the meantime, you still have more than 20km of zigs and zags to race through, with breathtaking views of the valley and RAK City below.

Lofty plans have been thrown around to build a hotel, a cable car, a launch point for paragliders, a golf course and even an artificial ski slope on Jebel Jais, but the only attraction to materialise so far is a via ferrata (a rock climbing route that uses a steel cable that is fixed to the rock every few metres) and zipline, opened in late 2016. Adventurers can choose one of three difficulty levels: the easy Ledge Walk, which has a long horizontal section that curves around the mountain before tiptoeing to the first of three ziplines; a more technical route called the Middle Path, which climbs vertically aided by steel rungs and then meets up with the ziplines; and the challenging Julphar Scare, which scales the mountain using ladders. All the routes finish with a triumphant zoom down a 300m zipline, the longest in the UAE.

Unearth authentic Arabia at Bedouin Oasis Desert Camp

Tucked away in a tiny valley and sheltered by some of the tallest sand dunes in RAKBedouin Oasis Desert Camp is a one-stop shop to tap into the traditional Arabian spirit. A circle of real goat-hair tents surrounds a central area covered in Arabian carpets and low tables with cushions on the ground, where you watch performers, including a fire breather and a belly dancer, and chow down on grilled meat and mezze under the stars. In one of the hooded tents, a woman carefully paints looping henna designs on hands and ankles, and a space to smoke shisha from a bubbling hookah lights up the night one tent over.

What else is on the menu? Options include surveying the surrounding desert from atop a camel and slogging up the nearest dune to come gliding back down on a sandboard, but the must-do is strapping yourself into the passenger seat of a Land Rover as you ride the sand dune roller coaster. The orange peaks and valleys spread out indiscernibly in every direction, and despite the sat-nav being unplugged, the drivers know exactly where to go as you slide horizontally down the dunes and then race to the top of the next golden hill before stopping to watch the sun set over the silent desert, illuminated with pink and purple pastels.

Although Bedouin Oasis can sometimes lean toward cheesy instead of authentic (the bizarre English-accented recorded emcee being the main cause), this desert camp is the closest you’ll get to experiencing this magical environment to the fullest.

Make tracks at Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre

On the grounds of Ritz-Carlton’s swanky and isolated desert resort, Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre (alwadiequestrian.com) has a 5 sq km nature sanctuary to trot through on the back of an Arabian horse or a camel, and you’re sure to spot free-roaming gazelles, Arabian oryx and desert foxes. Time your ride for the winter or spring when the valley is flooded with colourful blooms. If you’re not up for basking in the sun, there are peaceful treks in the moonlight, or if you really want to get down and dirty, trainers will show you how to groom the horses and manage the stable.

Need to know

For visitors to RAK, your world will likely encompass your resort until you decide to venture out. Most advice says that if you’re staying outside of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you should dress more conservatively, but shorts and bikinis in RAK’s resorts don’t seem to warrant a second look. The only dress code you’re likely to encounter there is not being permitted to wear swimwear to your resort’s breakfast bar. If you’re venturing into RAK City, it’s a good idea to cover your shoulders and knees to show respect.

Why Kiribati is a nature lover’s paradise

First come for the fishing

One prime reason travellers head to Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Republic of Kiribati is for the fishing – marlin, sailfish, wahoo, barracuda and huge schools of tuna are found here. But the real gem: miles of pristine saltwater flats perfect for wading and fly-fishing for bonefish, milkfish, triggerfish and a number of trevally including the elusive giant trevally. GT, as they are affectionately known, are on the bucket list of most dedicated fly-fishermen. This exotic species hunts on the flats for prey and is known for its speed, weight (upwards of 40kgs) and ferocity.

Giant trevally are difficult to hook and even more difficult to land. They frequently snap both lines and rods. Fishing for one is a truly awe inspiring experience that will give you a heightened respect for this bully of the saltwater flats (catching a 20kg baby, in relative terms, GT was one of this fisherman’s proudest moments).

Fishing tours are run from a number of self-contained lodges that provide board, boats and guides. These local guides are proud of their island’s rich and diverse marine life and conservation is as important as the catch. Tuna caught off the island invariably end up as a feast of fresh sushi that same night in the lodge, all fish within the reef are returned to swim another day.

