Top travel destinations for 2015
The Cook Islands – the land of smiles.
Best-kept secret: Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga.
Niue: It may be one of the world’s smallest countries, but this tiny speck of land is not laying low when it comes to gold and silver.
Tijeretas Bay in San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos Archipelago, Ecuador.
Hot pick: South African wildlife.
Off the beaten track: A close encounter at Londolosi private game reserve in South Africa.
Gangi, Sicily, with Mount Etna erupting in the background.
Ireland: Queen Elizabeth looks at the Iron Throne as she meets members of the cast on the set of the television series Game of Thrones in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Don’t miss Ireland: Glengesh Pass, Ardara, Ireland.
Ireland: Swept by waves of migrants, particularly from Poland and other Eastern European nations, Dublin is morphing into an international city of substance, with restaurants and cafes adopting a central role alongside its pubs.
England: The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, Sussex.
An Arab dhow, Shia mosque and traditional waterfront architecture in Muscat, Oman.
Peaceful: San Juan Del Sur harbour, Nicaragua.
The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey, England.
Unforgettable: Jumping in the sea, Palermo, Sicily.
Cala Dogana Marina, Sicily.
Out in the open: Llama handcraft at a small market at Guamote, Ecuador.
Lush, green vistas: Rice fields in Vietnam.
Views forever: Dusk at Ravens Roost Overlook, Shenandoah National Park,
A Lau Islands welcome, Fiji.
The Mekong River: A fisherman casts a net on the Mekong River, home to Irrawaddy dolphins, also known as the Mekong dolphins, at Kampi village in Kratie province, Cambodia.
Roaring down an Oman desert dune in a 4WD and strolling an historic Magna Carta trail in England are among our top holiday destinations for 2015.
THE COOK ISLANDS
Why here: 15 dreamy archipelagos that lie halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, scattered like a string of pearls in the South Pacific. The Cooks offers an experience that’s just as culturally enriching, with some of the South Pacific’s most magnificent natural scenery to boot.
An affordable alternative to swanky and exorbitantly high-priced neighbours Tahiti and Bora-Bora, the main island of Rarotonga is like one big happy resort, meaning you’re not tied to one place and can get out and explore. Getting around the island with its rugged, mist-shrouded mountains that tumble down to its dreamy azure lagoons is a breeze too with the Moped being the transport of choice. As one resort manager aptly puts it, “The Cook Islands are like Hawaii 50 years ago.” So go now before the rest of the world catches on.
Don’t miss: Dinner at the restored colonial Tamarind House with lush lawn rolling down to the ocean; snorkelling at Fruits of Rarotonga and dreamy Aitutaki for a glimpse of fast disappearing old Polynesia.
Insider tip: Neil Dearlove from the Cook Islands Coffee Company makes, hands down, the best coffee on the island. Keep your eyes peeled for the orange traffic cone outside his house on the main road in Rarotonga. He makes coffee till around 10am each morning, but island time means some days coffee doesn’t get made at all.
The details: sale.cookislands.travel, tamarind.co.ck, cicoffeecompany.wordpress.com, cookislands.travel/aitutaki.
Why here: You know about the mosques, the souqs and ancient forts. But there’s far more to this Arabian Peninsula than diarrhoea- inducing chilli olives or chuffing on a hookah pipe. With a geographical make-up more diverse than John Peel’s vinyl collection, this is a land rich in outdoor adventure; where mountains, sprawling desert dunes and ocean collide to create extraordinary experiences. Roar down the sheer face of a sand dune in a 4WD, cool off in alpine wadis then pitch your tent beneath the stars, all on the doorstep of Muscat, the nation’s capital. Alternatively, head south to Salalah where the tail end of the Indian monsoon makes for a more tropical climate in a city rich with frankincense and incense history. Oh, and then there are the Bat tombs, some of the world’s most extensive cave systems, not to mention the Balcony Walk at Jebel Shams, a sweaty-palm-inducing trek along the rim of Oman’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It’s these more rugged exploits that are often overlooked in this region; there are far more soulful encounters than trudging around a 10-storey, airconditioned shopping mall in search of more consumerist crap you probably don’t need.
