A spin through the Scottish Highlands
The glacial T-junction where Glen Gairn collides with Glen Builg, beneath the Cairngorm massif in the Highlands, is one of the wildest locations in the British Isles: a place that intimidates and inspires in equal measure. The grid reference is NJ193026. Go there as soon as you can.
It's not easy to get to, of course. Antony, Dave, Spencer and I arrived under a lowering sky, after two long days in the saddle – a third of the way through our 200-mile, off-road, Scottish coast-to-coast mountain-bike ride, from the North Sea to the Atlantic.
We'd planned the four-day epic from Aberdeen to Fort William, following disused railway lines, Land Rover tracks, medieval drover's routes, forest footpaths, 18th-century military roads, canal towpaths and sections of Tarmac. We'd carefully chosen the time of year (mid-May), plotted the route on a stack of OS maps, booked accommodation, serviced our bikes and trained.
Things started well: we sped along the old railway line beside the tan-brown River Dee, glimpsing the heather-clad hills ahead. But, as Burns wrote, "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley." Sure enough, climbing into the Birse forest, a metallic crunch broke the silence. Spencer's bike stopped dead.
In the morning, Cyclehighlands, the excellent bike shop in Ballater, fixed it and we were soon climbing into the Cairngorms, past flocks of plovers, lapwings and oystercatchers. But, after two days of sunshine, the sky had blackened. Descending the steep-sided Glen Builg, rain fell in pellets and we squelched into Tomintoul.
Grey skies, stiff bodies and a dram too many made for a slow start on day three, but the gloom lifted when, riding through a small stand of ancient Caledonian pine forest, we saw a golden eagle waft overhead.
The last day was tough: 70 miles, crossing the Monadhliath mountains via the 775m Corrieyairack Pass. At Melgarve bothy, the Tarmac ends and General Wade's "military road" begins. Built in 1731 to suppress Jacobite insurrection in the Highlands, this enduring feat of engineering is as busy with walkers and mountain-bikers today as it was with English troops then.
We gave the bikes, and our back teeth, a rattling on the hour-long descent into the Great Glen, before reaching the road to Fort William as the sun, like us, gently waned. Rob Penn
Wilderness Scotland (0131 625 6635, www.wildernessscotland.com) runs guided coast-to-coast trips. First ScotRail (0845 755 0033, www.firstgroup.com/scotrail) operates a daily sleeper from Fort William to London Euston. Cyclehighlands (01339 755 864, www.cyclehighlands.com) in Ballater is useful for spares and repairs
Head over heels with London
I'm in Hyde Park, London, on a crisp winter afternoon, nervously pulling on a pair of rollerblades for my first street-skate. Fluorescent-vested marshals are corralling a crowd of 80 fellow skaters to the start point, ready to begin the 7.5-mile "Sunday stroll" that will take us to Battersea Park.
A shout goes up, and the long line snakes away at remarkable speed. I tentatively stand up, glide forward two feet... and fall on my arse. Watching dejectedly from the Tarmac as the last of the skaters leave, I resolve to return next week.
The rally takes a different two-hour circuit every Sunday, starting from Hyde Park. It's free, and anyone can join. So seven days later I'm back, armed with a couple of hours' tuition. As we leave the park's smooth, traffic-free boulevard for London's busy, uneven roads, the pace picks up. Our rolling roadblock thunders down Piccadilly and for a moment, I feel in control.
Road-skating can be unforgiving, however, and as we near Green Park, a small pothole upsets my sense of balance and sends me sprawling into the path of a following bus, which brakes hard. An alarmed steward rushes over, checks I'm OK... and ejects me from the tour.
I'm still determined to see it through, though, and trail the group as it turns into Mayfair. Yet the pace is relentless, and by the time I cross Oxford Street, they're way ahead. I skate alone past Regent's Park's elegant terraces and on to the halfway rest point, exhausted and admitting defeat.
While this "stroll" is anything but, it is an exciting way to see the sights – as long as you can stay on your feet. Adam Jacques
For more information, visit www.lfns.co.uk
Northern Lights and UFOs
You need to take Arctic Umiaq Line's boat service 20 hours north of the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk to reach the Arctic Circle. Here, at the small town of Sisimiut, unconnected to any other human outpost by road or plane, you'll find the beginnings of the mammoth Greenlandic ice shelf.