You can’t help but become a bird watcher

As you might expect for a nation of islands in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean, Kiribati is home to a thriving bird population. Here you can spot seabirds, obviously, with frigatebirds, boobies, shearwaters, petrels and gulls – they’re hard to miss. But bird lovers may be surprised by the land-based birds found in Kiribati. The islands have around 15 percent regenerated forest cover today which is home to the Kuhl’s lorikeet, Pacific long-tailed cuckoo, and the endemic Christmas Island warbler.  For those not inclined to twitching, the many species of birdsong is probably best enjoyed in a hammock with a cold drink.

Then there’s the diving

Scuba is a relatively new addition to Kiribati – but growing in popularity as the islands realise the potential – but divers can see over 200 species of coral that host a diverse range of marine animals here including colourful reef fish, sharks, manta rays, spinner dolphins and turtles. The main dive shops and tours operate from Christmas Island and much of it is done from shore or outrigger canoes. Further afield Tarawa atoll offers WWII-wreck diving with its reminders of the American and Japanese battle for the Pacific.

Most dive operations are run from the fishing lodges – Villages, Captain Cook and Ikari House fishing lodges all offer dive trips with guides, well-equipped boats and gear hire for experienced and novice divers.

Plus surfing and kite-surfing

You won’t find big concentrations of surfers competing for waves in Kiribati. Like with all the other activities on the island you are going to be among a hardy few. The wave calendar is similar to Hawaii – peak times are October to April. The prime surfing location is from the Kiritimati (Christmas Island) capital London to the town of the abandoned village of Paris (yes, you read that right). There are 24 surfable waves along this five kilometre stretch. The logistics of getting equipment to the islands – and remoteness of the locations once there – means you’re best advised to book surfing through an operator like Christmas Island Surf (christmasislandsurf.com) with plenty of local knowledge.

Outside the surf season, kite-surfing runs all year round. These islands are famed for their consistent, although slightly wearing, off-shore winds.

Did someone say beaches?

With an average height above sea level of just 2 metres, Kiribati has plenty of beaches. Add in the very basic infrastructure – many of the outlying islands have no plumbing, electricity or toilets – visitors are blessed with vast stretches of truly un-busy coastline.

In fact on our recent visit we saw no one else for a whole day on a trip to the eastern coastline of Christmas Island. The population here is so sparse we passed only one other car on a one-hour drive from London. In an increasingly crowded world, where constant communication has become the norm, it’s refreshing to find a destination where you actually can really escape.

Getting there

The largest individual atoll in this island group, Kiritimati (Christmas Island), is a mere 5000 kilometres from any other country! The largest coral atoll in the world, it is the centre of much of Kiribati’s tourism. It’s is accessible by weekly flights from Nadi in Fiji and Honolulu in Hawaii.

If you’re really wanting to go for the adventure of a lifetime it’s a seven- to eight-day boat trip, again from Honolulu, with Sailing Vessel Kwai (svkwai.com). Kiribati offers a variety of hotels and resorts, mainly on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), but don’t expect five-star digs and pina coladas waitered to your sun-lounge – accommodation here can only be described as rustic.

Outdoor adventure awaits in Washington, DC

Running the National Mall

With major road races occurring year-round, including the acclaimed Marine Corps Marathon in the fall and the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in the spring (a warm-up for Boston-bound elites), Washington is a runner’s paradise. Locals never tire of jogging the National Mall, bound by trails that take you past the nation’s most important democratic monuments—all of which glow from within as dusk falls. Spring cherry blossoms, summer fireworks, autumn glory color and winter-snow wonderlands are some of its seasonal delights.

Climbing Great Falls

Rock climbers find happiness at Great Falls Park (nps.gov/grfa/index.html), just 20 minutes upstream from Washington, DC, on the Virginia side of the river. Here, neophytes and experienced climbers alike negotiate cliffs and outcrops ranging from Class 3 to 5.10. Nearby Carderock and Annapolis Rock are favorite go-tos as well. And note that in winter, when it’s cold enough, this is where Washingtonians come for ice climbing.

Paddling the Potomac

Where else can you escape the office at noon, jump in a kayak for a quick paddle, and be back in time for a 2pm meeting? Thompson Boat Center, next to the Kennedy Center, rents kayaks by the hour. Within minutes you’re paddling around Theodore Roosevelt Island, a woodsy island in the middle of the Potomac. Float upstream to Georgetown and beyond, or downstream past the National Mall’s marble monuments.

More hardcore kayakers surf and play in the white-tipped rapids of the Potomac River Gorge just below Great Falls. This spot has become a breeding ground for top-level competitive kayakers, and it’s within 30 minutes of the nation’s capital (only experienced kayakers should tackle this dangerous, sometimes deadly run).