Don’t miss: The Rally Royale Grand Oman Tour features the nation’s first procession of vintage vehicles. See rallyroyale.com
Insider tip: Nizwa has also been announced as the Islamic Art Capital for 2015.
The details: tourismoman.com.au
Why here: As South Africa settles into life without Nelson Mandela, the Rainbow Nation is blossoming as a travel destination. That may be Cape Town, this year’s World Design capital (and seemingly everyone’s top city destination) or the animals of Kruger National Park and the surrounding private game reserves like Londolosi.
It really does have it all: a dynamic and complex racial mix yet no language problems; the roads are excellent, and the fall of the rand makes it good value. South Africa is experiencing a food revolution so meals now reach the high standards of the local wine. The mountains of the Drakensberg are grand and the Cape of Good Hope, a wild landscape, is iconic as one of the world’s three great capes.
Don’t miss: There’s one reason above all to visit South Africa: to see its animals in the wild. That may be observing elephants and hippos in Kruger or following lions or leopards in a private reserve.
Insider tip: South of Cape Town is known for whale watching and cage diving with great white sharks. Yet the flowers of the Cape are just as remarkable. The Cape Floral Kingdom offers 8700 plant species (68 per cent endemic) and an unsurpassed springtime flower show. Stay at Grootbos nature reserve in the heart of the fynbos.
The details: capetown.travel, sanparks.org/parks/kruger, londolozi.com, africareps.com, grootbos.com, southafrica.net
Why here: Let’s move beyond the mud, sweat and tears. While World War 1 commemorations are putting a spotlight on the fields of Flanders, this little country has much more to offer than battle-bloodied earth. It may lack mighty mountains or scenic lakes, but when it comes to beguiling cities, Belgium more than holds its own.
From the art nouveau delights of Brussels to the picturesque beer-brewing capital of Leuven, each of Belgium’s strollable cities has its own charms. Few visitors can resist the picturebook prettiness of Bruges, with its tranquil canals circling the cobblestone lanes lined with ancient houses. Just as entrancing, but much less visited, is the mediaeval city of Ghent, where the university buzz enlivens the ancient streets.
Then there’s the food. Few countries will tempt you to eat as much, as often, as Belgium does. If you manage to walk past the waffle stands (choose between the fluffy Bruxelles and the caramelised Liege options), you will find yourself tempted by speculoos biscuits straight from the oven and the endless chocolate shops, styled as exquisitely as designer boutiques. There are chic brasseries offering the traditional combo of mussels and fries, and cosy pubs serving hearty beef-and-beer stew.
Speaking of which: beer is something akin to a religion here. From rich Trappist brews to paler ales and even the sour cherry flavours of Brussels’ special kriek lambic, there’s always a new drop to try, each one served in its own special beer glass.
Don’t miss: If you’re into Flemish art, you will love the Van Dycks and Memlings in Bruges’ Groeninge Museum and St John’s Hospital.
Insider tip: Nothing in Belgium is too far away from anywhere else, particularly given the country’s efficient train system.
The details: visitbrussels.be, leuven.be, visitbruges.org, visitgent.be.
Why here: If 2014 was the year for South American big boys Brazil, thanks to the World Cup (even if Germany didn’t follow the script), and Peru, which emerged as an “it” destination, next year it’s time for compact Ecuador, in the continent’s north-west, to sashay into the limelight.
Of course, with the Galapagos islands off its coast, Ecuador is already well-known for expedition-style cruising and wildlife tourism. But in 2015 the focus will widen to include the country’s relatively easy access to the Amazon river basin, the Andes mountains, the mainland Pacific coast and highlight Quito, the planet’s second highest capital (after Bolivia’s La Paz) and a World Heritage site in its entirety, noted as Latin America’s best preserved historic centre.
Ecuador is also a leader in sustainable tourism, voted the globe’s top green destination in the 2013 World Travel Awards and committed to careful management of the Galapagos. It will host the World Ecotourism conference in Quito in April 2015.
