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13 Jun

The jungle is real here. A thick green mesh of seemingly impenetrable palms and brush and vines that dangle over a tight muddy path crossed by gnarling tree roots. Ahead is a gaping hole running up a mountainside, big enough to fit a 30-floor skyscraper standing upright. Inside, lime-green ferns cling to terraced formations built over hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years. And past it, the sandy path leads into a huge void. Going on almost feels like stepping into outer space.

This is Vietnam?

Yes. More specifically, it’s the new Vietnam. After all, Quang Binh Province, just north of Hue in Central Vietnam, was a mere blip on travelers’ radars even five years ago. Now it’s the fasting-rising destination in Southeast Asia.

The area is stunning, but the reason people are coming is the caves. They’re beautiful –— and really really big.

Phong Nha–Ke Bang National Park and the nearby Tu Lan system (both Unesco-protected) are home to the first-, third- and fourth-largest caves in the world. Dozens are available to visitors, with new opens opening each year (only 35% of the area has been explored as of yet). The world’s new cave capital has so many because of he reliable mix of heavy fall rains and pure limestone that dates 450 million years. Plus a few million years of time.

“It’s the perfect geology for caves,” says Howard Limbert, a British cave expert who has explored the area since 1992 and is responsible for opening many to tourism with Oxalis cave tours. “Straight away we knew it. This is the best area in the world for caves. They’re just so huge. We were amazed.”

Many outsiders know of Son Doong, the world’s largest, but truly it plays the “Mt Everest” to a whole Himalayas-worth of less strenuous, equally rewarding cave options. Some can be reached by motorbike or boat, with lit-up formations and walkways. Wilder, often grander, ones with underground rivers to swim or campsites inside involve strenuous jungle hikes to reach.

Here’s how to plan your trip, broken down by types of caves.

DIY CAVES

The easiest way to see some of Quang Binh’s geological subterranean wonder can more or less be done on your own or via organized tours too.

Paradise Cave, or Thien Duong, is 9 miles into the national park from the village. From the entrance, where you’ll find a dozen eateries, you can hike 15 minutes or take a golf cart to reach the ramp walk that switchbacks up a mountainside shrouded in jungle. At the top, steps lead through a narrow opening in the rocks and descend into the whopping 18 miles of caverns. Walkways access about three-quarters of a mile (some tours go deeper in), where you’ll see a staggering array of giant, lit-up stalactites and stalagmites.

To avoid (most) tour buses, be there when it opens at 7am. Entry is 250,000 VND (about US$11); the return ride on the golf cart is 100,000 VND (about US$4).

Also in the national park, the Dark Cave (named so for its lack of artificial light) is more about softball adventure than its geology. A guide joins you after you pay the 450,000VND (or US$20) entrance fee. You reach the cave by zip line over the river, then a short swim. You’ll pass a series off natural pools and calcified formations inside, capped with a narrow mud-filled passageway where you soak, neck-deep, before exiting for a short kayak ride an a drop into the river from zip line.

Phong Nha Cave, the world’s largest “wet cave,” is easiest to visit, as “dragon boats” go inside it directly from the market in Phong Nha village. It’s been used by locals for over a century – and served as a hospital during the Vietnam War – and became the first cave attraction for visitors in 1995.

Self-guided tours of its dramatic, lit-up formations take in only a portion of the cave’s five miles, though organized tours that venture deeper are available too. The boat is 360,000VND (US$16) for up to a dozen people; individual entry to the cave is another 150,000VND (US$6).

ONE-DAY TOURS

For about US$70 per person, a one-day tour offers the sweet spot for cave options for those wanting to go deeper and see caves in their natural state, yet still be back to your accommodation for a shower and dinner than night.

Elephant Cave & Ma Da Valley trek gets a little bit of everything. You get picked up at your accommodation in a Soviet-made transport vehicle from the Vietnam War, ride along the old Ho Chi Minh Road to start your trek in (and up) the thick jungle canopy. It’s a short hike up a steep path doused in vines to the opening of Elephant Cave. Inside you’ll find relics left by North Vietnamese soldiers who hid out here in the war — and a short dark hike past mammoth formations to the gaping exit of the cave.

The trek then follows the Ma Da Valley, where you wade knee-deep and take log bridges to criss-cross a clear-water river to reach a cliff-backed swimming hole for a dip and lunch. Then the trek toughens on a steep ascent and descent over a jumble of incredible limestone boulders to reach the “wet cave” of Tra Ang, where you put on life jackets and head torch and swim several hundred meters in the dark, as bats occasionally squeak above you.

For a really big cave, the excellent Hang Tien trek gives a taste of Tu Lan cave system, an hour ride’s north. You begin by listening out for flying foxes in the treetops as you make a sharp descent on a muddy trail to the gaping entrance of the cave that stretches up hundreds of feet. Lime-green moss clings to terraced limestone formations built over hundreds of thousands of years, if not more. Ahead, abyss.

The walk passes a series of unreal towering formations — one looks like a giant coiled snake — below a ceiling a few hundred feet above. Above you can see a groove, carved by an eddy of rainwater-fed river that incredibly fills this enormous space every fall. You hike back, stopping at a swimming hole for lunch, then climb back up out of the jungle — about six miles in all.

For a more historic cave experience, the Vo Nguyen Giap Cave, an hour south of Dong Hoi outside the national park area, just opened to visitors in January 2019. This author was the first American to ever venture into the site used but General Giap (who grew up nearby), and North Vietnamese soldiers, during the Vietnam War. You’ll visit an indigenous community, and two, sometimes cramped caves with some war-era construction in both to see.

