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Saturday, August 20, 2011


Fancy going around the world in 80 days? Or what about a trip down the Silk Route? Retracing famous journeys is an idea that is gripping many travellers 


Praveen Jadhav, an advertising professional, took a train journey last year. But it wasn't just any other train that he hopped on to. Jadhav boarded the Venice-Simplon Orient Express that recreates the iconic Paris-Istanbul journey of the original Orient Express once every year. He says the trip — traversing through France, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey — was just as exotic as he had imagined and worth every penny of the steep price. “In my childhood, I had devoured Agatha Christie’s novels, and “Murder on the Orient Express” was one of my favourites. The charm of travelling in the original carriages from the 1920s and '30s made me imagine that I was a character in a mystery pot-boiler and part of the days when the iconic train used to be a symbol of intrigue and romance,” he says.

Jadhav is not alone. Retracing the paths of famous explorers — and travelling on legendary routes — is a high that a few are determined to experience, whatever that takes. Former army Major HPS Ahluwalia climbed Everest as part of the first Indian expedition to the mountain in 1965. He saw central Asia from the summit of the world’s highest peak and instantly fell in love with it. “I vowed that one day I will explore this region,” he says. However, Ahluwalia was able to make the journey on the Silk Route only 30 years later. By that time he was on a wheelchair as a result of a bullet injury sustained during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. There were a lot of other bottlenecks as well, like organizing funds for the expedition and getting clearances. “It took me seven years just to get the required permissions from the Chinese government,” he recalls.

Purist travellers —who wish to retrace a famous journey almost exactly as it might have happened — often face several hurdles. Nicholas Coleridge, who decided to follow the ‘Around-the-world’ trail of Phileas Fogg, found while contemplating the journey in 1984 that the political map of the world had changed drastically. “Fogg was able to make two-thirds of his journey on British territory. On the other hand, I would pass through 19 countries of which only one, Hong Kong, still has a British governor-general,” he wrote in his book “Around the world in 78 days”. To imitate the journey in a way it resembled the original as closely as possible, Coleridge shunned aeroplanes and proceeded only by rail, steamer, rickshaw, taxi, dhow, elephant and camel. But unlike Fogg, who travelled with his faithful servant Passpertout, Coleridge chose to go solo, saying it would save time and he would hire his “Passpertouts at every port.”

Another solo traveler, Antonio Martinelli, a Paris-based photographer, was so taken up by the drawings of Indian landscapes and monuments done by Englishmen duo of Thomas and William Daniells in the late 18th century that he retraced their steps in modern day India, reproducing through his photographs the same views that had so enchanted the Daniells — and from the same angles. “It was like planning a voyage through space and time,” he says. The Daniells travelled through India for nine years and produced a series of remarkable drawings of landscapes and monuments with the help of an artistic device known as the ‘camera obscura.’

Martinelli took almost two years to find the correct sites and precise locations of each of the Daniells’ views. The trip was an eye-opener, says the photographer. “During my journey, I often thought of how courageous the two artists were to visit and record sites that even today are almost unknown within India, overlooked in most tourist guide books. The contemporary reality, I discovered, was not always that easy.”

Many ardent travellers, however, feel that modern-day conveniences have taken the charm out of retracing epic journeys. “I do not think that the journeys of famous explorers of the past can be truthfully recreated,” says author and explorer Akhil Bakshi. “When Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook, Robert Peary or Roald Amundsen set out on their adventures, they were venturing literally into the unknown. Nowadays, we are armed with detailed maps, guide books, GPS, satphones, weather forecasts, laptops —not to mention the cartons of mineral water.”

That may be true — but it's hardly a deterrent for the die-hard travel buff. “Even though the world may have been pretty much discovered, it’s always a pleasure to have one’s own experiences on famous routes. In fact, each time it can create a sense of awe and be a different experience,” says Mandip Singh Soin of Ibex Expeditions that has organized trips following the footsteps of mountaineer-explorers like Edmund Hillary, Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton as well as the ever-popular Marco Polo.

What finally counts for those who make such journeys are a life-time of cherished memories, sometimes lending themselves to evocative books. Ahluwalia, who recently released his book on his Silk Route expedition, recalls how “each day of the two-month long voyage revealed a new aspect of life. I found out why the Silk Route is called the lifeline of the Orient.”

For Martinelli, retracing the path of the two Daniells was a “process of jubilation and euphoria every time I found the exact point at which the Daniells stopped to locate their perspectives.” In fact, he says, a trifle dramatically, “Sometimes I imagined the two artists standing beside me and watching me doing strange things with a curious little box.”

That’s a tantalizing thought — who knows which other explorers of the past are watching over as modern-day travellers take to the routes made famous by them.

King of explorers

Venetian merchant traveller Marco Polo is believed to have embarked on his journey across Asia in 1271, when he was 17. He was accompanied by his father Niccolo and uncle Matteo. The trio travelled continuously for 24 years. When they returned, Venice was at war with Genoa. Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese and put in prison. He spent his confinement dictating the accounts of his travels and adventures to a cell-mate. The acount, known as “Il Milione” or “The Travels of Marco Polo”, gave Europeans their first insights into the Far East, and established Marco Polo as one of history’s gretest explorer.

Thanks to Times of India

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Fun of Driving To Cameron Highlands-Malaysia

Escape the heat and dust to the cool Cameron Highlands. PART of the joy of holidaying in Cameron Highlands is the journey itself.

