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Category Archives: Travel

Trekking in the Simien Mountains Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a land of legends and mystery – the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant to name but two. The landscape is also mesmerising. In the far north are the Simien Mountains – a mystical world of primeval forests, misty peaks, bizarre plants and exotic creatures. Trekking these stunning highlands is like stepping into an otherworldly paradise.

Dramatic landscapes

Violent volcanic eruptions 40 million years ago created the Simien Mountains massif, which rises to over 4500m in northern Ethiopia. Over millennia, erosive forces have sculpted its jagged pinnacles, deep ravines and volcanic plugs. Treks of between five and ten days along high-altitude escarpments, across alpine meadows and through the fertile lowlands are the best way to fully appreciate the amazing diversity of the Simiens, much of what today is protected as part ofSimien Mountains National Park.

Steep ascents lead to lush plateaus populated with giant lobelias – freaky fleshy-leaved plants growing to 3m in height, evoking images of dinosaurs and ancient days. Escarpment vistas are filled with sheer cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and rocky turrets spiking out from the forested valleys below. Ribbons of mist drift over the ground. Vultures and ravens cruise the skies. It is a strangely beautiful yet primal world.

Dropping off the escarpment, the landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation as it descends some 2000m into the lowlands – lowlands being a misnomer given these valleys are still over 2000m in altitude. Vibrantly coloured red hot poker plants cover the mountain slopes, and desert-style cactus trees and groves of aloe vera line the trail. Cultivated fields of yellow canola flowers and feathery green tef are peppered with tropical-style giant ficus and palm trees.

Endemic wildlife

Living in the highlands of Ethiopia is a rare and exotic cache of wildlife – the gelada (aka ‘bleeding heart baboon’), the elusive Ethiopian wolf, the majestic Walia ibex and the giant Lammergeir (a bearded vulture with a 3m wingspan). There’s a good chance of spotting all of these creatures, and more, on a trek through the Simien Mountains.

With their expressive faces, playful antics and magnificent silver manes, the geladas are simply delightful. Once almost hunted to extinction, these monkeys (babaoons is a historical misnomer) are now a protected species. The gelada is found only in the Simiens. They live in groups of one hundred or more, and favour the escarpment where they clamber over and under the cliff edge like agile acrobats. Unlike most primates that advertise sexual receptivity with swollen red buttocks, the gelada has a scarlet patch of skin on its chest, which led to its ‘bleeding heart’ moniker. It is easy to approach within a few metres of these wild animals, especially those found around Sankabar (3600m) and Chenek (3620m).

The Ethiopian wolf, or Simien fox, is extremely rare. In fact it is the planet’s rarest canid, with an estimated population of less than 50 in the Simien Mountains, and no more than 400 in the entire country (the majority reside in Bale Mountains National Park in southern Ethiopia). The main threat to the wolf’s survival stems from habitat destruction due to agricultural expansion into the afro-alpine zone. Habitat depletion has also impacted the endangered Walia ibex, another species endemic to this region. Looking like a large deer with impressively long, ridged horns, it is actually a member of the goat family. Liking steep, rocky places, they might be found at Chenek grazing the vertical cliffs below the escarpment.

The roof of Africa

Due to its scope and size, the mighty mountain massif of the Simien Mountains is poetically called the ‘roof of Africa’. Ras Dashen, at 4543m, is Ethiopia’s highest peak and its crowning glory.

Trekking to the summit is challenging but not technical. Summit attempts generally launch from the local village of Ambiko (3170m) on the Meshehe River. And in true summit day fashion, hiking starts well before dawn. The first few hours are cold and dark and wrapped in silence. Headlamps highlight a trail leading steadily upwards for 10km through farmland, giant lobelia forests and alpine meadows. Finally, after six hours of continuous climbing, a short scramble up a rocky wall leads to the summit. The view is outstanding – a rich panorama of peaks and gullies, farmlands and forests stretching into the distant haze of Eritrea. Standing on top of Ethiopia’s highest peak is…well, like standing on the roof of Africa.