Don’t miss: Visit one of the planet’s most remote tribes, the Huaorani, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, staying at an indigenous-owned jungle lodge. destinationecuador.com/ecuador-amazon-tours-huaorani-ecolodge.html
Insider tip: Instead of cruising the Galapagos, island hop on a land-based tour, connecting with communities, as well as wildlife, with two locally based Kiwis. galakiwi.com
The details: Ecuador.travel/en
VIRGINIA, UNITED STATES
Why here: 150 years ago, at Wilmer McLean’s house in the small hamlet of Appomattox, the American Civil War ended. On April 9, 1865, General Lee’s Confederate army surrendered, and the last remaining hope of Confederate victory was gone. The States would be reunited, slavery would be banned throughout, and the modern-day superpower would be born.
Many key Civil War battlefields are here, all with detailed interpretation centres and tour guides willing to lead you round. Manassas is the best bet if picking only one, but the Richmond National Battlefield Park commemorates numerous tussles around the State.
Richmond, the state capital, was also the Confederate HQ – the Confederate White House and American Civil War Centre can also be found there.
The Civil War can be used as a theme underpinning a road trip around Virginia, but it acts as a gateway drug to a state that is shaking off its fusty, tobacco-stained image. Booming Washington DC satellite cities Arlington and Alexandria have distinct energy and character of their own, Charlottesville was voted the happiest city in the US last year, and the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains is an outdoorsman’s haven. Go east, and Virginia also has some of the best beaches on the country’s Atlantic coast.
Don’t miss: Go in September and you’ll find the world’s best cyclists in Richmond. Already a bike-friendly city, it is hosting the UCI road cycling World Championships.
Insider tip: While other US states go loopy for craft beer or locally grown wines, the trend in Virginia is for artisan cider-making. A cluster of small-scale apple lovers can be found around Charlottesville, with Albemarle Cider Works and the Bold Rock cidery being among the best regarded.
The details: Virginia.org, nps.gov/apco, nps.gov/mana, nps.gov/rich, moc.org, Tredegar.org, nps.gov/shen, Richmond2015.com, Virginia.org/cider, albemarleciderworks.com, boldrock.com
Why here: Not content to bask in the prolonged afterglow of a stellar Olympics, next year England turns its attention to another massive sporting event, the 2015 Rugby World Cup (September 18 – October 31), which it’s co-hosting with Wales. Venues are slated to be all over the country, giving fans a great excuse to get out of London for a grand tour that takes in everywhere from Brighton to Leicester.
Even more unique, however, is the other celebration hitting the country in 2015: the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. This is the document that curtailed the powers of an absolute monarch, opening the road to inalienable rights and freedoms we now take for granted in our daily lives. “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed,” the Magna Carta declared, “nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.”
To mark the milestone of the Great Charter, six dedicated trails have been created to link up important cities and villages across the country. These two to three-day self-guided itineraries offer a brilliant guide for exploration, even if political history isn’t really an interest: they include visits to Salisbury, Lincoln, Stonehenge, and Canterbury for its UNESCO-listed cathedral.
At a time when freedoms are under assault in many parts of the world, the Magna Carta remains a powerful reminder of what’s at stake.
Don’t miss: In 2012, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an astonishing retrospective of work by British designer Alexander McQueen, it attracted more than 662,000 visitors. Next year Savage Beauty comes to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (March 14 – July 19). See vam.ac.uk.
Insider tip: For a different view of the country, take advantage of some of the oldest rail infrastructure in the world (since 1830), and rumble past craggy cliffs and around the Lakes District all the way to Scotland. nationalrail.co.uk.
The details: visitbritain.com.au, rugbyworldcup.com/destinationengland, magnacartatrails.com.
