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Just back from: Taiwan

 

Louise at the Longshan Temple in Taipei Louise at the Longshan Temple in Taipei © Louise Bastock

Louise Bastock, Assistant Editor at Lonely Planet, recently returned from a trip to Taiwan.

Tell us more… When I used to think about Taiwan, the dominant images in my mind would be of its capital city Taipei, specifically the skyscraper-studded skyline against a blue or lilac sunset, or the twinkly Tokyo-esque lights of its streets and lanes. But, beyond this vast metropolis, there is so much more to discover. Blasted up from the ocean by volcanic activity, Taiwan is a fertile ground for breathtaking natural landscapes. With that in mind, I set off for northeastern Taiwan to explore the island’s capital as well as its wild wonders, and expand the image in my mind’s eye of what this tiny island nation has to offer – spoiler alert: a lot!

Taipei's skyline snapped from the top of Elephant Mountain Taipei's skyline snapped from the top of Elephant Mountain © Louise Bastock

Good grub? The stand-out superstar of Taipei’s skyline is Taipei 101; formerly the world’s tallest building, it bursts through the high-rises like a futuristic bamboo shoot and was the perfect setting for dinner on our first night. Despite her humble origins, first operating from a Taipei back alley diner in 1977, the owner of Shin Yeh restaurant now commands the 85th floor of Taipei 101, serving up elegant, contemporary creations inspired by traditional Taiwanese home-style cooking.

Chefs making dumplings at Din Tai Fung, Taipei Delicate dumpling work at Din Tai Fung © Louise Bastock

Though seemingly a far cry from the glamour of Taipei 101, my second favourite meal was, surprisingly, at a shopping mall, beneath the tower itself. Prepare to battle wayward queues and huge crowds of hungry people if you want to eat at Din Tai Fung. This Michelin-starred restaurant (yes, you heard right, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a shopping mall) is famed for its xiǎolóng bāo (steamed pork dumplings), but, in all honesty, absolutely everything they brought to the table was insanely delicious. With windows looking into the kitchen, you can spend hours digesting your dumplings and watching the chefs meticulously craft these bite-sized beauties.

Northeastern Taiwan is a blanket of green forest Northeastern Taiwan is a blanket of green forest © Louise Bastock

Quintessential experience… With so much nature to see – from marble cliff faces to emerald oceans of forest – hiking is a quintessential experience in northeastern Taiwan. Our first taster was the 500-step slog up Elephant Mountain in Taipei – totally worth it to watch the sunset over the city and get my own snaps of the skyline. We also hit the hiking trails that lace through Taroko National Park (roughly a three-hour drive from Taipei). The scenery is wilder here and even though it can get blustery on the peaks, the strong wind does help disperse some of the eggy smell from the region’s sulphuric vents – a small price to pay for hiking around hot spring territory.

Louise's private hot pool at the Gaia Hotel Louise's private hot pool at the Gaia Hotel © Louise Bastock

Any incredible accommodation? Speaking of hot springs: our last night was spent in the stunning Gaia Hotel, where each room came equipped with its own personal hot pool. After a long day of hiking and thigh-busting stair climbing (stairs are synonymous with hiking in Taiwan), it was a dream to be able to flop from bed to bath (grabbing a glass of wine en route) and recline in style in the comfort and privacy of my own room.

Louise jumping off a rock face into water Louise proving there is such a thing as TOO MUCH enthusiasm © Louise Bastock / Love Wilds Co., Ltd

If you do one thing… don a wetsuit and helmet and give river tracing a go. Known in other parts of the world as canyoning, this activity earns its more poetic moniker in Taiwan; without wishing to geek out too much, the landscapes here could easily have been plucked from the pages of Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings (Rivendell, eat your heart out).

We spent a whole afternoon wading through the Sa Po Dang river in Hualien, jumping off huge boulders, squeezing through tight crevices and scaling small waterfalls before stopping for tea, snacks and snorkelling around a secluded turquoise pool. It’s a fantastic way to not just view the landscapes from afar, but to get in amongst them and experience them up-close.

Louise eating at huge portion of chocolate ice cream at the Modern Toilet Cafe Shocked and a little squeamish, Louise was ultimately delighted at her dinner © Louise Bastock

Bizarre encounter… From fine dining in spellbinding landmarks, soaking in my private hot spring and revelling in Mother Nature’s gifts, I leave you with Taipei’s epic toilet cafe! Enlisting every faucet – oops, I mean facet – of bathroom decor, the Modern Toilet Restaurant is a veritable playground for anyone with a sense of humour – and, at times, a strong stomach. After excusing myself from the table to use the actual bathroom, I was crying with laughter on my return to find on my delicately chosen chocolate ice cream piled in huge swirls, sprinkled with all manner of brown biscuits goodies, came served in a yellow porcelain squat toilet. If, like me, you think this might just be the best place in the whole world, bag yourself a souvenir from their shop which sells all manner of poop-themed paraphernalia.

Louise Bastock travelled to Taiwan with support from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and China Airlines. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

Pathfinder spotlight: Maria and Katerina, It’s all trip to me

 

Maria and Katerina exploring their home city of Athens Maria and Katerina exploring their home city of Athens © It's all trip to me

While the life of a full-time traveller may seem like an idyllic existence, it’s not for everyone. Ties to home – from family responsibilities to a budding career – might keep us from committing to a nomadic way of living, but it certainly doesn’t mean travel is off the table.

We caught up with Pathfinders Maria and Katerina from It’s all trip to me to talk upcoming adventures, all things travel blogging and how to fit your trips around a nine-to-five.

Give us the low down on your blog...

Myself and photographer Katerina both love to travel and have always been very fond of consulting travel blogs to plan our trips. To us, a travel blog always seemed like a brilliant way to record our travel memories and help others create their own at the same time. So we combined our passions for writing and photography and here we are now, hoping to inspire people with full-time jobs like ourselves to travel more and see the world one trip at a time.

Describe your travel style in three words...

Immersive, budget-splurge-balanced, short-term.

Top three places you’ve visited?

That’s a really hard one but we’ll give it a shot. Tuscany in Italy, the Nile Valley in Egypt and London in the UK.

Catching the sunset in London Catching the sunset in London © It's all trip to me

What destinations are on your 2019 bucket list?

We’ve already planned two separate trips to Poland (Warsaw and Krakow) as well as a trip to Istanbul, Turkey. We’ve just started planning our big 2019 trip: two weeks exploring the regions of Puglia and Basilicata in Southern Italy. A couple of short trips to London and Romania are also on the table as well as at least two Greek Islands in the summer. And towards the end of 2019 we are planning our first ever trip to Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand. It’s going to be an amazing year of travel magic!

A lot of travel bloggers quit their jobs to hit the road; you do things a bit differently. How do you fit your travels around your nine-to-five?

Who wouldn’t want to travel the world full-time? However, we can’t afford to do so – at least not at the moment. But we wouldn’t let our day jobs hinder neither our passion for travel nor our desire to blog about it. We make sure we spend all our vacation time (25 days per year), public holidays and as many weekends as possible travelling. We plan a two-week trip to someplace new once a year and a 10-day island vacation every August to recharge our batteries. Those aside, we also go on shorter trips either abroad or in Greece (where we’re based) throughout the year.

Andros in Greece is one of Maria and Katerina's top choices for an island escape Andros in Greece is one of Maria and Katerina's top choices for an island escape © It's all trip to me

What advice would you give someone who thinks they don't have enough time to travel?

There is always time to travel! It all comes down to setting priorities and planning ahead. First of all, it’s important to save vacation time for travel. We know that sometimes life gets in the way and we may be tempted to use our vacation time to tend to unfinished business or simply stay at home and rest. We feel that vacation time is hard-earned and should be reserved for travel.

Secondly, when travelling on a tight schedule it’s very important to have pre-planned itineraries so as not to waste any valuable time during the trip itself. Lonely Planet guidebooks and travel blogs packed with tips and info are the best sources of inspiration and valuable tools for people with limited travel time.

And last but not least, travel requires adjusting to a new mentality and seeing things from a different perspective. It doesn’t have to take loads of money or time to travel. Start by playing tourist in your own hometown and discover all its hidden gems, the way we do in Athens. Then go on and plan weekend breaks or three-day getaways. Soon you will realise that you actually have time to plan that longer trip you always dreamt of.

Why do you love travel blogging?

Through travel blogging we’ve learnt more about ourselves and discovered skills we never knew we had, which are constantly developing. Our favourite part of travel blogging though, is that it offers us many opportunities to meet like-minded people from all over the world. No gift is greater than having friends across the globe!

If you’re a member of our Pathfinders community and would like to share your story, drop us an email at pathfinders@lonelyplanet.com and tell us what exciting things you’re up to on your blog.

Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz

 

Planet Earth photographed from space How well do you know our home planet? © Dima Zel / Shutterstock

Do you know the name of the world’s third-highest mountain? Or in what year the euro was introduced as legal tender? Pit your wits against our toughest travel quiz to date – a thirty-question, all-encompassing behemoth of world trivia, with questions taken from Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz – our new title containing over 100 fun travel-themed quizzes for all ages.

So strap yourself in and prepare to put your world knowledge to the test. There’s no way you’ll score full marks, but how close can you come?

TAKE ON THE CHALLENGE

Find more quiz questions just like this in our book Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz, the perfect companion for any trip.

Pathfinder pics: wandering the waterfalls of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

 

Man stands in front of waterfall in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park The Great Smoky Mountains NP is a wonderful showcase of nature's power © Nick Alvarez

Lonely Planet Pathfinder, Nick Alvarez of Be Real Travel, recently returned from a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Parkone of our best value destinations for 2019. Armed with his camera and tripod, he embarked on a journey to capture the park’s numerous waterfalls in full flow.

As the most-visited national park in the USA, Great Smoky Mountains is packed with magnificent sights including majestic mountains, captivating wildlife, and historic buildings. However, for this particular trip, I had one focus – waterfalls. Thanks to high elevations and abundant rainfall, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a waterfall chaser’s dream. Near the end of winter, despite temperatures often being below freezing, I set out to visit six of the park’s waterfalls, and to illustrate what makes each of them unique.

Up-close-and-personal

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On our first day in the park, my wife and I hiked to Laurel Falls, one of the its most popular attractions. Upon reaching the waterfall, I immediately understood why it is so popular – water streams down multiple levels of rock to incredible effect. The cherry on top of the cake however, is a walkway located just a few feet from the base of the waterfall, which allowed us to appreciate the grandeur of the streams up close. Though much of the hike to this waterfall is uphill, it isn’t too difficult – if my pregnant wife can do it, so can you!

Fast and furious

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As the park is home to over a thousand black bears, I carried an air horn with me on all hikes, ready to defend myself in case of an encounter. Though I didn’t end up bumping into a bear, I did confront another beast: Abrams Falls. I was awestruck by the speed at which such a large volume of water raged down the waterfall. As I gazed at its raw power, I pondered, 'would an air horn actually scare a bear off?' I’m glad that I didn’t have to find out!

Small, but perfectly formed

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In addition to epic Instagram opportunities, there is another benefit to visiting a waterfall – it’s very therapeutic. Lynn Camp Prong Cascades is a great example of this, as the waterfall is set within a beautifully tranquil scene along a river. What this waterfall lacks in size, it makes up for in serenity. It was the perfect place to de-stress and relax, aided by the soothing sounds of trickling water.

What a tease

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Meigs Falls taunted me from behind the moat-like Little River, which we weren't able to cross due to heavy rain. Forced to admire the waterfall from afar, I revelled in the lush scenery that surrounded it that much more. Visible from the road, this waterfall is ideal for those that are unable to (or prefer not to) hike. I’m all for the sense of fulfillment that comes with completing a challenging hike, but if a waterfall requires minimal work for me to visit and enjoy, you won’t hear me complaining!

Immersed in the action

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While Mouse Creek Falls is an entrancing, multi-leveled waterfall, what makes it truly magical is the way in which it can be experienced. This waterfall exhibits two uncommon characteristics: first, unlike many waterfalls that flow along a river, this waterfall flows down into the side of a river. Second, rocks jut out from the riverbank opposite the waterfall, which allows you to step out into the middle of the action. With the river rushing on both sides of me and the waterfall crashing down in front of me, I wasn’t merely an onlooker, I was a part of the scene.

A song of ice and snow

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Hiking in below freezing temperatures can be a harsh endeavor, but through it all, I was inspired by the possibility of seeing a partially-frozen waterfall. My resilience was rewarded by Ramsey Cascades, a towering behemoth lined with ice and snow. I marveled at humongous chunks of ice breaking off and crumbling down the waterfall. If there’s one thing that Great Smoky Mountains National Park taught me, it’s this: a waterfall isn’t just a sight, it’s an experience.

Do you love to write about your travels? Or perhaps Instagram is your thing? Find out more about our Pathfinders programme and how you can contribute to Lonely Planet here.

Pathfinder pics: exploring Panama – one of our top countries to visit in 2019

 

Sunset in the breathtaking El Valle ©Timothy Cohen

Lonely Planet Pathfinder, Timothy Cohen, is recently back from a whirlwind trip around Panama – one of our top countries to visit in 2019. From deserted beaches to bustling, urban hubs, here's what he discovered...

Panama has always been a mystery to me. All I knew about the country was its world-famous canal. The closer I got to its border, the more fellow travellers I met who seemed dubious about my plan to explore the country for a whole month. It seemed that Panama is 'travelled through' rather than travelled itself. People do often transit there on their way to Colombia or Costa Rica, leaving behind them a country full of underrated gems. There are several ways to get into Panama from Colombia, but since entering by land is impossible due to the Darién Gap, I was left with three options – taking a flight, a five day boat trip from Cartagena, or a three day speedboat trip from Capurganá. I chose the latter – less popular and a little more adventurous...

The San Blas Archipelago

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My boat trip took me through the archipelago of San Blas, inhabited by the Kuna people, an autonomous, indigenous group living on 49 of the 365 islands. I opted to use the services of a Kuna-based company, San Blas Frontera, to be sure that my money would end up staying within the community.

During the journey through the archipelago, we stopped off at a few islands. Some were inhabited, some had a small number of houses dotted around, and others were completely deserted. As well as meeting the Kuna communities, I was also lucky enough to enjoy the beautiful, sandy beach with not a care in the world (other than getting sunburn). A different sunny island for each day of the year – definitely something I could get used to!

Meeting the Kuna people

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On the second day of the boat trip through San Blas, we dropped anchor on the island of Naranjo Chico. This small piece of land is home to a Kuna village and a handful of 'cabañas', in which my new travel companions and I spent the night. In Naranjo Chico, I met Johnny, a young Kuna local living on the island. He immediately befriended me, and was pretty intrigued by my camera!

Fun fact: until the late 1990s, the coconut was the principal currency in this region. Nowadays, although the Kuna people do still use the coconut as a currency, it has been overtaken by the US Dollar and the Balboa. Currently, one coconut is valued at only $0.40, but the Kuna people still find it amusing to say that, in this region at least, money really does grow on trees!

The Miami of Latin America

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After three unforgettable days in San Blas, I set off to reach the mainland, and arguably the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. Panama City is the country's capital, and a truly modern urban centre. Skyscrapers and huge malls are a common sight alongside the dazzling blue coastline. No wonder they call it the 'Miami of Latin America'. Many worlds coexist here – west and east meet in a explosive cultural mix.

The business neighbourhood's skyline, with its shimmering towers made of glass and steel, reflecting the azure of both the ocean and sky, could easily be mistaken for any north American megalopolis. As seen from the historical neighbourhood of Casco Viejo, with its crumbling convents, colonial architecture and cobble-stoned streets, the contrast with this skyline couldn't be more pronounced.

Panama’s adventure town

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In a country like Panama, which is synonymous with beaches, surfing and sun, the city of Boquete will delight the adventurers and lovers of balmy temperatures. Although it is only located 1200m above sea level, it lies at the foot of Baru, Panama’s tallest mountain standing at 3475m, which happens to also be an active stratovolcano. A popular hiking route finishes with watching the sunrise from the top. I had other plans however...

The surrounding area is teeming with trails and waterfalls hidden within the lush jungle, waiting to be explored. One of them, known as 'The Lost Waterfalls', is a three-hour journey through a cloud forest, leading to three beautiful waterfalls. During the dry season, the waterfalls surrounding Boquete are not as powerful as they are during the rainy season, but the weather is much nicer and the light is jaw-dropping!

The favourite

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Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s most popular destinations – easily accessible and teeming with things to do, the archipelago will keep you busy for days and days! Snorkelling, diving, partying, hiking, surfing, or just lazing around on a beach, you name it! Panama’s best parties can be found on the busy Isla Colon, while nature lovers may prefer to stay on Isla Bastimentos,where the eponymous national park can be found. I, of course, decided to stay on the latter.

The languorous Caribbean vibe emanating from the small town of Old Bank on Bastimentos’ shore is tangible. There are no roads, just a wide, concrete footpath lined on both sides with colourful wooden houses and plants. This particular footpath will lead you to the highest hill on the island, where the 360-degree view of the surrounding islands is outstanding. The icing on the cake is undoubtedly the organic cocoa farm nearby, perfect for taking a break while enjoying the natural surrounds.

Chasing sunlight

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El Valle de Anton, more commonly known as 'El Valle', is a mountain town nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano. During my time here, I was truly chasing sunlight, sunsets in particular! On my first day, I decided to climb the mountain 'Cara Iguana' two hours before dusk, even though the peak was lost in the clouds. I've learned many times that weather changes extremely fast in the mountains, so I gave it a shot. Just as I was reaching the peak, it started to rain, and I couldn't see anything at all, but then the wind slowed and suddenly the landscape appeared before my eyes, a big ray of sunlight breaking through the dark clouds and illuminating the hillside. I was in awe.

Even after so many years travelling, I am still constantly amazed by the world surrounding us. Gustave Flaubert once said that 'travel makes one modest – you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world', and I can't help but think how right he was!

Do you love to write about your travels? Or perhaps Instagram is your thing? Find out more about how you can contribute to Lonely Planet here.

Wonderings: have you felt a disturbance in the Force?

 

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay travels to the parallel universe of the theme park © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

It’s a special week for the 177,000-odd people in England and Wales, and many more around the world, who define their religion as Jedi: Saturday is Star Wars Day (May the Fourth, geddit?), the annual grassroots celebration of all things related to that galaxy far, far away.

Each year, fans of the franchise don robes, put lightsabers on charge and raise a glass of Bantha-blood fizz to the likes of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – or, if you bat for the Dark Side, Darth Vader and various lesser Darths. (Note to the Ewok-in-chief: no one, but no one, celebrates Jar Jar Binks, George.)

From uber-fans who livestream their reactions on YouTube as they watch trailers for forthcoming movies right down to closet-dwelling admirers of this rich fictional world like me, the creative juggernaut that first rolled into cinemas back in 1977 shows no sign of running out of road.

An expanding universe

Just like the real one, the Star Wars universe just keeps on expanding, an inflationary cultural phenomenon that has long outgrown its original medium, spawning countless spin-offs – books, games and enough merch to fill the hangar bay of a Star Destroyer (USD$32 billion of it, to be precise).

A few weeks ago, for example, I invested a chunk of cash in a Lego model of Luke’s X-Wing Starfighter (this age-inappropriate toy is now safely stowed in the eaves, but I’m confident that the kids will want to lead a Rebel raid on a half-built, papier mâché Death Star when the time is right – no, I defo didn’t buy it for myself).

And later this month, there will be a novel way to live this most protean of brands as never before: on the last day of May, Disneyland in California will lift the veil on the first phase of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a gazillion-dollar extension of the theme park that will, purportedly, transport guests to the remote planet of Batuu.

Once there, they can rub shoulders with shifty inter-galactic smugglers, pledge their undying allegiance to the Resistance or throw their lot in with the bad guys; they’ll even be able to take control of ‘the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy’, aka the Millennium Falcon, thus fulfilling the ultimate fantasy of many a middle-aged geek.

Visitors to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge can take the controls of the fastest ship in the galaxy, aka the storied Millennium Falcon © Disney Parks

That’s just for starters, too: a second, even shinier phase of this mega project will open later this year, as will a separate Star Wars-themed land at Walt Disney World in Florida. Price hikes notwithstanding, so popular are these attractions likely to be that Disney has made special arrangements to regulate the flow of visitors.

Putting any cynicism aside, there is much to admire about the ambition of all this. Given its storytelling skill and commercial nous, Disney is perhaps the perfect custodian of Star Wars; here was the ideal opportunity for its famed imagineers to dream the dreams of a billion fans and make them ‘real’ (note, pedants: there is no way to calculate the actual number of fans, but bearing in mind that the films alone have grossed nearly USD$10 billion, we can safely say there are… a lot).

Ever since Walt Disney opened his first resort in 1955, the company has pioneered a form of travel experience like no other. It’s not for everyone, of course – but from what I can see, it’s an experience in growing demand as theme parks proliferate around the world, perhaps supplanting other points of interest, whether natural or cultural, on our mental maps.

Escape and enlightenment?

The big boys – Disney itself, plus fellow industry titans like Merlin and Universal, and even lesser lights – are ceaselessly expanding their portfolios of parks, rides and hotels to cater for that demand, particularly in Asia where an emerging middle class’s thirst for entertainment is the engine of development.

Jediism never made it as an official religion. But one can make a case that theme parks are fast becoming to the 21st century what the great icons of religious architecture were to the 20th: places of pilgrimage where we seek escape and enlightenment. Okay, perhaps that’s not so true of Tyra Banks’ Modelland, but you catch my drift.

Meanwhile, in a strange twist, there is the curious case of Venice, a place that has become ever more theme park-like in its struggle to cope with a relentlessly rising tide of summer visitors. Attempts to install turnstiles on the Piazzale Roma might have foundered, but the mayor still plans to introduce a booking system for tourists in 2022, forcing visitors to reserve access to the city in much the same way as they might for, say, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge...

Pathfinders: best blogs, Instagram shots and videos from March 2019

 

Man feet in boots on the Baikal ice Where will our Pathfinders take you this month? © Alexander Ippolitov / Shutterstock

From New York’s stunning street art scene to Siberia’s wild winter wonderlands, our Pathfinders have been jet-setting across the globe and have returned with ever more inspiring tales of their adventures. Check out March’s round-up of our favourite blogs, Instagrams and videos.

Best of the blogs

Street art in New York city: a guide to the best hotspots – Carol Guttery

Taxis driving through Times Square, New York City Dive into the colour and chaos of New York City © Luciano Mortula - LGM / Shutterstock

Why we like it: Many cities now attract tourists with their thriving street art scenes, but it’s New York – back in the 1970s – where it all began. In this post Carol curates a tour of the Big Apple’s best street art spots, leading visitors to historic murals and lesser-known – but equally impressive – modern works. Striking imagery, an embedded map tool and an intro section detailing the interesting history of the art form (and its link with the city) enhance the post’s appeal further.

Carol’s blog aims to encourage travellers to go beyond the headline sights and find alternative and offbeat adventures. Learn more at wayfaringviews.com.

Landing in New Zealand – Javi Lorbada

Akaroa village on Banks Peninsula New Zealand Akaroa was made for road-tripping © KarlosXII / Shutterstock

Why we like it: Javi is a wizard when it comes to landscape photography, so a blog post about his first experiences of New Zealand was always likely to result in a mesmerising read. In this photoessay, Javi focuses on the Banks Peninsula, driving a rented campervan from Christchurch to Akaroa (stopping at a few scenic vantage points of course). With the pictures of the camper set against a star-strewn sky, we challenge anyone to read this and not be inspired to hit the open road themselves.

Born in Madrid, Javi travels far and wide in search of the perfect shot. Keep tabs on his latest work at javilorbada.com.

Top Instagram shots

Mexico City, Mexico – Axel Alvarado

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Why we like it: In his brilliantly styled shot of one of Mexico City’s many Metro entrances, Axel uses the ornate, iron structure to frame blooming purple blossoms, creating the perfect central focus. The colour palette, which comprises muted pink hues and vivid violets set against the utility green of the foreground, works especially well when crowned by the dreamy blue sky, and the still-dimly-lit street lamps complete the overall effect with their warm, golden glow.

Axel is a keen travel photographer who loves nothing more than shooting the myriad charms of his home country, Mexico. Follow him on Instagram @axel.ach.

Siberia, Russia – Yan-Kei Clare

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Why we like it: From the tangled network of ice cracks slicing through its lower half, to the central figures being dwarfed by the towering, craggy rock formation, this expert frame of Siberia’s Lake Baikal is full of drama. The glistening solid ice draws the eye towards the vivid white of the snow at the rock’s base, which appears all the more monolithic when acting as a backdrop for the image’s brightly clad (but miniscule) explorers. This is a cleverly crafted shot of nature at its most panoramic.

Yan-Kei is a globe-hopping travel blogger with restless feet and endless wanderlust. Follow her on Instagram @yan_keiclare.

Our favourite footage

Things to do in Tuscany – A Lovely Planet

Why we like it: Pacey, lively and compelling, this short film featuring Tuscany’s top attractions is a great showcase for the region’s many charms. Fusing sweeping, aerial views across rooftops and fields with up-close, on-the-ground footage of everything from church tower climbing to truffle foraging, this is a dynamic and fresh snapshot of one of Italy’s most popular regions.

Hayley and Enrico are a globetrotting travel team, exploring and capturing new experiences in every corner of the globe on camera, and through their blog A Lovely Planet.

Find out what else the Lonely Planet Pathfinders are up to by checking out the Pathfinders forum on Thorn Tree.

Wonderings: Notre Dame will rise from the ashes even greater than before

 

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay says that Notre Dame will emerge from the recent fire as an even greater monument © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Many years ago, I climbed the spiral staircase that winds its way up to the balcony connecting the two towers of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris’ western facade. From there, you can see many of the city’s greatest landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the Arc de Triomphe, the River Seine flowing past Île de la Cité.

A close inspection of the gargoyles and chimeras festooning the towers is just as engrossing as that far-reaching, wide-angle view. Jutting out from the walls, the gargoyles’ long necks channel water away from the ancient stone; the chimeras – horned, winged, taloned, feathered; beasts that never were – are there to ward off evil.

But none of them could protect the 12th-century building from the fury of a different element yesterday. Mercifully, the towers still stand, but the fire which began in the afternoon and raged through the night consumed the roof and toppled the spire.

Fire in the heart

I feel for the Parisians who lined the banks of the Seine to witness the conflagration, those vaulting flames mirrored in their tears. So do millions of other well-wishers around the world, for this is a building etched into the collective consciousness, a Unesco World Heritage site visited by millions of people a year.

Hyperbole aside, its destruction is a true tragedy. Notre Dame is the heart not just of Paris, but also of France, and not in a merely abstract sense: the brass plate set into the ground outside the western facade marks the city centre and the point from which the distance from Paris to all destinations is measured.

But, as we mourn, let’s remember that this heart will beat again.

Firefights battling the blaze yesterday as it spread across the roof of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris Firefights battling the blaze yesterday as it spread across the roof of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris © Pierre Suu / Getty Images

If you look north from our office in London, you can see across the River Thames to the towers of St Paul’s Cathedral’s west front. The cathedral – a place of comparable cultural clout to Notre Dame – is now in its fourth incarnation. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece was built in the late 17th century after its predecessor was destroyed… by the Great Fire of London.

Contemporary accounts describe molten lead pouring from the roof of Old St Paul’s into the warren of streets below, causing the pavements to glow like flows of lava. So intense was the inferno that witnesses a furlong away – about 200 metres – could not face the flames.

Symbols of resilience

It took 35 years for the St Paul’s we know today to rise from the ashes – but rise it did, an irrepressible phoenix, just as it had from previous fires in 962, 1087 and 1561.

Furthermore, I’d argue that with each rebuild, just as the physical cathedral became a little bigger, so did its psychogeographical scale – that is, the amount of space it occupies in our minds. Along with all the other things for which it stands, St Paul’s became a potent symbol of the city’s resilience.

While I don't speak for them, I’d wager that the residents of Utrecht, Barcelona and Cologne feel much the same way about St Martin’s, Santa Maria Del Mar and Cologne Cathedral respectively, all of which were ravaged by, and reborn from, fire at one time or another in their long histories.

It won’t take 35 years to restore Notre Dame, which has survived revolutions and wars, and hosted the crowning of kings and the coronation of emperors. French president Emmanuel Macron has already launched an international campaign and hundreds of millions of euros are pouring into the reconstruction fund.

And whenever this storied structure does reopen to the public, its hold on our imaginations will have grown, not diminished. So let’s look forward to the day when the bells of Our Lady ring out over the rooftops of Paris once more.

Just back from: Spain, Cambodia, Greece & Australia

 

Tiles at the Alhambra, Spain Lauren getting a healthy dose of geometric patterns in Andalucia © Lauren Keith

Our travel-mad staff share their recent adventures from enjoying cookery classes in Queensland to exploring architectural beauties in Andalucía and sitting in the shadow of thousands of bats flying out to feast in Cambodia.

Getting a fine-art fix in Andalucía, Spain

Some visitors to North Africa who pick up a bug can shake it after a few days, but the one I’ve acquired is going to stay with me for life. I’ve been infected with something like tile-itus, and now I seem to only be able to plan holidays that involve scouting out those colourful, geometric patterns that adorn everything from mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools) to fountains and flats. These tiles, called zellige in Arabic, spread across the Muslim world, which for centuries included the Andalucía region of southern Spain.

Inside the Moorish palaces of Real Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada, where room after room is covered top to toe in tiles and other Islamic adornments, I got a healthy dose of the colourful medicine I now require, and I instantly found bliss wandering in silence amongst those millions of tiny blocks. But now that I’m back, where do I get my next fix?

Lauren Keith, Destination Editor for the Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Instagram @noplacelike_it.

An army of bats streaking across the sky in Cambodia An army of bats streaking across the sky in Cambodia © Rucy Cui

Braving the ‘cold’ to see bats in Cambodia

My family and I were in Cambodia this past Christmas. Even though we sweltered in the heat, the Cambodians we met were quick to tell us this was the coldest winter they'd experienced in recent memory. This was fully realised one evening in Battambang, as we sat just down the road from the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. Having scrambled to the mouth of an unmarked cave we lay waiting for the nightly exodus: thousands of bats, awoken from slumber, streaking across the sky in search of their first meal of the day. We checked the time. Any moment now... As the sun started to go down, our guide said, 'They feel lazy. Maybe it's too cold tonight.’

When the first bat darted out into the sky, it was barely noticed. Then, all at once, a deluge of them flowed from the mouth of the cave, chirping in unison as if to sing, ‘It may be cold, but a bat's gotta eat!’ We watched the show against a perfect pinky sunset for half an hour. I don't think I'd ever seen anything so amazing and so unexpected.

Rucy Cui, Publicity Associate. Follow her tweets @rucycui.

Marvelling at the seemingly impossible in Meteora, Greece

With numerous rock pinnacles rising hundreds of metres from a forest of oak in central Greece, Meteora is one of the most peculiar landscapes I’ve ever seen. What’s even more impressive is how monks have been making their homes on top of these rock giants for centuries – first in natural caves and later in architecturally astounding monasteries. Once a place to be alone with God, these days it’s rarely a place for solitude.

A handful of the two million people who visit each year come in February, and most drive between the best-known monasteries. A more rewarding way to do it is on foot. So we set off from the village of Kalambaka with our guide Christos to hike to one of the less-accessible monasteries. It was an hour-long walk on an unbeaten path through the forest to Ypapanti Monastery. Built into a rock cavity, it’s difficult to spot from ground level, so we wound our way up to the hilltop opposite. From here, the impossibility of how these enormous rocks could be inhabited really struck us.

We walked on until we finally emerged at Varlaam, one of the biggest monasteries. Cloud had begun to form around the base of the rocks, and the meaning of the name Meteora (suspended in the air) became apparent. For a moment, I too felt suspended, in awe of the wonder of nature and resilience of humankind.

Hazel Lubbock, Digital Platform Editor. Follow her on Instagram @hazellubbock.

Cliff with his beautifully presented beetroot three ways Best in class – Cliff with his beautifully presented beetroot three ways © Clifton Wilkinson

Conquering a cookery class in Noosa, Queensland

The latex gloves were an unusual, slightly off-putting start to the cookery class. ‘To stop your hands getting stained’ was the reason given after my partner in cooking crime and I were told we would be preparing beetroot three ways. Glamorous they might not have looked, but the gloves took one for the team as I followed the recipe and got messy trying to create something that could sit proudly alongside the dishes being prepared by the rest of the class. The chef at Wasabi in Noosa, Queensland, was admirably patient as I chopped, fried, pureed and carefully arranged a variety of different coloured and sized beetroot. ‘Add some saffron flowers,’ he suggested. I sprinkled some on obligingly, turning over the last page of the now red-stained recipe book to check we hadn’t missed anything. We hadn’t. ‘Yours definitely looks the best of the lot,’ the chef said. He might well have said the same to the other pairs as they finished their dishes, but, as I pulled off my latex gloves with a satisfying snap, I didn’t care. Beetroot three ways. Clean hands. Cookery class complete.

Clifton Wilkinson, Destination Editor for Great Britain, Ireland and Iceland. Follow his tweets @Cliff_Wilkinson.

Clifton travelled to Queensland with support from Tourism Events Queensland. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

In the studio with Peter Williamson, illustrator of Wild Things

 

Pete sketching in his studio in Kent, England © Pete Williamson

Pete Williamson's illustrations often depict ominous scenes and dark landscapes, but his latest project involved illustrating unicorns, fairies and monsters for our new Lonely Planet Kids title Wild Things. We chatted to Pete on how he got inspiration from walking in the woods with his daughter and how he started out illustrating books.

Tell us about the brief

The brief was to create engaging characters and images to inspire children to get outdoors and use their imagination – whether it be magical adventures, looking for fairies, witches, dragons, portals to other worlds or making potions. My daughter was eight when the brief arrived and already really loved going out into the woods and fields at the end of our garden and making potions from petals, mud and anything else that caught her imagination; so this was a project that I really identified with and was happy to be involved in. A lot of it was illustrated during a heat wave so I did a lot of wandering in the cool of the woods for inspiration.

How did you make a start?

I work in a very traditional way. I start with really loose pencil sketches on paper then trace my sketches onto Fabriano art paper, ink them up and then scan into Photoshop where, if necessary, I clean the images up digitally. I use simple copy paper instead of fancy sketchbooks that I’d be worried about spoiling with mistakes, as I wanted the illustrations to have the feeling of energy that children’s drawings have.

This brief called specifically for a sketchy pencil style and illustrations that could be placed around text and photographs, almost as if someone had taken the book out with them on a walk, and had imagined ‘wild things’ and scribbled them down before they forgot them.

It was interesting to finish the illustrations at an earlier stage in their creation than I usually would. It felt like very pure drawing as I didn’t ink in the line work or add watercolour; it was all just pencil and paper, and I think that simplicity of expression fitted in well with the Wild Things ethos.

Were there any challenges?

After illustrating 65 or so children’s books, I find the principal challenge is not to repeat myself while at the same time working within my established style. This project called for subjects that I wouldn’t usually draw (no dark atmospheric landscapes, odd creatures or eerie, weird laboratories) and using methods I rarely use, so the project was fun throughout. For me, the initial sketching is one of the most energetic, exciting times in the creation of a book, so being briefed to create purely in that sketchy style was great.

What’s the one item in your studio you can’t live without?

I think it would have to be a black and white photograph I have hanging above my drawing desk. It’s of the musicians John Zorn and Sylvie Courvoisier playing, I think, some kind of improvised duet in a small room in New York. I just know that the music is strange, beautiful and honest – pure imaginative expression. The photo is a constant wake-up call that reminds me to strive for creative integrity at all times

How did you get into illustrating books?

I worked as a designer in animation for over a decade but I was always interested in illustrating in children’s books as my very first influences were picture books such as Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Asterix.

I uploaded a character from an animated film I was co-creating to my website and it was noticed by two art directors who were looking for ‘dark’ and ‘quirky’ illustrations for Guy Bass’s Dinkin Dings and the Frightening Things and The Raven Mysteries by Marcus Sedgwick. Those two commissions were really successful (each winning a Blue Peter prize) and led to further book series with Marcus and Guy and also with many other writers, including Francesca Simon, Matt Haig , Steve Cole and even Charles Dickens!

Right now I’m working on my 67th book – a brand new collaboration with Guy Bass, which is looking great. I’m also starting to show my work in galleries and it’s had a really positive response.

Where in the world are you based?

I’m based in Kent, 50 minutes outside London, pretty much surrounded by woods and fields.

Follow Pete's drawings @pete.williamson.illustration.

Some sketchy looking characters...
Various fairies for Wild Things
Another collection of cute critters
Getting stuck into the mythical creatures
Experimenting with some magical natural materials
Fairy feast: Peter's illustrations overlaid in the book.
Unicorns and dragons
Another overlaid unicorn sketch
The front cover of Wild Things



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