"We'll be snowshoeing about 8km into the mountains," says my Danish guide, Morten. "We're heading for a small hunters' cabin on top of a ridge." Our trudge begins with a sea crossing over spookily reverberating, cracking ice that rises and falls with the swell. "If it breaks, you're gone in an instant," says Morten with a grin.
The climb over the first ridge is tough, each step an accentuated giant's arc in the cumbersome snowshoes. But my step soon becomes daintier and movement quicker.
The second ridge brings fantasy landscapes unfurling into the distance, but it's the third ridge that seals the day. "The cabin is just behind those rocks," says Morten. "We call it the UFO." And here, deep in breathtaking wilderness, stands a flying saucer straight out of a 1950s B movie; an elliptical pod stuck on the top of spindly metal legs. "It was brought here by helicopter in the 1980s," explains Morten.
That night, I venture out for a walk; clouds rippling over the mountains, the Northern Lights and stars glimmering. I pan around until my gaze rests once again on the UFO. I clamber back inside this strange metal pod and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Andrew Spooner
For details of travel to Greenland, visit www.greenland.com. Arctic Umiaq Line (www.aul.gl) offers packages to Greenland and Sisimuit from Copenhagen
A heavenly ascent in the Himalayas
One of the world's greatest short treks is arguably the two-day hike to the Bumdra Monastery Camp from the Uma Paro valley, in the mystical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Based at the hotel tycoon Christina Ong's luxuriously ethical five-star Uma Paro resort, our journey began with a morning hike from Sang Choekor Buddhist College at 2,800m.
While we paid our respects at the colourful college – a mêlée of spinning prayer wheels, fluttering prayer flags and serene trainee young monks – our five ponies (to carry equipment and food for two of us) were loaded up by five Sherpas. Our guide then talked us through the possibility of altitude sickness before we began the first ascent along a steep, cool ridge.
A couple of hours later we came to a clearing with awesome views down into both the Paro and Do Chhu valleys. Above and ahead of us we could just make out the Chhoe Tse Lhakhang temple, clinging to the mountainside and our next rest stop, one to two hours' walk away. At this point, as we climbed higher, our breathing became harder and our heads began to slightly ache – the symptoms of altitude sickness. Thankfully, we were able to carry on as the condition was only slight.
After plunging through ancient forest we came out on to a high wide meadow dotted with sacred prayer flags. Our home for the night was a clearing tucked under the Bumdra Monastery at 3,500m, with jaw-dropping views of the Himalayan range. As the monastery was occupied we climbed up to visit it and then north to the peak at around 4,000m.
On our return, the Sherpas had made up our tent for the night, and as it grew dark we sat around the camp fire while our guide told traditional Bhutanese tales. Tucked in bed the silence was deafening.
We awoke to sensational views of cloud and early morning mist clearing the mountains. Our early-morning descent took us to the landmark Taktsang Monastery, which perches precariously on the cliffside and is reached by a series of zig-zagging steps hewn into the rock face. From there it was an easy descent back to the Paro valley and we returned to Uma Paro, exhausted but utterly stimulated. Ian McCurrach
Carrier (0161 491 7630, carrier.co.uk) offers a seven-night trip from £3,790 per person, based on two sharing, including travel, six nights at Uma Paro and a privately guided trek to Bumdra Monastery Camp
By sea kayak
A wild paddle down Mexico way
The conquistador Hernán Cortés' last great journey was crossing from mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula, establishing a colony at La Paz. The sea he crossed, named after him, is one of the world's most diverse marine areas, containing 31 marine mammal species, 500 species of fish and more than 200 bird species. And today you can depart from La Paz for a circumnavigation of the nature reserve of Espíritu Santo, a 23,300-acre island 20 miles offshore, in that most eco-friendly of vessels, the sea kayak.
The west coast of Espíritu Santo is a series of sandy coves divided by rocky headlands and when you're not kayaking you'll be pitching tents on one of its 20 deserted beaches. Even novice paddlers can take on the 2.5-mile open water crossing between Espíritu Santo and its smaller neighbour Isla Partida, home to a colony of sea lions.