Make it happen

The driest time of year for hiking is from December to March but at the end of the rainy season, in October, the land is a riot of green. Wildflowers bloom in August and last well into October.

Organised trekking tours take care of the hassles – equipment, permits and supplies – but independent trekking is not too difficult to arrange. Everything can be organised at the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debark: paying entrance fees, arranging drop-offs and pick-ups at trail access points, hiring camping equipment, guides, scouts, cooks and mules.

Park regulations require scouts (armed park rangers) to accompany trekkers even though the greatest danger is altitude sickness. The scouts are fit and wiry, often war veterans from past battles. With AK-47s slung across their shoulders, they saunter up steep hillsides in their ill-fitting plastic sandals, and willingly brandish their rifles for happy snaps.

Adventures in Perak

Shaped like a crescent moon, Perak sweeps across the northwestern corner of Peninsular Malaysia. Limestone cliffs are the state’s most unmistakable landmarks, but Perak is a tapestry of mangrove swamps, jungles and beaches, too – terrain so varied that exhilaration (and exhaustion) are practically guaranteed. Here are four adventures to get your pulse racing…

Get off the grid in Royal Belum State Park

The only sound is a rhythmic swish, swish, as our boat glides across Lake Temenggor. We’re heading deep into Royal Belum State Park (, a 117,500-hectare wilderness made even more impassable by its water levels. This jungly swathe of northern Perak, right against the Malaysia-Thailand border, was flooded in 1972 when Temenggor Dam was built. And in this remote nature park, the chances of getting phone signal are roughly the same as spotting the elusive sun bear.

The boat thumps noisily against the wooden gangplank at Belum Eco Resort (, my island home for the next few nights. While resort staff busy themselves securing the boat, my fellow travellers are already wriggling out of their T-shirts and dive-bombing into the lake.  As we bob around in the water, the jungle chorus of whistling blue-rumped parrots and chattering crickets surrounds us.

At daybreak, we gather in walking boots and liberal coatings of mosquito repellent. Boat transportation and a hiking guide are essential in this dense, swampy wilderness. Ours is leading us into the 130-million-year-old rainforest, one of the world’s most ancient. It’s home to tapir, seldom-seen tigers, and rafflesia, one of the largest flowers on the planet. Along slippery trails we spot tiny orchids that cower amid tree roots, while grasshoppers whir past our heads like toy helicopters. Hornbills swoop between branches, their orange beaks easy to spot in the gloom.

Make it happen: Royal Belum is a 170km drive north of Ipoh, Perak’s main city (or 150km east of Penang). Daily buses from Ipoh reach gateway town Gerik from where you can get a taxi towards the park. Stays at Belum Eco Resort include boat transfer from Pulau Banting jetty, a 42km drive east of Gerik.

Board a Jeep safari to Kinta Nature Park

‘No other place in the world can claim to have 10 species of hornbills in one location,’ declares Jek Yap with pride. For Jek, a fanatical local birdwatcher, Perak’s wildlife is hard to beat. And in contrast to remote Royal Belum, some reserves lie in easy reach of Perak’s cities, likeKinta Nature Park.

Around 20km south of state capital Ipoh, this former tin-mining land is a tangle of low-hanging trees and teeming fish ponds. The park is home to around 130 species of bird, and it’s the region’s largest gathering place for herons and egrets.

‘Birds usually show up at dusk and dawn,’ counsels Jek. Despite Jek’s advice, dawn has long broken by the time I trundle into the park by 4WD. But hitting the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm hasn’t caused me to miss out: wildlife is abundant here, and much of it is barely troubled by the sounds of the car engine.

I can see grey herons alighting on fence posts, and plump little herons looking improbably weightless as they perch on fine tree branches. Huge monitor lizards dawdle on pathways. I’m poised to photograph a blue-tailed bee eater, but its flash of jade feathers is faster than my camera’s click. Still, it’s a good excuse to lay down my camera and admire the flourishing reserve, distraction-free.

Make it happen: book knowledgeable Ipoh-based guide Mr Raja for a guided 4WD excursion into Kinta Nature Park for RM400 per head (minimum two people). It’s also possible to cycle parts of the park.