There are two ways to get there by road. First is the older winding road from the Tapah toll exit of the North-South Expressway. Then, there’s the newer, easier route from the Simpang Pulai toll exit.
Both routes are challenging to take, especially when it rains. You need patience and good driving skills to maneuver your car at some of the sharp corners of the winding roads and to overtake slower vehicles.

Driving along the Tapah road unveils the rolling mountains, deep valleys and the beautiful Lata Iskandar waterfalls. Along the roadside are simple huts where the Orang Asli (indigenous people of Malaysia) sell handicraft and jungle products. The temptation to stop at these stalls is strong, especially for those who can’t resist petai (a local bean) and other jungle vegetables and flowers.

The Simpang Pulai route is less winding and the road is wider with two lanes on one side at some stretches. Vegetable farms dot the landscape, especially near Kampung Raja.

The journey on either routes takes one to two hours, depending on your driving speed and the number of stops you make. The weather in Cameron Highlands is very unpredictable, depending on the month, but the average day temperature is about 33C and at night 22C. For most people who come from other places, it’s time to “show off” their sweaters and leather jackets. But, what a picture of contrast you will make when you see the locals move about in their shorts and singlets! 

Kings of the Mountain
The first town that greets you in Cameron Highlands is Ringlet. It’s the first settlement on the highlands and most visitors usually bypass it. 

After Ringlet, you reach Tanah Rata, Camerons’ biggest town with rows of shop houses along its main road. It has the feel of a resort town with many eateries and shops catering to tourists. 

You’ve to be more alert when you drive further up the highlands. It’s not because the road is more challenging but because your driving skills will be challenged by the “kings of the mountain” – those famous and notorious modified Land Rovers used by the highlanders to get in and out of their farms and other workplaces.

Often, these rugged four-wheelers are overloaded with vegetables and other farm produce. These mean machines seem to appear out of nowhere and you’ve to be deft at your driving so as not to collide with them.

Must Do
For many, a must-do in Camerons is sipping tea and having scones at English-styled inns or tea houses. For a breathtaking view of tea plantations while you sip the golden brew, don’t miss the Bharat Teahouse located between Ringlet and Tanah Rata and the Boh Teahouse in Sungai Palas. While there, you can enter the tea plantations and even pick some tea leaves yourself. 

At vegetable and fruit farms, you get to learn a thing or two about farming. At strawberry farms, you even get to pick your own strawberries. Fresh strawberry jam is an excellent buy.

For dinner, nothing beats having steamboat in the cool night. Ferns Restaurant at Hotel Rosa Passadena serves delightful steamboat at RM25 per person. You get fresh Camerons vegetables to go with pieces of chicken, fish, prawns, meatballs, crabsticks, tofu and other ingredients. Order Strawberry Delight – thick, juicy and yummy strawberry juice to go with your steamboat at Ferns.

You can’t leave Camerons without going to one of its markets. Not only can you get fruits and vegetables but you’ll also be spoilt for choice when it comes to flowers – both fresh and dried – and also cacti in a multitude of colours.

Look also for Camerons’ homegrown apples at the wet markets. The fresh apples are sweet and juicy and the locals say they are good to cool the body. 

The markets there are so enticing that you can’t help but to buy and buy. But don’t be surprised if some of these items are much cheaper in hypermarkets in Kuala Lumpur! But hey, what’s a trip to Camerons without shopping?

Where To Stay
For accommodation, there are many choices — from five-star to budget. A local chain of hotels offers three types of lodging: Rosa Passadena (three-star); Hotel Rainbow (budget); and Casa dela Rosa (boutique). Both Rosa Passadena and Hotel Rainbow are located in Brinchang town while Casa dela Rosa is in Tanah Rata.

Named after a rose, Rosa Passadena has nicely furnished rooms and penthouse suites. Altogether, there are 120 units. The weekday rate is RM128 nett per room per night (twin sharing) with breakfast. Weekend rates are slightly higher. The hotel arranges sightseeing tours for its guests.

For a memorable holiday in Cameron Highlands, contact us:
 Story and pictures by ZAHARI

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tech tools for surviving travel emergencies

In light of the recent violence in London, Oslo, Marrakesh, Cairo and Acapulco, it’s easy to feel like man-made catastrophes can happen just about anywhere — even places considered relatively safe.

Throw in the natural disasters that have affected Chile (volcano), Australia (floods) and eastern Japan (earthquake and tsunami), and you have even more cause to prepare a basic Plan B in the event your trip goes bad.

In addition to knowing the insider secrets of how airlines operate and having the right type of travel insurance, several high and low tech travel tips will prepare you for many emergencies that arise. Pick and choose the preparedness tips that work for you.

The most obvious response to a crisis is to get to a safe place. Waiting things out at your hotel bar is a wiser option than attempting to, say, photograph the calamity. But if you lose access to your hotel, and in turn, your passport, make sure to have a backup. Before leaving home, scan a copy of your passport (open to the page with key identifying information) and email the scanned image to a webmail account that you can access overseas. This will make it easier to get a new passport and return home.

In the unlikely event that you fall unconscious because you are a victim of a catastrophe, make sure hospital personnel can easily pinpoint your next-of-kin. Paramedics and hospital workers will likely not have the time to fumble through your cell phone and look up your contact information. Using old-fashioned pen, paper and tape, affix your emergency contact information to the back of your photo identification.

