Simon Calder: Sleep(er) your way around the world

The man who pays his way

Sunset tonight in Penzance is at 9.34pm, but if you have the good fortune to be in Stornoway in the Western Isles you will see it sink below the horizon an hour later (weather, as always in Scotland, permitting). As midsummer approaches, living above the 50-degree north line of latitude becomes a virtue as the day stretches deep into the evening. The further north and west you venture, the more preposterously late the dusk.

So why should The Independent celebrate darkness? Because whether you are shopping after midnight in Bangkok or peering into the depths of the Universe from the Brecon Beacons, the night bestows a fresh dimension on travel experiences.

A journey under the cloak of darkness can have much to recommend it, especially when getting there is none of the fun. Nebraska and Belarus each take the best part of a day to cross by road or rail (I've checked), and each is a study in monotony. The geographical term "plain" is well chosen. Even on the line revered for the greatest train ride in the world, the Trans-Siberian, you can snooze from Omsk to Tomsk (or at least its nearest mainline station, Tayga) without fretting that you have missed something. One mile of the line across the Pennines between Settle and Carlisle provides more drama than that 500-mile stretch of Siberia.

The overnight sleeper trains between London and northern Scotland allow you the best of both worlds, in summer at least. Going north to Fort William, set your alarm to wake you as the sun starts to illuminate the shore of Loch Long, then breakfast as the West Highland Line carves its lonely course across Rannoch Moor. Heading south, the Caledonian Sleeper leaves Inverness at 8.44pm, offering the prospect of dinner by Loch Ness followed by the evening climb towards the Cairngorms. You drift off to sleep around Blair Atholl, and get jolted back to the reality of a London rush hour nine hours later – while the early-morning passengers from Inverness to Gatwick have hardly got airborne.

Daylight robbery

Time is too precious to squander on unsatisfying travel – as I discovered on the only occasion I took a daytime flight from North America to Britain. There are just a handful of such flights, leaving East Coast cities around 9am and arriving at a quiet Heathrow at 9pm.

At dawn, I woke up in the city that never sleeps. Just as the world was flooding into New York, I took the A-Train to JFK. While smarter tourists were tucking into breakfast at the Carnegie Deli and planning the day's cultural or retail immersion, I was checking in at the airport with only an inflight omelette to anticipate.

As the Airbus accelerated along the runway, I felt a surge of regret at leaving a Manhattan morning behind. The plane curved along the coasts of that novel trio – New England, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – then followed the 50-degree line of latitude like a rail all the way to Cornwall. The last embers of daylight expired shortly before landfall. I concede that I escaped the normally punishing fatigue that follows an all-night flight. But a New York day followed by a transatlantic night looks much more enticing than a lost day and a Tube journey home.

Overnight flights invite you to make the most of the day at either end of your trip. The best way to end any trip to Singapore is with the city-state's signature night out: a pre-flight feast at the East Coast Seafood Centre. From your beachside table to Changi airport takes 10 minutes. Aboard your midnight plane to Britain, you should drift off above the Andaman Sea, and wake for breakfast somewhere over the Danube. In contrast, daytime flights from the Far East to Britain, such as those, bestow upon you an endless day that vanishes into the thin air at 37,000ft.

Aesthetics apart, night flights also help you to economise. Unless you have carefully arranged for cooperative family or friends to occupy properties with spare rooms in alluring parts of the world, then you presumably have to pay for accommodation. Organise an overnight trip, and you check in for the Hotel Airbus or Boeing B&B at the same time as your flight.

The embrace of night is ideal when you are safely tucked up at high altitude; at ground level, a dazzle of daylight is what you need. The best time to touch down at any airport is at dawn. Turning up in a strange city is always best done with plenty of daylight in reserve – allowing you to settle in before a great night out in Rio or Cape Town. And while Heathrow or Gatwick can never match the electricity of Copacabana or the grandeur of Table Mountain, a 6am arrival means that you can travel onward to any part of the kingdom. Public transport is starting up, not closing down around you. Dawn is sometimes more promising than dusk.

Climbing: a dark art

The antidote to a fearful fear of heights? Darkness. When you climb Mount Kenya, the guide wakes you at 3am and cajoles you ever higher. You blunder your way by torchlight to the summit (or at least the "trekkers' peak"), with night suppressing the intimidation of altitude. Only when the sun flares over the horizon, illuminating the longest view on the planet (the 200 miles to the top of Kilimanjaro), are the treacherous ledges and sheer drops revealed. And by then, the element of choice has vanished with the night.

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