Days begin at first light and end with a beer on the beach in twilight. It's a low-impact trip and everything that is taken in must be taken out – and a porta-potty is used. But there's something very soothing about a day governed by nature and the rhythmic work of propelling the 17ft kayaks over the Sea of Cortez. Robin Barton
Fully catered, four-day trips from Jan-May, Oct-Dec, $590 direct from www.kay activities.com. Or book in UK with Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, www. journeylatinamerica.com) – packages from £369, based on two sharing, flights extra
Galapagos reefs beyond belief
It was by moving from island to island in the Galapagos that Charles Darwin could record the subtle differences in land critters that led to his theory of natural selection. Yet as historic as the colonies of giant tortoises and iguanas are, the Galapagos' marine scene is far more dramatic. Its best dive sites are spread across the archipelago's 28,000 square miles of ocean, and the only way to visit them is by booking on to a live-aboard boat.
There are many routes, but I was ferried around the southern cluster of islands, with two or three dives a day, before heading north along Isabella Island. You don't get the pretty coral reefs of the central and western Pacific, as the water is too cool. What you do get is a spectacular parade of fish, turtles and sharks alongside local oddities such as the distinctive penguins and algae-munching marine iguanas. The currents are fast, but conditions are fine for a diver with a modicum of experience.
We then crossed the equator en route to the isolated islands of Wolf and Darwin, where I witnessed one of the world's most remarkable spectacles: a mega-school of scalloped hammerhead sharks streaming past the reef. Eyes wide behind my mask, I watched this procession until the last tailfin vanished and the cobalt-blue water was empty once more. Alf Wallace
From £2,970 per person, including travel, meals and land excursions on some days. (0845 130 6980, www.diveworldwide.com)
Freaked out on a hippie trail to Oz
Billed as the world's longest coach trip, Ozbus received worldwide attention when its inaugural trip, in October 2007, suffered a catalogue of disasters, resulting in mutiny among the passengers. I was among them, but I wouldn't change what happened.
It looked like a unique way to get to Australia and see a string of places along the way. The route went the way of the old hippie trail of the 1960s: through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, ending in Sydney. Ozbus had bought a state-of-the-art bus for the journey, but it wasn't ready. Instead, we departed London on the kind of coach you'd get for a Blackpool day trip. By the time we limped into Tehran, the fuel line had ruptured, the side-view mirror was smashed off, the back-door had to be held on by gaffer tape and tempers were frayed. From then on we had to hire a different bus for each country.
We were in Nepal when griping turned to talk of mutiny. We'd had about 23 hours on an awful ride from India when we found out that the key highway linking Nepal to Tibet was closed, requiring a non-stop drive back towards Calcutta and on to Thailand. The prospect of another bone-jangling journey in stifling heat was too much. When it came to getting back on, 70 per cent of us didn't. A large group decided to kick back in Nepal, where we went bungee jumping and white-water rafting, releasing all our pent-up tension, before catching a flight down to Bangkok five days later. We arrived ahead of the bus, which we then rejoined.
It was liberating knowing you could hop off on a whim, and it set the tone for the rest of the journey. Was it the trip I expected? No, but sometimes chaos can take you to places you don't expect. Andy Sephton
The next two trips depart from London on 8 February and 24 May. The three-month trip is priced £3,850 (www.ozbus.com)
How to walk on water, Swedish style
Bengt Kull, owner of the Swedish adventure-travel company 30,000 Öar, counts down the days until the waters around the Ice Queen, the local name for Stockholm, freeze. Then it's on with the extra-long ice-skates and out on to the waterways and lakes of Sweden's lake district of Trosa, south of Stockholm. Some years are so cold that even the sea beyond Stockholm's archipelago of 30,000 islands turns from liquid to solid. "Every day is an adventure," says Kull.
At a latitude where skating to work is an option, long-distance ice-skating is a passion for many Swedes. It's a demanding, potentially dangerous but exhilarating activity, swooshing past pine forests and castles and into a wilderness beyond the reach of roads.
With glass-like clarity to the ice on lakes such as Vättern, Sweden's second-largest, it's just as well that there are no obstacles, so you can take your eyes off where you're going in order to peek through the frozen window below your feet.
The season of ice marathons is just beginning (entry is open to all, but someone from Holland will invariably win), where skaters complete 200km in about six hours. You won't be expected to do that but you will cover up to 50km a day. Aching muscles are eased in the sauna at the end of the day.
