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Monthly Archives: March 2017

7 places to get off the tourist trail in New York City

1. Sample small-batch Red Hook

At the southern tip of Brooklyn, the cobblestoned blocks and red-brick waterfront warehouses of Red Hook feel like a totally different city. The area is sprinkled with artsy stores, no-frills cafés and small-batch food and drink producers. Take a tour at Red Hook Winery, grab a tasty treat at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies or feast on sumptuous pit-smoked barbecue at Hometown.

On summer weekends, head over to the Red Hook Ball Fields, where a dozen or so Latin American food carts and vendors set up around the local football (soccer) field. End the day at Sunny’s Bar, the neighbourhood’s spiritual heart, an old-school dive that opened in 1890.

2. Pay tribute to a giant of jazz at Louis Armstrong’s House

The multicultural borough of Queens rarely features on mainstream tourist itineraries – and few visitors know that the great Satchmo lived here from 1943 until his death in 1971. In fact, Dizzy Gillespie lived near Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Fats Waller and, briefly, Charles Mingus all called the borough home too.

The jazzman’s legacy is preserved at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where guided tours showcase Armstrong’s trumpets, furnishings and other personal belongings, enhanced by rare audio recordings made in this very spot. The visitors’ centre across the street holds a fascinating collection of Armstrong’s personal archives.

3. Discover Brooklyn’s flea markets

New York’s most fashionable borough is a fun place to shop. The Brooklyn Flea is the undisputed king of art, craft and antique markets, but there are several equally as enticing (and less touristy) alternatives.

The Brooklyn Makers Market showcases the work of craftspeople across the city, whileArtists & Fleas is a slightly posher artist, designer and vintage market. For a grungier blend of live music, tasty food, art, jewellery and tattoos try Rock N’ Shop in hipster enclave Bushwick, or Shwick, the huge arts and crafts warehouse in the same trendy neighbourhood. Some markets run seasonally or appear on an irregular basis, so check their websites for the latest dates.


4. Explore the city’s Jewish roots at the Museum at Eldridge Street

Surprisingly few tourists make their way to the Museum at Eldridge Street, tucked away in a section of the Lower East Side slowly being absorbed by Chinatown. Completed in 1887 as the first synagogue for Eastern European Orthodox Jews in the USA, this painstakingly restored site is a grand brick and terracotta hybrid of Romanesque, Moorish and Gothic influences.

The real highlight is the main sanctuary upstairs, with rich woodwork, a painted ceiling and giant chandelier, and original stained-glass windows, including the west-wing rose window – a spectacular Star of David roundel. The synagogue is a functioning house of worship, but you can visit the interior on guided tours, which provide plenty of entertaining stories about the neighbourhood.

5. Stroll the streets and parks of Fort Greene

Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope get most of the attention across the East River, but traditionally African-American neighbourhood Fort Greene is crammed with equally gorgeous, nineteenth-century architecture.

Author Richard Wright is memorialised in leafy Fort Greene Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, while South Portland Avenue is one of the prettiest streets in all of New York City. Adjacent South Elliott Place is home to Spike Lee’s Forty Acres and a Mule filmworks. If you’d rather go with experts, Big Onion Walking Tours offers an excellent introduction to the area for a reasonable price.

6. Soak up the art at the Hispanic Society

Stranded in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the Hispanic Society of America sees only a trickle of visitors, despite holding some of the city’s greatest artistic treasures.

Part of Audubon Terrace, a Beaux Arts folly completed in 1908, the society owns one of the largest collections of Hispanic art outside Spain. The main, dimly lit gallery glows with the rosy hues of a Castilian palace.

Admire classics from El Greco, including his Holy Family, and typically expressive portraits by Velázquez and Goya. The building is also home to 14 giant murals by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida – his Vision of Spain was commissioned specifically for the society in 1911.

7. Trawl the Italian trattorias and bakeries on Arthur Avenue

“Little Italy” in Manhattan is little more than a tourist mall these days, and New York’s largest Italian-American community actually lies smack in the middle of The Bronx.

Arthur Avenue is the main thoroughfare of foodie paradise Belmont, lined with pasticceria, authentic Italian restaurants and gourmet delis that make their own rich sauces and spicy sausages. Try Cosenza’s Fish Market stall for fresh clams and oysters, Madonia Brothers Bakery for olive bread and cannoli, and DeLillo Pasticceria (once owned by author Don DeLillo’s parents), for delicious pastries and coffee.