Why here: Adrift in the South Pacific, at the heart of a triangle formed by Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands, Niue is sunny, smiling, calming and tailor made for the escapist who prefers their Pacific Island in Robinson Crusoe mode. An uplifted coral atoll that rises sharply from the sea, Niue is ringed by a stockade of cliffs and riddled with caves and labyrinths. At Namukulu Village on the north-west coast, the sea has carved a serpentine maze of blue pools with champagne-clear water. Just south at Avaiki, the flat limestone shelf that forms a skirt around the island is pitted with blue troughs the size of a backyard pool, each one a tropical aquarium squirming with fishy life. Below the waterline, the lacy limestone filigree becomes sea caves, chimneys and swim-throughs, a wonderworld for divers, with average water clarity at around 50 metres. Barely 100m from land the sea floor drops sheer away, allowing the humpback whales that winter in these waters to display their acrobatic talents close inshore. Swimming with dolphins and whales, snorkelling with turtles and diving with hammerheads, eagle rays and the sea kraits that are endemic to Niue are among the island’s specialties. The coast road that lassos the island in a green tunnel is a gorgeous drive, or fabulous on a bike. Polynesian tradition runs strong, trowelled with a fervent Christianity that requires attendance at church on Sundays and lusty singing. Luxury, however, is not part of the picture. Niue welcomes just 6000 visitors per year, and there are no super-gloss resorts nor scented spas, although you’d have to go a long way to beat the tuna and moonfish sashimi at Kaiika, where larger-than-life owner Avi Rubin brings his own brand of pepper and spice to the table.
Don’t miss: Alofi Show Day, the biggest of the show days held at villages around Niue, a rambunctious celebration of Polynesian culture, held in July.
Insider tip: Burgers at the Washaway Café at Avateli Beach. Open Sundays only and run by local fisherman Willie Santelli, Niue’s own Long John Silver, with legs intact.
The details: niueisland.com
CHAMBA CAMP THIKSEY, LADAKH, INDIA
Why here: Himalayan mountains, ancient temples and Tibetan Buddhists trumpeting the dawn. What more could you wish for?
Well, until recently you could wish for a bit of luxury, because this less-visited and very distinct mountain region of northern India has mostly catered to backpackers.
Last year, however, the Ultimate Travelling Camp set up shop at the foot of the stunning Thiksey monastery. Called Chamba Camp Thiksey, it comprises 13 luxury tents tailored in Sahib-like excess, with each enjoying views up to the colourful 400-year-old monastery clinging to its small peak.
You’ll wake to the sound of monks blowing conches and the sight of dawn on the snow-crowned mountains. Your private valet will ease you into the morning with hot coffee, before your private driver and guide show you the sights.
Daily distractions include 1000-year-old temples, the narrow lanes of the ancient capital Leh, river rafting on the Indus and mountain biking from snowy wastelands down to bucolic pastures. Surprise spreads of gourmet lunch await around the most unlikely corners.
Meals are served in the restaurant tent by chef Simarpal Singh Virdi, whose dishes make excellent use of crops raised by locals in the camp’s delightful gardens.
If the altitude doesn’t give you a nose bleed, the nightly tarrif may – Chamba Camp Thiksey costs $3990 a person for five nights. However, the double draw of a highly competent luxury operation in far-flung terrain is putting this outpost firmly on the map for 2015.
Don’t miss: Seeing a local shaman going into trance to tell the fortunes of hopeful (and slightly terrified) locals.
Insider tip: A doctor will measure your blood’s oxygen on arrival (invariably low if you’re not used to life at 3600 metres) and advise you to spend the day doing nothing but relaxing to acclimatise. Heed thee well.
The details: chambacampthiksey.com/
Why here: The mighty Mekong is a transport super-highway, dictator of farming cycles, food source, domestic backyard, kids’ playground – and a magnet for river cruisers who want to see traditional life unfold along its banks. The river is rapidly changing as cruising between Vietnam and Cambodia booms – dozens of luxury riverboats now ply the route. Big-picture changes are also at play: plans to build hydropower-producing dams in Laos and Cambodia may affect fish migration and Vietnamese rice paddies may be deprived of nutrients. Beat the march of progress by experiencing the Mekong sooner rather than later. From Vietnam’s delta, leave behind busy shipping channels by nosing upstream through clumps of water hyacinth towards the Cambodian border. From Phnom Penh, cruisers leave the Mekong to follow the Tonle Sap River, eventually crossing Tonle Sap Lake to reach Siem Reap, home to the magnificent Angkor Wat complex.