Groups of up to 30 are shepherded by three guides and, like cycling, "drafting" behind another skater saves energy, although guides try to ensure there's a following wind. Everyone carries a life jacket, sticks and a lifeline. You're taught how to use them but you'll have to master the languid, hands-behind-the-back, style of skating by yourself. Robin Barton
Departures are weekly from 23 February to 6 March. Book with 30,000 Öar (+46 8 5455 2600, www.30000oar.se). Two nights for £450, including meals, accommodation, transfers, guiding and equipment. Flights to Stockholm from £80 with Ryanair (www.ryanair.com); £180 with Scandinavian Airlines (www.flysas.co.uk)
By container ship
Human cargo from the Holy Land
Last year I decided not to fly anywhere and so instead travelled by train and bus to Jerusalem, where I was to spend a couple of months. It was a lot of fun (I got there in about 10 days) but it was the way back that turned out to be the real treat.
Once you have been in Israel you can't go back through Syria. So to return to Europe I had to find a way out by sea. The trouble is that the ferry which once ran from Israel to Cyprus was shut down during the second intifada and the only passenger boats that now go to the European mainland are cruise ships. I heard you could hitch a lift on a cargo ship so, about a month before I was to go home, I Googled "Haifa cargo" and found a list of about 60 shipping companies that dealt with freight.
I emailed them all and one replied that it was sailing on the date I wanted, from Haifa to Piraeus (the port of Athens). It wasn't cheap – €250 for a three-day trip – there was no ticket and I had no idea what the accommodation would be like. But, as instructed, I showed up at the docks at the appointed time.
My fellow passengers were two Germans with motorbikes, a Dutchman driving a white van back to Holland and an older Israel couple who were friends of the ship's owner. We had our passports taken off us and were shown aboard.
We spent the first day watching lorries depositing metal containers into the hold, but by evening we had set sail. We slept in the crew quarters, which meant grotty but clean. My cabin had two bunks, a washbasin, cupboard and porthole that looked out over a ventilation shaft. Down the corridor were a couple of showers and further down a rusty toilet with a sign stuck to the wall which said: "ONLY SHIT, PISS AND TOILET-PAPER. THANK YOU".
We could go anywhere we liked on the ship as long as we didn't get in anyone's way, and it was fun to climb up and down ladders and do Titanic impressions. But most of the time we spent in the "salon", a poky room with plastic-covered sofas used by the crew.
The "official" common language on board was English (the crew came from Greece, Egypt, Japan, India and Ukraine) and they all spoke it in a mangled way. Sometimes they would chat with us but TV was the centre of attention, even when the signal was so bad all you got was snow. The Olympics were on and female gymnastics was popular. Everyone smoked, all the time.
We were supposed to sail for three days but when we got to Athens there was no room in the port and we had to wait at sea another 24 hours. That's when it started to get a little Deliverance. The Germans, who'd managed to get some booze and cigarettes off the captain, had powered through their supplies the evening before and were getting edgy. The Dutch guy began to talk about what he was doing in Israel – something to do with the end of the world. The captain was banging on about what a good thing Putin was doing invading those Georgian "gypsies". And, topping it off, the Israeli couple had got off at Cyprus and had been replaced by a lorry-load of live pigs on their way to slaughter. Whenever the wind was in a certain direction you got weird squeals and a whiff of farmyard. I retreated to my cabin until we disembarked.
Travelling by cargo ship, you'll experience nothing like the cloying customer service of a passenger ferry. In fact, for the crew, you are little more than cargo – though cargo that, annoyingly, moves around and asks for things. But there was something about not being treated in a special way that was liberating. David Baker
David travelled with A Rosenfeld Shipping (www.rosenfeld.net). A version of this article appears in the current issue of Manzine (themanzine.blogspot.com)
The steaming rainforests of Tasmania
Forget the Orient Express. Never mind the Trans-Siberian. Here, in one of the most remote locations on the planet, is one of the great train journeys of the world. Amid virgin rainforest, 9,000 miles from home, the British-built steam locos of Tasmania's West Coast Wilderness Railway will take you on a 35km journey to the edge of the world. Next stop Antarctica.
Savage weather defines this lonely part of Tasmania. To get there, I undertook a spine-juddering drive through rain-swept mountains from Hobart to the outpost of Queenstown – a bleak copper-mining town whose hard-bitten bars even Russell Crowe might be nervous to negotiate. And this is where the surrealism kicks in. On the edge of town is what looks like a replica of the Victorian arched roof of Manchester Central Station. And simmering beneath, wreathed in steam, is a little green tank loco, like something from a 1950s British childhood.
