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Monthly Archives: November 2016

Explore Chilean Patagonia’s glacier country

The 1240km Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) is the only way in and out of Aysén by land. It stretches from the fishing hub of Puerto Montt in the north all the way down until it peters out in the frontier gaucho town of Villa O’Higgins in the south. Bumbling down the Carretera Austral’s bumpy terrain past rainforested hills and foggy fjords has become one of the most iconic road trips in South America. But it’s a journey you’ll want to do sooner rather than later.

Now is the time to visit the glaciers that shaped this dramatic landscape before they disappear. Sandwiched between the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields (collectively the world’s third-largest source of fresh water), Aysén is rightfully known as the epicenter of Chilean glacier country. Half of its land is protected in public and private parks (including the newly opened Patagonia Park, created by the late North Face founder Doug Tompkins), and the region is home to a fair chunk of Chile’s 24,133 glaciers.

Many of these magnificent cascades of fast-flowing ice are receding at alarming rates of up to 15 meters per year. But there is a bit of good news: It’s never been easier to see them thanks to new routes developed by local tour operators in recent years to help increase awareness of what we stand to lose.

Here’s how you can explore five of the most impressive glaciers within Chile’s little-visited Aysén region using the Carretera Austral as an artery through Northern Patagonia.

Ventisquero Colgante

On the northern edge of Aysén within the evergreen forests of Parque Nacional Queulat, you’ll find one of Chile’s most recognizable glaciers: Ventisquero Colgante. This so-called “hanging glacier” has receded so far from the ground below that it’s now perched atop a cliff, spewing its meltwater over the edge into the powder blue Laguna Tempanos. Pack a picnic lunch and hike the 6km out-and-back Moraine Trail to get the best up-close views. You can also arrange a trip with Experiencia Austral to kayak on Laguna Tempanos right up toward the base of the glacier. If you’re feeling a bit sore after either journey, you can rest your weary bones in Termas del Ventisquero, a series of hot springs near the park entrance. Its four pools are on the shores of the Puyuhuapi Fjord, whose glacier-fed waters will be noticeably cooler for those daring enough to take a dip.

Exploradores

Take a slight detour from the Carretera Austral at Puerto Rio Tranquilo (the location of the mesmerizing marble caves of Lago General Carrera) to dip into Valle Exploradores and check out its namesake glacier. This new road leads to the river crossing for the San Rafael Lagoon and is a stunner with sweeping valley views, raging river rapids and human-sized nalca leaves fighting for attention. However, the real showstopper lies 52km in at the Glacier Exploradores Overlook, which offers not only a wide-open panorama of the glacier, but also a peek at the vast white abyss that is the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. Exploradores is but one of 17 glaciers that call this ice field home, and the short 25-minute hike up to the observation deck is your easiest access point to take it all in.

San Rafael

You’ll need to book a tour back in Puerto Rio Tranquilo to reach the remote San Rafael Lagoon, home of Aysén’s most enigmatic glacier. The journey requires transport on both sides of the milky-green Rio Exploradores, a quick ferry crossing and a boat ride past truck-sized icebergs to approach the shape-shifting face of San Rafael. This massive glacier cuts a 16km path through a virgin Patagonian rainforest before emptying out into a slate-blue lagoon, replenishing its frigid waters every few minutes with roaring cascades of calving ice. The new route to see this glacier from Puerto Rio Tranquilo is less than three years old. It saves both time and money when compared to the overnight catamaran journey from Puerto Chacabuco (further north) and is much more intimate of an experience. Arrange the trip in town with either Destino Patagonia or Turismo Rio Exploradores (exploradores-sanrafael.cl).

Cerro Castillo

The closest glaciers to Aysén’s capital of Coyhaique lie amid the castle-like spires of nearby Cerro Castillo. The four-day circuit trek around this formidable mountain increasingly attracts solitude-seekers put off by the more crowded backpacking trails in Torres Del Paine further south. The 43km journey will take you past three major glaciers, turquoise lagoons and high alpine passes that are favored by Chile’s endangered huemul deer. If you don’t have the time or energy to commit to a long hike, you can always view Cerro Castillo’s glaciers gaucho-style on a half-day horseback tour. Five horse stables in the small service town of Villa Cerro Castillo can set you up, and tours should be booked in person when you arrive.