Don’t miss: One of the best things about this route is the shore excursions. Cruiseco Adventurer offers a peek inside The Lovers’ Museum in Sa Dec, Vietnam, an ox-drawn cart ride past Cambodian rice paddies and a sobering excursion to the Killing Fields on Phnom Penh’s outskirts.
Insider tip: Enterprising villagers sometimes import goods from distant factories and pass them off as local goods. Salesmanship can be intense so be savvy when buying souvenirs.
The details: cruising.com.au.
Your mother was right: get a bad reputation and you will find it has a nasty way of hanging around. That’s a lesson Nicaragua has learned the hard way. In the 1980s, international headlines were filled with the bloody battles between the Sandinistas, who overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza, and the United States-backed Contras. The country has moved on since then – although Ronald Reagan is probably rolling in his grave at the knowledge that his nemesis, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, is back in power – but the war-torn image lingers. Get yourself over here, however, and you will discover why experts are tipping Nicaragua to become the next best thing.
Be sure to pack your walking shoes, as there is a lot to explore. Central America’s largest country boasts not just two coastlines, but mountains, lakes and volcanoes. There is superb surfing at San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. If you prefer a more laidback beach break, the classic Caribbean vacation awaits on Little Corn Island, a tiny piece of paradise still stuck in the slow lane. Dive the coral reefs, eat super-fresh seafood, or just lie around in a hammock, lulled by the whisper of the waves.
Smart visitors don’t just cling to the coast: there is also plenty to see inland. The northern highlands are covered by cloud forests dense with stands of mahogany, cedar and pine, home to gushing waterfalls, orchids and more than 200 species of birds.
If there is one Nicaraguan landmark that is destined to serve as the backdrop to a thousand selfies, however, it is Ometepe Island. Spectacularly located in massive Lake Nicaragua, the island was formed by twin volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. A climb to the top of still-smoking Concepcion takes you through tropical forest, while Maderas has a magical lagoon on top of the crater.
Then there are the colonial cities, gorgeous Granada and its bohemian rival, Leon. Their picturesque streets are lined with fan-cooled cafes that are the perfect place to savour the superb local coffee, or equally delicious rum.
Getting around the country is easy: you are never too far away from the next destination, and transfers are easily arranged. If you are travelling on a budget, you will be delighted at how far your money takes you; if you are up for a bit of luxury, you are also covered. A number of destination hotels are springing up, from Jicaro Island Ecolodge, located on its own private island, to the magnificent coastal Mukul Beach Golf Spa, with private pool villas decorated by local artisans.
Don’t miss With nine active volcanoes (among a total of more than two dozen), a night time volcano hike is a must. Masaya is a good choice.
Insider tip Diriomo and Diria, the Pueblos Brujos, or bewitched villages, have a tradition of supernatural healing, with a number of medicine men and women still practicing. The sidewalk fortune tellers are a more recent addition.
The details visitnicaragua.us, jicarolodge.com, mukul.com
To experience the wilder shores of Italy, you need to visit Sicily. Separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina, it’s the Mediterranean’s largest island, with a coastline that touches three seas – the Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean. Not only are the vistas gorgeous, the diversity is breathtaking, from the rolling agricultural land of the interior and the rugged coastline of the west, to beautiful seascapes where small volcanic islands like Stromboli still glow with lava in the middle of a turquoise sea.
Sicily still feels surprisingly off the beaten track, which accounts for much of its charm. Cruise ships come into Taormina, with its lovely winding medieval streets and Greek theatre set against the backdrop of glittering water, but few other Sicilian cities are as well visited.