But this little train is no toy. The line, built to take copper to the coast at Strahan, ranks among the great masterpieces of Victorian engineering, sweeping up one-in-four gradients, rounding vertiginous precipices and rumbling over scary trestle bridges. The locos, sent out in a packing case from Glasgow as a kit of parts in 1897, are still going strong today.
Giant "man-ferns" clutch at the carriage windows as the forests of this World Heritage area unfold across the hillsides. But you can calm your nerves on the five-hour journey with a glass of champagne and fairy cakes served at your seat. And muse on the endeavour of Dr Roman Abt, the engineering genius who designed the cog system that lets the train grip the rails.
Three points, to conclude: you'll amaze even the most adventurous trainspotter by even getting here; where else might you spot a Tasmanian devil from a carriage window? And best of all, you can score mega-points off Michael Palin when you get home. Michael Williams '
There is one train daily each way between Queenstown and Strahan (www.westcoast wildernessrailway.com.au). 'The Good Railway Journey Guide', by Michael Williams, is out this autumn
A gruelling hut to hut battle
Even the most enthusiastic skier tires of the typical resort: the lift queues, overcrowded pistes, €10 hotdogs... But if you've ever dreamt of heading into the high-mountain wilderness for days on end, you can. It's called ski-touring. One April a few years ago, I did just that in the Silvretta Alps on the border between Austria and Switzerland. For six days I and a dozen others followed three guides up the pristine Jamtal valley and around a horseshoe route on a massif of jagged peaks with not a lift pylon or piste-basher in sight, climbing up and skiing down peaks with such names as Breite Krone, Gemsspitz and Piz Buin.
We did so thanks to the ingenious "touring" ski: its dual binding is free at the heel for ascending and fixed, alpine-style, for the descent. If this all sounds like hard work... well, much of it is. None of us was an expert skier, which the guides took into account, but it helps to be in decent shape.
Each day we crunched uphill for about five hours, ascending between 800m and 1,200m (our most spectacular destination was the summit of Piz Buin at 3,200m). Next, we'd tighten our backpacks for an hour or two of exhilarating descent. Then it was on to the next hut for soup, dumplings and apple strudel. As for the huts, they varied from classic Tyrolean with sweaty communal bunks to a large, three-star hotel perched like a Bond villain's lair at the head of the valley. I'll never take a comfy chairlift for granted again. Mike Higgins
This April Silvretta Alps Traverse costs £780 per person, including accommodation, mountain guides and expenses. Flights not included. Pyrenees Mountain Tours (www. pyrenees.co.uk) will supply skis, boots and all necessary safety equipment for an extra £200
The way we whirr in the Seychelles
"When you first look down they look like floating stones," said our pilot. We were making noisy progress hopping between islands in the Seychelles and through the headphones, our Norwegian helicopter pilot was giving my husband and I the low-down on how best to spot one of the Seychelles' sizeable turtle population swimming in the waters below – though, his co-pilot admitted, in all his time in the air he had never spotted a single one.
The question of how to spot a turtle might have been just for our amusement, but carried away by the thrill of our privileged view of big blue and its shadowy depths, we probably would have believed anything.
Of course some people come to the Seychelles for the turtles and their unique biodiversity, much of which has survived since the islands broke off from Gondwanaland thousands of years ago. But the vast majority come for the exclusive castaway-style surroundings; tilting palm trees, endless beaches dusted with talcum powder-soft sand and the huge granite boulders that litter the islands' unique topography.
Of all the places to see from above, the Seychelles surely ranks as one of the most ravishing. And, as modes of transport go, there is something unquestionably glamorous about whirring through the sky.
There are 150 islands scattered across a 900km stretch of the Indian Ocean and anyone with pockets deep enough would be well advised to make one of the inter-island hops this way. Ushered into our waiting craft, we were soon being gently buffeted by the breezes, while below us lay a surreal mosaic of azure sea fringing secret beaches and dense, tropical vegetation.
Our destination was a cleared patch of coconut forest – the helipad for North Island, an exclusive speck of land just a 20-minute flight from the main island of Mahe. There we spent the next few days enjoying the kind of solitude that the Seychelles excels at – more wildlife than people.