MULTI-DAY TOURS

For about US$240 and up (about 10% the cost of the four-day Son Doong trek), you can take a two-day trip. Trips include all food and camping supplies, and are usually near lovely swimming holes to rinse off the day’s grime.

One of the overnight highlights is Hang En, the gateway to Son Doong, and a huge attraction in its own right. It is the world’s third-largest cave after all — and a stunner, with a dramatic arch entrance, filled with swifts, that’s cut open from the lime green mountains.

You begin with a hard hike over jagged stones then lunch in an indigenous village only connected with the outside world by foot. You explore its colossal darkness with helmet’s torch lights, and the occasional beam of sunlight piercing the dark from unseen openings above. Porters bring all camping gear and food, and set up a campsite by an inside beach – as dramatic as it gets. Book through Oxalis.

One of the newest options, that sees even fewer visitors, is a two-day trek to see the world’s fourth-largest cave, Hang Pygmy, a “sister cave” of Son Doong, which opened to the public in 2018. The campsite is just inside the jungled opening to the cave.

THE BIG ONE: SON DOONG

A local accidentally discovered the opening to the world’s largest cave, Son Doong, in 1991, and in 2009, the British Cave Research Association, led by Howard Limbert, finally explored inside. It runs 5.5-miles (and counting – in April, British cavers discovered new depths) with subterranean jungle forests, entrances wide enough for jets to fly in (not advised), and inside caverns 300-feet tall. Four years later, tourists starting going in.

Trips aren’t for beginners — or the budget-conscious. The three-night trek (with two nights inside Son Doong) run US$3000 and are capped at 1000 visitors a year, max. It involves 15 miles of jungle trekking, often over jagged rocks, plus another 5.5 miles of caving involving rope climbs and scrambling up a 300-foot wall – and constant surprises, such as lunch at a minority village deep in the jungle, a night at Hang En’s cave beach (see above) or walks through surreal underground jungles of 100-foot trees and monkeys in the bottom of the cave’s sinkhole. Book through Oxalis.

IN BRIEF

When to go: Cave season lasts from mid December through August. Avoid the epic monsoon season (mid September through mid November), when cave tours are suspended and floods regularly fill villages and caves.

Tour operators: Local tour operators have exclusive access to many caves, so whom you go with depends on where you go. The clear stand-outs are Oxalis (the cave pioneer organization, who gets you to Son Doong and Hang En) and Jungle Boss (whose local guides have discovered many local caves themselves). Both are almost fully employed by locals, have detailed safety briefings and provide everything from water bottles, cooked meals on trail, transport and a helping hand on slippery bits.

Safety & concerns: You don’t have to have caving experience to do any of these tours, but you should mind the scope of the jungle trek. Five miles or more over limestone paths is quite strenuous, and it’ll be very hot. There may be log bridges to cross too, plus poison ivy to avoid and — full disclosure — a leech or two to flick off.

The sheer size of the caves means you won’t have to crawl or squeeze through tight chambers in most cases. Some caves are “dry,” where you’re scramble past and over giant formations, sometimes with ropes and safety harnesses. In “wet caves” you swim underground rivers! All tours provide helmets with torches and life jackets.

Read their trip descriptions (and packing list) carefully before making a decision right for you.


Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Vietnam here.

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12 Jun

Every country has its national food, though few are so clearly defined by the dish they are cooked in as Morocco’s tajine. A cookery class in a Moroccan kitchen is a great way to learn about this endlessly versatile meal named for the dish it is prepared in.

A tajine is a shallow terracotta dish, with a conical lid terminating in a knob that serves as its handle. Tajines are traditionally cooked over charcoal, and its here that the simple design turns out to be fiendishly clever. The thick base holds and distributes the heat from the coals, while the design of the heavy lid traps steam and allows it to freely circulate. This way, you can use less water in the stew to concentrate your dish’s flavours until they reach mouth-watering perfection, while slow-cooked meat falls gently off the bone.

The best cookery lessons start with a trip to the markets to buy fresh produce for the kitchen. If you haven’t shopped in a Moroccan souk before, be aware that this an experience quite removed from a regular supermarket. Stalls are piled high with fresh vegetables, to be weighed and possibly haggled over. Elsewhere, a butcher carves cuts and puts them down on his tiled counter with a slap.

Best of all is the spice shop, where you’ll pick up those special ingredients that give Moroccan food its special flavour. Jars of preserved lemons are plucked from jars, while heaps of ras el hanout are scooped into bags. Every shop produces its own particular blend of this mix, often containing more than 20 spices. It’s name in Arabic means ‘head of the shop’, alluding to where the exact make up of the secret blend is stored. Moroccan palates would undoubtedly be much duller without it.

Back in the kitchen, it’s time to cut and chop. Preserved lemons go into the tajine dish with joints of chicken and a handful of green olives. The ras el hanout can be used to season vegetables or mixed with ground beef to make a kefta (meatball) tajine with tomatoes, that will have eggs cracked into it to bake near the end of the cooking process. Lamb tajines is often matched with prunes and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

A tajine is one of the great one-pot meals where you assemble the ingredients in the dish and then just leave it alone for the heat to work its magic. The most traditional way of cooking is over a charcoal brazier specially designed to hold the dish. You’ll see this low-and-slow cooking method outside street restaurants, often with a blackened onion or tomato on top of the cone to show that things are cooking inside.

While charcoal is more authentic, you can easily pop your tajine onto a low gas burner instead until it’s done its business. But (whisper it) plenty of commercial kitchens in Morocco actually cook everything in half the time in a pressure cooker, before serving in a pre-heated tajine dish.