6 of the best road trips in the UK

1. Scotland’s North Coast 500

This circular route is a greatest hits of Scottish icons, stretching across 805km of lonely single-track. Skirting the coast from Inverness and the Black Isle, past the seaboard crags of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross, it offers up uncanny ruins, rugged fairways, toothy castles, shingle-sand beaches, tiny fishing hamlets and peaty whisky distilleries. Even the name is a doff of the cap to The Proclaimers.

Along the way, the road becomes a symphony, building note after note, bend by bend, from its rallying start through the east coast villages of Dornoch and Wick to Aultbea, Poolewe and Gairloch on the savage west coast. Here, it reaches a crescendo below the impregnable peaks of Loch Maree.

Finally, the road reaches the nuttily brilliant Bealach na Bà, which loops up and over the Applecross Peninsula like a piece of gigantic spaghetti. It could scarcely be more isolated or awe-inspiring.

Best for: escaping urban life and unexpected traffic jams, courtesy of wayward Highland cows and stags.
Duration: 4-7 days.

2. A circuit through Yorkshire’s finest

In Yorkshire, the roads move from moor to dale through centuries of dark medieval history, once a backdrop to the War of the Roses, the bloody struggle between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

Here the mix of A- and B-roads create a daisy-chain link between the most beautiful villages, waterfalls and rolling backdrops in northern England. When heading through fields of summer grasses over the Buttertubs Pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale, the road twists and turns like a thrashing snake.

Set off on the A59 from Harrogate towards the historic market town of Grassington before boomeranging back to Aysgarth Falls, a multi-tiered terrace that’s perfect for a hazy summer ramble.

Next, putter along the valley floor to the Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre at Hawes to stock up on Wallace and Gromit’s favourite cheese, before plunging over into Reeth and looping back to your start point via Jervaulx Abbey. A spooky Cistercian monastery in the moors, its grisly backstory is worthy of CBBC’s Horrible Histories.

At the end of a long day’s drive, there’s nothing more satisfying than the promise of a pint of Black Sheep from Masham Brewery. The welcome here is warm, the people friendly, the surrounding landscapes wild, and the ales strong.

Best for: ale drinkers and cheese lovers.
Duration: 3 days.

3. Southwest England’s Atlantic Highway

A storied ribbon of asphalt and maritime history, this 275km road has the wild beauty that has become the hallmark of southwest England: it’s all about the big views.

Sandwiched between barley fields and a succession of bays and beach breaks, the A39 from Bridgewater to Bude is a magical concertina that creases and folds along the Devon and Cornish coast. Beyond the roadside hedgerows, the windswept dunes become the territory of shaggy-haired surfers, where foaming waves beat the shoreline.

Stop off at Exmoor National Park for hikes across the hilly moors, before driving south from Barnstaple through the salt-tanged seaside towns of Bude (for surfing), Padstow (for seafood) and Newquay (for weekend partying). Then it’s onwards to Land’s End – the place Cornish sailors once thought was the end of the world.

Best for: surfers and wannabe hippies.
Duration: 4-5 days.

4. Northern Ireland’s coastal route

Map a journey around the knuckle-shaped fist of the Irish coast and you’ll not regret it. There’s a hypnotic quality to this 195km route from Belfast to Londonderry, one that can see you detour off the road and lose days.

First hit the gas for the Gobbins Cliff Path, an ambitious walkway chiselled out of basalt rock with hammers and rudimentary tools. North of Belfast, it carves a path through caves, over bridges and gantries, and down steep drops. Following a £7.5 million investment, the path reopened in 2015 – the first time in more than 65 years (although it was closed again for maintenance in 2016 and is now scheduled to reopen in June 2017).

As the journey continues, stories, both ancient and modern, will pull you over. Detour toAntrim to see the Dark Hedges, a natural phenomena used in Game of Thrones, while making sure to stop at Ballintoy harbour (also another GoT location).

Stare in awe at the 40,000 jigsaw pieces of the Giant’s Causeway, then pop into the Old Bushmills Distillery for a refresher of Irish whiskey.

Freedom on a road trip like this is only limited by how far your imagination takes you. After Londonderry, the road keeps going to Enniskillen, Sligo and Galway, maybe even all the way to Dublin. Simply open the throttle, roll down the window and keep on driving.