People who prefer to be ultra-prepared can create dog tags that list essential information ($3 from Larger versions of these tags, which also come in bracelet form, can be used to note any allergic reactions or special medical conditions that paramedics would need to know.

Dog Tags
If you accidentally stumble into harm's way, you may need to call police or medics. The mobile apps Travel SOS (iPhone, free) and Useful Numbers (Android, free) fetch relevant emergency numbers based on your location.

Spot Connect
Phone service and Internet data connections aren't always available during a crisis. Or sometimes an itinerary takes you beyond the reach of standard communications tools. SPOT Connect ($99), a hand-held satellite GPS device that broadcasts SOS signals, connects with your smart phone via a Bluetooth signal, then transmits the phone calls you make via satellite. The company also sells devices that send out automated SOS signals by satellite without requiring the use of a phone.

Another great way to get information is through a traditional shortwave AM/FM radio. Grundig makes a durable small-sized version, the ETON Mini GM400 Supercompact (recently $30 on Amazon). Remember, as long as you're not injured or in immediate physical danger, chances are that things will work out all right.

AM/FM Radio
 Thanks to:

Amsterdam for every budget

Amsterdam is not just marijuana and museums.

Explore the Dutch capital’s streets and waterways with this helpful guide and you will not only avoid the tourist traps but uncover great markets, lesser-known museums and charming bars, cafes and restaurants.

Where to sleep
Budget: Each of the eight simply furnished rooms at Hotel Brouwer, in a house dating back to 1652, has a canal view and is named after a famous Dutch painter - with a print by that same painter inside. Prices start at 60 euros.

Mid-range: Conveniently located close to the Concertgebouw, and with a tram stop outside, Museum Square Hotel is a family-run place with bright modern rooms with large windows. Prices from around 89 euros.

Luxury: Set in an 18th-century mansion, Hotel Roemer has all the extra touches you would want from a boutique hotel - bedrooms with sitting areas, a bar and restaurant, pretty gardens, bikes for hire and a DVD library. Prices start at 155 euros.

What to see
Budget: Enter at the unmarked rear of Amsterdam's Historisch Museum for the Civic Guards Gallery, a street glazed over to house epic group portraits of the militia. Entrance is 10 euros for adults.

Mid-range: Noordermarkt hosts several lively markets a week, including Monday's flea market and Saturday's bird market and farmers' market. Open 8 am to 1 pm Monday, 10 am to 3 pm Saturday.

Luxury: The grand Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls in the world due to its fantastic acoustics. Its 800-odd shows a year include classical, jazz and world music concerts. Prices vary.

Where to eat
Budget: Walk through the kitchen to reach the dining room at Hein, a simple but stylish sky-lit café open for breakfast and lunch. Expect dishes such as croque monsieur. Mains start from 5 euros.

Mid-range: Indonesian food has always been popular in Amsterdam with rijsttafel (rice with loads of sides) created as a Dutch colonial feast. Tujuh Maret does a good version, plus satay and other authentic dishes. Mains from 13.50 euros.

Luxury: Inside a 17th-century former herb warehouse in the Red Light District, Blauw aan de wal is a rose among thorns. Try the refined Mediterranean-inspired dishes in the garden. A three-course menu costs 55 euros.

Where to drink
Budget: The tasting room of Amsterdam's leading microbrewery, Brouwerij 't IJ, has a down and dirty beer hall feel. Walls are lined with dry hops and bottles from around the world, and the house brew is on tap.

Mid-range: The pretty terrace of Café 't Smalle overlooks the canal while inside there is a distillery, a tasting house dating back to 1786 and porcelain beer pumps.

Luxury: Grab a coffee or glass of champagne, and people watch from the balcony and waterside terraces of Café de Jaren, a soaring, grand cafe.

Whatever is your budget, we will help you to plan an exciting vacation in Amsterdam. Contact us:

Text & pic:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seven resorts with spectacular views

1. Jade Mountain, St. Lucia

 There is literally nothing blocking your view of St. Lucia's famous Piton Mountains and the Caribbean Sea at this resort.

The fourth wall is entirely absent from Jade Mountain's suites, which the hotel calls "sanctuaries," so guests get unobstructed panoramas of the beautiful surroundings.

Each sanctuary also comes with its own infinity pool for the ultimate in privacy and relaxation.
"It's total luxury, and it's a great romantic spot. You can be as alone as you want there," McCabe said.
But be prepared to completely unplug during your stay.

Jade Mountain is "deliberately techno-free," the resort says. There are no telephones, radios or televisions in the rooms, and guests are asked to not to use their cell phones in public. Internet access is available at reception "for those who simply cannot let go of the outside world."

Rates start at $950 a night.

2. Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Canada

 Experience this magical corner of Banff National Park, and you may feel like explorer Thomas Wilson, who exclaimed, "I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene,'' when he first glimpsed the lake in 1882.

Known to native tribes as "lake of little fishes," the majestic body of water was dubbed Emerald Lake by Wilson, and later renamed Lake Louise in honor of Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta.

The hotel offers sweeping panoramas of the lake and the surrounding Canadian Rockies. Come in the winter for unforgettable skiing, sleigh rides and dog sledding -- Veith was there when the lake was frozen, and she had a chance to skate on the icy surface.

There's also lots to do in the summer, including hiking, horseback riding and canoeing.

Rates start at about $358 a night for the Sizzling Summer Travel Package, which is in effect until September 30.

3. Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Tanzania

 This luxury lodge sits perched on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest caldera -- formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed about 3 million years ago.