In the east, the wonderful baroque cities of Noto, Siracusa, Modica, Catania and Ragusa are highlights, not to be missed. To the west, the ancient walled town of Erice, with its two castles, rises above pretty coastal cities Trapani and Cefalu. Nearby Palermo, the capital, is still majestic despite Allied bombings during World War II and the internal war with the cosa nostra. (Sicily remains defiantly anti-Mafia; many businesses in Palermo have signed on to an anti-extortion charter.) The relaxed Aeolian islands can be reached ferry from the northern fishing village of Milazzo.
Architecturally, Sicily offers an unparalleled concentration of magnificent buildings, from crumbling Norman castles and fortresses to the golden sandstone baroque cathedrals built during the Spanish occupation in the 16th Century, after much of the south east was destroyed by massive earthquake. Near Agrigento in the south, the Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO Heritage site showcasing the most spectacular and well-preserved Greek buildings outside Greece.
The active volcano Etna has given Sicily its rich soil, making it the breadbasket of the region since Roman times. Wheat fields, olive trees and citrus groves cover the landscape. To the west, Marsala is its most famous wine region but some award-winning Bordeaux-style wines are now being produced on the slopes of Etna.
One of the most memorable aspects of any trip to Sicily is the food – from the abundant fresh seafood plucked out of the local waters, to traditional creamy cassata, marzipan, caponata, pastas, citrus cakes and dozens of morish dishes that show the influence of successive conquerors, especially the Arabs, who brought with them saffron, almonds, citrus, dates and a strong sweet tooth.
It’s best to hire a car and drive around the island at leisure. There are a number of charming bed and breakfasts in each region, including converted baglios, or old farmhouses, and palazzi.
Don’t miss: In May, the beautiful Baroque city of Noto celebrates Spring with the Infioratadinato, a festival of flowers, where local artists carpet the streets with paintings made from petals. While you’re there, drop into Cafe Sicilia for renowned pastry chef Corrado Assenza’s Arab-inspired sweet treats.
Insider tip: Never skip breakfast in Sicily. It’s a not just a meal, it’s a feast, starting with meats, cheeses and tarts and ending with delectable cakes and sponges.
The details: italia.it/en/discover-italy/sicily.html, infioratadinoto.it/eng.htm, savoursicily.com.au.
While the economic calamities of 2008/9 humbled the Celtic Tiger, Ireland is accustomed to boom and bust cycles and its people are nothing if not resilient. Now, the signs are that Ireland is regrouping economically and that tourism is playing a crucial part in its revival. Being listed, for its “stunning landscape and incredible hospitality”, among Lonely Planet’s top ten countries to visit in 2015 won’t harm the Emerald Isle either, and while the Irish have lost some bluster since the early 2000s, their welcome seems warmer and more genuine than ever.
Swept by waves of migrants, particularly from Poland and other Eastern European nations, Dublin is morphing into an international city of substance, with restaurants and cafes (serving decent barista-made coffee) adopting a central role alongside its pubs. While British stag and hen parties lurch in the opposite direction to Krakow and Riga, Dublin’s reputation as a cultural hothouse, begetting literary and musical giants like James Joyce and U2, simply grows. In 2015, the city marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nobel-prize-winning poet W.B. Yeats, with a year of events.
Also evolving swiftly is once troubled Belfast, with a new Van Morrison trail celebrating its most famous musical son and a hugely improved culinary scene. Recently-opened eateries include the much-praised Ox restaurant, the cavernous Mourne seafood bar – also new in Dublin – and Coppi, doing innovative work with an Italian theme. There’s also a new Belfast food tour, visiting providores, pubs and St George’s market, and even a gin and dessert bar, in the Merchant Hotel .
Food producers in the north are also doing ground-breaking work, with Tynedale Farm in County Antrim introducing goat kid to Belfast’s top restaurants and Hannan Meats, in County Down, supplying exceptionally flavoured beef, aged for 35 days in Europe’s first Himalayan salt chamber. While the quality Ireland’s food may surprise visitors, its profoundly green landscape is more familiar. In 2014, the opening of the Wild Atlantic Way, the country’s first long-distance driving route, put the ravishing west coast centre-stage in its tourism revitalisation. Dip into parts of it, like Galway’s spectacular Cliffs of Moher and gentle Connemara coast or cover the entire 2500-kilometre route from Cork’s southern-most point to the tip of Donegal. The journey leads to sleepy coastal villages, pubs resounding with traditional music, to Iron Age settlements and along shores lashed by Atlantic waves.
If this is not enticing enough then Tourism Ireland is repositioning the country, following the hosting of the Adventure World Travel summit in Killarney in October, as Europe’s top destination for biking, trekking and high-octane activities like kite-surfing, wakeboarding and coasteering.
Don’t miss: The west-coast university city of Galway, particularly during its exciting International Arts Festival, July 13-26, 2015.
Insider tip: “Don’t schedule in too much”, advises Tourism Ireland’s Diane Butler, “allow time to meet the people, take the road less travelled or to walk along the windswept coast.”
The details: Belfast food: oxbelfast.com; mourneseafood.com; coppi.co.uk; discovernorthernireland.com/Belfast-Food-Tours-Belfast-P42020 Wild Atlantic Way: wildatlanticway.com, discoverireland.ie/places-to-go/galway, ireland.com
LAU ISLANDS, FIJI
Why Fiji regulars will be familiar with the Mamanuca and Yasawa archipelagos – the island chains that lie within a few hours’ cruising of Port Denarau near Nadi the Lau Islands are a different kettle of fish. This string of islands dangles to the east of the Viti Levu “mainland” – and is so close to Tonga that Tongan influences have shaped some island traditions. Reaching the archipelago and its Listerine-blue waters isn’t quick but it’s now possible to saunter from one pristine island to the next thanks to Captain Cook Cruises. After lengthy negotiations the cruise line launched a Lau itinerary with the full blessing of the islanders. The no-frills MV Reef Endeavour will sail to the Lau islands three times next year (in April, August and November).
So why bother cruising all that way? Firstly, passengers head well off the beaten track (and the grid, with no Wi-Fi for much of the 11-night cruise). It’s such virgin territory that while developing the itinerary, a crew member was lost for two days on uninhabited Vuaqava Island as a trail was forged past a skull-filled cave to an interior lake (he eventually followed a wild-goat track back to the beach). There’s serenity in knowing no other tourists will be flapping their fins in your face as you snorkel over extraordinary coral gardens, schools of fish and the odd turtle. There are no hotels or resorts and the only other ships that regularly drop anchor are cargo ships bringing supplies every few weeks.
Secondly, you visit remote villages where residents aren’t suffering tourist fatigue. People are happy to chat, tell you about village life and pose for photos when asked. The ship’s visit is a big deal to these places – kids rehearse their singing and dancing routines for weeks. Some villages also hold a market stocked with handicrafts such as multi-legged wooden kava bowls, hand-plaited fibre ropes and shell jewellery.
Thirdly, the journey to and from the Lau group includes other extraordinary sights such as witnessing the age-old ritual of turtle calling from a rocky headland on Kadavu Island south of Viti Levu. To the north is the “garden island” of Taveuni, where passengers can frolic in a secluded natural pool fed by stunning twin waterfalls.
Yet in the end, the best thing about the Lau cruise is something far less tangible. It’s the warmth of the Fijian crew members who invite passengers to share their post-dinner kava and to boogie across the dance floor. It’s the ease with which they piggyback someone struggling through sandal-sucking shallows. It’s the sort of thing that creeps up on you, something you only realise you’ll miss as you’re waving goodbye with tears in your eyes.
Don’t miss: Take the tender into Fulaga Island’s shallow lagoon, dotted with photogenic mushroom-shaped islets. Fulaga is also a 2015 port of call for Silversea’s Silver Discoverer, which visits in October while en route from Fiji to French Polynesia.
Insider tip: Pack clothes that cover knees and shoulders for village and church visits (such as a sulu with a bula shirt), reef shoes, seasickness medication for any rough patches, and storybooks and stationery for schools.
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