But there’s no need to for such short cuts when you’re the cook. That slow simmer leaves plenty of time to anticipate sitting down for lunch with fresh bread to soak up those rich tajine juices, and new friends from your cooking class.


Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Morocco here.

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10 Jun

Did you know that Finns drink a world-leading 12 kilograms of coffee a year? Surely not by coincidence, Finland was also named the world’s happiest country in 2018 and 2019. If you value both quantity and quality when it comes to coffee consumption, you’re sure to find a coffee shop that makes you smile in Helsinki, the Finnish capital. (Full disclosure: my mother is from Turku, Finland’s oldest city, which legally obliges me to drink six kilograms a year.)

For one-stop coffee shopping, check out the Helsinki Coffee Festival. Founded in 2015 and staged each April at the Cable Factory cultural centre, it’s the largest coffee festival in the Nordic countries. With seminars on coffee-making, cutting-edge coffee machines for sale, DJ performances, and dozens of brands to sample, it’s a java junkie’s dream.

Year-round, here are six must-visit coffee shops in Helsinki:

1. Kaffa Roastery

Named Finland’s best coffee shop at the 2018 Helsinki Coffee Festival, Kaffa Roastery is a welcoming enclave for connoisseurs. Outside, you can catch the rich, heavenly scent of artisan coffee when you disembark from a nearby tram in the hip Punavuori neighbourhood.

Handcrafted coffees — like my dark roast Ethiopian espresso — delight Kaffee Roastery regulars. You can watch the roasting process through floor-to-ceiling windows, five days a week from 7 a.m. to mid-day. Barista Kaisa Kokkonen represented Finland in the 2019 World Barista Championship in Boston.

It’s a very civilized environment. Novels by Sofi Oksanen and Milan Kundera sit on the windowsill. Leashed bulldogs and German shepherds relax at their owners’ feet. Conversations in English and Finnish bubble among tech entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and other creative types.

2. Moomin Cafe

Featuring the cute, hippo-like creatures invented by Finnish children’s author Tove Jansson, the Moomin Cafe is a perfect place for coffee lovers with kids. It’s also fashionable among hockey fans, as Finland won the 2019 IIHF World Championship with 6-foot-8 captain Marko Anttila, who’s nicknamed “Mörkö” for resembling that ominously looming character in the books.

I got a latte with a Moomin picture on top, served in a mug depicting an apartment building full of other classic characters like Moominpapa, Snufkin and the Snork Maiden. I enjoyed my drink with one of the cafe’s famous cinnamon buns.

This cozy space on Fabianinkatu is decorated with huge black-and-white drawings by Jansson, whose whimsical sense of fantasy recalls Edward Lear and Roald Dahl. There’s a play area for little ones with big green pillows, a swing, and puzzles. Plush toys, miniatures, and Moomin books are also for sale. You can buy bags of coffee beans with flavours like blueberry and mint-chocolate.

3. Paulig Kulma Cafe

The Paulig Kulma Cafe is an ultra-contemporary showcase for an 1876-founded Finnish coffee company, which includes an on-site coffee roastery and barista institute. It occupies a two-storey, street-facing location in the Kluuvi Shopping Centre, and patrons can sit in white wicker swings or cubicles that resemble Finnish summer cottages.

Knowledgeable servers help you analyze the flavour profiles of numerous coffees, imported from as far afield as Uganda, Kenya, Honduras, and Guatemala. I ordered an innovative light roast coffee with strawberry notes.

The cafe also has an extensive menu. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, I watched green-and-yellow Helsinki street cars going by on Aleksanterinkatu as I devoured open-faced salmon and avocado sandwiches and blueberry cheesecake with my coffee. Yes, it’s a rough life at Paulig Kulma.

4. Roasberg

At Roasberg, the location is as much of a draw as the excellent cappuccinos, lattes, and double espressos. This independently owned, cosmopolitan cafe sits within eyeshot of the Ateneum, Helsinki’s classic Finnish art museum, and the Eliel Saarinen-designed central railway station.

Whether you’re devouring Roasberg’s Sunday buffet or just downing a slice of chocolate cake topped with lingonberries and blueberries, it’s a satisfying experience in a friendly environment.

The cafe, which features surreal glass light fixtures, is named after a fictional globe-trotting character. A private downstairs room, which accommodates up to 100 guests, mingles art-deco elegance with the ambience of Captain Nemo’s submarine.

5. El Fant

White walls and piped-in jazz music give El Fant a cool contemporary feel. It’s a popular brunch hangout and wine bar. However, I relaxed with a cup of Dalecho coffee from Ethiopia, produced by Turku’s Frukt Coffee Roasters. Its floral and fruity notes complemented my hearty slice of carrot cake. The wifi password was “Never2late4acoffee,” and it was hard to disagree with that slogan.

El Fant is steps from both the Helsinki harbour and right next door to the Helsinki Museum — in fact, you can see the museum gift shop through an adjoining window. You may feel a little more contemplative and adult than usual as you sip your coffee here.

6. Andante

Marking its 30th anniversary in 2020, Andante is popular among young professionals and students in Helsinki’s Design District. I soaked up the homey ambience, including a big window full of vintage china and a green shag rug.

Andante is a musical term that means “played at a moderately slow tempo,” and this certainly isn’t a grab-and-go environment. It’s all about savouring. A card at the front counter reads: “No Milk. No Sugar. Enjoy!” There are detailed tasting notes on each coffee, and coffee diplomas adorn the walls.

As I recharged with my lovingly prepared Americano, I felt my coffee IQ going up.


Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Finland here.