Best for: story-lovers and stargazers.
Duration: 3-5 days.

5. The road to the isles of Scotland

This 74km scenic drive route from Fort William to Mallaig has an antique weirdness, like stepping back in time. Every mountain and loch tells a story and the ghosts of the Jacobite and Victorian eras are never far away.

At Fort William flows the Caledonian Canal, first built for trade and commerce; past Loch Eil stands the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie kicked off his bid for the crown in 1745; then comes the glorious West Highland Line, one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Start in the shadows of the UK’s most alluring peak, Ben Nevis, before tracing your route like a squiggly marker pen across a fold-out map from its namesake whisky distillery onto the A830. Venture westwards and you’ll pass a series of stand-out movie locations – the Glenfinnan Viaduct, famous for its starring role in the Harry Potter films; then Camusdarach Beach at Arisaig, where Bill Forsyth’s classic Local Hero was filmed.

Near the journey’s end, Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater lake in the UK, will fill your windows with stunning views. Like Loch Ness, it too has a storybook monster of its own; Nessie’s cryptid cousin, Morag.

Best for: historians and Harry Potter fans.
Duration: 2-3 days.

6. Chase Welsh dragons over the Black Mountain Pass

The shortest road trip of the bunch, this epic mountain road more than makes up for it with spectacular Brecon Beacons scenery, unrivalled views of the Tywi Valley and the kind of hairpin bends and switchbacks that’d bring a Swiss Alpine engineer out in hives.

It rolls between Llandovery in the north, crossing the dragon’s humps of Pont Aber and Herbert’s Pass past jaw-dropping viewpoints, before sinking low and cascading down to the village of Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen. Along the way, you’ll be met by rustic farmhouses, ruddy-faced farmers, wayward sheep and perhaps the odd motoring journalist. Thanks to ex-BBC host Jeremy Clarkson, it’s also known as the Top Gear road and is enduringly popular with test drivers.

Best for: Top Gear fans.
How long: one day, though it’s far better to extend your trip and stay in the Brecon Beacons area for at least 48 hours. The A470 running through the park’s east is also highly recommended.

8 ways to justify booking your next trip

1. Travel is an excellent way to destress and unwind

Although it’s hardly a shocker that travel has extensive health benefits, it seems that few of us manage to make the most of it. A third of British workers don’t take all their annual leave, while only four in ten Americans use their paid vacation days.

From reducing stress – yes, there is an argument for a day of cocktails and nap time on aCaribbean beach – to invigorating your mood, travel has so many wholesome benefits that it should really be bottled and sold in health food stores.

2. It could boost your career

Opportunities to test your transferable skills can arise more often than you change your underwear while you’re abroad. Need to evidence your problem-solving capacity for a job interview? Just whip out that story of your last trip to China, where you got from A to B relying solely on pointing, a few choice words of Mandarin and the lingua-franca of the travel world: charades.

3. You’ll meet a kaleidoscope of new people

Travelling gives you the opportunity to meet inspirational, impassioned and eccentric souls from around the globe. While not everyone may be your cup of tea, those with whom you share a few too many terremotos in a Santiaguino bar or trek into the rugged mountains of northern Laos stick around as friends long beyond your trip – and come with the added bonus of giving you free places to stay on your next holiday.

Going the extra mile and learning to chatter away in multiple new languages can also prove beneficial; bilingual people have reportedly been proven to seem more attractive.

4. It’s an excuse for a digital detox

We’ve all got a love-hate with technology, and travelling is one of the few chances we get to disconnect. Luckily, if you’re feeling up to your eyeballs in emojis, a digital detox is the perfect justification for that tour into the heart of the Amazon jungle or a cruise to the remotest stretches of Antarctica.

5. It’s an education like no other

Not only is travel a superb lesson in geography, it’s also a first-class education in cultural competency. Sure, reading about other countries can give you an introduction, but nothing beats exploring them on your own two feet.

It doesn’t take long to realise that your interactions with local people, as your learn about their way of life, are far more valuable than any class you could ever take.

6. It costs less than you think

Despite the oft-cited assertion that travel is expensive, budget flights, trains and car rental can provide affordable means of getting away.

Explore parts of the world such as Bolivia or Cambodia, where the cost of travel won’t leave you wincing at every purchase, or look closer to home for a refreshing but bank account-friendly break.