Calluqueo

Once inaccessible Calluqueo, the main glacier atop Patagonia’s second-highest peak, Mount San Lorenzo, has opened up to tourism in recent years thanks to the construction of a new road that will one day provide a shortcut between the regional hub of Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins, the end point of the Carretera Austral. You can reach an overlook of the glacier 33km from Cochrane if you’re traveling with your own wheels, but you’ll need to book a tour back in town if you want to take a Zodiac across the moraine lake and get a closer look at its brooding face. Cochrane-native Jimmy Valdes of Lord Patagonia helped pioneer ice trekking routes on Calluqueo, and he’s your best bet if you want to strap on some crampons and immerse yourself within the crevices of this enormous ice kingdom. Valdes will even bring along some local craft beers brewed with glacial melt water to cap off the experience.

California’s deserts

Laze by a pool amid timeless Mid-Century Modern architecture in retro-chic Palm Springs, or marvel at eternal wonders of otherworldly beauty in national parks from Joshua Tree to Death Valley. The deserts’ palm-pricked landscapes, world-class music and art festivals and some quirky enclaves welcome the next generation of party people. And the fun all starts barely two hours from Los Angeles.

Palm Springs & Coachella Valley

It’s hard to imagine a cooler pedigree than Palm Springs, ‘playground of the Rat Pack.’ Sinatra, Sammy, Lucy, Dino and Elvis put the city on the map in the 1950s and ‘60s, living it up in their Mid-Century Modern vacation homes. Thereafter, Palm Springs and the Coachella (say ‘co-CHEL-a’) Valley became the province of retirees and golfers (um, not cool), but nowadays its retro charms have been rediscovered and, along with outdoor enthusiasts and a significant LGBT contingent, it has blossomed into a desert playground.

There’s still plenty of Rat Pack glam in vintage hotels like the Del Marcos, period rental homes and resale shops for clothing and furniture to let you live the look. Meanwhile, a new crop of sleeping options (theAce and Parker), restaurants and nightspots add a dose of 21st-century hipster chic. Not to mention the white-hot Coachella Music & Arts Festival each April and its classic rock companion Desert Trip in October, some 25 miles ‘down valley’ in Indio.

In between, the area is studded with high-up hiking trails atop thePalm Springs Aerial Tramway or in the mountainous Cahuilla Indian canyons, and high-end fashion along El Paseo (the Rodeo Drive of the Desert) in Palm Desert. And the Coachella Valley is America’s date capital (the kind you eat – 90 percent of America’s crop is grown here); orchards and shops let you sample the wares and find inner cool sipping a thick date shake.

Joshua Tree National Park

Northeast of Palm Springs, the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet in the Joshua Tree National Park, named for the unique, ubiquitous trees that flourish here, a spiky-spindly yucca variety that reminded Mormon pioneers of the prophet Joshua pointing toward the Promised Land.

Modern-day visitors find it just as inspirational: rock climbers get their fix on otherworldly outcroppings; hikers cruise oases and dry lake beds; and everyone can be awestruck by the aptly named Wonderland of Rocks, groves of Joshua trees near Covington Flats, all-the-way-to-Mexico vistas from the mile-high Keys View and the innumerable stars under night skies. U2 named its classic album The Joshua Tree, and north of the park, the eponymous town is a hippie, artsy holdover.

Pioneertown

North of Palm Springs, Pioneertown looks like an Old West movie set – because it was. Built in 1946 by no less than Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Gene Autry, it’s now home to seasonal gunfight shows along Mane Street (get it?), and hipster-friendly Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, which books local to world-famous music acts and serves Tex-Mex cookin’, Santa Maria-style barbecue and cheap beer.

Salton Sea & Salvation Mountain

You’ll do a couple of double-takes at the Salton Sea: first when you behold this unlikely 35-mile long, 15-mile wide lake in the middle of the desert, and later when you learn its story. In the mid-1800s, water from the Colorado River water was diverted for agricultural irrigation here – all good until the water breached its dikes in 1905 in a massive flood, and created the sea that has lasted to this day.

Nowadays, folks are of three minds about the Salton Sea. On the one hand, it provides fun for boating, fishing and birding (bald eagles, snow geese, ruddy ducks, pelicans and peregrines). On the other, periodic algae blooms create noxious odors. And on the third hand, draining it could lead to a worse disaster if dust and pollutants from decades of fertilizer from agricultural runoff get airborne.

Nearby, Salvation Mountain is utterly unlike any other. It’s the 30-plus year effort of a single artist, Leonard Knight (1931-2014), who covered every inch with a fanciful paint job of bold-colored stripes, flowers and a giant heart, found objects and biblical messages like ‘God is love.’ The mountain has appeared in movies (Into the Wild) and music videos (Coldplay’s Birds), and the US Senate declared it a national treasure, one congressional act we heartily endorse.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

If Palm Springs, Joshua Tree or the Salton Sea aren’t remote enough, how about the largest state park outside of Alaska? With about 938 square miles, 12 wilderness areas and 500 miles of dirt roads, Anza-Borrego’s peak season is in late winter when the plains and mountainsides explode with color from wildflowers, especially after a soaking winter rain. The rest of the year, a smattering of sleeping and eating options in the quiet main village of Borrego Springs are a base for the hiking trails around the park’s visitor center and other roads leading to rare elephant trees and eerily beautiful wind caves. Summers are best avoided by all but the hardiest and well prepared – temperatures can reach 125°F.

Death Valley National Park

It seems fitting to end our desert escape in Death Valley, a land of extremes: hottest, driest and lowest place in America, and second largest national park (outside of, again, Alaska), over 5000 square miles. Death Valley may seem barren at first, but let your powers of observation take over and you may find your senses overwhelmed. You might trundle over seemingly endless sand dunes, scoot across the Badwater Basin salt flats (lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level), ooh-and-ah along the painter’s palette mountainsides of Artists Drive, and break for a well-earned prickly-pear margarita on the veranda of the historic 1927 Inn at Furnace Creek to watch the sun set behind the Panamint Range.

Honeymoon Islands

Corsica, France

This chunk of France, afloat in the Mediterranean, deserves its monicker:L’île de Beauté. The rumpled, maquis-cloaked interior – where you can easily forget the world – tumbles to perfect golden crescents, some touristy, some seemingly unfound. There’s wildness if you want it (the hiking is some of Europe’s best), but also fine food and indulgent retreats, not least Domaine de Murtoli (murtoli.com) – possibly the continent’s most romantic hideaway.

Qurimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Why pick one island when you can have 30? That’s about how many specks of wonderful white sand make up this Indian Ocean archipelago. Among them is Ibo, home to the 16th-century Portuguese trading settlement of Ilha de Moçambique – a must-see. After a dose of culture here, sail between the islands – remote Vamizi, luxe Quilalea – stopping off on nameless cayes for lobster barbecues en route.

Huahine, French Polynesia

Huahine, a 40-minute flight from Tahiti, is Polynesia at its most sublime (and that’s quite a feat). Slopes of tropical abundance sink into eye-searingly blue lagoons; there’s culture aplenty, including the highest density of marae (temples) in the territory; and opportunities abound for snorkelling, horse riding, surfing or doing nothing at all.

Island, Canada

This tiny speck of pines on Ontario’s Kawawaymog Lake can only be reached by canoe, and is ideal for two. There’s a cosy cabin with a second-floor deck and outdoor dining table ideally placed for sunset; a floating sauna bobs in the shallows. Other than that, it’s you and the wilderness.

Nevis

With no all-inclusive resorts or cruise-ship ports, Nevis is as refreshing as one of its gentle trade winds. Accommodation is often historic – old sugar plantations converted into characterful hotels. Diversions include diving, hikes around Nevis Peak and sipping rum on Pinney’s Beach.

Tasmania, Australia

It might not have the weather of tropical Queensland, but Australia’s lushsouthern island state is where you’ll find some of the country’s best food and wine, epic mountains, cool lakes and hiking terrain. Outside the quaint capital, Hobart, there’s MONA – a world class gallery, brewery, winery and restaurant complex that will simply blow your mind (and where it’s now possible to stay in plush, futuristic pods); in the north you’ve got the otherworldly Bay of Fires, famed for a luxury beach hike that culminates with flair at an award-winning ecolodge.

Praslin & La Digue, Seychelles

Beaches don’t get much better than the boulder-strewn powdery strands fringing the Seychelles. Ferries run between Mahé, Praslin andLa Digue, enabling multi-isle ’moons, and a bit of local interaction. Little La Digue is car-free – explore on foot or by bike. Praslin is home to good restaurants and the Unesco-listed Vallée de Mai nature reserve, where you can stroll beneath coco de mer palms and giggle at their suggestive seeds.

Santorini, Greece

Santorini’s the sort of spot that might move you to marriage in the first place: visit this Cyclades isle with a beau and you’re bound to leave engaged. It oozes romance, with its pretty white houses tumbling down a part-sunken caldera. Stay in a boutique bolthole where you can sip Santorini wines on a private terrace while watching the sun sink into the glittering sea.

Tioman, Malaysia

West is best when it comes to beaches in Malaysia, and Pulau Tioman, 56 km off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia, in the South China Sea, has some of the dreamiest. The fine sands and warm, crystal-clear waters fringe an adventurous interior of waterfall-filled jungle, while laid-back fishing villages ensure the island retains a local feel.

Europe’s best road trips

Italy

Few countries can rival Italy’s wealth of riches. Its historic cities boast iconic monuments and masterpieces at every turn, its food is imitated the world over and its landscape is a majestic patchwork of snowcapped peaks, plunging coastlines, lakes and remote valleys. And with many thrilling roads to explore, it offers plenty of epic driving.

Recommended trip: World Heritage wonders – 14 days, 870 km/540 miles

Start – Rome; finish – Venice

From Rome to Venice, this tour of Unesco World Heritage Sites takes in some of Italy’s greatest hits, including the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and some lesser-known treasures.

France

Iconic monuments, fabulous food, world-class wines – there are so many reasons to plan your very own French voyage. Whether you’re planning on cruising the corniches of the French Riviera, getting lost among the snowcapped mountains or tasting your way around Champagne’s hallowed vineyards, this is a nation that’s full of unforgettable routes that will plunge you straight into France’s heart and soul. There’s a trip for everyone here: family travellers, history buffs, culinary connoisseurs and outdoors adventurers. Buckle up and bon voyage – you’re in for quite a ride.

Recommended trip: Champagne taster – 3 days, 85 km/53 miles

Start – Reims; finish – Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

From musty cellars to vine-striped hillsides, this Champagne adventure whisks you through the heart of the region to explore the world’s favourite celebratory tipple. It’s time to quaff!

Great Britain

Great Britain overflows with unforgettable experiences and spectacular sights. There’s the grandeur of Scotland’s mountains, England’s quaint villages and country lanes, and the haunting beauty of the Welsh coast. You’ll also find wild northern moors, the exquisite university colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and a string of vibrant cities boasting everything from Georgian architecture to 21st-century art.

Recommended trip: The best of Britain – 21 days, 1128 miles/1815 km

Start and finish – London (via Edinburgh and Cardiff)

Swing through three countries and several millennia of history as you take in a greatest hits parade of Britain’s chart-topping sights.

Ireland

Your main reason for visiting? To experience the Ireland of the postcard  – captivating peninsulas, dramatic wildness and undulating hills. Scenery, history, culture, bustling cosmopolitanism and the stillness of village life – you’ll visit blockbuster attractions and replicate famous photo ops. But there are plenty of surprises too – and they’re all within easy reach of each other.

Recommended trip: the long way round – 14 days, 1300 km/807 miles

Start – Dublin; finish – Ardmore

Why go in a straight line when you can perambulate at leisure? This trip explores Ireland’s jagged, scenic and spectacular edges; a captivating loop that takes in the whole island.

Spain

Spectacular beaches, mountaintop castles, medieval villages, stunning architecture and some of the most celebrated restaurants on the planet –Spain has an allure that few destinations can match. There’s much to see and do amid the enchanting landscapes that inspired Picasso and Velàzquez.

You can spend your days feasting on seafood in coastal Galician towns, feel the heartbeat of Spain at soul-stirring flamenco shows or hike across the flower-strewn meadows of the mountains. The journeys in this region offer something for everyone: beach lovers, outdoor adventurers, family travellers, music fiends, foodies and those simply wanting to delve into Spain’s rich art and history.

Recommended trip: Northern Spain pilgrimage – 5-7 days, 678 km/423 miles

Start – Roncesvalles; finish – Santiago de Compostela

Travel in the footprints of thousands of pilgrims past and present as you journey along the highroads and backroads of the legendary Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.

Portugal

Portugal’s mix of the medieval and the maritime makes it a superb place to visit. A turbulent history involving the Moors, Spain and Napoleon has left the interior scattered with walled medieval towns topped by castles, while the pounding Atlantic has sculpted a coast of glorious sand beaches. The nation’s days of exploration and seafaring have created an introspective yet open culture with wide-ranging artistic influences.

The eating and drinking scene here is a highlight, with several wine regions, and restaurants that are redolent with aromas of grilling pork or the freshest of fish. Comparatively short distances mean that you get full value for road trips here: less time behind the wheel means you can take more time to absorb the atmosphere.

Recommended trip: Douro Valley vineyard trails – 5-7 days, 358 km/222 miles

Start – Porto; finish – Miranda do Douro

The Douro is a little drop of heaven. Uncork this region on Porto’s doorstep and you’ll soon fall head over heels in love with its terraced vineyards, wine estates and soul-stirring vistas.

Germany

Grandiose cities, storybook villages, vine-stitched valleys and bucolic landscapes that beg you to toot your horn, leap out of the car and jump for joy – road-tripping in Germany is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of brilliant landscapes and experiences.

Recommended trip: the Romantic Road – 10 days, 350 km/218 miles

Start – Würzburg; finish – Neuschwanstein & Hohenschwangau Castles

On this trip you’ll experience the Germany of the bedtime storybook – medieval walled towns, gabled townhouses, cobbled squares and crooked streets, all preserved as if time has come to a standstill.

Switzerland

A place of heart-stopping natural beauty and head-spinning efficiency,Switzerland lies in the centre of Europe yet exhibits a unique blend of cultures. Dazzling outdoor scenery, such as the ever-admired Alps, pristine lakes, lush meadows and chocolate-box chalets, combines with local traditions, cosmopolitan cities and smooth infrastructure.

In short, Switzerland makes it easy for you to dive deep into its heart: distances are manageable and variety is within easy reach. You can be perusing a farmers’ market for picnic provisions in the morning, then feasting on them on a mountaintop come lunchtime. At nightfall, try gazing at stars in the night sky from cosy digs or revelling in the cultural offerings of one of Switzerland’s urbane cities.

Recommended trip: the Swiss Alps – 7 days, 612 km/382 miles

Start – Arosa; finish – Zermatt

From Arosa to Zermatt, this zigzagging trip is the A to Z of Switzerland’s astounding Alpine scenery, with majestic peaks, formidable panoramas, cable-car rides and local charm.

Austria

Austria is a road-tipper’s fantasy land. Not only are there spectacular backdrops of spellbinding landscapes and storybook architecture, but opportunities abound to get out and experience them. Along these routes, you can scale soaring peaks, ski year-round, raft white-water rapids and pelt down toboggan runs.

When you’ve had enough thrills and spills, Austria’s multitude of cultural pursuits span medieval castles to monumental palaces, art-filled museums and magnificent churches. You can taste cheese at Alpine dairies, schnapps at distilleries, and beer and wine in monasteries where they’re still made by monks. Or just hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage to clip-clop through cobbled, lamp-lit city streets.

Recommended trip: Grossglockner Road – 5-7 days, 644 km/401 miles

Start – Salzburg; finish – Bregenz

Austria’s most exhilarating trip takes you on a wild roller-coaster drive over three legendary Alpine passes and packs in outdoor activities from year-round skiing to windsurfing and white-water rafting.