Thousands of animals roam the floor of the crater, including lions, wildebeests, zebras and gazelles. The stunning landscape and abundance of wildlife prompted UNESCO to declare the area a World Heritage Site, calling it one of the greatest natural wonders of the planet.

The accommodations are luxurious, imaginative and fanciful.

Rates start at $720 per person, which includes meals, drinks and scheduled safari activities.

4. The Springs Resort & Spa, Costa Rica

For a bit of a thrill with your beautiful view, why not stay near a volcano?
This boutique hotel sits on a mountain ridge less than four miles north of Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano but is "safely outside the government declared danger zone," the resort says on its website.

(Arenal was Costa Rica's most active volcano until 2010 but entered into a resting phase last fall.)

Observe the volcano from your room or from one of the resort's 18 pools and natural hot mineral springs.

Rates start at about $385 a night.

5. Hotel Villa Ducale, Sicily

 This boutique hotel features just 11 double rooms and six suites, but there is nothing small about the sweeping views.

Each room has a private balcony or terrace that lets guests take in vistas of Giardini Naxos Bay, Mount Etna, Italy's mainland coastline or the Strait of Messina.

The Hotel Villa Ducale was among the winners of TripAdvisor's 2011 Travelers' Choice awards -- chosen by the site's members as one of the top 10 luxury hotels in the world.

Rates start at about $285 a night in September.

6. The Cambrian Hotel, Switzerland

 Expect endless mountain views from this picturesque location in the village of Adelboden in the Swiss Alps.
Built in the late 19th century and revamped in recent years, the hotel is a scenic and luxurious base for hiking and mountain biking in the summer, and world-class skiing in the winter.

And when it comes to promising relaxation for guests, the resort takes a whimsical approach.
"Just look at the cows reclining in the meadows outside," the hotel instructs on its website. "They don't look stressed, do they?"

Rates start at about $225 in September.

7. Hayman Island Resort, Australia

A favorite with honeymooners, this five-star resort is on a private island within the Great Barrier Reef.
Guests can take in uninterrupted views of the Coral Sea and the Whitsundays -- a chain of islands known for their idyllic white sand beaches.

Then there are the underwater vistas -- Hayman offers memorable snorkeling and scuba experiences, as well as night diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

The famous resort, which made the list of Travel + Leisure's best island hotels, is reopening in August after recovering from two cyclones that swept through the region earlier this year.

Rates start at about $510 a night.

The rates given above are in US$ for reference only. For a comprehensive package to any one of these exquisite resorts, contact us.

Thanks to for the text & pics.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Top 10 Romantic Beach Retreats

#1. SIX SENSES NINH VAN BAY; NHA TRANG, VIETNAM: Set on a private peninsula that's just a sexy speedboat ride from coastal town Nha Trang in south-central Vietnam, romantic boutique hotel Six Senses Ninh Van Bay offers luxury for lovers. Its 58 dreamy villas all feature seductive beds and bath tubs open to the outdoors, with private pools for cooling dips (choose between beach, spa or waterside settings).

#2. CAP D'ANTIBES BEACH HOTEL; COTE D'AZUR, FRANCE: With design as glittering as the surrounding sea, chic Côte d'Azur retreat Cap d'Antibes Beach Hotel in the south of France is all about Gallic glamour. Once a beachside club for the jet-set, including film stars Sofia Loren and Cary Grant, this heavenly hotel has its own beach for sandy sojourns.

 #3. LIZARD ISLAND; GREAT BARRIER REEF, AUSTRALIA: For a romantic hotel on the Great Barrier Reef, look no further than Australian boutique retreat Lizard Island, a short flight from Cairns off the Far North Queensland coast. With just 40 secluded rooms and 24 ivory-white beaches to choose from, you're likely to have a seductive cove of sand all to yourself for that picnic by the waves.

 #4. THE DATAI; LANGKAWI, MALAYSIA: Set on beach-blessed Langkawi Island, a back-to-nature getaway off Malaysia's northwest coast, the Datai occupies a dramatic perch between pure white-sand beaches and verdant rainforest. Famed for its opulence, this beachfront luxury hotel attracts the great and the glam, with 112 wood-crafted rooms, including standalone villas in jungle pockets.

  #5. MASSERIA TORRE COCCARO; PUGLIA, ITALY: A fortified farmhouse set amid sea-scented olive groves, Masseria Torre Coccaro boutique hotel in Puglia offers refined romance on Italy's Adriatic shores. Located between Brindisi and Bari on the country's south-east coast, its 37 stone-walled rooms are exquisitely decorated with linen bedding, silky sofas, baroque mirrors and antique furniture.


 #6. ZEAVOLA; KO PHI PHI, THAILAND: One of the only boutique hotels on the intimate twin islands of Koh Phi Phi, Zeavola resort is a sandy seaside hamlet of traditional Thai huts blending relaxed rusticity with mod-con indulgence. An affordable spot to savour beautiful shores, it offers 52 freestanding villas (beachfront ones are the most romantic - plump for number 51, nearest the sea).

 #7. MARTINHAL BEACH RESORT & HOTEL; SAGRES, PORTUGAL: Set at Sagres on the wild south-west coast of Portugal's Algarve, Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel is beloved by beachcombers, with an inviting stretch of sand and a national park for neighbours. Natural materials rule in the 38 rooms, from cork to timber, wicker and stone, ensuring ocean views remain the star of the show.


 #8. COCOA ISLAND; MALDIVES, INDIAN OCEAN: To rev up the romance, escape to serene sanctuary Cocoa Island, a cluster of 33 suites and villas set over the Indian Ocean in the Maldives. A hit with honeymooning couples and lovers of pristine diving, it's the stuff of faraway island fantasies. All rooms are individual at-sea dwellings sited off a snaking wooden pier, with private sun-decks, walk-in showers, roll-top baths and vintage-style ceiling fans.

#9. SHORE CLUB MIAMI; MIAMI, USA: Miami meets Marrakech at Shore Club Miami, a stylish 309-room retreat in the heart of South Beach. This art deco hotel is a hedonistic playground for grown-ups by day or night, with a sexy retro lobby, sprawling lawns, the slinky Skybar and a branch of acclaimed Japanese restaurant Nobu.

 #10. ALILA VILLAS SOORI; BALI, INDONESIA: Strung along Bali's south-west coast between black-sand beaches and jade-green rice paddies, just-remote-enough Indonesian retreat Alila Villas Soori is seriously seductive. All 48 of its pool villas are sublime, minimal havens with ocean views, but book a second-storey Ocean Pool Villa for a blue bonus: a sea-view bath tub.

For exciting packages of all the above beautiful destinations, please contact us:

Thanks to for the text & pics

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to Vacation Like Indiana Jones?

Finding a truly legendary destination that hasn't been spoiled by tourist kiosks and souvenir hawkers can feel like a search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. But have no fear, intrepid explorers—it's still possible to hack your own jungle path with a backpack full of maps to discover a lost civilization (and if you're lucky, a hoard of gold). We've scoured the globe for mysterious places that instill a sense of otherworldly wonder, where you can explore at will without feeling like you're trapped in a theme park.

Hold onto your hats, Indiana Jones wannabes, because the journey has just begun.

Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala

It's unknown why Tikal, a once-powerful trading capital and centerpiece of the mighty Mayan empire, was abandoned sometime after the year 900 and left for the Guatemalan jungle to reclaim. The ancient city of stone palaces, courtyards, and pyramid temples that once spanned around 20 square miles was completely forgotten for centuries until it was discovered accidentally by a local in 1884. Today, gung ho travelers can freely explore the ruins of more than 3,000 structures that have been excavated by university archaeologists (with many more yet to be unearthed). These remains are anchored by five Mayan pyramids with names like Temple of the Jaguar Priest and are connected by trails winding through the 142,000-acre Tikal National Park.

Catacombs of Odessa, Ukraine

The labyrinthine Catacombs of Odessa extend for at least 1,500 miles, but no one knows quite where they end. The common name for the site is a bit of a misnomer; it's not really a network of catacombs, because nobody was intentionally buried down there. The eerie underground passages were carved out by limestone miners in the 19th century for the construction of Odessa's stone buildings and later became a hideout for the Soviet resistance during World War II. Deep in the maze of tunnels, lit only by the occasional dangling lightbulb, there are skeleton bones from anonymous dead, carved cubbyholes with the remnants of rusted ammunition caches, and secret storerooms once used by underground smugglers. It's rumored that a model ship made of pure gold is hidden in there, too.

Lost Incan Treasure of Llanganates, Ecuador

Llanganates National Park, a 720,000-acre reserve of sweeping mountains and crystal-clear lakes in central Ecuador, is rumored to be the hiding place of the lost Incan treasure of Llanganates. As the story goes, conquistador Francisco Pizarro demanded that the Incas pay a hefty ransom in exchange for the release of their captive emperor: enough gold to fill up the emperor's prison cell. The Incas were on their way across Llanganates when they heard the news that their king had already been killed, so they hid the massive gold haul in a cave near a lake somewhere in the mountains. Since then, countless treasure hunters have been drawn to the region. Of course, the real treasure here is the uncharted land of misty cloud forest and high-altitude grassland, where you can hike the Andean foothills or the challenging 10,700-foot Llanganates mountain range and explore jungle-fringed tributaries of the Amazon. If you are lucky enough to discover the legendary loot, be warned: Nearly every treasure hunter who's claimed to have found the Incan gold has died under mysterious circumstances.  

Sunken Lost City of Yonaguni, Japan

What some believe to be the remnants of the lost city of Atlantis lie off the coast of Yonaguni, the southernmost of Japan's Ryukyu Islands, in the China Sea. Rising from a depth of 82 feet, the Yonaguni Monument is a submerged megamonolith, with what appear to be carved steps ascending to different levels of the flat-top pyramid structure. It's believed to date back to 10,000 B.C. by those who consider it to be man-made (it could be much older if it's a natural formation). The underwater ruin is just a short boat ride offshore and at a relatively easy depth for scuba divers, who can examine the massive walls and stone staircases that slope to terraced platforms, and swim through channels and hallways now lorded over by hammerhead sharks and schools of parrot and clown fish. As for the Atlantis connection, well, that might be a bit of a stretch. But the possibility that the sunken city could be evidence of the lost continent of Mu, a fabled landmass in the Pacific and mythical cradle of civilization, has sparked new theories on the legend. 

Giant Caves of Phong Nha, Vietnam

Burrowed into the Annamite Mountains of Central Vietnam, the Hang Son Doong cave looks like something out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Gargantuan stalactites hang over treacherous rocky terrain carpeted with moss and ferns in cavern chambers so large that Chicago's 40-story Tribune Tower could fit inside. Only a handful of brave explorers have ventured into the 2.5-mile mountain river cave (a team of British scientists mapped and photographed the entire length of the Hang Son Doong for National Geographic in 2010). While the cavern is considered too dangerous for casual visitors to enter, the Hang Son Doong is part of a network of over 150 karst caves in the Phong Nha–Ke Bang National Park, many of which are open to the public. The most popular caves are the colorful Tien Son, which has stalagmites that resemble wax-drip sculptures, and the park's namesake cave Phong Nha (or the "Cave of Teeth").

Ellora Cave Temples of Maharashtra, India

Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the carved cliffs of Petra, Jordan, may attract the tourist hordes and cinematic credits (backdrops for the Indiana Jones films Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade, respectively), but the Ellora Caves, 20 miles outside the rural town of Aurangabad, dwarf these religious sites in size. The 34 intricate cut-stone monasteries, once a sacred stop on a trade route to ports on the Arabian Sea, were chiseled out of the Charanandri hills in the sixth and seventh centuries by devotees of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The courtyard entrances to the caves are flanked by stone statues of elephants and sacred pillars with mythical scenes from the Puranas (Sanskrit religious texts). Inside, the cave halls are just as finely detailed, with chiseled murals of Buddha, Vishnu, and Mahavira. The most famous cave is the Kailash Temple, a multistoried complex hewn from a single rock that's twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens and carved to represent Mount Kailash, home of the Hindu deity Shiva.

Pillars of Bryce Canyon, Utah

Bryce Canyon on the eastern edge of Utah's Paunsaugunt Plateau, is a spiky amphitheater of red and yellow pillars known by the native Paiute people as hoodoos. The Paiute believe that these odd rock formations are the ancient settlers of the region, encased in stone by the Coyote God. Today, Bryce Canyon is a place of pilgrimage for ambitious hikers and day-trippers who come to view the strange geological wonder from winding trails over the Paunsaugunt Plateau's ridge (for the most panoramic view of the canyon, make your way to Bryce Point on the Rim Trail, one of many lookouts on the network of park trails). How the plateau ridge was eroded away into this canyon of marvelous rock columns remains a mystery, as does the origin of the Native American petroglyphs on some of the pillars.    

Text & Pics:

For adventure lovers, we can happily arrange for a custom-made tour to any of the attractions given above. Contact us:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mini guide to Hong Kong

Like a shot of adrenalin, Hong Kong quickens the pulse.

Skyscrapers march up jungle-clad slopes by day and blaze neon by night, across a harbour criss-crossed by freighters and motor junks. Hong Kong can overwhelm but offers fantastic experiences, especially to visitors who are willing to step out of their comfort zone.

The Peak Tram rises above skyscrapers, departing from the lower terminus and climbing to the 552-metre Victoria Peak. On clear days and at night, the view from the top is amazing (7am-midnight, every 15 minutes; £3).

The largest of Hong Kong’s Man Mo temples was the hub of civil life on the island in the 19th century. The Taoist temple was built in 1847 by Chinese merchants and was dedicated to the gods of literature, ‘man’, and of war, ‘mo’ (24-126 Hollywood Rd, Sheung Wan; 8am-6pm; free).

Hong Kong’s first heritage trail, the Ping Shan, includes the territory’s oldest pagoda, a magnificent ancestral hall and temples. All were built by the Tang clan, the most powerful of the five clans that settled in the New Territories around the 11th century (West Rail Tin Shui Wai station, exit E; 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm; free).
Temple Street Night Market is Hong Kong’s liveliest. Aside from the clothes, watches and footwear on offer, it’s worth a visit for the smells and tastes of the open-air street stall and for the occasional Cantonese opera shows. Night owls should try the fruit market, open from midnight until dawn (Man Ming Lane; 6pm-midnight).

Picturesque Tai O, on Lantau island, is one of the oldest fishing villages. It is famous for its stilt houses, rope-tow ferry and temple dedicated to the god of war, Guan Yu. Reach it by bus 1 from the Mui Wo ferry point.

Eat and drink
Dah Wing Wah is the place to go for the village cuisine of the northern New Territories. Local ingredients are sourced from small farms and food producers. Try the lemon-steamed mullet and smoked oysters (00 852 2476 9888; 2nd fl, Koon Wong Mansion, 2-6 On Ning Rd, Yuen Long; lunch and dinner; mains from £3).
Tung Po Seafood Restaurant has revolutionised hawkerstyle cooking. Its novel menu has featured items such as steamed glutinous rice with duck jus. Beer is served in big rice bowls, to be downed bandit style. Book ahead or go before 7pm (00 852 2880 9399; 2nd fl, Municipal Services Bldg, 99 Java Rd, North Point; lunch and dinner; meals from £6).

Famous tea house Luk Yu is known for its dim sum (available from 7am-5pm) and Cantonese dishes. The delectable food and elegant furnishings make up for the cavalier service (00 852 2523 5464; 24-26 Stanley St, Central; lunch and dinner; mains from £8).

Ye Shanghai means ‘Shanghai nights’ and its interior is romantic. The Shanghainese food, lighter than traditional Cantonese dishes, is Michelin-starred (00 852 2376 3322; 6th fl, Marco Polo Hotel, Harbour City, Kowloon; lunch and dinner; mains from £12).

The atmosphere at T’ang Court is plush, the service impeccable and the food divine. Try sautéed prawns with deep-fried taro puffs (00 852 2375 1133; Langham Hotel, 8 Peking Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui; lunch and dinner; mains from £30).

Hop Inn has a youthful vibe and nine small but artful rooms, each featuring illustrations by a Hong Kong artist. Three rooms have no windows, but the art on the walls makes this seem like less of a problem (00 852 2881 7331; Flat A, 2nd fl, Hanyee Bldg, 19-21 Hankow Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui; from £40).

Given its location in the Central Business District, Ice House is excellent value. It’s styled in contemporary fashion with lots of white and colourful, contrasting bedspreads and accessories. Each room has a kitchenette and a work area (00 852 2836 7333; 38 Ice House St, Central; from £80).

Many of the handsomely proportioned rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, Tsim Sha Tsui feature harbour views. They are modern, with bamboo flooring, king-size beds and large picture windows. The black-and-white photographs of Tsim Sha Tsui are a stylish touch (00 852 2311 1234; 18 Hanoi Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui; from £155).

Every corner of Upper House spells luxury, from the glass and marble lobby to the sleek rooms with rain showers and sculptures. Guests can join free yoga on the lawn, and a pool is planned. In the meantime, guests can use swimming facilities in hotels nearby (00 852 2918 1838; Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty; from £265).

The Peninsula Hong Kong is a colonial classic. Erected in 1928, its interiors are opulent, with heavy silk curtains, porcelain antiques and dark-wood furniture. The hotel also offers stunning harbour views (00 852 2920 2888; Salisbury Rd, Kowloon; from £350).

When to go
From May to mid-September, temperatures hit the mid-30s and humidity is high. Go in late September, or between March and May for Asia’s top film festival, the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the dragon boat races.

How to go
BA, Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways operate flights to Hong Kong International from Heathrow (from £500) and Manchester (from £520). The Airport Express runs to the centre of town (£8); buses connect with Hong Kong Island (£2). Taxis cost around £24.

Getting Around
Hong Kong’s public transport includes buses, ferries, trains and trams. Pay via an Octopus card, which you can buy and charge up at MRT train stations. The most convenient is the train, which operates 10 lines (from 30p).

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How to Drink Like a Japanese Salaryman in Japan

The situation: You’ve landed in Tokyo for business and quickly discover that the deal you had planned to seal is far from complete. You can’t go home empty-handed, so you need to charm your Japanese counterparts into an agreement. The answer is at the bottom of your glass.

The backstory: Sake culture is part of Japan’s national identity, as much as samurai warriors, cherry blossoms and futuristic gizmos. Drinking with coworkers and clients is often part of the job in a Japanese company, and most employees spend many weeknights downtown doing just that. Though this usually means their families eat dinner without them, salarymen’s behavior is accepted in Japanese culture.

Verbal communication presents significant challenges for an introverted culture, so many Japanese use drinking to forge connections—as captured by the phrase “nomunication,” stemming from the Japanese verb nomu (“to drink”). A bit of social lubricant goes a long way to building confidences. Japanese journalists are expected to woo their sources over drinks, knowing that no worthy scoop is ever won during the daytime. Same goes for business, where important deals are made over private dinners.

The etiquette: If your boss or business counterpart invites you out for a drink, accept with gusto. A declined invitation from an employee is often considered an insult. So, out of respect for his or her authority, join your business partner for a beer.

Upon arrival, look for cues on where to sit. The Japanese love pampering guests and often will insist on their VIPs taking the best seat, which is usually the one closest to a wall.

It’s also considered polite to pour for your neighbor in Japan. So if the person sitting next to you orders a beer, be sure to grab the bottle and pour the brew into his or her frosted glass.

You may not always want to take your boss up on a night out after work, but here’s some incentive: The last rule of Japanese business drinking etiquette is that your superior or the party courting you always pays. Enjoy!

Why you shouldn’t order: Blend in with your Japanese counterparts by allowing your host to order for you. Beer is the Japanese salaryman’s drink of choice. Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi are some of the top brands that you’ll find on any bar menu. Another option is a tokkuri of sake or glass of shochu, a distilled grain alcohol that can either be taken straight or diluted with water. Your host will often make this crucial decision for the entire table. If your negotiations have reached the point where you can call your counterpart your friend, then you may request a specialty drink—though you should still allow him or her to order it for you.

Where to go: The most common type of watering hole in Japan is an izakaya. Traditionally, an izakaya serves Japanese staples like yakitori, sashimi and oden, although these days some of them have Western food, too. Most of these bars are known for their affordability, particularly chain izakaya restaurants that cater to large groups. Izakaya are easily found throughout Tokyo, especially near subway stations. Some of the best-known izakaya districts are Shinbashi, Kagurazaka, Akasaka and Asakusa.

In a hostess club, business partners sip whiskey. Rather than providing roving waitresses, hostess clubs employ women to sit across from patrons, refilling drinks. These women are expected to tune out any business-related conversations, but when the topics turn casual the hostesses cheerfully chat up their clients. Hostess clubs are pricey, often found in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza neighborhood.

For the late-night crowd, a yatai offers the opportunity to eat and drink well into the night. These open-air stalls often serve just one type of food such as ramen or yakitori, while some offer a full menu to customers who sit on stools or milk crates. These places are cheap and in Tokyo they’re typically clustered around the offices of major newspapers whose employees work late nights. During festival seasons, shrines also host several yatai.

When you’re ready to call it quits for the night, check into one of Tokyo’s convenient capsule hotels. Weeknights find these cheap, coffin-sized hotel rooms packed with businessmen who’ve imbibed too much to go home. If you decide to stumble back to your own hotel, though, keep in mind that Tokyo’s trains can be as crowded at midnight as at rush hour when they shuttle sleeping salarymen home to the suburbs.

Wherever you end up, be sure to really nomunicate with your drinking buddies even after you’ve struck your deal. A night out with Japanese salarymen is a long one, sure, but these late-night revelries are a key part to forming business relationships. Your deal may have been won in five glasses of sake, but you never know what that sixth cup of sake might do to ease any future negotiations.

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In Dubai: size does matter

Is Dubai really the new Las Vegas? Sure, if Vegas were in Texas, home of the world’s biggest everything — hair, belt buckles, gay churches. Dubai, the world’s fastest growing city, is building the world’s biggest airport (as well as the world’s tallest building, pictured).

The 54-square mile airport city, Dubai World Central, will be home to more than 250,000 people. With more parallel runways than Atlanta, Heathrow and Chicago O’Hare, it will process up to 12 million tons of cargo (3.5 times more than Memphis, the world’s busiest cargo airport) and 120 million passengers (35 million more than Atlanta, the current busiest).

Fortunately, any Atlantans who want to defect to the new capital of big can fly non-stop on Delta. On May 31 the airline will be the first U.S. carrier to serve the booming emirate. And in the future, arriving passengers won’t even have to leave the new airport. At ten times the size of its predecessor, Dubai World Central will provide shopping malls, a golf resort, and thousands of homes and office buildings.

Cost of infrastructure: $33 billion. Saying you have the world’s biggest, busiest, most cargo-filled, runway-paved airport: priceless (with due apologies to Mastercard ads).

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10 Unexpected Things to Do in Bangkok

Lungs of the City. Bangkok is a concrete jungle, but just across the Chao Praya River is a glimpse of the city’s roots — a real jungle village. With a tour from Bangkok Bike Rides, cycle on narrow sidewalks lined with tree groves, the low-key neighborhoods of Bang Kra Jao, a riverside market and local wats (temples).
BTS Thong Lor, meet at Face Restaurant 

Fancy Flicks. For about the price of a regular movie in the States, you can experience the ultimate in cinematic relaxation. Tickets to a 3D showing at Nokia Ultra Screen Theatre include a 15-minute foot massage in the VIP lounge, pre-show coffee and snacks and a personal or couple’s leather recliner with a duvet comforter and pillow. Cocktails and beer cost extra, but you can bring them right into the theatre. Even Clash of the Titans would have been bearable with these amenities.

Toast of the Town. Street food is everywhere in this city, but you might spot something unexpected from street vendors — toasted white bread topped with jelly, custard or condensed milk. After You Dessert Café serves a version of this sweet toast on steroids: a giant slice of fluffy bread stuffed with fruit or chocolate, smothered in honey, toffee or Nutella, then grilled and topped with ice cream. Over the top? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely. (Multiple locations) 

Make Your Own Souvenirs. Skip the carved elephants and bring home a stool, jewelry chest or tote bag that’s hand-painted—by you. The local artisans at Sha Bha Shine Botanical Art Studio teach you how to recreate Thailand’s tropical flowers in a one-day workshop.
Meet at Victory Monument BTS 

Domo Arigato. At Hajime Robot Restaurant, use the touch-screen menu to order all-you-can-eat sushi and DIY barbecue, and then a mechanical Japanese samurai will serve you course after course. When orders are slow, the robo-waiters dance to Korean pop songs.
Monopoly Park 

Break the Ice. When the heat gets too much, cool off in the Olympic-sized Ice Planet skating rink on the seventh floor of Siam Discovery Center. If you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the elusive Bangkok Zamboni, this city’s version of a sasquatch.
BTS Siam

Street Food Goes Gourmet. Opened last year by an American freelance writer, Soul Food Mahanakorn serves up Thai sidewalk classics with the freshest ingredients, such as Gaeng Hay Lay, a Northern-style curry of braised pork belly served with pickled watermelon. Strong cocktails with local accents like guava and kaffir lime cap off a delightful meal.  The space is intimate, so book ahead on weekends.
BTS Thong Lor

Bird’s Eye View. You can find plenty of seedy bars at street level along Sukhumvit Road. To escape, head to Nest at the top of the Fenix Hotel, where a grassy rooftop respite awaits. Relax on one of the rattan day beds and treat yourself to a cocktail chilled in a fishbowl of ice.
BTS Nana

Museum in a Mall. Thailand Creative & Design Center, known to locals as TCDC, hosts free rotating exhibits analyzing Thai and pop culture at the pinnacle of the Emporium shopping complex. A recent show compared the ancient lore of Thai ghosts with the country’s modern horror films and another delved into the world of video games with an interactive arcade at the end.
BTS Phrom Phong

An Asian Brauhaus. The three homemade beers on-tap at Tawandeng German Brewery may be European-inspired, but the atmosphere here is uniquely Thai. Locals pour in for Bangkok standards like the sweet-and-sour Plaa Saam Rot (three-flavored fish) and an evening variety show of song, dance and all the sequins money can buy. (Multiple locations)

Note on locations: Asian cities aren’t as easy to navigate as those in Europe, but your hotel can direct you to all of the above locations. And if you get lost, most taxi drivers will happily call the location and take you there. 

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