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07 Jun

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When travellers are planning their trips to Thailand, the first stops that come to mind are often the most well-trod ones: stops in Chiang Mai, for instance, and Bangkok are must-dos. But the beautiful Southeast Asian country has so much more to offer, in terms of urban wonders, than its most populous cities. Here, five lesser-known Thai cities that you should absolutely put on your bucket list.

1. Mae Hong Son

Where it is: On the border of Thailand and Myanmar, in the mountainous Thai province of the same name.

Why you should go: Because of its proximity to Thailand, visiting Mae Hong Son might feel like experiencing a little bit of Myanmar — there is some cultural overlap, and it’s unlike anything (or anywhere) else on the planet.

2. Sukhothai

Where it is: About 230 kilometres north of Bangkok, Sukhothai is characterized by its relative remoteness.

Why you should go: Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage City, due to its proliferation of ancient temple ruins. In fact, the city was the birthplace of Thai architecture and culture, so if you want to get a good taste of Thailand’s history, there’s nowhere better to be.

3. Khao Lak

Where it is: On Thailand’s south-central coast. “Khao lak” translates in English to “Lak mountain”, which is the highest peak in the area’s hilly region.

Why you should go: If you’re seeking a bit of peace, quiet, and serenely calm beachfront, Khao Lak is the place to go. It’s a change of pace from many of Thailand’s other cities, which are vibrant, colourful, and bustling — and who doesn’t need a moment to recharge every now and again?

4. Kanchanaburi

Where it is: Western Thailand, in the province of the same name.

Why you should go: History buffs may be particularly interested in a visit: the Burma Railway — which includes the infamous bridge over the River Kwai — is located in Kanchanaburi.

5. Chiang Rai

Where it is: Northern Thailand, in the mountainous province of the same name.

Why you should go: Chiang Rai is the bustling Chiang Mai’s sister town, and for all of the latter’s popularity, Chiang Rai is decidedly more laid-back. Like Khao Lak, this is a great place to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

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06 Jun

Game of Thrones fans will no doubt feel pangs of loss this coming Sunday, as the HBO series airs its last-ever episode. For those who want to relive a bit of GoT magic after the series has wrapped, here are four places around the world where the show filmed some of its most memorable scenes — and how to get there.

Northern Ireland

Most of Game of Thrones‘ indoor scenes were shot at constructed sets in Ireland, but the country’s scenic vistas and breathtakingly diverse wilderness also served as the setting for many of the show’s outdoor scenes. Larne Lough served as the setting for Castle Black and the Wall, while the small town of Moneyglass acted as the setting for Winterfell.

Getting there: Check out our small group tours to Ireland here.

Spain

The Dragonpit played a pivotal role in Game of Thrones’ eighth season, and filming for this location took place in Spain — specifically, in Seville, at the Italica Amphitheatre of Santiponce. Fans may also recall that, in past seasons, Spain’s Basque region served as a stand-in for the Targaryens’ home, Dragonstone.

Getting there: Check out our small group tours to Spain here.

Croatia

The beautiful Croatian coast — and specifically the city of Dubrovnik — was used as the setting for the iconic King’s Landing for the entirety of Game of Thrones‘ eight seasons, and will surely prove memorable for not only its scenic coast and sun-dappled vistas, but for the importance King’s Landing played in the series overall. What better reason is there for a superfan to visit?

Getting there: Check out our small group tours to Croatia here.

Iceland

Iceland’s frigid, remote, otherworldly landscapes were perfect for Game of Thrones, which filmed scenes that took place north of the Wall here. It might be difficult for fans to visit without imagining the terrifying White Walkers stalking through Iceland’s desolate snowy plains — though, if this is of concern to you, might we suggest visiting in the summertime?

Getting there: Check out our small group tours to Iceland here.

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06 Jun

There’s no question, having kids changed me as a traveller.

Where once the idea of snapping up a deal and heading off on an adventure felt simple and easy, suddenly I had to contemplate whether the little people would be okay.

I know I’m not the only one who has wondered if my jet set dreams had to go the way of my favourite pre-maternity jeans once the kids arrived. I’m willing to bet that most new parents feel the same way.

We took that first trip and then we didn’t stop. Seventeen years into the parenting game, travel is an integral part of our lives. And I can tell you with confidence that not only can you can take the kids with you when you travel, but there are plenty of reasons why you should.

1. They’re portable

It’s true. Kids are built to move. And adventures can always be sought out that match your kids’ age and stage. You’ll find plenty of accommodations and activities that bend over backwards to make sure your family is comfortable but introducing a trip that requires kids’ go outside their comfort zone can be good too. There’s nothing that will make a demanding 11-year old appreciate her room at home more than having to share one with her brothers on the road.

2. There are kids where you’re going

I’ve been travelling with my kids since they were infants and we have yet to get to a city, rural enclave or mountaintop and not bump into another wee person. If kids can live in the places you’re visiting, you can bring yours.

3. You are responsible for teaching them how to travel

Yup, it’s on you. Want to raise kids who know better than to kick the seat in front of them on a plane? You’ll need to travel. Trips offer opportunities to teach lessons in respecting boundaries, following rules, self-entertaining and more. All of which will make life at home better.

4. Travel can cement family values

Want to raise kids who understand that diverse cultures have lots to offer or who appreciate that we all have a role to play in protecting the planet? Travel. Taking my kids on the road reduced the noise around what we value as a family. All these years later, those values still hold firm.

5. Hiccups you’ll face on the road aren’t that different from the ones waiting at home

The idea that you are safer at home than while travelling is often untrue. We’ve found that applying the same general safety rules at home and abroad works. Kids will still catch a cold, dislike a particular dish, be miserable on the road just like home, but a little bit of schedule flexibility and patience usually do the trick.