7. It’s a chance to get active

If you’re feeling like you’ve been cooped up in your office for too long, travel is the obvious antidote. Cycle between vineyards on a self-guided wine tour in the Wachau Valley inAustria or lace up your boots and trek the epic “Circuit” around Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.

Active holidays leave you feeling refreshed, fitter and reeling from the incredible landscapes you’ve visited. The exercise-induced endorphins will also have you committing – momentarily at least – to a new fitness regime when you’re back home.

8. You can’t fight the urge to travel

The existence of one “wanderlust” gene might have been discredited, but it remains true that some of us have a greater natural tendency towards travel. Fighting it may only work for so long…

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park: Vietnam’s last paradise?

Phong Nha is famous for its caves, right?

The stunning 400-million-year-old limestone karst landscape is littered with caves and underground rivers – and every year more are being discovered, surveyed and opened to the public. At more than 5km long, and comfortably able to fit a New York City block within its expanse, Son Doong Cave is the best known.

If you have a spare US$3000 you can try and bag a place on the five-day expedition thatOxalis organise to its remote location. There’s also talk of a planned cable car that will ferry thousands of people to the entrance. This will detract from the feeling of discovering a lost world, though, so if that’s what you’re hankering after, best visit sooner rather than later.

With a little less cash and advanced planning, you can visit beautiful Phong Nha Cave, which is closest to Phong Nha town and only accessible by dragon boat from the little jetty here. Dark Cave (Hang Toi) involves a zip line, a muddy exploration, a cold swim and a short kayak trip, while Paradise Cave is a huge dry cavern with a deceptively tiny entrance. The latter has mind-blowing stalactite and stalagmite formations, which can be viewed from a boardwalk. Other caverns, such as Hang Va and Hang En, require some demanding trekking.

OK, so there are caves. What else?

Phong Nha’s incredible biodiversity includes globally threatened large-antlered muntjacs, langurs, macaques and Asian black bears, not to mention hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. Only a fraction of the park is open to tourists, but it’s free to enter – you only pay for the specific attractions – and phenomenal views open across the rugged landscape from the 65km loop via Highway 20 and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The botanical gardens are 12km from town and you can explore on foot, scrambling down to Gio Waterfall for a dip.

There’s also the entrance of the Eight Ladies’ Cave to visit. Here, a temple honours the eight young locals who, in 1972, were trapped and entombed during an American bombing raid. The whole area was devastated during the Vietnam War (look out for the craters still dotting the countryside), and because there is still unexploded ordnance in the park, independent trekking is prohibited here.

Local operators Oxalis and Jungle Boss organise some intrepid multi-day treks in the jungle, where you sleep under canvas or in a minority village.

And outside the park?

Getting off the tourist trail and exploring the rice paddy farms and rural villages by bicycle is a joy; don’t miss Bong Lai Valley, which feels like the Vietnam of ten years ago. Bump along the dirt roads to visit The Duck Stop where friendly host Quynh will show you round his family’s pepper plantation.

I’m sold. How do I get there and where do I sleep?

Phong Nha is increasingly on the traveller’s radar and the small town of the same name is now a drop-off point on tour buses. If you don’t fancy the sleeper bus from Hanoi (10hr) you can take a bus or train to nearby Dong Hoi and take a taxi or the hourly local bus to Phong Nha Town (45km).

Phong Nha Town

Phong Nha Town (sometimes known as Son Trach) has one length of road that has recently developed into a bustling centre for the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Backpackers are well catered for here, with Easy Tiger hostel at the centre of everything – there’s a free information talk at 9am every day. Plenty of simple accommodation is also available in town, and you can stroll up and down to check a few rooms.

Farmstay Village and around

Rural villages surround Phong Nha Town and it’s easy to find a homestay. Grab a map and head to Farmstay Village where accommodation is well signposted, but be aware that homestays (usually around $10 a night) are fairly basic and not much English is spoken. For a little more luxury, Phong Nha Farmstay has the same peaceful rustic setting, but with a pool and restaurant.

Dong Hoi

This is where the nearest airport and train station is, 50km from the park – but don’t be fooled into thinking that the city of Dong Hoi is just a transport hub. Quietly engaging and particularly lovely where the Nhat Le River meets the sea, you could stay here and take day-time forays into the park. Sitting right on the beach is Beachside Backpackers and there are some gorgeous cafés and restaurants along the riverfront.