Hiking the Billy Goat Trail

Of course Washingtonians can hit the trails of Shenandoah National Park, within an hour’s drive of the city, which wander into a deciduous realm of waterfalls, black bear and dreamy Shenandoah Valley views. But there are amazing hikes within city limits as well, notably the intertwining trails of Rock Creek Park (Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite wilderness escape from the White House). The most popular weekend warrior hike, however, is hands-down the fabled Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls National Park, about 30 minutes up MacArthur Boulevard, where you must leap and scramble over riverside boulders just like a billy goat.

A bounty for bicyclists

Whether you like your bike trails paved or tree-shaded dirt, DC’s got you covered. There are the pathways crisscrossing the National Mall with its front-row view of the monuments; the 18.5-mile Mount Vernon Trailshooting south to Mount Vernon; or the secret gem Capital Crescent Trail, a paved trail linking Georgetown with Bethesda. But if you want to join locals in making a day of it, take a spin on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD), an old railroad bed that’s now a 45-mile paved route between southern Arlington and Purcellville, in Loudoun County. This pastoral ride winds past cows, farmhouses, picturesque towns and a brewery or two along the way.

Camping just outside the Beltway

Shenandoah National Park is an obvious camping getaway. But Greenbelt Park, known as the “backyard” national park and one of the city’s best-kept secrets, is the closest campground to DC. If you’re new to camping, Little Bennett Regional Park, up I-270 near Frederick, offers ready-made campsites that include a four-person tent, two camp chairs, a propane stove and a lantern.

Horseback riding in Rock Creek Park

Hop astride a horse at Rock Creek Park Horse Center (rockcreekhorsecenter.com) and hit the tree-shaded trails of Rock Creek Park, a little wilderness within the city limits. You’ll saunter past beaver dams, stone bridges and blooming trees, seemingly far away from the urban hustle-bustle. The center offers lessons as well. Also keep in mind that the countryside surrounding nearby Middleburg, Virginia, is an equestrian’s delight and a favorite training ground for Olympians; the annual Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase takes place in the spring.

Bikepacking in the Virginia countryside

If you’re a mountain biker wanting to make a several-day trek, the only question is where to begin? The Chesapeake & Ohio National Historic Park preserves a crushed-stone trail that winds 184.5 miles along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland; first-come, first-served campsites speckle the route (though you can stay in inns along the way as well). At Cumberland, link up with the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile route that winds all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Amtrak now offers Walk-on Bike Service (gaptrail.org) as an easy way to return to DC. You can also make a bucolic loop with the W&OD Trail to Leesburg, where you can hop aboard Whites Ferry across the Potomac to meet the C&O Canal; head north to Harpers Ferry and beyond, or circle back to DC.

Sailing from Denmark to Iceland

Most visitors to Iceland fly into Keflavík (the country’s international airport) to begin their vacation. Fans of slow travel who are looking for a point of difference, a super-scenic voyage, or a means to reduce holiday costs (by bringing their own car or campervan), should consider sailing on Smyril Line’s Norröna, the only ferry that cruises fromHirtshals in northern Denmark to Seyðisfjörður in east Iceland, via the spectacular Faroe Islands.

The journey

Sailing time is around 36 hours from Denmark to the Faroe Islands, and 19 hours from the Faroes to Iceland. The ferry’s home port isTórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago with a population of just 50,000 that’s a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark.

All journeys pause in Tórshavn, and stopovers range from six hours to three days, depending on the season’s schedule. Since the ferry runs weekly, there’s also the option of staying a full week or two for a more thorough Faroe foray.

It’s worth noting that seasickness it’s a possibility on the voyage, especially on the open seas northwest of the Shetland Islands. The boat is large and has good stabilisers but this is the North Atlantic Ocean, after all, and the weather can turn nasty. It’s a good idea to pack remedies.

Scenic highlights

Binoculars and cameras at the ready: a sail past the Shetland Islands (part of the UK) en route between Denmark and the Faroes is a treat, and in clear weather you’ll see distant oil rigs and tankers while sailing the North Sea.

Arriving into and sailing out of Tórshavn is magical. As the boat pushes northwest to Iceland it travels a relatively narrow passage between the islands of Eysturoy and Kalsoy, and for two hours the views of emerald peaks will leave you entranced.