In March the region's handful of private island resorts will have a new addition as the Four Seasons opens its doors in the tranquil Petit Anse Bay, so the propellers will be rotating over the Seychelles' skies for some time to come. And, while we never did see the elusive floating stones, we certainly got more than a taste for travelling VIP. Aoife O'Riordain
Kuoni (01306 747 002, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers tailor-made holidays to the Seychelles that can include inter-island helicopter transfers
By front crawl
A duck's eye view of the Thames
The Vikings used longboats. Jerome K Jerome and friends a rowing boat. But how about swimming the Thames? Or at least a stretch of it. Perhaps not off London Bridge, but follow the river back up to its source in the Cotswolds and you might be tempted to join the kingfishers and otters and dive in. There's nothing quite so liberating as wild swimming and, if you're not sure about going it alone, you can join one of Swimtrek's summer dips.
The two-day swim starts from Lechlade in Gloucestershire and you don't have to be Michael Phelps to enjoy it. "Stronger swimmers can take on the Lake District lake by lake, but the Thames swims are easygoing," says Simon Murie, founder of Swimtrek. So easygoing, in fact, that day one pitches up at the Swan pub at Radcot Bridge and on day two you'll haul yourself out at the Trout pub at Tadpole bridge.
Pubs aside, what's the appeal of wild swimming? "You enjoy the landscape from a different perspective," says Murie. "The scenery changes with every stroke." But isn't it cold? "The water temperature is dependent on the weather. Needless to say last year wasn't so good." Camping is the preferred option but you can also be accommodated in cosy local B&Bs. RB
From £195. Tours run from July to August (020 8696 6220, www.swimtrek.com)
By the glass
Only here for the champagne
Follow the A26 south of Reims, past Épernay and you leave the world of Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët and enter the domain of the independent champagne producer. The Aube, south and east of Troyes and at the base of the Champagne region, is the bedrock of the sparkly stuff and the area's small growers are thriving. "People look for something special these days," explains Guy Morize. "The big houses sell champagne in the US, Japan and China; we sell 80 per cent of our champagne in France."
Morize owns Morize Père et Fils in Les Riceys, a town on the Route de Champagne, a 220km loop leading wine-tasters around Bar-sur-Aube, past Clairvaux Abbey, where Cistercian monks planted the first grapes in the region for their sacramental wine, and back through Celles-sur-Ource and all the way down to Les Riceys.
Back at the Morize Père et Fils manor house you can explore the 12th-century cellars where Morize's champagne is stored at a perfect 12C. The best part of touring the Aube is meeting and talking to the winemakers behind artisanal champagne. They'll explain how it's made and give you a taste of their current vintages. If you like it, buy a bottle without the tax or mark-up of supermarket bubbly, if not, drive on to the next producer. Time your journey with the September harvest and you can join some of the Aube's growers for a morning picking grapes, which is still done by hand. RB
Return ferry Dover to Calais from £50 (www.norfolkline.com, www.poferries.com). Then self-drive (three hours from Calais)
A night ride in Moses' footsteps
I met Sheikh Mohamed where he does business, under a rock near Darb el Haj, a valley that drops steeply into an oasis. According to Omar, the sheikh's son, Moses passed through this narrow gap and one of his wives was cured of her leprosy while they were camped down below. We would be heading inland, however, to Gebel Musa in the west. Our method of transport, a pair of camels hung with rugs and roped with binder twine. I'd travelled by camel before. It's mercifully slow.
I had asked not be assigned a driver. These cheery boys lead your camel by a rope and reduce the whole experience to a pony ride. Two boys (younger sons of the sheikh) came along even so, running alongside us and chatting. Their job would be to make the fire in the evening and clean after us. Our progress was slow but steady. Camels have a capacity to tune out entirely. Once I'd recalled how to hook my legs over the wooden saddle I tuned out too.
That night I watched the stars and spy satellites passing overhead. The silence of the desert is surprisingly comfortable. The next day we were on the road again by 8.30am. There are no curtains in the desert.