6. Great trips can reduce your choices (in a good way)

At home, the fight to get kids to practice for six sports, meals on the table plus pick out the perfect shade of grey for the living room walls created stress that was all our own doing. And the kids felt it too. Being able to let go of all of those commitments and focus instead on the world we were seeing, and our role in it was a luxury and a sanity saver.

7. Travel teaches resilience and promotes self-confidence

Far from home, kids get to test out who they are without fear or peer pressure. Often our daily lives don’t allow much space for kids to think freely. Removing them from home and showing them new things, gives them air to breathe anew.

8. Travel allows you to lead by example

No one says, “I hope my kids learn to squash their dreams and desires.” And yet, as parents we often push our passions to the side. Instead, talk to your kids about why you want to travel, about what mysteries in the world you’re excited to uncover and watch their eyes light up with a desire to do the same.

9. They won’t be available to you forever

Both the blessing and the curse of childhood is that it doesn’t last forever. Kids grow up and begin to have their own lives and working those into your travel schedule can be tough. While they’re little, time is on your side. Make the most of it.

10. Great adventures are waiting for your family

Use travel as an opportunity to take on bold adventures together. Spark their imagination and sense of wonder with a walk through a Costa Rica rainforest or watch their faces light up when they don a Samurai helmet and sword in Japan. Venture out and show them the world and I guarantee they’ll show you new things too.


Getting there

Check out our Family tours here.

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06 Jun

After decades of civil war and instability, Colombia is stepping into the spotlight as an engaging destination, brimming with potential, and, for travelling food lovers, a larder that’s packed with unique and vibrant flavours. According to Ana Belen Cherry, MasterChef Colombia finalist and anthropology student studying ethnic gastronomy, there are a whopping 36 gastronomic regions within the underrated country’s borders.

Colombia’s capital and largest city, Bogotá is an emerging culinary hotspot, having caught the eye of the folks at Latin America’s Best Restaurants to host the fifth and sixth editions of the awards. Just as the country’s chefs and restaurants are gaining international recognition, so too are the indigenous ingredients and cooking styles. It’s why I’m found roaming through Paloquemao Square on the west side of the city eagerly accepting _una muestr_a (a sample) of unrecognizable fruits offered by its friendly market vendors. As someone who actively seeks out unfamiliar foods, I’m blown away by the diversity of the native products I encounter, learning that Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil.

From food stalls to restaurants, I find a plethora of taste experiences that refresh, excite and register widely on the deliciousness scale. Whether it was traditional dishes or flavours used in contemporary, sometimes boundary pushing, menus – capybara, anyone? The wild rodent is fantastic smoked and served in a consommé made from its own meat at award-winning chef Leonor Espinosa’s refined Leo. Promise – I was most drawn to the sense of pride in the culture’s food, and the recognition that much of it is still awaiting discovery.

It’s easy to please your belly with crowd favourites like potato and meat filled empanadas, arepas, and tamales or to soak yourself in some of the world’s best coffee, but I find it hard to pass on trying foods that draw on the ancestral knowledge of indigenous and Afro-Colombian, like Leo’s rainforest-sourced leaf-cutter ants, especially if it’s available at an affordable price.

Want to broaden your flavour horizons? Here are some wonderful and unique foods to get you started:

Ajiaco

Thick, hearty, and synonymous with Bogota, the famous Cuban-inspired stew consists of shredded chicken, three kinds of potatoes, and corn on the cob. Made with giant capers and guasca (a grassy and flavourful Colombian herb), the dish is served with avocado, cream, rice and more capers.

Buñuelos

A popular breakfast, snack or Christmas food, these addictive golf ball-sized fried doughs are made using a batter made from queso costeño, a soft white cheese, and cassava flour. Best consumed warm, the mildly sweet cheese fritters have a delightful crust and a tender, almost cakey center.

Feijoa

Also known as pineapple guava, the egg-shaped fruit has a bumpy waxy lime-green skin that shields a thick, white, granular interior that has a jelly-like seeded core. Floral and nutritious, the fruit’s sweetness straddles pineapples and strawberries while hinting of spearmint, and can be eaten raw, juiced, made into cider and wine, or cooked in stews, pastries, chutneys or jams.

Grenadilla

As a passion fruit lover, finding a sweeter variety was a revelation. Rip open the round fruit’s yellow rind to reveal the juicy, jelly-like pulp with dark, crunchy seeds that can be eaten or juiced. But the surprise was being told you’re supposed to swallow the seeds and not chew them as I had always done (the latter might result in gastrointestinal distress). Alas, old habits are hard to break.

Lechona

A glorious traditional dish that stuffs suckling pig with peas, rice, and spices then roasted for hours. The handsome beast sports crispy crackling that sits over tender and flavourful meat in an all-in-one meal.

Lulo

A bright orange egg-shaped fruit that looks like it’s a cross between a kiwi and tomato. Due to its super tart rhubarb meets lime flavour, the translucent flesh and green seeds are not typically eaten straight but made into smoothies (batidos) or blended with ice, lime, water and sugar to make a refreshing citrus drink called lulanda.

Obleas

Look for the street cart with the picture of Mick Jagger on it near the Plaza de Bolivar in Bogota. There you can pick up circular wafers the size of your head sandwiching a sweet filling of arequipa (dulce de leche), a sweet and sticky Colombian caramel.

Pitahaya

These might have a similar scaly bulbous exterior and black seed-flecked white interior as their bland magenta Southeast Asian cousin, but the yellow-skinned variety native to Colombia is blessed with pleasing, succulent flesh that’s super juicy, sweet like a pear but with the crunch of a kiwi.