Experience Gopeng’s caves and river rapids

The ceiling of Gua Tempurung yawns above my head. As I hike deeper into the cave, one of the largest in Peninsular Malaysia, every footstep sends echoes bouncing off the walls. Long spindles of limestone reach up from the slippery ground, and stalactites drip from above. Squinting, I can make out other walkers further along the dimly lit trails. They seem microscopic in size, dwarfed by vast folds of limestone.

Hikers with flashing headlamps aren’t the only ones to venture into the 4.5km-long cave. In the 1950s, Gua Tempurung was a communist hideout, and soon after served as a Japanese-run prison. But these are mere blips on its geological timeline: the cave is estimated to be up to 400 million years old.

Exploring this dank grotto on foot allows plenty of time to take stock of Gua Tempurung’s scale: at its tallest point, it towers 72m high. There are also more claustrophobic challenges to be had, such as wading through chilly chest-height water between cave chambers.

There are waterbound adventures above ground, too. The thrashing Kampar River has turned the town of Gopeng, 7km from the cave, into a miniature watersports hub. Just east of Gopeng’s dusty colonial buildings, Nomad Adventure Earth Camp ( leads excursions along 22 river rapids. And after a humid hike through the cave, there’s no more invigorating way to cool off.

Make it happen: guided forays into Gua Tempurung range from 40 minutes to four hours long; book well ahead for spelunking. Stay in or near Gopeng for easy access to the river. Nomad Adventure Earth Camp can arrange rafting and waterfall abseiling.

Ascend to Ipoh’s sacred grottoes

Spelunkers weren’t the first to enjoy the tranquility of Perak’s caves. In the late 19th and early 20th century, hermit monks sought refuge in Perak’s cliffs, meditating atop limestone crags and living in caves. From these spartan beginnings, a few ballooned into large temple complexes.

A notable trio are in easy reach of Ipoh. Gua Kok Look Tong, with ornamental gardens and Buddha statues in its central cave, is the most peaceful, while Sam Poh Tong is much visited for its lucky tortoise pond. But the most interesting ramble is up to Perak Tong, a frescoed cave temple 6km north of Ipoh.

The highest point of this cave complex, reached by steep stone stairs and seemingly endless spiral pathways, overlooks a muddled vista of wild greenery and urban sprawl. I stare into the distance at Ipoh’s uniform lines of houses, framed by surrounding trees. Tower blocks strain for attention against the silhouette of Perak’s cliffs, while forested hills roll into the distance.

My calves are stinging from the climb, but somehow the view makes me want to plunge straight into my next adventure.

Make it happen: on request, buses from Ipoh to Kuala Kangsar will stop near Gunung Lang, a 3km walk from Perak Tong. Better yet, rent a car from Ipoh (there’s plenty of parking within reach of the temple pathway).

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.


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 (

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.


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.


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 ( – 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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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’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.


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.


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 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.

Luxury and local life in the Maldives

Appreciating the Maldives’ natural riches

Nicknames aside, the etymology of the word ‘Maldives’ refers to the remarkable geography of this scattered archipelago. The ‘garland islands’ are indeed draped like a necklace across the Indian Ocean, hanging below the teardrop-shaped earring of Sri Lanka. And this is a treasure crafted from only the finest materials: white-gold sands with a turquoise trim, diamond-clear waters and sparkling sunsets framed by a curtain of palms. Every second spent here is a pinch-me moment.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest country in terms of elevation, and therefore first in the climate change firing line, which makes its natural wonders seem all the more precious, particularly when you meet the wildlife. Keen spotters, snorkelers and scuba divers should head to the southernmost atoll, Addu (also known as Seenu), to see spinner dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and white terns – a striking seabird found nowhere else in the Maldives.

Addu is also home to some of the islands’ most novel landmarks – a nine-hole golf course with lagoon views, one of the longest roads in the Maldives (a whole 16km, best travelled by bike) and the nation’s tallest mountain, which looms above Villingili, a staggering five metres high.

A taste of the inhabited islands

Staying at a luxury resort for 24/7 pampering is part of the Maldives experience, but spa treatments and five-star dinners are only half of the story. To really get a feel for island life, you need to visit one of the officially designated inhabited islands, where most of the islands’ 345,000 people make their homes. Until 2009, government restrictions meant visitors to the Maldives needed a permit to explore and stay on non-resort islands, but today, many inhabited islands are open for day trips or even overnight stays, and 50% of resort staff are required by law to be local, making island culture far more accessible.

After living it up at the Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa on the southern atoll of Addu, I joined local guide Azmy for a cycle tour of Addu City – a sleepy string of inhabited isles just across the lagoon from my blissful bubble – for a gentle introduction to the ‘real’ Maldives. In this laid back ‘city’, an unhurried island vibe pervades (there’s only so much pace one can gather this close to the equator) but political street art, a multitude of mosques, busy tea shops and welcoming smiles reveal an unexpected community buzz.

‘We don’t lock our doors here – everyone knows everyone,’ explained Azmy with a smile as we parked our bikes outside his family home. I’d wangled an invitation in order to see – and try out – an undholi, the traditional Maldivian swing seats found in most houses in the atolls. Azmy’s wife and mother-in-law seemed bemused by enthusiasm for trying out the fancy wooden hammock in their living room, but were graciously accommodating. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

A wealth of history and culture

People on Addu generally speak excellent English, as the British ran various military bases on Gan island between the 1940s and 1970s. Azmy’s grandfather worked there as a cook and his father, a local councillor, hopes to open a military museum one day to tell the story of the base, considered a hardship posting for British airmen because of the remote and secluded location.

But there’s plenty of history to discover even without a museum. As we pedalled, we passed a disused post office blanketed in moss, poppy-strewn memorials, a retro-looking cinema (still in occasional use), and an eerie old quarantine centre for sufferers of ‘elephant foot’, a mosquito-borne malady only officially wiped out in 2016. Needless to say, I declined to take a closer look at these last facilities.

These days the RAF barracks form part of Equator Village, one of many budget resorts springing up across the archipelago, and the airstrip has swapped bombers for commercial planes. Gan Airport received the first international passenger flights from Colombo in late 2016 and tourism is expected to boom in the southern atolls, so now is a good time to come and beat the rush.

Make time for Malé

While island life is what the Maldives is all about, the capital, Malé, remains the central transport hub and it’s well worth a stopover to see its miniature take on ‘big city’ life. It may only cover 5.8 sq km, but compared to the far-flung isles, this densely populated speck in the ocean is positively cosmopolitan. Residents often juggle two jobs, commuting by moped through traffic-clogged streets overshadowed by high-rise banks and office buildings. Markets bustle. Tarmac sizzles. The call to prayer cuts through the urban thrum.

If you do one thing in Malé, make time for the Old Friday Mosque. Built from coral stone in 1656, its walls are intricately decorated, and – just like the coral you’ll find in the ocean – rough to the touch. The graveyard’s time-worn headstones (the tops of which are pointed for men, smooth for women) stand off-kilter, like a crowd of spectators vying for a glimpse of the mosque’s timeless grace. The simple tomb of Abdul Barakat Yoosuf Al Barbary, the man credited with converting the Maldives from Buddhism to Islam in the 12th century, can be found just across the street.

The ocean’s bounty for food lovers

Walking the streets in the tropical sun can be hungry work – and even spa-goers and sun-bathers need to eat. The territory of the Maldives covers 90,000 sq km of ocean, so it should come as no surprise that seafood is the staple here, and tuna is catch of the day, every day. Find this flavoursome fish in mas huni, a breakfast dish combining chilli, coconut, onion and tuna, eaten with roti flatbread. Tuna is also the key ingredient in a host of spicy ‘short eats’ – popular deep-fried snacks – and in the tuna curry that locals enthusiastically chow down on morning, noon and night.

Many resorts and tour operators offer fishing trips – a chance to witness the traditional pole-and-line technique still used in the Maldivian fishing industry today and try your hand at casting for big game fish. Alternatively, swing by Malé’s fish and produce markets early to see the catch hauled in for hungry shoppers and hunt for souvenirs. If fishy crisps, smoked tuna or tuna paste aren’t to your taste, ‘bounty’, a tasty local snack made of coconut meat, sugar and honey, makes a sweet alternative.

Neighborhood in Las Vegas Chinatown

Chinatown Plaza, where it all began

When exploring Chinatown, the best idea is to start at its birthplace: the enormous and ornate Chinatown Plaza ( With its colorful, dragon-adorned, Tang Dynasty-inspired gate and gleaming statue commemorating the classic tale Journey to the West – including the Monkey King – it’s a favorite place for photos. Popular restaurants include Harbor Palace Seafood for oceanic delicacies and Sam Woo BBQ for smoky meats. For an eye-boggling stroll, head into Ranch 99 for a display of pan-Asian foodways.

A block away, Chengdu Taste ( serves some of the most chili-laden, incendiary dishes in the entire state of Nevada, let alone in Las Vegas. Specializing in Sichuan-style cooking, it also features dishes like pork dumplings in broth spiked with namesake Sichuan peppercorns. These feisty spices actually make your mouth numb, adding definitive tingle to the eating experience.

For aficionados of Thai cuisine, nearby Chada Street ( is at the crossroads of classic cuisine and edible experimentation. In a pretty, wood-lined dining room, dig into adventurous appetizers like Goong Share Nam Pla — a blend of raw shrimp, fish sauce, garlic and chili. In the vibrant Kang Ped Yang, duck meat meets red curry sauce, pineapple and cherry tomatoes. Blending hearty and light, Yum Moo Yor is spicy salad with pork meatloaf. Of course, mainstays like Pat Thai noodles are served, too. The restaurant also has an extensive and lauded wine list.

The other, other Vegas strip

Vegas is a strip mall kind of town, so if you haven’t filled up in Chinatown Plaza, head a few blocks west to Mountain View Plaza, another strip with great options like District One Kitchen & Bar ( Many restaurants in Chinatown trend to the traditional, but District One is thoroughly modern while retaining its Vietnamese heritage. With a cool décor defined by vibrant street art, District One serves some of the most renowned cuisine in all of Las Vegas, especially its fresh, seasonal seafood including sea snails and razor clams. Noodles abound in bowls of pho, including one with a whole lobster, and on plates like Crispy Birds Nest Noodles slathered with wok-fried shrimp, chicken and beef. Head to the bar for some advanced mixology.

How about a conveyor belt dinner? Don’t be alarmed, no robots or factory food is involved at the highly interactive Chubby Cattle ( Specializing in hot pot dishes with a Mongolian flair, this eatery features mini-plates of ingredients that course along a moving belt. When something you like passes near, grab it and add it to your personal receptacle of simmering broth that comes in flavor-profile choices like ‘The Beautiful Tomato’ and ‘Heaven and Hell.’ If you’re a newbie wondering how long to cook sliced lamb or exotic mushrooms, the staff can provide advice.

Sample Japanese noodles and sushi (and burgers too)

For Japanese cuisine, Raku ( and its nearby sister restaurant, Raku Sweets, are pilgrimage-worthy destinations. On the savory side, rustic Raku specializes in robata-style grilled viands like Kobe beef tendon, Kurobota pork rib and fish belly. For dessert, Raku Sweets is a sugary dreamscape in a gleaming, hypermodern room. Here, elaborate sorbet confections and macaroons look like artworks. Edible ones, that is.

Lovers of fresh noodles are flocking to Udon Monzo ( in the Center at Spring Mountain, a lengthy, block-long collection of businesses. The Japanese restaurant specializes in handmade pasta strands that are spun and twisted in the air throughout the day. Looking in on the display kitchen, merely pick your choice of soup from shrimp tempura to curry. From there, watch cooks boil your fresh udon to order. The menu is also filled with deep-fried sides from soft boiled eggs to eggplant.

While sushi dens are strewn about Las Vegas, including Chinatown, none tops Yui Edomae Sushi (, a secluded temple of fresh fish just off Spring Mountain Road. Be prepared for a somewhat austere interior, as the gemlike food is the shining star. This is sushi as it’s done in Tokyo at the highest level, and an omakase chef’s choice dinner sets the mind reeling. It’s also a pricey place to match the quality, so budget ahead. Fun fact: the elaborate interior wooden door was crafted in Japan without the use of nails or even glue.

And if you just want  to try the great American hamburger with a Japanese accent, head to the funky and fun Fuku Burger (

More surprising Chinatown stars

Just like the Asian extravaganza of Chinatown is unknown by many Sin City visitors, so too is the fact that there’s plenty of top-notch entertainment off the Strip. It’s not all about casino showrooms here, believe it or not. The respected Las Vegas Little Theater ( is one of the best options around for taking in stagecraft, with a schedule that ranges from works by big-hitters like Terrence McNally and Neil Simon to up-and-coming writers. It’s an intimate and rewarding aesthetic experience located in the back of the Center at Spring Mountain.

Things to do in Shanghai

Tianzifang’s bustling alleyways

Expect cheerfully decorated shop fronts and a lively atmosphere in this fun shopping area at the edge of the French Concession. Tianzifang is a network of small alleys lined with craft shops, bars and food stands. Shoppers looking for the best bargains need to come armed with a price in mind and a knack for haggling – shopkeepers here love the chase!

The Bund waterfront

Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong.  Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.

Shanghai Museum

When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it’s free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.

Fuxing Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of theFrench Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.

French Concession stroll

No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.

Jing’an Temple

Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city.  Meandering through the temple’s three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you’re overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!

Yuyuan Garden

An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.

M50 Contemporary Art Space

You can wander for free around expanding M50, a contemporary art hub that showcases both upcoming and established Chinese artists. Influential Chinese galleries ShanghART and Eastlink are two of the numerous galleries exhibiting ceramics, modern art and sculpture. Give yourself a few hours to appreciate the fusion of talent on display and stop to chat to the gallery owners – most speak English and are happy to answer questions about the works.

Ferry ride and walk around Binjiang Dadao

Shanghai Ferry has got to be the best value activity in town. ¥2 gets you on board a scenic trip across the Huangpu River with the locals, arriving at the Binjiang Dadao riverside walk. The waterfront setting here might be less grandiose than its Bund counterpart, but it’s still an ideal spot from which to appreciate the impressive heights of Shanghai’s main architectural giants: the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, theShanghai World Financial Center and Shanghai Tower. A glance back across the river offers contrasting views of the stately colonial buildings that line the Bund waterfront.

Marriage Market in People’s Park

In the pleasant surroundings of People’s Park, every Saturday and Sunday parents and grandparents convene to seek out promising partners for their offspring at Shanghai’s marriage market. Eligible twenty- and thirty-somethings are ‘advertised’ and potential partners, parents and agents alike peruse the candidates with a view to finding a suitable match. Details are respectfully swapped in the hope of paving the way for a happy and successful union. This is not a place to go and ogle, but a stroll through provides a glimpse into modern Chinese life and what has become a Shanghai institution.

Adventures in Arabia Ras al Khaimah

RAK is where Dubaites come seeking a weekend of solace from the city. This northernmost emirate has some of the most diverse landscapes in the country, from lush date palm oases to slithering sand dunes and stark desert mountains. Smooth Gulf waters provide the perfect setting for an adventure when you’re ready to peel yourself off your sun lounger. Whether you fancy a drive across the desert sands in a luxury SUV or a ride on a newly opened mountain zipline, RAK offers activities worth getting a move on for.

Climb Jebel Jais via car or via ferrata

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

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

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

Unearth authentic Arabia at Bedouin Oasis Desert Camp

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

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

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

Make tracks at Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre

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

Need to know

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

Alcohol is as ubiquitous as the desert sands, and most resorts have at least one bar, though some locally focussed hotels are completely dry. Except for the restaurants along the waterfront, you won’t find many places to drink in RAK City, and you’ll join the many locals who come to the bars and clubs in the resorts to start their weekends.