Arriving at St Catherine's Monastery in the late afternoon, I was given a guided tour and saw the bush where Moses heard the voice of God. Above us, Gebel Musa, the mountain where the Commandments were handed down. We set off at 3am. Ahead I could see the lanterns held by other camel drivers but little else. The path was steep and I had a feeling there was a drop of thousands of feet either side. Halfway up we dismounted and were led the rest of the way on foot. We found a tiny shelter packed with about 20 people who'd come to see the sunrise over Sinai. When the time came, we stumbled out. A vast red orb rose over the mountains. Sunlight and heat rushed towards us. I have never seen anything so spectacular. As a journey it had been totally worthwhile. Adrian Mourby '
Adrian met Sheikh Mohamed through www. windsandstars.co.uk. For similar trips, visit www.egyptadventures.com/cameltrek.htm
A slow float to Holland
I've harboured a love of airships since I was a boy – they're a throwback to a more glamorous era of travel. From my rear window at home I can see two huge airship sheds, dating back to the 1930s, and it was from here, in August last year, that the first international airship cruise for over 70 years departed. (The zeppelin's passenger-carrying heyday ended when the Hindenburg exploded in 1937.)
I read about the planned launch in my local newspaper and signed up to become one of the passengers. It was a five-day journey from Cardington, Bedford, to Valkenburg, Holland, with two days of flying and three days of sightseeing on the ground.
Taking off feels like being in a cable car moving away from its dock; so smooth you can barely hear the engine. Once up, you're only about 200-300m off the ground and the ship moves so slowly that you can open a window, stick your camera out and take photos of people's gardens below.
The cabin houses 12, with luxury seats either side of the aisle. And there are no fears of Hindenburg history repeating itself. The 21st-century airship (this one was built in 2008) flies on non-flammable helium and boasts state-of-the-art technology.
We followed the A1 south down to the M25 and turned right along the Thames, where we gently floated over London, picking out the landmarks, then on past the white cliffs of Dover and across to France. All heads in the cabin cranked to one side as we vied to spot the latest in a string of stately homes that passed below as we sailed north into Belgium. Heading into Holland, we made our way over the dykes and on to Rotterdam, landing for the last night near The Hague.
These days, we're hooked into speed and timetables; the romance has gone out of travelling. But with the zeppelin, the journey is everything – gentle, relaxing and unforgettable. I'd love to do it again; the company's next trip, from southern Germany to The Hague, leaves on 6 June. But at €12,800 per person, the one thing that isn't easy on the constitution is the price. John Kitchenman '
Zeppelin Tours, 08704 798 373, www.zeppelintours.com
By time machine
Way down in old Damascus
Leaning against a toppled column, my Syrian tour guide Taleb tells me how he spent his childhood chasing scorpions through the exceptional remains of the ancient city of Palmyra. Rising majestically from the empty, biscuit-coloured landscape, Palmyra's limestone relics, tanned from centuries exposed to the searing desert sun, were once an obligatory stop along the highways of the Ancient World or, for a young boy, a very unique playground.
Travelling around Syria, you cannot help but marvel at the wealth of historical artefacts around each corner and by the side of every road. Navigate the old quarter of the capital Damascus – which claims to be one of the world's oldest inhabited cities, founded in 3,000BC – and you get an overwhelming sense of the layers of history around you and beneath your feet. Its streets are peppered with 125 monuments from different periods, the most awe-inspiring being the serene confines of the glittering Umayyad Mosque. Built in 705AD, on the site of a Christian church, a walk around its exterior walls reveals the vestiges of the earlier Roman-built Temple of Jupiter, in turn erected on a site dating from the ninth century BC that was venerated by the Semitic Arameans.
In Syria's second city, Aleppo, there are more windows on the past. Its sturdy, imposing citadel was built in the 12th century to keep the Crusaders at bay, while among the tangled strands of its sprawling souk you'll find medieval scenes, with thousands of stalls displaying everything from fabrics to freshly butchered meat hanging from hooks like exotic ribbons.
To the west and south of Aleppo arethe haunting shells of the Dead Cities. These 800 or so abandoned Byzantine towns and villages scattered throughout the countryside flourished between the fourth and seventh centuries, but are now a riddle that has archaeologists scratching their heads. Then there is the Crac des Chevaliers, what Lawrence of Arabia called, "the most wholly admirable castle in the world" and erstwhile headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers during the Crusades. Another of the 4,000-plus sites littering the Syrian countryside that make a visit here more like turning the clock back a few thousand years. AO'R
Aoife travelled with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, coxandkings.co.uk), which has an eight-night Journey to Palmyra tour including Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Crac des Chevaliers and Palmyra. This costs from £1,495 a person, including flights, half-board accommodation, transfers and excursions
Trunk call to the Golden Triangle
"Pai, pai!" – the Thai for "go" – I yell at several tons of stubborn pachyderm. It's not working, so I try something more south-east London than south-east Asia: "Move, ya great big lump." Nothing happens. The main reason is that Lawann, 26, female and elephant, is eating sugar cane and has no wish to be interrupted.