Tamarillo (Tomate de árbol)

Resembling a plum tomato, the fruit has a juicy, slightly acidic seed-ridden orange flesh that’s cloaked with a smooth, but bitter, red or orange skin that’s often darkly streaked. Peeled and eaten, the tree tomato is regularly made into smoothies, blended with water and sugar for juice, and even incorporated into chocolate bars.

Zapote

The popular round fruit can be recognized by its fine sandpaper-like skin, dark orange interior and massive pair of black seeds. But it’s the wildly floral aroma and mildly sweet flavour of its soft, viscous and almost fibrous creamy flesh that’s used in milkshakes, smoothies and ice creams.


Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Colombia here.

Credit: Source link

06 Jun

For destination-driven adventurers, vacation lodging is about having a place to rest one’s head after a long day of exploring ancient settlements or testing gastrointestinal limits. It’s a place to recharge, not a place to overcharge.

Pavement-pounding, itinerary-cramming travellers can rest assured that the market for no-frills travel accommodation has come into its own, and with style to spare.

Meet the micro-hotel.

Also known as capsule hotels or pods, these itty-bitty, back-to-basics hotel rooms guarantee a bathroom, a bed, and little else (don’t worry, there’s WiFi). The concept has its origins in 1970s Japan, where walls lined with plastic sleep cubicles — built as occasional crash-pads for salarymen who chased long days at the office with long nights at area izakayas — became the stuff of worldwide imagination. But today’s pod hotels are so much more than the morgue-like cubbies of industrial Osaka (not that there’s anything wrong with the morgue-like cubbies of industrial Osaka). Think chic design details, ambient lighting systems, and mattresses like a plush hug.

Around the world, in international airport terminals and bustling urban centres alike, capsule hotels offer pragmatic and wallet-friendly lodging. And on a long layover, they’re a jetlag-mitigating must.

Here are seven capsule concepts, around the world, to consider for your next adventure:

1. BLOC Hotels: This UK-based chain boasts “luxurious linens” and “free, super-fast WiFi” in both its Birmingham and London Gatwick locations, as well as parking perks and meal deals in participating area restaurants. Rooms offer mood lighting, flat-screen televisions, and perfectly serviceable shower-toilet facilities that give visceral new life to the term “water closet.” Basic rooms start as low as 45 GBP per night, though it’s advised to book online in advance for the best rate.

2. The Pod Hotels: With centrally situated locales in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., this capsule concept by trendsetting New York hoteliers Richard Born and Ira Drukier dates all the way back to 2007. Rates start at around $100 USD per night, and include proximity to must-visit sites and, in the case of NYC’s 42nd street location, a happening new Tiki bar.

3. Yotelair: These minimalist outposts of the boutique-budget YOTEL chain are strictly found in airports: Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles de Gaulle, London Gatwick and London Heathrow, Istanbul Airport, and Singapore Changi. Designed for four- to 24-hour stays in between connecting flights, rooms feature either sci-fi sleep pods or convertible sofabeds, complementary hot drinks, and the requisite high-speed WiFi, and they book by the hour.

4. Sleeep: Think outside the box… by sleeping inside one. No, this isn’t a dare. An affordable option in notoriously spendy Hong Kong, Sleeep’s wood-paneled bed nooks — branded “SLPers” — might possibly be the most literal interpretation of “capsule” yet. One man’s claustrophobia is another’s cozy comfort, and with overnight rates that start at 499 Hong Kong Dollars, there are definitely worse ways to get a night’s rest.

5. The Jane Hotel: Tucked into a Landmark building in New York City’s West Village, The Jane was built in 1908 to house sailors. A 2008 restoration polished the century-old jewel to its present-day glory, modelling the hotel’s rooms after ship and train cabins in winking homage to its past. 130 Standard Cabins and 40 Bunk Bed cabins offer handsome, if pared-down, privacy for guests’ overnight snoozing; slippers and bathrobes are provided for late-night shuffles to the communal bathrooms. A breathtaking, turn-of-the-century ballroom, complimentary bicycles, and seasonal rooftop bar and nightclub don’t hurt, either.

6. Pangaea Pod: Each winter sees snow bunnies and powder pirates descend on Whistler, the British Columbia ski and snowboard hotspot, for frosty fun on the slopes. Pangea opened in 2018 to bridge the gaping chasm between chi-chi chalets and low-rent hostels, while promising the best of both. A short walk from the gondolas at Whistler’s Blackcomb resort, its prime-location rates are offset by no-fuss accommodations. We’re talking literal pods: double beds in a three-walled box that guests enter through a curtained opening. A rooftop patio and indoor café provide just-right social settings for a chill, interactive vibe.

7. 9 Hours: A favourite among budget travellers looking for an elevated twist on the authentic capsule experience, this Japanese chain is prized for its neo-space-age interiors and killer locations. Overnight rates at the hotel’s Tokyo location begin at just 4,900 Yen, roughly $45 USD.


Getting there

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06 Jun

One of the best ways to experience a new destination is to let your taste buds lead the way. Food is an incredible cultural and social portal while travelling: it opens up conversations about a country’s history, traditions, climate, and more. This is all true of Vietnam, a country whose cuisine is as diverse as it is delicious. But while you’ll be hard-pressed to run out of new foods to try while you’re there, one thing’s for sure: you’re going to eat a lot of noodles. A lot of chewy, slurpy, oh-so-tasty noodles. Here are three things to know about the country’s delicious delicacies:

Appearances can be deceiving

Noodles feature in hundreds of Vietnamese dishes, from piping hot soups to refreshing cold dishes. And while the noodles used in many of these dishes may look the same, there are many different methods — and ingredients — from which they may be prepared. At first glance, for instance, Bánh phở and Bánh canh may look similar — they’re both milky white, long, and elegant — but look closer and you’ll notice that the former are flat while the latter are round. Other types of noodles are easier to tell apart: Banh pho gao lut, for instance, are a rich golden red, while Bánh đa đỏ are a deep, rich brown.