Snow-topped peaks and waterfalls welcome you to Iceland in dramatic style as the ferry sails 17km up Seyðisfjörður to the small, artsy town at the head of the fjord.

Throughout the voyage be on the lookout for birdlife, and possibly whales, especially in the warmer months.

The boat

The Norröna is a blend of freight ship, passenger ferry and cruise ship. It’s no luxury cruise liner but it has excellent facilities. Cabins vary in size (all with bathroom), or there are budget ‘couchette’ berths that are effectively a dorm bed in the bowels of the ship.

There are no cooking facilities for passengers on-board, but there’s a handful of restaurants: the Simmer Dim Steakhouse is upscale (reservations advised), and there are cheaper buffet options and a diner. The cafe-bars are a good place to while away the hours, especially the Sky Bar with a view, serving Føroya Bjór, beer brewed in the Faroes.

There’s a souvenir and duty-free shop, and distractions like a small cinema, swimming pool and fitness centre, and kids’ play areas. More decadent are the hot tubs on deck that you can rent by the hour.

The crowd varies with the seasons, from Icelanders and Faroe Islanders sailing to and from Europe for business or pleasure, to holidaymakers treating the summer sailings as a cruise vacation. Plenty of outdoorsy Europeans load up their 4WD camper trailers for full-scale expeditions in Iceland; you’ll likely meet motorcyclists and cyclists too, in warmer months.

The ports

Hirtshals, Denmark

Hirtshals is a small, unremarkable, ferry-dominated town, and its terminals are busy loading and unloading ferry passengers from Norway, who visit for the cheaper meat and booze (hey, it’s all relative!).

Town attractions include the long stretch of beach at Tornby Strand and the family-friendly Nordsøen Oceanarium, one of northern Europe’s largest aquariums. The waterfront area has a few eating options and supermarkets for grabbing supplies before you board the ferry.

Given that the Norröna departs Hirsthals at 3pm or 3.30pm, consider staying further afield and driving to the port on the morning of sailing day. Great, visit-worthy options include Aarhus (Denmark’s second city; 185km south of Hirtshals), Billund (home to Legoland; 240km south), or beautiful Skagen (49km away to the north).

Tórshavn, Faroe Islands

Named after the Norse god Thor, Tórshavn is one of the world’s smallest capitals, and there’s a colourful toy-town appearance to the city as you arrive and depart.

In summer, it’s possible to book stopover packages and onshore excursions through the ferry operator to help you explore the town and beyond, but local taxi companies can help you make the most of shorter stopovers with private tours to key sights all year round.

Tórshavn’s charming historical core is Tinganes, a petite peninsula delightfully jumbled with pretty turf-roofed cottages and rustic, red-painted government buildings. It’s a short walk from the terminal. Fans of Scandi crime dramas (and ace knitwear) should visit Guðrun & Guðrun (gudrungudrun.com), the Tórshavn store from the women who designed that sweater worn by Detective Sara Lund in Danish TV drama The Killing.

Gourmands should plan a stopover around Koks (koks.fo), an acclaimed locavore restaurant 10km south of Tórshavn in the pretty hamlet of Kirkjubøur. In 2017, Koks was awarded the Faroes’ first Michelin star.

Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

Don’t be in a hurry to leave Seyðisfjörður, which sits nestled under mountains at the end of its long namesake fjord. It’s one of Iceland’s loveliest small towns, and a hive of creativity. Browse the old timber houses (home to some great design and handicraft stores), take a summertime kayaking tour with Hlynur Oddson or a mountain-bike ride with Seyðisfjörður Tours, and enjoy some super-fresh sushi at Norð Austur Sushi & Bar. Skaftfell is a cool hub, serving up beers, pizzas and conviviality.

When it’s time to explore more of Iceland, the 25km road (Rte 93) that climbs up and over the mountain pass offers some spectacular vantage points. Rte 93 joins the Ring Road (Rte 1, which circumnavigates Iceland) at the hub town of Egilsstaðir. Buses run year-round between Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir, and from Egilsstaðir northwest toAkureyri and on to Reykjavík (in summer, buses also run to Höfn then along the south coast to Reykjavík).

Practical information

The Norröna operates year-round, on a schedule that varies with season. High season covers an 11-week period from mid-June to late August, when prices – and demand – peak (book well ahead); low season is from mid-September to April. There are two short mid-season periods, in May-June and early September. Fares are determined by season, cabin choice, and what vehicle (if any) you are travelling with, and can be bumped up with on-board meal plans or stopover packages.