The five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Resort in Thailand's northernmost reaches is an unlikely place for a ground-breaking mahout training camp, but then learning to "drive" an elephant is an unlikely holiday activity. Of course many tourists will have ridden one, but have they fed one, washed one, or climbed up its trunk on to its head?
"After the elephants finish their breakfast we'll be heading through the forest up there on the ridge," says John Roberts, the tall blond Englishman in charge of the Anantara's elephant camp. "Then we head towards the Mekong River where we'll see the Golden Triangle."
The Anantara is about 3km north of the Golden Triangle – the point where the Mekong joins Burma, Laos and Thailand. With a sultry morning mist enveloping us, we head off. High up on Lawann's neck, with only the occasional bamboo leaf providing temptation, I begin to make good ground. Finally we come to a clearing where the Mekong unfurls majestically. "That's Burma there," says John, "and those thick forests and hills are in Laos." I also notice a long line of tourist buses decanting their camera-wielding hordes.
For a few moments we watch the light playing over the huge river, before heading back, Lawann no doubt thinking of feeding time. OK, she's tricky to handle, but I wouldn't swap her for all the air-con buses in China. AS
For details on the "mahout" course, visit www.goldentriangle.anantara.com. Six nights at the Anantara Golden Triangle from £939, including flights with Thai Airways and transfers, 1 May to 30 June. Book by 31 January. Call Travelmood on 0800 011 945 or visit www.travelmood.com
A sail through the Byzantine centuries
The boat came with a crew of four, and there were 16 of us, mainly family. Three of the grandfathers had been in the Navy, and once we'd left Bodrum harbour they lobbied Captain Bekir to switch off the engine and sail our gulet traditionally. Eventually we arrived at a compromise: a few hours a day with our twin-masts in full sail. The Sultan-A made slow progress this way, but the creak of ropes and wash of waves was a very relaxing combination.
Each day we would stop for lunch at an old port, fort or city – from the ruins of Knidos, which in the sixth century was one of six powerful city states that made up the Dorian Hexapolis, to Lydae, where we discovered third-century Roman tombs.
Many of these ancient colonies are all but inaccessible from the mainland, and it was good to know that however hot and bothered we got scrambling up to these ruins, Mustapha the steward would be waiting for us at the shore to ferry us back to the boat for a pre-prandial gin and tonic.
As the sun began to dip, we'd head to a secluded bay to drop anchor for the night. Once we moored too close to a forest, and were visited by mosquitoes but otherwise watching the stars rock back and forth was a gloriously tranquil way to fall asleep. AM
Prices vary according to size of boat, time of trip and tour. For more: www.apaktours.com
Easy riding on the Ho Chi Minh trail
There is just one main highroad through Vietnam, so the only real way to see the country's hidden interior is by motorbike. I had heard about Easyriders through a colleague (beware imitations with similar names), and signed up for a five-day motorbike adventure with a girlfriend. We went from Dalat via the central highlands, up part of the Ho Chi Minh trail and finished with a more luxurious stay in the coastal village of Hoi An.
We had a bike and tour guide each, and rode pillion. Both of us had massive rucksacks which, strapped to the rear of the bike, worked as back support. We really experienced the landscape, whether it was gingerly making our way through a herd of cows, or motoring through misty jungle. And eating food with the locals – tiny little places on the side of a dusty track you'd never eat in otherwise.
More than 15 separate tribes live in the mountainous regions, but as there has been some conflict between them, it's not possible to just turn up on your own. However, our guides had long-standing relationships with several of the villages, enabling us to visit. Trying their amazing local menus for just 40p and sleeping in basic accommodation (kept awake half the night listening to strange animal sounds) brought home just what an inside view we were getting.
After five days of travel we were exhausted, but it had been a once-in-a lifetime experience. It's impossible to imagine what it feels like until you're on a bike with the air rushing past and the smells and sights all around you. A real journey of the senses. Hannah Brenchley n
US$60-$70 a day,including travel and accommodation (www.dalat-easyrider.com.vn)
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies