Monthly Archives: August 2014

Kupang has incredible coast, lined with shacks and huts. Photo by Jacques Beaulieu, Flickr

On the road in Indonesia: Travelling Nusa Tenggara by motorcycle (part 4)

The immediately visible differences when arriving in Lombok from Bali often leave many travellers bemused and slightly startled. This is the first of a chain of islands stretching towards northern Australia that make up Nusa Tenggara, with the Lombok Strait acting as a natural barrier to flora and fauna known as the Wallace Line.

Travelling Nusa Tenggara by motorcycle

Some of Lomboks beaches rival even those of neighbouring Bali. Photo by Mazzali, Flickr

Some of Lomboks beaches rival even those of neighbouring Bali. Photo by Mazzali, Flickr

Compared to the tropical forests and jungle to its west, Lombok is a rugged and somewhat barren landscape with an entirely different kind of beauty. The climate is hotter and drier, vegetation is not as lush or dominant and even the animal life varies greatly, giving Nusa Tenggara an entirely unique natural identity.

These islands are also extremely culturally diverse and have the largely Islamic islands of Lombok and Sumbawa immediately to Bali’s east. Moving further we come to the predominantly Catholic Flores with its history of Portuguese colonialism before reaching arid Timor and the Protestant majority that live there.

Trekking the iconic Gunung Rinjani is a must do in Lombok. photo by Tim Stelzer, Flickr

Trekking the iconic Gunung Rinjani is a must do in Lombok. photo by Tim Stelzer, Flickr

This is a stunningly varied part of Indonesia that is amazingly easy to travel by motorbike or with local transport, yet it remains largely unappreciated by travellers to Indonesia.

Travelling Nusa Tenggara by motorcycle

The vehicle ferry from Bali-Lombok departs Padang Bai every hour and arrives in Lembar on Lombok’s west coast. Crossing with a motorbike costs around 10 USD and will take between four and five hours (loading and unloading times vary and sometimes cause a considerable wait in Padang Bai).

The defining image of Lombok is the volcanic Gunung Rinjani. Photo by Schristia, Flickr

The defining image of Lombok is the volcanic Gunung Rinjani. Photo by Schristia, Flickr

Most people don’t hang around long in the unattractive harbor town of Lembar and make straight for the beaches of Senggigi about 20km to the north. Senggigi is Lombok’s principal tourist destination ideally located along a particularly beautiful section of coastline near Mataram, Lombok’s capital city.

There are successions of isolated coves just north of Senggigi that can be visited by boat and will guarantee a whole beach just to yourself. A few days should be spent in this area exploring hidden alcoves and noting the differences between Bali and Lombok.

The beaches of Lombok’s west are rightfully popular but the most impressive attraction in Lombok is undoubtedly Mount Rinjani.

Volcanos that add to the prehistoric landscape

The spectacular, semi-active volcano stands at over 3700m tall and dominates the entirety of Lombok’s landscape. With the low-lying clouds that are a feature of this part of the world, reaching the summit of Rinjani feels like you’ve entered a new world where mountains are islands and fluffy clouds are the sea that separate them.

From Lombok the public ferry departs Labuan Kayangan on the east coast daily heading to Potatano in west Sumbawa. The travel time is approximately 90 minutes and the trip will cost 3 USD with a motorbike.

Sunsets in Sumbawa are beautiful all year round. Photo by Jessica Rabbit, Flickr

Sunsets in Sumbawa are beautiful all year round. Photo by Jessica Rabbit, Flickr

Sumbawa is less developed, much poorer and much less visited than Lombok, but it is also much wilder and culturally traditional. Surfers have long known about the island’s unique scenery but a lack of infrastructure and tourist interest means they are a group of few visitors.

There is one long road connecting Potatano in the east to Sape in the west and public transport does little other than rumble up and down this long stretch. With the flexibility of your own motorbike however, it is easy to discover and explore Sumbawa’s secret treasures including Pasar Syketeng (local markets), the Dalam Loka palace and countless secluded beaches and rocky outcrops.

Life in Sumbawa goes by at a much less frenetic pace than other parts of Indonesia. Photo by Ja

Life in Sumbawa goes by at a much less frenetic pace than other parts of Indonesia. Photo by Ja

Getting to Flores from Sumbawa is again just a matter of taking the public vehicle ferry that departs daily from Sape in east Sumbawa to Labuan Bajo in western Flores, costing just 3 USD with a motorbike. Flores (‘flowers’ in Portugese) was given its name by settlers who were amazed by the sprawling, aromatic forests of the island, but only now are travellers to Indonesia beginning to capitalise on its rich treasures.

In recent years the island has somewhat become Indonesia’s ‘next big thing’ with secluded beaches, fantastic diving and snorkeling and a backdrop of rugged volcanoes. A 670km long highway running by rivers, lakes, forests and canyons connects Labuan Bajo to Larantuka in the east and is possibly the best biking experience you can get in Indonesia, even with all the potholes.

The western part of Flores acts as a gateway to nearby islands including Komodo and its prehistoric, lizard-like inhabitants. The harbor town of Labuan Bajo and its surreal sunsets is booming with the influx of tourists and has become the fastest growing regency in Indonesia, but even so most visitors use it as a springboard to the nearby national park.

The white sand beaches of Flores are the best and yet least visited. Photo by Richard Aufreiter

The white sand beaches of Flores are the best and yet least visited. Photo by Richard Aufreiter

In eastern Flores the Kelimutu National Park and its spectacularly coloured volcanic lakes remains a must visit for any travellers. The town of Moni at the base of the mountain acts as the basecamp for hikers and is where most visitors stay. A sunrise trek brings you to Inspiration Point on the western rim of the Kelimutu crater in time to see the first rays of sunlight creep over the horizon. As the light breaks the volcanic crest and pools in the crater below three deep, volcanic lakes and their rarely seen qualities are revealed. One of the Kelimutu lakes remains turquoise year-round, while the other two fluctuate between shades of red, brown and orange dependent on their mineral content at the time.

Cruising the coast from Moni to Larantuka

The drive from Moni to Larantuka on the eastern coastline takes only a couple of hours taking you through some of the islands most mountainous region. Some travellers stay a night or two in Larantuka to get a look at the fresh fruit and seafood of the bustling night markets, but most pass through briefly on their way to western Timor.

Seraya is just one of the untouched small islands that lie off the coast of Flores. Photo by Ka

Seraya is just one of the untouched small islands that lie off the coast of Flores. Photo by Ka

The vehicle ferry departs Larantuka headed to the capital of Timor, Kupang, every Thursday and Sunday at 2pm and costs approximately 10 USD for the 14-hour journey. This is by far the longest and most uncomfortable ferry you will take between Indonesian islands and unfortunately, it is also notorious for being overcrowded. The ship arrives at the ferry terminal about 13km from the centre of Kupang at around 4:30am.

Kupang is regarded as a university city throughout Indonesia and the abundance of youth here is driving a visible cultural movement.

Students sporting the latest technology navigate the city using the fleet of bemos (small buses) that blare the latest dangdut track and add to the already deafening and chaotic traffic. Despite the noise, heat and general activity of Kupang, many travellers end up staying here longer than anticipated on their way to Roti or Alor.

Roti is only inhabited by a small number of people. Photo by Jacques Beaulieu, Flickr

Roti is only inhabited by a small number of people. Photo by Jacques Beaulieu, Flickr

The small but charming Lavalon bar has an ideal oceanfront location and the cool, blue pool of Crystal Cave remains a local secret. Even so, most people only pass through Kupang on their way to the scenic islands of the Alor archipelago, directly north of Timor, or Rote, which lies just to the southwest of Timor

In Alor animist traditions endure and locals are more than happy to share their ritualistic culture with foreigners who are genuinely interested. Despite the closeness of these islands to Timor they were less influenced by Dutch and Portuguese colonialists than the mainland and retained much more of their indigenous identity as a result.

Where to stay on each of the different islands

Lombok – Senggigi is the most popular tourist area of Lombok and there is a better range of accommodation here than anywhere else in Lombok. Budget options start as low as 6 USD per night whilst those seeking luxury can stay at 5-star resorts like the Sheraton.

The Gili Islands off Lombok’s north coast have become a popular getaway from Bali and tourism there is flourishing. Budget accommodation is available all down the main beach of Nusa Trawangan, whilst midrange and more expensive options can be found on the other side of the island and on neighbouring Gili Meno and Gili Air.

Kuta, not to be confused with the famous Kuta in Bali, has the best beaches in Lombok and surf that can rival even the best breaks in Bali. Accommodation here is more expensive than other areas of Lombok and you can expect to pay a minimum of 20 USD per night for a good room near the beach.

During the wet season Sumbawa comes alive with lush greenery. Photo by Achmad Rabin Taim, Flick

During the wet season Sumbawa comes alive with lush greenery. Photo by Achmad Rabin Taim, Flick

Sumbawa – Sumbawa has far less tourist infrastructure than Lombok and infinitely less than in Bali, but there are a few beach hostels and bungalows that cater mainly to the surfers that come for Sumbawa’s famous breaks. Lakey Beach is a particularly part of the island and there are some solid budget options that front onto the beach and can be had for about 10 USD per night.

Flores – Labuan Bajo is a rapidly expanding port town that has managed to retain its charming look despite increased tourism in recent years. Most visitors to Flores stay in the small town in one of the backpacker hostels or bungalows, and there is a reasonably strong backpacker community in town. Labuan Bajo is also the gateway to the Komodo National Park, which attracts a number of visitors to the region each year.

Kupang has incredible coast, lined with shacks and huts. Photo by Jacques Beaulieu, Flickr

Kupang has incredible coast, lined with shacks and huts. Photo by Jacques Beaulieu, Flickr

Timor – Outside of Kupang, there is very little in the way of tourist accommodation in West Timor and you’ll be hard pressed to find a good option even in the capital. Along the scruffy waterfront there are a few solid midrange options that provide basic but clean and comfortable rooms at a reasonable price of 10 to 20 USD per night.

When is the best time to visit Nusa Tenggara?

The rainy season that has such a huge impact on tourism in Sumatra, Java and Bali is not as strong once you pass the Lombok Strait and head east into Nusa Tenggara.

In fact, in many parts of Nusa Tenggara the rainy season is the best time of year to go as the countryside is green rather than brown and the rains bring a welcome respite from the heat. Certainly Timor is more appealing in the months from September to February when the land isn’t as parched and dry and the sun isn’t so strong as to make you feel lethargic.

Another reason to visit during these months is that the malaria outbreaks that can be so problematic in Nusa Tenggara are seemingly more common during the drier months.

Rice fields on Bali's east coast nearby Kareng Asem. Photo by Riana Ambarsari, Flickr

On the road in Indonesia: Travelling Bali by motorcycle (part 3)

Bali is perhaps the most unique island in Indonesia and its blend of natural beauty and cultural identity has made it one of the world’s most iconic tourist destinations. In this, the biggest Muslim nation in the world, Bali stands out due to its strong tradition of Hinduism, which the people practice with great fervor.

Surfer rides a barrel in Bali. Photo by Trevor Murphy

Surfer rides a barrel in Bali. Photo by Trevor Murphy

On the road in Indonesia: Travelling Bali by motorcycle

The island is so small you can drive around its entire coastline in one long day on a motorbike, but it packs a big punch in terms of natural, spiritual and cultural significance. Gorgeous azure waters with some of the best surf in the world lie just off pristine, white-sand beaches where people spend days soaking up rays and sinking a few cold ones.

The spectacular cliffs of Uluwatu in the Bukit area. Photo by William Cho, Flickr

The spectacular cliffs of Uluwatu in the Bukit area. Photo by William Cho, Flickr

Around the coastline village life still thrives with the exception of the bustling southern coastline brimming with tourists. Towards the centre of Bali and Ubud you reach lush jungle, spectacularly green rice-fields, white-water rapids and a more culturally in-touch community. Bali truly is the ‘Island of the Gods’ and has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations with good reason.

From food to surfing, Bali has it all

Gilimanuk harbour on the west coast is where the ferry arrives. Photo by gus aik, Flickr

Gilimanuk harbour on the west coast is where the ferry arrives. Photo by gus aik, Flickr

Gilimanuk, where we arrive from Java, acts mainly as a coastal port and there isn’t much to be seen here, but one of Bali’s most famous dishes ayam betutu (spiced chicken slow-cooked in broth) originated here and it remains the best place to sample one of Bali’s culinary delights.

Once you have filled your belly and are ready to set out again it is a scenic 3-hour drive from Gilimanuk to Denpasar and the popular tourist areas of Sanur, Kuta and Seminyak.

Bali is predominantly famous for its beaches, surf, shopping and nightlife, which can all be found in the tourist-heavy areas of Kuta and Seminyak, along with Sanur, Canggu and Kerobokan to a lesser extent.

The central area of Denpasar is extremely hot and bustling whilst the knob of land at Bali’s southernmost point the Bukit boasts isolated beaches, towering cliffs and luxury resorts. It sounds like a lot to remember but South Bali is compact and just a few days exploring by bike will give you a level of familiarity.

Sunrise over the placid Lake Batur near Bali's centre. Photo by Matthew Kenwrick, Flickr

Sunrise over the placid Lake Batur near Bali’s centre. Photo by Matthew Kenwrick, Flickr

There are countless tourist operations offering everything from water sports to bar hopping to traditional dancing and if you only have a short amount of time in Bali it’s the perfect place to let your hair down. A great daytrip would be to drive up the western coast to the island temple of Tanah Lot, a cultural and religious icon that has become symbolic of Bali’s unique identity and exoticism.

Once you have had your fill of Bintangs on the beach it’s a good idea to take the easy and beautiful 2-hour drive to Bali’s cultural and spiritual hub, Ubud.

The traditional seat of the Balinese king lies on the rolling hills that lead up to the peaks of Gunung Agung and Gunung Batur in Bali’s centre and its higher altitude has created a cooler climate and more laid-back approach than in the coastal areas of Bali’s south.

Head up into the mountains in Ubud

Bali's cultural heart, Ubud is located in the cool mountains. Photo by Bali-Indonesia

Bali’s cultural heart, Ubud is located in the cool mountains. Photo by Bali-Indonesia

The rice-fields that gave way to commercialism there are more visible around Ubud and traditional art and craftsmanship remain stronger also. If the Balinese identity has become somewhat complicated by heavy tourism in the south, it remains mostly pure in Ubud.

Babi Guling (spit-roasted pig) is the traditional dish here and there is no better place to experience it than the local eatery Ibu Oka. Ensure to go before midday though as they are known to sell out in quick-time!

The drive from Ubud to Bali’s east coast is one of the best roads you can take in all of Indonesia. Picture a small road winding its way up and down small mountains and large hills. Around a bend the roadside foliage clears allowing a quick glimpse at the shockingly green rice terraces that cover the land opposite.

Eventually you reach a lookout point on the edge of a ravine. The river rages below but the atmosphere is serene as you look across to the little green steps of rice and the farmers that work them daily.

The temple of Tanah lot is a mystical place in Bali. Photo by Dida Melana

The temple of Tanah lot is a mystical place in Bali. Photo by Dida Melana

This road takes you through Balinese rural life and the amazing scenery that it takes place in, all the way to the eastern coast and charming villages of Karengasem and Padang Bai further south. Tourist development has taken place at a slower rate here than most other areas of Bali and as a result east Bali has retained much of its coastal charm.

There are some incredible eco-friendly places to stay in Bali

Most of the bungalows lining the beaches here are built in traditional Balinese style and the jukung (wooden boats) offering snorkeling and diving trips are just as authentic. From here you can get superb views across the Lombok Strait at the similar yet strangely different island of Lombok, our next destination.

Where you end up staying in Bali will depend entirely on the kind of holiday you are seeking. The southern part of Bali is the most popular tourist area, with Sanur, Kuta and Seminyak being the most popular places for people to stay throughout the year and each offering a range of accommodation from the cheap to the very expensive. Further south you reach the area of the land known as the Bukit and the luxury resorts at Nusa Dua.

Rice fields on Bali's east coast nearby Kareng Asem. Photo by Riana Ambarsari, Flickr

Rice fields on Bali’s east coast nearby Kareng Asem. Photo by Riana Ambarsari, Flickr

Ubud has a completely different vibe to the southern part of Bali with people seeking yoga retreats, organic food, and meditation more than beaches, nightclubbing and shopping. There are cheaper backpacker style hostels as well as luxury accommodation in Ubud and the area is growing more popular each and every year. If you are visiting Bali with a view to go diving, the northern coast is your best bet and development is making the area more tourist-friendly each year.

The small village of Pemuteran in particular is becoming a popular destination for divers and is a great place from which to visit perhaps Bali’s best dive spot, thesmall island of Menjangan.

There are two seasons in the rainforest: Wet and wetter

As with most parts of Indonesia, rainy season in Bali lasts from September until early February and the peak tourist season is between June and August. At this time of year the skies are clear, the surf is up and the nightlife is teeming, but many tourists complain about traffic and the general busyness of the peak season on an island where infrastructure simply cannot keep up with the rapid development taking place.

Fishing boats can be seen lining the beach at Padang Bai. Photo by Sunan Tara

Fishing boats can be seen lining the beach at Padang Bai. Photo by Sunan Tara

For this reason, more and more people are visiting Bali in the months from February to May when the weather is still exceptional and the tourist numbers are more manageable. The surf is not at its best and the white-water rapids are calmer than during the rainy season, but if this doesn’t concern you too much then this is probably the best time of year to visit Bali.

The view at dawn from above the clouds at Ijen Crater in Java. Photo by Jimmy McIntyre, Flickr

On the road: Travelling west to east by motorcycle in Java (part 2)

Java is the most populated, the most diverse and the most vibrant of Indonesia’s nearly 17,000 islands. With 120 million people sharing such a small island (over 10 million reside in Jakarta, the nation’s capital, alone) it is little surprise that much of Indonesia’s economic and cultural identity is determined within Java.

Travelling west to east by motorcycle in Java

The view at dawn from above the clouds at Ijen Crater in Java. Photo by Jimmy McIntyre, Flickr

The view at dawn from above the clouds at Ijen Crater in Java. Photo by Jimmy McIntyre, Flickr

 

Jakarta is the island’s hub and Indonesia’s centrepiece in its drive towards modernity but there is far more on offer here than just this sprawling metropolis.

Explore the back roads of Java in search for endangered rhinos

The dense jungle of Ujung Kulon National Park has beautiful rivers Photo by asiapulppaper, Flickr

The dense jungle of Ujung Kulon National Park has beautiful rivers Photo by asiapulppaper, Flickr

The small town of Merak where the vehicle ferry arrives is just as ugly as its counterpart in Sumatra, but drive south and you will find Ujung Kulon National Park, Indonesia’s first national park and one of the most stunning areas of natural beauty in all of Indonesia.

The park is home to the world’s last population of one-horned Javanese rhinos (only about 40-50 remain) along with unique assortment of Javanese wildlife including wild pigs, otters, banteng (wild cattle), panthers, monitor lizards and many more. Most people take tours into the national park but it is possible to drive to the village of Tamanjaya and explore the park on your own terms from there.

If nature is not your thing you can reach the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta in about 3-4 hours from Merak. Not only is Jakarta the biggest city in Indonesia, it is now truly one of the world’s great metropolises.

Jakarta is Indonesia's modern metropolis with a skyline to match. Photo by The Diary of a Hotel Ad

Jakarta is Indonesia’s modern metropolis with a skyline to match. Photo by The Diary of a Hotel Ad

No other place in the nation exhibits the Indonesia’s rapid transformation and overwhelming extremes better than Jakarta and the city’s dynamism has created interesting contrasts. The old town of Kota was once the Dutch colonial hub of Indonesia and is a great place to explore the nation’s history, whilst the financial and commercial area to the north reveals decadence symptomatic of modern Indonesia.

The harbour in Cirebonis filled with fishing boats. Photo by Peter Treanor

The harbour in Cirebonis filled with fishing boats. Photo by Peter Treanor

It can be surreal to see sophisticated mega-malls being built almost as fast as the slums beside them but the contrasts that are so obvious in Jakarta reveal the trend for all of Indonesia and there is no better place to get an understanding of this unique nation.

Further on from Jakarta will take you through a lush green countryside

A three-hour drive south from Jakarta will take you to the green oasis of Bogor and Mount Pangrango. The rapid expansion of Jakarta has somewhat compromised the natural beauty here but it is a great area to drive through and the lush botanical gardens should not be missed.

The botanical gardens at Bogor are very popular. Photo by jose Javier Martin Espartosa, Flickr

The botanical gardens at Bogor are very popular. Photo by jose Javier Martin Espartosa, Flickr

Three hours driving east will take you to Bandung, which is a great place from which to explore by motorbike the surrounding Javanese countryside. The city itself has grown into a sprawling mess of textile factories, multiplexes and markets but the volcanic peaks, hotsprings and tea plantations that lie within an hour’s drive should be enough reason to spend a night or two here.

After visiting two of Java’s most busy and bustling cities, a change of pace may be necessary and the laid-back nature of coastal Cirebon makes it the perfect place for a pit-stop as you head further east. Alternatively take the scenic 6-7 hour coastal drive from Bandung to Yogyakarta or Solo in one go and get a glimpse of the traditional Javanese fishing villages that lie between.

The sun rises over lush green rice fields nearby Yogyakarta. Photo by Marc-Andre Jung, Flickr

The sun rises over lush green rice fields nearby Yogyakarta. Photo by Marc-Andre Jung, Flickr

The neighbouring cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (more commonly called Solo within Indonesia) are regarded as the cultural hub of Java and renowned for their art, ballet, drama, music and poetry. Traditional crafts such as batik are especially well represented. Perhaps due to the strength of cultural identity here, these cities are perhaps the least westernised cities in Java and provide a look at a unique lifestyle you won’t find in Jakarta or any other major city on the island.

Ancient temples and volcanic eruptions

No trip to this region would be complete without a day trip to Borubodur, a colossal Buddhist temple structure rising out of rice-fields and towering over swaying palm trees. Java, like Sumatra, is predominantly Muslim yet this area has a long history of Buddhist activity dating back much further than the Muslim expansion into Indonesia.

Over 1200 years old, Borubodur has survived volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and a multitude of political upheavals and remains as visually spectacular as it must have been all that time ago. This area is commonly known as the “garden of Java” and if you have the time it is well worth spending more than a day exploring the region.

By motorbike it is easy to visit the three Buddhist monasteries nearby or simply tour the extraordinarily green landscape whilst the people welcome visitors more readily than many other parts of Java.

The towering Mount Bromo in eastern Java attracts many visitors. Photo by saramarlowe, Flickr

The towering Mount Bromo in eastern Java attracts many visitors. Photo by saramarlowe, Flickr

Mount Bromo National Park is another must-see and climbing the immense Gunung Bromo is not only a physical achievement but extremely rewarding. Reaching the enormity of the Tengger crater with the morning highland light is an experience that can only be described as visually superb and the ethereal beauty of the scenery is rivaled by few other locations in Indonesia. From Yogyakarta or Surakarta it is about a 6-hour drive to the charming small town of Cemoro Lawang, which has some reasonable accommodation and is a great base for tours of the mountain or surrounding parklands.

Finally, we must travel to our point of departure on the eastern Javanese coastline, Ketapang. This route is extremely popular with much traffic between the islands and the ferry leaving roughly every hour 24hrs a day taking just 20 minutes to reach Bali’s western port of Gilimanuk.

Some of the best places to stay along the way

Jakarta

Jakarta is the most expensive city in Indonesia and this is reflected in the price of accommodation. It is possible to find budget accommodation but expect to haggle hard even during the off-season to get a decent price. The city centre is packed with luxury hotels and offer great skyline views for those with money to burn. Jalan Jaksa is the low to mid range accommodation area and has become a bit of a backpacker hub. A number of homestays operate with simple but clean rooms and prices around 5 USD per night. Another good backpacker area is Cikini, which doesn’t have as many traveller resources but has some decent budget options.

Bandung

A lot of Bandung’s budget options are conveniently located close to the city centre and train stations. Homestays in the area will cost between 5 and 10 USD per night whilst there are also a number of quality midrange options which will set you back between 10 and 20 USD. Most of the more luxurious accommodation lies on the outskirts away from the bustling centre of Bandung and offer private shuttle buses to reach town.

Yogyakarta/Solo

The neighbouring, and traditionally rival, towns of Yogyakarta and Solo have become popular tourist destinations in Java through a combination of strong cultural traditions and a proximity to the tourist magnets of Borubodur and Mount Bromo. In Yogyakarta, the area surrounding Jalan Sosrowijayan is well-known as a back-packer hub and most of the budget-midrange accommodation can be found there.

Accommodation tends to become more expensive as you get to the outskirts of the city and into the wonderful countryside of this area. Jalan Malioboro, just down the road, is one of Indonesia’s most popular shopping promenades and well worth a visit for the highly original gift ideas. There is no particular area of Solo (also commonly known as Surakarta) where tourists gather. Instead, budget, midrange and high-end accommodation spread seemingly at random throughout the city. Take care to pre-book accommodation and get directions, as it can be notoriously difficult to find accommodation on arrival.

The best time to travel by motorcycle through Java

Gunung Bromo is built on the edge of a volcano. Photo by Anan Charoenkal

Gunung Bromo is built on the edge of a volcano. Photo by Anan Charoenkal

The best time to travel to Java is in the dry season between May and September. Travel at other times is still possible, but the frequent rain clouds might mean some last minute changes of plan or extended transit times as the transport invariably suffers during the rainy season. If you are visiting Java with the idea of visiting Ujung Kulon National Park, than the wildlife is much more active during the rainy seasons and this might affect your decisions of when to go. The mating season of the one-horned rhino is right in the middle of the wet season so there is a much higher chance of getting a sighting during this period.

Lush rice terraces are common all over Bali's fertile land. Photo by Kangdeden Tea

On the road: Travelling Indonesia by motorcycle (Part 1)

Despite an astonishing wealth of unique natural and cultural treasures, Indonesia remains one of the world’s most unappreciated tourist destinations. Bali throngs with visitors from all over the world each year but the rest of Indonesia remains largely unknown and unappreciated.

Travelling Indonesia by motorcycle

Dusk falls over Indonesias capital city. Photo by Afriandi Svahfril, Flickr

Dusk falls over Indonesias capital city. Photo by Afriandi Svahfril, Flickr

Most people don’t have an accurate perception of the nation and even the more knowledgeable traveller will often neglect this extraordinary archipelago in favour of a more established tourist destination. The reality is that Indonesia is an absolute goldmine of travellers treasure, a true wonder of wonders.

The thing that makes Indonesia truly staggering is the amount of people that live here and the 5000km long chain of over 17,000 islands that they live on.

Despite being so close to each other, the geographical barrier of oceans was enough to ensure that many of these islands developed independently of each other for long periods of time, leading to a great diversity in religion, lifestyle, language, cuisine and traditions.

Couple that with highly diverse natural environments and you get vast differences in the impression each of these islands makes on travellers. The vast differences are even more striking given the close proximity of many of these islands.

Tourism is relatively undeveloped throughout Indonesia with the exception of beach-haven Bali, making it a great option for intrepid travellers seeking off-the-beaten-track adventure.

The towering Mount Bromo in eastern Java. Photo by saramarlowe, Flickr

The towering Mount Bromo in eastern Java. Photo by saramarlowe, Flickr

Indonesia’s favorite form of transport sepeda motor (motorcycle) is without doubt the best way to travel throughout Indonesia.

Motorcycles are the most popular vehicle in Indonesia by a good margin because they are cheap to buy, cheap to run and they negotiate traffic much better than cars. It is commonplace for young families with up to three children to rely on motorbikes as their sole form of transport on most islands in the country.

Due to their exceeding popularity, there are very few places that you are unable to reach on two wheels in Indonesia and the feeling of being in your surroundings on a motorcycle cannot be compared to staring through the window of a car. For the purposes of this guide, we will travel nearly 5000km from Medan in northern Sumatra to western Timor all by motorcycle.

Pick up your bike and prepare to start in Sumatra

Clear water and paradise in Raja Ampat Islands. Photo by Regy Kurniawan

Clear water and paradise in Raja Ampat Islands. Photo by Regy Kurniawan

Dense jungles, active volcanoes, bustling cities and a robust local culture characterise Indonesia’s most western island, Sumatra. This is a dynamic landscape shaped by the movements over millennia of rugged mountains, fierce oceans and fiery volcanoes.

Another amazing sunrise in Banda Aceh. Photo by Muhammad Syuhada

Another amazing sunrise in Banda Aceh. Photo by Muhammad Syuhada

Despite these violent natural changes heavy rainfall has created fertile soils and coloured a superfluous rainforest with every shade of green. The people have remained faithful to tradition in the face of unprecedented development with over 52 tribal languages still spoken and a strong adherence to local custom. This is Indonesia’s adventure island full of unpredictable contrasts and unbelievable beauty.

Preparing for the open road. Grab your oil and supplies

Fishing town of Labuan Bajo is a must visit in Flores. Photo by Rosino, Flickr

Fishing town of Labuan Bajo is a must visit in Flores. Photo by Rosino, Flickr

Sumatra’s capital city Medan is the third largest in Indonesia and an excellent starting point for any motorbike tour of Indonesia.

Buying any of the motorbikes listed above and any supplies you need to stock up on will be cheaper and easier here than some of the more tourist-popular towns of Sumatra and the newly opened Kuala Namu International Airport has made it much easier to find direct international flights.

Jakarta and Surabaya would also be good starting points for a motorbike tour of Indonesia but if you wanted to maximise your mileage through Indonesia Medan is an excellent starting point and gateway to Sumatra. From here, it is just a short ride into wild Sumatran jungle of Gunung Leuser National Park, famous for Bukit Lawang and its orang utans. Lake Toba is another popular destination in northern Sumatra whilst the more adventurous might venture as far as Aceh on the far coastline.

From Northern Sumatra the logical decision would be to head south into the fertile highlands, lakes and volcanoes of western Sumatra. Less than a day’s drive from Medan lies Bukittinggi, perhaps Sumatra’s most popular tourist destination and with good reason.

Up in the hills there are different cultures and lots of plantations

The highlands here are lush and the successful cultivation of cinnamon, coffee and tapioca plantations here has made the people relatively wealthy and the volcanic lake at Danau Maninjau just a short drive away. The capital of this region is Padang, which lies on the coast facing into the Indian Ocean. It is hot and busy and loud but it is also the cultural home of the Minangkabau people and an excellent place to sample authentic Sumatran cuisine.

Java is well known for having some of the most lush country. Photo by Jose Javier.Java is well known for having some of the most lush country. Photo by Jose Javier.

Java is well known for having some of the most lush country. Photo by Jose Javier.

Another few hours or so on the bike heading south will take you into southern Sumatra, a region dominated by rivers to the east and mountains to the west. Palembang is the capital and is one of the best places in Sumatra to see Dutch colonial architecture but this is one of the few tourist sights in southern Sumatra and there are far fewer visitors to this region than in western and northern Sumatra. The scenic drive through rice-fields and over bridges from Palembang to the port town of Bakauheni is a spectacular one though and a great chance to see the area’s unique geography.

The vehicle ferry from Sumatra to Java departs the small and admittedly unappealing port town of Bakauheni twice-daily heading to Merak on the northwestern tip of Java.

A family gathers in their hut in Indonesia. Photo by Pandu Adnvana, FlickrA family gathers in their hut in Indonesia. Photo by Pandu Adnvana, Flickr

A family gathers in their hut in Indonesia. Photo by Pandu Adnvana, Flickr

The ferry takes around 3 hours and costs 6 USD for a passenger with a motorbike. The Selat Sunda Bridge is scheduled for completion within the next decade, which will make travelling between Sumatra and Java by motorbike even easier.

Places to stay along the way

The sun rises over lush green rice fields nearby Yogyakarta. Photo by Marc-Andre Jung, Flickr

The sun rises over lush green rice fields nearby Yogyakarta. Photo by Marc-Andre Jung, Flickr

Medan – The majority of accommodation in Medan is on or near the main road, Jl. SM Raja in the city centre. This makes it a great place to experience the bustling nature of Medan, but not such a good place to escape from it. In general, budget options in Medan are not great and it is commonly advised to spend a little more and avoid creating your own horror story. The midrange options in along this road only cost between 15 and 30 USD per night, with nicer and, importantly, cleaner rooms then the budget options.

Bukittinggi – The Orchid Hotel is a great backpacker option for meeting other travellers and swapping notes in a very non-touristy area, becoming a local meeting point for many visitors to Bukittinggi. It will set you back about 8 USD per night and is located on the main tourist stretch of Jalan Teuku Umar 11. Prices on this stretch range from around 8 USD for various homestays up to about 20 USD per night for some of the midrange options.

An equatorial sunset as seen from Rani Island in Irian Jaya. Photo by ♪ ~, Flickr

An equatorial sunset as seen from Rani Island in Irian Jaya. Photo by ♪ ~, Flickr

Padang – Wisma Mayang Sari features acceptable economy rooms for about 9 USD per night, situated in a modern villa north of town. Slightly further upmarket, Immanuel Hotel provides air con rooms, a friendly laid-back atmosphere, and is a popular homestay for long-term boarders. Prices per night are around 12 USD.

Palembang – Accomodation in Palembang isn’t great, with even mid-range options falling around the ‘just acceptable’ mark. Hotel Al Feth Malia is set on a quiet street, has basic rooms and will cost you about 10 USD a night. Hotel Sari costs about 15 USD per night and is probably the best value for money in the area.

When to go:

Lush rice terraces are common all over Bali's fertile land. Photo by Kangdeden Tea

Lush rice terraces are common all over Bali’s fertile land. Photo by Kangdeden Tea

The dry season is the best time to visit Sumatra. Dry season starts in May and ends around September. The monsoon season begins in November, where afternoon rains are common and become more frequent as December and January approach. Travel is still possible during this time but may slow your trip down and cause some last minute changes of itinerary. West Sumatra gets the most rain of any region of Sumatra at about 3500mm per year and the weather can be an issue at any time of year. Your best bet is to get up early and see as much as you can before the afternoon rains begin.

Choosing a motorcycle:

Crazy scooters like this one can be seen everyhere. Photo by Denis, flickr

Crazy scooters like this one can be seen everyhere. Photo by Denis, flickr

Whether you choose to rent or buy, deciding on a motorbike will depend on both your budget and itinerary. Scooters, or bebek as the locals call them, between 80 and 125cc are by far the most common form of vehicle used in Indonesia. The smaller models between 80 and 110cc are generally automatic and make getting around an Indonesian city phenomenally cheap, easy and quick. These models are also perfectly capable of travelling between most cities but steep inclines and dirt roads might give them trouble. Expect to pay somewhere between 200 and 800 USD for one of these scooters depending on its age, make and mileage. Semi-automatic and manual scooters of around 125cc are generally heavier and better suited to long journeys, and one of these bikes can take you on just about any road in Indonesia. They are slightly more expensive, so expect to pay between 800 and 1000 USD for a reasonably new model.

Racing bulls is a tradition through many Indonesian cultures. Photo by Hendra Nas

Racing bulls is a tradition through many Indonesian cultures. Photo by Hendra Nas

There are a huge number of scooter models to choose from but the market thins out once you start looking at bigger engines and bikes with fuel tanks between the legs rather than under your seat. The 200cc Honda Tiger and the Suzuki Thunder, which comes in a 150cc or 250cc model, are both durable road bikes, whilst the 160cc Honda Mega Pro is a good cheaper option. These might set you back between 1500 and 2500 USD.

The busiest pool in the world. Photo by hypervocal.com

18 Crazy Things That Only Exist In China

China’s use of substandard construction materials, its legal system, and vast population, combined with their use of propaganda have caused some very unique problems within the country. These problems range from traffic jams, to shocking suicide rates, to spending money on all the wrong things. Below we take a look at these 18 crazy things that only exist in China.

Things that only exist in China: Suicide prevention nets

Atrocious work environments, minimum wages, and the lack of employment options in China have led to many suicides. Foxconn even installed nets outside its worker dormitories and hired mental health professionals to prevent this.

Suicide prevention netting around a Chinese business. Photo by, latitudenews.com

Suicide prevention netting around a Chinese business. Photo by, latitudenews.com

National pork reserve

China has a national pork reserve that it releases when prices soar. The country has even overtaken the United States as the world’s largest consumer of pork.

A Chinese pork market. Photo by, businessinsider.com

A Chinese pork market. Photo by, businessinsider.com

Chinese tourists must ‘behave’

After a series of ‘embarrassing’ incidents, China passed the ‘Tourism Law of the People’s Republic of China’ that requires their tourists to behave when travelling.

Chinese tourists are required by law not to embarrass their country. Photo by andrewsullivan.com

Chinese tourists are required by law not to embarrass their country. Photo by andrewsullivan.com

Kids getting replaced by more attractive kids

The cute little girl who sang at the Beijing Olympics was, in fact, lip syncing. The real singer, Yang Peiyi, wasn’t considered cute enough. It was said to be in China’s ‘national interest’ to replace the child.

The real singer (Top Right) was replaced for not being cute enough at the Beijing Olympics. Photo by SMH

The real singer (Top Right) was replaced for not being cute enough at the Beijing Olympics. Photo by SMH

Burials at sea sponsored by governments

China’s land price has surged in recent years, making graveyards expensive. This has caused some local governments to give families financial incentives to scatter the ashes of their relatives at sea.

The Chinese government sponsors burials at sea. Photo by nbcnews.com

The Chinese government sponsors burials at sea. Photo by nbcnews.com

Counterfeit stores

Counterfeit stores have emerged all over China and are becoming increasingly prevalent. The most well-known example of a counterfeit store was the fake Apple store in Kumming, southern China.

A counterfeit Apple store in China. Photo by thegmic.com

A counterfeit Apple store in China. Photo by thegmic.com

Houses on top of apartment buildings

With such a huge population in China, it’s no wonder they seem to be running out of space. This is why the wealthy have taken to building entire homes on top of apartment buildings. While some of these are legal, many have been torn down.

A man in China spent years building a mountain villa on top of an apartment complex. Photo by businessinsider.com

A man in China spent years building a mountain villa on top of an apartment complex. Photo by businessinsider.com

Wealthy people hire stand-ins

It is believed that on occasion, a wealthy person will hire a body double to appear as them in court, and even serve out their prison sentences.

Gu Kalai (right) and her alleged body double in court (left). Photo by factualfacts.com

Gu Kalai (right) and her alleged body double in court (left). Photo by factualfacts.com

Smog seen from space

China is known for its harmful environment due to rapid industrialisation. It has caused pollution problems all over the country, and the smog is now so thick that NASA said it obscured the view from space.

A satelite image of smog over China. Photo by businessinsider.com

A satelite image of smog over China. Photo by businessinsider.com

Bridges get built to nowhere

The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge stretches 42 kilometres and links Qingdao City with the Huangdao district, cutting the trip by 30 kilometres. But the world’s longest bridge, which cost $2.5 billion to build, sees only a fraction of the traffic it expected.

A bridge going nowhere. Photo by wikimedia.org

A bridge going nowhere. Photo by wikimedia.org

Media organisations get banned

It’s not unusual in China for certain things to be banned, even whole media organisations. Bloomberg.com was blocked in China after it ran an article on the wealth of the family of president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping.

Bloomberg.com was blocked in China for revealing assets of future President. Photo by scmp

Bloomberg.com was blocked in China for revealing assets of future President. Photo by scmp

White collar executives get the death sentence

For her role in shadow banking, this white collar executive, Wu Ying, was sentenced to death. She is now expected to serve life in prison.

Wu Ying at her sentencing for her part in shadow banking

Wu Ying at her sentencing for her part in shadow banking

Crocodiles for sale at Walmart

In the fresh meat department of a Chinese Walmart, you may be shocked to find whole crocodiles lying on ice as if they were fresh fish. Customers can also handpick various cuts of meat, but this could be anything from sharks to turtles.

Crocodiles ready for sale in Walmart, China.

Crocodiles ready for sale in Walmart, China.

World record traffic jams

Beginning on August 14, 2010, thousands of vehicles were slowed down for approximately 260 kilometres. The traffic jam on China National Highway 110 lasted more than 10 days, with some people reporting being stuck in it for 5 days.

A photo of the world record traffic jam in August 2010 lasting for 10 days. Photo by unknown

A photo of the world record traffic jam in August 2010 lasting for 10 days. Photo by unknown

Ping Pong paddle hotel

Still in planning is this Ping Pong paddle hotel as part of a massive sports complex. Rooms will have bubble shaped windows to mimic the texture on a paddle. The 150 metre tall building will neighbour an American football-shaped stadium.

The ping pong paddle hotel, and the proposed attractions

The ping pong paddle hotel, and the proposed attractions

Photocopies of originals for sale

China has published photocopies of the world’s earliest and greatest encyclopaedia – The Great Encyclopaedia of Yongle. The original was compiled between 1403 and 1407, during the Ming Dynasty.

Photocopies of the worlds earliest and greatest encyclopaedia

Photocopies of the worlds earliest and greatest encyclopaedia

Most crowded waterpark in the world

When a heatwave hit China, residents of Nanjing tried to escape the heat by heading to their local pool. With barely enough space to breathe, the pool quickly became the most crowded pool in the world.

The busiest pool in the world. Photo by hypervocal.com

The busiest pool in the world. Photo by hypervocal.com

Warning signs at gas stations

You may be used to seeing signs warning you not to use mobile phones at petrol stations, but that’s the least of China’s worries. Warning signs tell customers not to use fireworks at petrol stations, in case you didn’t realise that would be disastrous.

Only in china will you find a warning sign against fireworks at a petrol station

Only in china will you find a warning sign against fireworks at a petrol station

Tourists and locals celebrate Holi together. Photo by Jitendra Singh Flickr

Why should I travel alone?

The thought of travelling alone, especially internationally, is enough to scare many of us. Who will help you make those tough decisions like where to go, where to stay, what to eat, and more importantly, who will take those photos of you in front of that famous monument? But don’t worry, once you begin your travels alone, you’ll find that everything gets easier, and you’ll enjoy the freedom. Below are a few reasons we think are important to travel alone at least once.

Why should I travel alone: You’ll learn how to fend for yourself

This all begins with booking that first flight and accommodation. Only you can decide when you’re going, where you’re going, how long you’ll stay, and anything else that might come up along the way. Making decisions can be difficult, especially when those decisions affect other people.

Making decisions is much easier when you only have yourself to please -  Photo by Judy Chen, Flickr

Making decisions is much easier when you only have yourself to please – Photo by Judy Chen, Flickr

You’ll get out of your comfort zone

Getting out of your comfort zone can be healthy from time to time, and what better way to do this than to go wandering through a foreign city by yourself. You’ll be able to try things you never thought you would, whether it’s a certain activity or even a food. There’s also a sense of accomplishment and empowerment when you decide to do things for yourself that previously made you feel uncomfortable.

The Dong Hua Men night markets in Beijing offer up the weird and wonderful to the adventurous traveller - photo by Clara Alim, Flickr

The Dong Hua Men night markets in Beijing offer up the weird and wonderful to the adventurous traveller – photo by Clara Alim, Flickr

You can travel at your own pace

Do you like to sleep in, take the scenic route, or use up every hour of the day crossing off a ‘must-see’ item in whatever city you’re in? We all have a preference, some that can even change day to day, so it’s nearly impossible to find someone who is happy to follow your plans. When travelling alone, that’s no longer a problem. You can decide what you see or do, and what pace you go at.

Just remember not to sleep through a whole day and miss out on the great views. Image by myappletours

Just remember not to sleep through a whole day and miss out on the great views. Image by myappletours

You’ll meet new people you will like and dislike

We all love those friends we meet on holidays, even if we don’t stay in contact much. But when you’re traveling alone, those friends can become even more valuable. Whether you meet them on the plane or they’re a local, these new and exciting people are sure to give you some handy tips or suggestions on things to do. Unlike people you travel with however, you don’t have to work around their schedule or needs, but they can be great to have a drink with every now and then.

You'll share some amazing, spontaneous moments with the people you meet whilst travelling - photo by Chris Ford, Flickr

You’ll share some amazing, spontaneous moments with the people you meet whilst travelling – photo by Chris Ford, Flickr

You can work on your bucket list

Have you ever wanted to do something fun and adventurous that was a little off the trail, but nobody wanted to join you? Traveling solo is the perfect time to do just that. You don’t have to worry about not following your set plans for the day, because if you want to do something, you’re not disappointing anyone else by doing it. So try and knock off some of those bucket list activities while nobody is around to hold you back.

Travelling gives you a hold over your plans so you can cross of those must-do items on your bucket list - photo by Shout at the Devil, Flickr

Travelling gives you a hold over your plans so you can cross of those must-do items on your bucket list – photo by Shout at the Devil, Flickr

You can work with your budget

While traveling alone means no split bills and sometimes discounts, you’ll inevitably spend money on things you don’t even want. Maybe your friend really wants to go to that museum, while you’re content to lie on a beach somewhere. But you can’t disappoint your friend, even though you don’t feel like a museum ticket is the best use of your funds. You might want to stay at a hostel, while your group prefers an expensive hotel. So ditch the extra people and decide for yourself what you can afford and what is worth your money.

When you travel by yourself, you can be a little selfish and spend money on the things that you want to - photo by epSOS.de, Flickr

When you travel by yourself, you can be a little selfish and spend money on the things that you want to – photo by epSOS.de, Flickr

You can immerse yourself in the culture

By traveling with a group, you would certainly spend your time talking to them instead of the locals. What better way to fully immerse yourself in the culture than by being forced to verbally communicate with people you didn’t travel with. You might even be inspired to learn a new language.

Tourists and locals celebrate Holi together. Photo by Jitendra Singh Flickr

Tourists and locals celebrate Holi together. Photo by Jitendra Singh Flickr

The beautiful whitewashed walls of Santorini. Photo by Wikipedia.org

How to make the most of your travels in the Greek Islands

Most trips in Greece start in Athens

When making your way to the Greek Islands, it’s more than likely that you will need to go via Athens. Don’t make the mistake that many travellers do of disregarding this city due to its lack of beaches. Athens is full of history and is often considered to be the birthplace of the modern world. It’s well worth doing a walking tour around Athens where you can learn about the beginnings of modern democracy and why marathons are 21 kilometres long to this day. Of course, a visit to Athens wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Parthenon, the temple on the Athenian Acropolis.

Hot tip: See the view from Areopagus hill

Walk up the Areopagus hill opposite the Acropolis for a great view of the famous landmark itself as well as of the vast city of Athens. From here you can also see the Agora, the ancient town centre, and a beautiful view of Mount Lycabettus with the lonely St George’s chapel atop it.

Travels in the Greek Islands: Mykonos

Mykonos, a Greek Island situated in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by travelhub.com.au

Mykonos, a Greek Island situated in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by travelhub.com.au

Mykonos is best known for its amazing clubs complete with star-studded DJs and artists. It’s worth checking out who is playing before you go as you might be able to time your visit to coincide with your favourite artist. Usually, you can purchase discounted tickets for club nights throughout the day by visiting the main part of town and looking out for promoters (though they’ll probably find you first!). However, if it’s a huge artist you should buy your ticket in advance so as not to miss out.

If late nights aren’t your thing but you still want to be a part of the famous party scene in Mykonos, check out the Tropicana beach party which starts during the day. Invariably, people end up staying on past dark still in their swim suits, dancing on tables and on the bar to loud music and the shouting of the DJ.

The Tropicana Beach. Photo by Victoria Brewood

The Tropicana Beach. Photo by Victoria Brewood

In the day time, get lost (quite literally) in the winding, cobbled streets of the town. There is some great shopping and food to be discovered.

Hot tip: Stay at Paraga Beach Hostel

To save money for the expensive drinks in the clubs, choose an affordable but beautiful place to stay. The Paraga Beach Hostel costs around $75 USD a night (which in most other towns would be expensive for the very basic rooms), but if you can handle sleeping without luxury, you are compensated with an amazing view from the pool and a beach just a few steps away, complete with some of the clearest blue ocean in the world.

 

The view from the pool at Paraga Beach Hostel. Photo by hwstatic.com

The view from the pool at Paraga Beach Hostel. Photo by hwstatic.com

Party till the break of dawn in Ios

Ios is full of party animals too, but it’s much more affordable and the whole island has a relaxed vibe.
On the beach you can try all kinds of water sports, including diving, parasailing, snorkelling and riding the banana. Then, when it’s time to kick the party off you can head to Far Out Hostel directly opposite the beach for a pool party. Head back up the hill to the main part of town for all kinds of bars in the winding alleyways which each offer something different to lure you in.

Ios, Greece. Photo by wikimedia.org

Ios, Greece. Photo by wikimedia.org

You’ll see signs for cheap cocktails outside many of the bars, and Circus Circus offers a live band which is great for a sing-along. There’s even a bar called ‘Slammer’ where you can order a drink of the same name. Not only does it knock you about with its strong alcohol content, but you literally get knocked about by the bartenders – they give you a helmet and proceed to hit you with anything they can find, from their hand, to a hammer, to a skateboard. Not for the fainthearted!

Hot tip: Eat at Harmony restaurant

Harmony Hotel, Mykonos. Photo by geniussdhit.pixnet.net

Harmony Hotel, Mykonos. Photo by geniussdhit.pixnet.net

Head to Harmony restaurant, located up a small hill at the end of the beach which makes it the perfect spot for a view of the ocean. If you get there around 3pm, you can have a relaxing (and delicious) Mexican meal and keep your table for when the live band starts to play and the crowds start to flow in. The fun atmosphere will have you wanting to stay well into the evening.

The white washed walls of beautiful Santorini

Santorini is undoubtedly the most romantic of the islands. The picture-perfect sunset at Oia is its most famous of attractions. Take a picnic with you and get there early to bag a great spot to watch the sun go down.

The beautiful whitewashed walls of Santorini. Photo by Wikipedia.org

The beautiful whitewashed walls of Santorini. Photo by Wikipedia.org

The view from both angles is stunning – the wide expanse of ocean in front of you, and behind you, flat white walls and blue roofs cascade down to the water. As the crowds file in, you’ll see donkeys clip-clopping down the stairs, sometimes carrying passengers. Then comes the sunset. Looking out across the vast ocean, the red sun and it’s reflection on the water slowly shrinks into darkness, while the shadows of boats twinkle in it’s last light.

When the sun finally dips past the horizon line, applause usually bursts out from the crowd – and rightly so!

Hire mopeds to get you around the island – there’s no better feeling than flying along the cliff-side roads with the ocean at your side and the breeze flowing through your hair. You can take your mopeds to visit the black beach, the red beach, and the white beach, all of which have been coloured by the island’s volcano.

The Volcano View Hotel in Santorini. Photo by volcanoview.net

The Volcano View Hotel in Santorini. Photo by volcanoview.net

Hot tip: Schedule your trip for when the fireworks are on at the volcano

Every year on the Sunday closest to the 15th of August the Municipality of Santorini hosts an impressive fireworks display on the volcanic island of Nea. Go to Fira (also known as Thira), the main town of Santorini, where you can find a spot along the cliff to watch the fireworks.

Santorini Fireworks by Dana Villas

Santorini Fireworks by Dana Villas

The display starts off small with little flares being let off from the volcano – but then lines of blazing red begin to form cracks on the sides of the volcano, culminating in a spout of red coming out the top. It looks so much like lava that you’ll be worrying that the fireworks have caused an eruption. But the show goes on, with more fireworks bursting in the sky above the volcano in a spectacular finale.

The darkness of the cave is spectacularly lit up by holes of different sizes in its ceiling. Photo by skyscrapercity

Visiting the Devetashka Cave in Bulgaria

The Devetashka cave in Bulgaria is the region’s largest karst cave and one of the most beautiful of its kind in the world. Discovered in 1921 by Bulgarian explorers, the cave went a number of years without being recognised for its cultural heritage and was even used as an oil depot in the 1950’s. Today, Devetashka is a protected national landmark of national and international significance and has been declared a monument of culture.

Devetashka Cave in Bulgaria

A view of the huge Devetashka cave entrance which is 35m high and 55m wide. Photo by Plamen Stoev Flickr

A view of the huge Devetashka cave entrance which is 35m high and 55m wide. Photo by Plamen Stoev Flickr

The greenery is so lush and the cave is well lit by natural lights

A huge open chamber carved into the rock over thousands of years is illuminated by seven holes in the ceiling allowing spears of sunlight into the structure. The cave is so big and so well lit by these roof-lights that substantial vegetation manages to grow inside. The greenery is so lush at certain times of year that it’s hard to believe it is actually underground and the 11 underground lakes only serve to reinforce that view. Approximately 30,000 bats of several species line the walls and ceilings, which in some areas are over 100m above the cave floor. Devetashka is one of the biggest caves in Bulgaria, extending for over 2.5km and even containing a small river that connects with the larger Osam River outside.

The darkness of the cave is spectacularly lit up by holes of different sizes in its ceiling. Photo by skyscrapercity

The darkness of the cave is spectacularly lit up by holes of different sizes in its ceiling. Photo by skyscrapercity

Archeologists estimate that the cave was first inhabited during the early Paleolithic (pre-human history) period and that the cave was used by man in subsequent eras. Many of the most significant archeological finds in Bulgaria, especially from the Neolithic period, were made in the Devetashka cave. It’s easy to see the appeal to prehistoric humans with the availability of running water and the protection it would provide. Simply put, Devetashka is a beautiful symbol of human history in this region.

The cave provided protection from weather during the Paleolithic era

Devetashka cave has been declared a national landmark of national and international significance. Photo by static

Devetashka cave has been declared a national landmark of national and international significance. Photo by static

How to get there

Travelling in Bulgaria and anywhere in Eastern Europe comes with challenges not often seen in the Western nations. Airports are few and even train and bus networks are not well established. The Devetashka cave is located just 15km northeast of the town of Lovech and just 2km from the small village of Devetaki. Unfortunately neither of these places has airports so visitors will need to catch a bus to Lovech from either the capital Sofia (3 hours) or the coastal city of Burgas (6 hours), both of which leave daily.

The beautifully restored town of Lovech should be more than just a pit stop on the way to Devetashka. Photo by www.cim.bg

The beautifully restored town of Lovech should be more than just a pit stop on the way to Devetashka. Photo by www.cim.bg

Lovech is a beautiful town lying on the Osam River, which should be appreciated as more than just a pit stop on the way to the Devetashka. The quiet traditional town has been well restored in the Bulgarian style and the covered bridge crossing the river is definitely a highlight. Take some time to visit the museum or art gallery or if nature is more your thing, head out to visit the nearby Krushuna and Green Rock waterfalls. From Lovech there are hourly local buses to the tiny village of Devetaki. This petite village is home to just 273 people, but is a great example of Bulgarian country lifestyle. From here it is just a short walk along a narrow path by the river to the Devetashka cave. Ask the friendly locals for directions if you lose your bearings.

The covered bridge in Lovech is a beautiful example of Bulgarian architecture. Photo by globeimages.net

The covered bridge in Lovech is a beautiful example of Bulgarian architecture. Photo by globeimages.net

Things to watch out for and how to make the most of your trip

Keep in mind when travelling to Devetashka that the caves are closed between the 1st of June and the 31st of July. This is due to the bat breeding season, which interrupts standard operating hours. Also make sure you have some change with you, as there is a 2 Bulgarian Lev fee (around 1 Euro). Be aware that not all parts of the cave are accessible to tourists; some areas require special expertise and equipment. Finally make sure that you dress appropriately, it can get pretty cold so bring a jacket and wear comfy shoes, because you’ll be doing a lot of walking while you explore these marvellous caves.

Some of the interesting cave formations that can be seen in Devetashka. Photo by Nik5511

Some of the interesting cave formations that can be seen in Devetashka. Photo by Nik5511

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

17 incredible photos of Dakota’s Badlands blooming

Most of the time Dakota’s Badlands are barren with formations that resemble something from a science fiction film. Jagged rock formations, twisted canyons and wind shaped cliff faces make this place an incredible experience to admire the sheer beauty of rugged nature.

But other times nature sometimes has a surprise in store for us. If weather patterns are right, the place comes to life with yellow and purple wild flowers. And as you can see, it’s well worth the visit if your timing is right.

Incredible photos of Dakota’s Badlands blooming

desert badlands terre aride fleurs

Photo by Guy Tal

desert badlands flowers

Photo by Lindsay Daniels

desert badlands plaine vegetation

Photo by Guy Tal

 

desert badlands parterre fleurs rose

Photo by Guy Tal

desert badlands montagne vegetation

Photo by Lindsay Daniels

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

Photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Lindsay Daniels

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

photos of Dakota’s Badlands blooming

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

 

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

photos of Dakota's Badlands blooming

Photo by Guy Tal

The Grotto mineral pool is a great romantic place to relax. Photo by Landon Sveinson

Indulging and Purifying at the Grotto Spa on Vancouver Island

For an unforgettable spa experience, look no further than the Grotto Spa on Vancouver Island. The spa is a part of the Tigh-Na-Mara Resort, and is set in 22 acres of beautiful forests and nestled by the ocean. The number one spa in Western Canada provides everything you could possibly need for a day of relaxation and purifying. The huge 232 square metre warm water pool is infused with natural minerals to detoxify the body, and is designed to replicate a natural stone grotto. The friendly staff at the Grotto Spa maintain excellent customer service standards to give you the complete spa experience.

Tigh na mara Resort is as stunning as the nature that surrounds it. Photo by Tigh na mara resort

Tigh na mara Resort is as stunning as the nature that surrounds it. Photo by Tigh na mara resort

What to expect at the Grotto Spa on Vancouver Island

On arrival at the Grotto Spa, guests can choose to take part in a tour of the spa before beginning treatments. All spa guests also receive complimentary access to the Grotto Mineral Pool, so it is recommended arriving at least one hour prior to your appointment. The spa offers a wide range of individual treatments, massages, nail care, and a number of packages. The resort also offers direct access to three kilometres of sandy Rathtrevor Beach and the warmest ocean swimming in Canada.

A range of other packages are also available, including romance and bridal packages, including those catered for the groom, groomsmen, flower girl, and mothers of the bride and groom. Guests can also request special packages to suit birthdays or any other event. A full service hair salon has also been added for special occasions, or just a trim.

Staying the Night at the spa

The Grotto mineral pool is a great romantic place to relax. Photo by Landon Sveinson

The Grotto mineral pool is a great romantic place to relax. Photo by Landon Sveinson

For those who wish to extend their stay, a number of overnight packages are available where guests can stay at Tigh-Na-Mara. The Soak, Snooze & Savour package includes one night accommodation, $16 credit per adult towards breakfast, and one pass to the Grotto Mineral Pool, for approximately $184 USD per night.

For those who are looking to indulge a little more, the Instant Grotto-Fication package includes one night accommodation, $50 credit towards dinner, $16 credit towards breakfast, and $130 towards Grotto Spa treatments. The package starts at $519 per night.

Grotto Spa also caters for a girl’s weekend retreat with the Girl’s Night In package, which includes a night accommodation, a bottle of wine in your room, $75 towards treatments, Endless Tapas, and access to the Mineral Pool. The package starts at $178 per night and is perfect for bridal parties or birthdays.

Stay the night at Tigh Na Mara resort after your relaxing day at Grotto Spa. Photo by Tigh Na Mara

Stay the night at Tigh Na Mara resort after your relaxing day at Grotto Spa. Photo by Tigh Na Mara

Grotto Spa Mineral Pool

The Grotto Spa Mineral Pool is 232 square metres of warm water designed to soothe your senses and makes guests feel like they’re truly in a naturally occurring grotto. The pool also includes a two story waterfall, an invigorating cool splash waterfall, and a non-mineralised whirlpool. It’s recommended that guests enjoy the Mineral Pool for 20 minutes, then cool down in the cool splash waterfall, then relax on a lounge chair on the outdoor patio. After some rest, guests can use the whirlpool, and then repeat the whole process. Use of the Grotto Spa Mineral Pool is complementary with all spa treatments booked, or $40 per person on its own.

Rathtrevor Beach offers the warmest ocean swimming. Photo by Tigh na mara resortRathtrevor Beach offers the warmest ocean swimming. Photo by Tigh na mara resort

Relaxation areas designed to make you unwind

The Grotto Spa has created a number of relaxation areas for its guests. The relaxation lounge offers chairs and sofas before and after treatments, and four cosy fireplaces with complementary fruit, teas and coffees. The sun patio is accessible by the Grotto Mineral Pool and is the perfect place to relax in the sun, while the private lounge can be used by groups and bridal parties.

Sit by the cosy fireplaces after your spa treatment. Photo by Tigh na mara resort

Sit by the cosy fireplaces after your spa treatment. Photo by Tigh na mara resort

Treetop Tapas and Grill

A day of relaxation wouldn’t be complete without a fine dining experience, and what better way to experience it than at the Treetop Tapas and Grill. Unlike any other dining experience in Canada, the restaurant is reserved exclusively for robed spa guests. You can then either choose a few items from the menu, or indulge in ‘Endless Tapas’, sampling as many as items as you wish and ordering the ones you enjoyed most. The tapas are made from fresh local seafood, anti-oxidant cuisine, and a range of delectable desserts are available. Guests can also choose the ‘Dip and Dine’ package, in which they can enjoy a dip in the Grotto Mineral Pool, followed by Endless Tapas in the restaurant.

Enjoy a delicious tapas plate before or after you unwind in the spa. Photo courtesy of Tigh na mara resort

Enjoy a delicious tapas plate before or after you unwind in the spa. Photo courtesy of Tigh na mara resort

Day Packages

• A Day of ‘Grotto’fication – 6 hours – $485
- Body wrap of your choice
- Aromatherapy massage
- Custom regime facial
- Signature pedicure
- Endless Tapas dining experience

• Spa Retreat – 3 hours – $285
- Custom regime facial
- Signature pedicure
- Hand paraffin treatment
- Mineral makeup application

• Just For Him – 3 hours – $285

- Recharging men’s facial
- Aromatherapy massage
- Classic spa manicure

Other Packages

• A Day With The Girls – 4 hours – $179/person
- Dip in the Grotto Mineral Pool
- Treatment of your choice
- Endless Tapas dining experience

• Treat Yourself – 3 hours – $99/person
- Dip in the Grotto Mineral Pool
- Endless Tapas dining experience
- Refreshing Martinis

• Indulgent Essentials – 2 hours – $89/person
- Dip in the Grotto Mineral Pool
- Classic spa manicure
- Martini and dessert

A range of other packages are also available, including romance and bridal packages, including those catered for the groom, groomsmen, flower girl, and mothers of the bride and groom. Guests can also request special packages to suit birthdays or any other event. A full service hair salon has also been added for special occasions, or just a trim.

Tree camping is such a great way to see the most magnificent views

Budget sleeping alternatives: Ever thought of camping in the trees?

Camping has always been for the adventurous, those willing to leave behind the comfort of their home and take to the great outdoors. Still, the novelty of camping can wear off quickly and become boring. That image can change however, as a new craze has campers and non-campers alike excited. Tree camping, meaning a tent dangling from a tree, is truly for the thrill-seekers. Just make sure you’re not scared of heights, because the really amazing views are at the top of the trees.

The highest branch gives the best view. Photo by Neue Zurcher Zeitung

The highest branch gives the best view. Photo by Neue Zurcher Zeitung

What you need to know

Officially called the ‘portaledge’,campers sleep in a tent suspended high off the ground. These were originally designed for rock climbers who needed some sleep on multiple day climbs. The portaledge is made up of a fabric covered tent encased by a metal frame and suspended from a single point. Campers can also use adjustable suspension ropes to allow the tent to be raised higher or lower. However, this design has been adapted on the California coast to include only a mosquito net surrounding the peaked sides to give campers a full 360 degree view of the area.

Tree camping is such a great way to see the most magnificent views

Tree camping is such a great way to see the most magnificent views

Tree camping in Elk, California, truly gives campers an experience like no other. Enjoy stunning panoramic views of nature at its best from the comfort of your suspended tent. To enjoy the experience to its fullest, be sure to pick the highest branch of your tree and take in the breathtaking views, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Tree camping has become so popular that it has spread to other parts of the world, including Japan and parts of Europe and Africa. The activity really can be enjoyed anywhere in the world, provided you have a camping ground with trees sturdy enough to support the weight. The Waldseilgarten Mountain Resort in Bavaria, Germany, has even taken it a step further. They offer “extreme camping” where guests can stay in a tent hanging nearly 2 kilometres above the ground off the edge of a cliff. Of course, campers are trained in how to ascend and descend the cliff, and anything else they need for their stay.

What equipment you’ll need

The commercial version of tree camping is much more luxurious. Photo by enpundit

The commercial version of tree camping is much more luxurious. Photo by enpundit

The ‘Treeboat bed’ is the best way of camping in the trees. It comes with a mosquito net, blankets, and a pillow, and is designed specifically to be hung. Tents can also be used, but can be pricey, so it may be easier to rent one for the night. Campers will also need the correct equipment for actually suspending the tent, and a branch that will support the weight of those wishing to stay in it. Setting up the tent can also be difficult, especially if you aren’t an experienced rock climber. However, camping stores will usually provide all the necessary equipment to get you started. It is important to note that this kind of camping isn’t offered by companies, and instead must be arranged by those wishing to partake.

Dancing Trees, Unknown Location. Björn Olsson

How did this forest in Poland become crooked?

Many countries in Europe are home to wild and wonderful things, each country delivering something unique to the world. In a tiny little part of Poland, there are 400 planted pine trees which stand tall, bowed and crooked – each of them bent in mysterious ways and nobody knows the full story of how or why. But the forest in Poland has become famous for its native flora.

Crooked Forest in Poland

Dancing Trees, Unknown Location. Björn Olsson

Dancing Trees, Unknown Location. Björn Olsson

The Crooked Forest is located just outside of Gryfino in north-west Poland, and it’s a place that has left people in awe. It looks like something out of a fairytale; each tree is bent, overshadowing the foreground and offering a spectacular sight even in the winter.

The Crooked Trees

There has been plenty of speculation on how the trees came to be so uniquely bent and deformed – but no theories have ever been proven. It has been said that each tree was planted and then bent on purpose in order for them to be used in furniture and boat making. The theory is that once these plants were bent for building, the trees were forgotten once W.W.II began, which is possible as they all show signs of being planted in 1930.

The mysterious crooked trees of the Gryfino Forest. Photo by, shedexpedition.com

The mysterious crooked trees of the Gryfino Forest. Photo by, shedexpedition.com

There are theories that the trees just grew bent, stemming from the ground and bending at the bottom of the trunk because that’s the kind of trees that they are or perhaps because of gravitational pull. Nobody knows. What we do know, though, is that it’s an amazing site to see.

How to get to Gryfino Forest

No one knows just why the trees grow this way. Photo by, Waldemar Andrzej Dylew, flickr

No one knows just why the trees grow this way. Photo by, Waldemar Andrzej Dylew, flickr

Gryfino is a city located closer to the German border than the capital of Poland – so your best bet is to travel from Germany (notably the closest capital city would be Berlin). It’s also located close to the city of Szczecin in Poland, which is a great little place to stop over on any travels you might be going on – as the Old Town is beautiful and shows much of the history of the area. The best way to get to the forest is to drive – on the autobahn!
From Berlin the drive takes just under two hours. You should head out of the city in the direction of the B2, and from there you take merge onto the A11. Take the 3-Penkun exit for the B113 which will take you into Poland and then continue across the border onto Route 120.
From Szczecin, the drive takes only 40 minutes and you just head south. Take the DK10, take the exit onto Leszczynowa. Head towards the DK31, via Batalionwa Chlopskich and Granitowa. Follow the DK31 south, straight onto Luzycka.

 

When to go

The nearby township of Gryfino is close to the German boader. Photo by, Buridans Esel

The nearby township of Gryfino is close to the German boader. Photo by, Buridans Esel

The best time to go would be in summer. There may be more people visiting, but the attraction only gets a sporadic audience, so the appeal won’t be lost. Poland’s warmer months are from June through to September. It’s best to still pack a light coat, as there often is a cooler breeze on the outer months.
Poland is a cold country, and in winter they get huge amounts of snow so if you want to go see the forest in all its snowy, wintery goodness, make sure that you pack coats, hats and scarves and be prepared.