Broth not required

There are hundreds of Vietnamese dishes that feature noodles, and while the country’s most famous — pho — is a hot, brothy soup, there are plenty of dishes that include no broth at all. Noodles are a key ingredient in rice paper rolls, stir fries, and other dishes.

Dig in — then drink up

If you end up ordering a hot and brothy noodle dish, like pho, you might end up getting a bit messy while you eat it. it’s okay to slurp up the long, chewy noodles as you work your way through. Then, once you’re done, don’t be afraid to lift the bowl to your lips and drink up the delicious broth that remains. Enjoy!


Getting there

Discover the noodles of Vietnam and more on a trip to Southeast Asia with National Geographic Family Journeys with G Adventures, a new line of trips for adventure-loving families in search of a meaningful way to discover the world together. With itineraries inspired by National Geographic’s expertise in photography and storytelling, wildlife, culture, history, and geography, these trips let families connect with the world and each other.

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06 Jun

You’d be forgiven if the headlines of the last year or so have turned you off of the idea of travelling to the United States of America. But you’d also be missing out. Despite the news, there’s much more to the U.S. than contentious politics and civil unrest. In this occasional series, travel writer Bert Archer will highlight some of the reasons why a trip to America is worth your time and travel dollars. Here, why Los Angeles is, despite what you’ve heard, worth a walk around.

I wonder if airports really are reflections of the cities they serve, or if I’m making it up.

Toronto’s, for instance, is all grey and cold blue, unremarkable but way more efficient and workable than Torontonians give it credit for. Vancouver’s is gorgeous, and despite way more effort and money having gone into Doha’s and Dubai’s, Shanghai’s and Beijing’s, it effortlessly beats them all. Zurich’s is perfectly clean and plain, nothing much to see there, unless you know exactly where to go, in which case you find things like the Swissair lounge, where they have more than 150 whiskies, served by knowledgeable bartenders, for free.

And the Los Angeles airport, known universally by its IATA code, LAX, is a huge big mess. It is, like the city that surrounds it, just tragic. You may have to walk for close to an hour to get from one terminal to another, for instance, in the absence of something as basic as a shuttle. When added to American airport security systems, two-hour layovers can turn into mad dashes to make your flight. They recently opened a VIP terminal that essentially provides the sort of experience you get at a regular airport for the rich and famous who just can’t put up with the airport in its natural state anymore.

Los Angeles does that. It’s a wreck, just farcically bad by any metric a reasonable urban planner or city theorist or rational human being might use. A city that evolved in lockstep with the auto industry, it isolates its 9.5 million people in their cars spread out across more than 4,000 square miles, militating against the most basic aspects of what makes cities work, things like interacting, gathering, seeing each other and learning how to coexist. It’s not a coincidence that road rage was born here, little daily eruptions of fury like geysers that occasionally explode volcanically in Watts or South Central. If there is ever a revolution to overthrow the powers that underwrite that persistently injustice-riddled nation, it will likely start in this urban razor’s edge straddling that greatest of tectonic metaphors, the San Andreas Fault.

Except, boy, is it glorious. It’s a disaster like River Phoenix, who died on the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard, or Britney, who I once saw getting out of a cortege of Escalades with half a dozen businessmen walking her towards the Chateau Marmont. Jayne Mansfield, Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Ramón Navarro, pick your era, this city has turned colloquially fabulous people into literally fabulous people for generations by just ruining them, and we can’t look away, because L.A. makes these human car crashes less like actual car crashes and more like J.G. Ballard’s Crash.

The first thing you notice about L.A., before you get anywhere close to the city limits, is that distance is measured differently here. You know how space distance is measured in the time it takes light to travel? L.A.’s like that, but with cars. I stayed at a motel on the Sunset Strip a few years ago, and finding out a friend of mine was in town at the same time. I called his hotel, and asked the woman who answered the phone how to get from where I was to where she was. “Oh, super easy. It’s just, like, two minutes down Sunset, turn left on Fairfax and follow it till it turns into La Cienega, turn right, and you’re here in 25 minutes,” she said. “Tops,” she said.

Now, I knew she was talking car, but in other cities where cars and people and feet co-exist, the directions she gave me would be roughly the same as walking from the Vieux Port to Laurier, Yonge and Bloor to Yonge and Eglinton, or the Village to the Upper East Side.

So I started walking at 10 a.m. I got there a little past 2 p.m. She was almost right about the directions — though I had to make a few alterations when she had me walking along the side of a freeway — but I’d failed to account for how fast L.A. cars go. Twenty-five minutes is 25 minutes at, I don’t know from miles or speedometers, but let’s say 55 mph. That’s 11 miles, or 18 km, or triple the distance from the Vieux Port to Laurier.

My friend was long gone, but I didn’t care, because the place he was staying was next door to Stoner Skate Park. I don’t skate, but I do like it when skater parks are called Stoner Skate Park. I like it a lot. I like it like I like the Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard that completely inexcusably features artwork made by serial killers. Or like the game Angelenos don’t even know they’re playing when I ask one of them how to get to a subway station and they, every single time, tell me L.A. doesn’t have a subway. They’ve had one since 1990, the system has 93 stations (Montreal has 68), and, sure, it’s got fewer riders per day in its entirety than go through Yonge-Bloor — one of Toronto’s main transfer stations — in a day, but for these people I’ve asked not only to not know they have a subway, but to state, confidently, that they do not, that’s something special. You don’t get that everywhere. (Las Vegans also charmingly often don’t know they have city buses, but they tend to be a little less certain that they don’t have a transit system than Angelenos; my score in that game they don’t know we’re playing is 29-0 for me, btw.)

Los Angeles makes movies, of course. It’s pretty near a company town. I was printing something in an L.A. Kinko’s once (they still have them there) and noticed the person at the computer next to me was working on their headshot. Cool, I thought. That’s so L.A. I looked at the computer on the other side of me: headshot. Then I looked around the little room with computers and printers, and found I was the only one not working on a headshot or script. But though L.A. makes movies, and sometimes even sets them there, their movies rarely are about LA in any significant way. Period pieces like LA Confidential don’t count. LA Story gets it right. The 1991 Steve Martin movie is putatively about a weatherman whose job, in L.A., is so predictable he is able to tape his forecasts days in advance. But underneath run beautiful streams of order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, happiness and emptiness, a little like Down and Out in Beverly Hills five years earlier, but with less Bette Midler to leaven the flatness that has to be a character in any L.A. movie. Martin’s character, Telemacher (a delightful if not obviously apposite reference to Odysseus’ son), develops a relationship with a traffic alert sign, for instance, which is perfect given Angelenos likely spend more time in traffic than they do with any given loved one. But even before I started thinking of cars as enemies of the planet, the scene that stayed with me was the one — it probably lasts five seconds — in which Telemacher walks from his front door to his car, pulls out of the driveway, and drives next door.

Illusion of convenience? Power of habit? Good sight gag? Whatever the it was (and I’m guessing it’s all of that), it also gets to an hilarious truth about the city I experienced first-hand on my own Odyssey that day. Modifying my route to stay away from the freeways took me into some residential neighbourhoods, which struck me immediately for the fact that they did not have sidewalks. While I walked sometimes on the side of the road, sometimes across the bases of people’s lawns, I started to notice cars would slow down as they passed, and the people would peer out their windows at me.

At first I thought they were concerned that I was a criminal, the way people sometimes are when I walk through the sepulchrally quiet streets of Forest Hill in Toronto. But their faces were wrong. They were worried, but not for themselves: For me. Only one actually put down his window to ask me if I was okay, but all their faces said the same thing. The only reason anyone would be walking here is that their car broke down, or they were in some sort of physical or mental distress. When I told that one driver that I was fine, just walking to Sawtelle (the Stoner Skate Park neighbourhood), he seemed no less concerned when he rolled the window back up.

Steve Martin has written wonderful things about L.A. — jokes and short stories in addition to that screenplay – but if I had to nominate a filmmaker laureate for Los Angeles County, it would have to be Gregg Araki.

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who he is. He’s self-consciously art-house. His third and first widely distributed movie, The Living End, was a self-consciously activist movie about two guys on a road trip to DC to inject the first President Bush with HIV-positive blood. So he’s had a self-limited audience his entire career, which he seems perfectly fine with.

But maybe watch one of his Teen Apocalypse Trilogy movies from the ’90s (Totally F–ked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere) before going to L.A. The fact that Chicago’s Roger Ebert so utterly misunderstood these movies, hating them to the point of viciously disparaging Araki, is proof that American cities can be more like nation states than mere population centres. Ebert used to pride himself on getting foreign movies, and did a lot to help the rest of his countrypeople get them, too. But L.A. proved too foreign for him. For instance, he insisted on seeing style and story as two different things, and thought Araki favoured one over the other, but anyone who has spent any quality time in a Valley mall, a Balboa Island craft shop, or in front of one of those Lautner houses should know that in L.A., they are very much the same thing. (It’s funny, Ebert loved Clueless, and its writer-director, Amy Heckerling, is as philosophically close to Araki as one side of a coin is to the other.)

Araki’s movies are aesthetically flat and portray a morally flattened universe, where evil is pressed so tightly up against good and ambivalent that monsters — actual monsters — pop through into high school locker rooms and cars where teens are making out. They kill people, or they don’t. Sometimes they scare people, sometimes they don’t. Araki makes it clear though that living in L.A. and dying in L.A. (to paraphrase the title of another good L.A. film) is pretty much the same thing, meeting points on the same sort of circular continuum as fabulous and boring. (You can take a tour in a hearse through all the coolest death stuff the city has to offer if you like.)

It’s easy to misunderstand L.A., but if you’re there, and feel like you are, that you’re maybe agreeing with Roger Ebert and Woody Allen and all those other foreigners who instinctively hate L.A., walk out onto a main street anywhere in the county — Hollywood, Anaheim, it makes no difference — just as the sun starts to set. They call it magic hour everywhere, but in L.A., there’s an orange-purpleness to it, a scent — moist, warm, and I’m going to stop trying to come up with images like soot on an aloe vera frond or lilacs through a charcoal screen and just say its indescribable, but that it comes from the same place as the tigertail sky, and the feel the air has, a heaviness, but like one of those weighted blankets, it’s a heaviness that makes you feel good, not taken care of, but like you don’t need to be taken care of, that it’s all taken care of. All of it comes from the same place: the air quality here is atrocious. But gorgeous. Like a Haitian sculpture or shokushu goukan, the dirt, the horror, the sheer ludicrousness of it all is the point.

You’ll be tempted to give up — on travel, love, hope, life itself — as you try to make your way through any of the nine terminals at LAX, one of which, inexplicably and against international standards dictating that airport terminals are numbered, is called the Tom Bradley International Terminal. But don’t. It’s the 20th century rendered as the world’s biggest piece of installation art.

And it’s got good tacos.

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