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  • Experiencing another culture on your own terms, at your own pace, with a budget of your own choosing can be an incredibly rewarding and insightful adventure. But while some may find such a journey liberating, others might worry about safety or a period of solitude in a strange, unfamiliar place. Humans, after all, are social animals.
Prospective solo travellers should know that, despite its label, solo travel does not have to mean you are alone all the time. There are local communities to safely interact with as well as fellow globe-trotters in a similar position.
A 2016 report from travel research company Phocuswright found that a whopping 72 per cent of hostel guests in the United States were travelling alone. Airbnb saw similar a trend in its data, with cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Cologne, Germany; and Johannesburg experiencing more than a 130 per cent increase in individual bookings in 2016.
With solo travelling growing in popularity, it’s clear there are options to socialise with other travellers — it’s just a matter of putting yourself in the right position to do so. Here are some tactics you can use to meet and befriend people abroad, from tried-and-true methods to innovative new apps and technology.


    Go on ‘free’ walking tours
The word free is in quotations because, assuming your tour guide is at least half-decent, you should tip them at the end (many earn the majority of their income on commission). But these walking tours can be worth every penny. Not only will the guide give you an informed and hopefully entertaining view of the locale, but you’ll have a chance to interact with other tourists and possibly come away with a new friend.
The leisurely pace in between stops gives you the opportunity to chat with fellow tour-goers, who you may discover are also travelling alone or as part of a small group they are willing to let you join. Prominent cities often have multiple specialised tours — street art or local cuisine, for example — which provide additional chances to meet people and further learn about the place hosting you.
Several tour companies, like Sandeman’s New Europe or Free Tours by Foot, have outposts in popular cities and are generally safe options for the solo traveller. But don’t count out smaller or independent tour companies that may be better tailored to specific destinations. Visit the company website and read reviews left by travellers to make sure everything checks out. You can also look at ratings on separate websites like TripAdvisor for a more comprehensive view.
If you are staying in a hostel, the staff often has relationships with tour companies in the city. A hotel receptionist or concierge would also have recommendations.

Use Airbnb to go on unique experiences hosted by locals
Airbnb may be known more for its lodging arrangements, but it also wants to give you something to do at your destination. Airbnb Experiences connects travellers with local guides who lead guests on paid activities ranging from city tours to bar crawls and hobby and skill classes. Launched in late 2016, Experiences quickly became a popular feature.
So what is the appeal? Similar to walking tours, Airbnb Experiences can be a fun way to mingle with fellow sightseers while gaining first-hand knowledge from experienced locals. And while you do have to pay upfront, costs usually cover expenses like transportation, food, drinks or equipment. Each booking page includes information from the host on what items they will provide, as well as what items you should bring, like activity-specific clothing or extra cash (for souvenirs, for example).
Since Experiences is embedded on the standard Airbnb platform, you’ll want to show the same caution when booking activities as you would with booking housing. Make sure to read through the description and photos carefully and pay attention to the Experience’s rating and reviews (Airbnb has neat little trophies visible on the page if the Experience has been rated five stars by a certain number of people.) If you have any questions or concerns, Airbnb will put you in touch with the host through its messaging system even if you have not booked the activity yet.

Connect with like-minded explorers on social travel apps
Prefer to cut out the middleman and connect directly with other travellers? Try your hand at the crop of social networking apps specifically designed for travel. Travello, free on iOS and Android, allows you to discover other travellers nearby, match itineraries for planned trips and join groups based on similar interests. You can also create a feed by posting photos and updates.
Tourlina, also free on iOS and Android, is exclusively for women and operates a lot like a dating app by swiping on potential travel companions with similar itineraries and timing. Women can also use the dating app Bumble’s BFF feature to meet platonic companions in the area. Other social media apps are full of options, with region-specific Facebook groups and subreddits to engage with travellers, expats, and locals in your destination of choice.
As with any first encounter brokered through social media, use caution when meeting people in real life. Meet in public spaces and consider video chatting beforehand. Travello also has a block/report feature if anyone conducts themselves inappropriately, resulting in an immediate ban from the app.

Stay in hostels
In a world of hospitable hotels and authentic Airbnbs, why do travellers elect to stay in hostels? Two reasons, really: Hostels are cheap and sociable. You will find college-esque dormitories with common lounge rooms and kitchens, and sometimes a bar or cafe.
It is an ideal environment to meet other travellers, and hostel staffs are well aware of this — some will lead city tours or pub crawls designed to foster interaction between hostel mates. Others might host game nights in the common room or arrange family dinners.
Popular booking sites include Hostelworld, Hostelz, Hostels.com, and Hostelbookers, and all feature reviews and detailed information about available amenities and each hostel’s location. Novice solo travellers may want to consider staying near the city centre for a convenient and safe option. During your research, pay attention to which hostels struck a chord with solo travellers in particular — those likely facilitate group activities and also provide good security for individuals. Female solo travellers can also often stay in female-only dorms.
Hostels are perhaps the quintessential way for young people to travel, but you will find all types of ages and backgrounds in one. And though the image of the lone backpacker bouncing from hostel to hostel has endured for decades, the data suggests the trend is more popular than ever.

    It’s 3am. I jump off the back of the Land Rover and stand in the humid darkness, exhausted and elated, unable to believe what I’ve just seen.

    I’m in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, somewhere that has long been on my wishlist of places to visit. Borneo is huge — the third-largest island in the world. The southern half is part of Indonesia, the kingdom of Brunei takes up a small corner in the north east, and the remainder is Malaysian. The whole island was once entirely covered in thick rainforest, which, at 140 million years old, is one of the world’s oldest. But for the past couple of centuries, it has been heavily exploited for its timber and in more recent times, huge swathes of primary forest on the flatter land around Borneo’s coasts have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

    Europe is one of the biggest importers of palm oil, where it is used in hundreds of products, including (and the irony of this won’t be lost on many of you) as a component of biodiesel. The timber and palm oil industries are the mainstay of both the Malaysian and Indonesian economies, but have come at a terrible cost to the island’s wildlife: iconic species, such as the orang-utan, have suffered devastating losses in numbers in recent years and are now classed as endangered. So, although my reason for going to Borneo was for the wildlife, I did wonder, as I flew in over the serried, sterile ranks of palm oil plantations — how much I was actually likely to see.

    Siti, my guide, met me at the airport and it became instantly apparent that this young Malaysian woman was fascinated by every aspect of the natural world. We dropped my bag at the Sepilok Nature Resort and headed straight into the forest, pausing to admire a pair of magnificent rhinoceros hornbills sitting in a tree just outside my room. “It’s a great place for birds,” she told me, `pointing out swiftlets and swallows skimming over the pond around which the rooms are built, “and it’s not unusual to see orang-utans here, too.”

    Dusk was falling when we entered the forest, and almost immediately Siti spotted a red giant flying squirrel perched high up on the trunk of a tree. We watched it, hoping it would give us a show of its extraordinary gliding skills. Moments later, it launched into the air, limbs spread-eagled, revealing the wing-like membrane that allowed it to drift effortlessly to a tree over a hundred metres away. We walked on, Siti’s torch alighting on a tiny mouse deer skulking in the undergrowth, and several jewel-coloured kingfishers, motionless, roosting at the end of branches. We caught a glimpse of an owl hunting, another flying squirrel — the smaller Thomas’s — eyes glinting up in the canopy and then a rustle in the undergrowth alerted us to a funny little black and white creature that made us both squeak with excitement — a Malay badger. And all this within only an hour of walking.

    We left the next morning and took a boat to the Kinabatangan Wetlands, where, again, I was surprised by the sheer number of species we were able to see in a few hours of effortless wildlife viewing: short-clawed otters, Sambar deer, crocodiles and a wonderful array of birds including a fly-past by four great slaty woodpeckers — the biggest in the world. I saw my first Borneo primates, too — four different species including a group of the bizarre-looking endemic proboscis monkeys, sitting in a tree by the river, unfazed by the efforts of an unseen karaoke singer in the tiny settlement on the opposite bank trying — unsuccessfully — to be Beyonce.

    So far, we had stuck to the well-worn tourist trail, but the next day, after visiting the visually stunning Gomantong Caves, we left for lesser-known territory. The drive to the forest of Deramakot is a long one, first on tarmac roads and then on a rough track that winds, somewhat depressingly, through acre after acre of palm oil plantation and past forestry depots where trunks of what were once mighty trees lie in towering stacks. It certainly doesn’t feel like the approach to what, just four years ago, was discovered to be a wildlife hotspot, with a diversity of species that researchers are discovering is even wider than it is in untouched, primary forest.

    We arrived at the forest department headquarters, where there is rudimentary accommodation for wildlife-obsessed visitors, who have started to trickle in to this area of Borneo with high hopes of seeing rarities. Deramakot is 55,000 hectares of rainforest and, although it hasn’t been conventionally logged for 20 years, it is still sustainably logged. But I was sceptical. How sustainable can commercial logging really be? And is it really possible it has no detrimental effect on wildlife? “It took a long time to make it work,” Peter Lagan, the assistant district forest officer, told me. “It is only recently we began making a profit, but now we are, we are able to demonstrate it is possible to manage forest resources for the benefit of industry without having a negative impact on wildlife.”

    The regulations for sustainable logging — which allows timber to get FSC certification — are rigorous.

    The 55,000 hectares is parcelled up into sections and each one can only be logged every 40 years. Trees that bear fruit can’t be cut down, neither can trees with trunks with a circumference of more than 47in. Anything on steep ground or near a watercourse can’t be touched, and the timber has to be extracted along one main inroad.

    Sound too good to be true? Well I was only going to find out by getting out there. Finding and watching wildlife in an area with lots of trees is never easy. Deramakot has one main forestry track that runs through the whole reserve for about 40km, so our search would be done by driving very slowly along that road, standing in the open back of a Land Rover. And because many of the forest species are nocturnal, we would be going out overnight, as well as during the day. I couldn’t quite believe we were going to see anything, but within moments of setting out that first night, Siti asked the driver to stop. “Slow loris,” she said. I trained my binoculars along the beam of the spotlight and high above us, in the crook of a branch, was a saucer-eyed creature with orange fur, hanging upside down by its toes, eating leaves.

    And so began five days and nights of wildlife viewing that was unlike anything I had ever done before. Because if you are prepared to put up with torrential downpours, long hours of seeing nothing and not very much sleep, Deramakot’s rewards are many. On our first morning, we woke to the haunting song of gibbons, and not long after we were watching them dancing among the branches. We saw orang-utan, maroon langur and got a rare glimpse of a yellow-throated martin. But it was after dark I got a real sense of the astonishing diversity of this forest. Because every single night, we saw something we had not seen before. Species that not only had I not seen, but I also had never heard of. The ancient, mysterious colugo, a sort of flying tree shrew that scientists once thought was a primate. A moonrat. There were regulars: the flying squirrels, palm and Malay civets and the gorgeously decorated banded civet and most nights we saw the small, exquisitely patterned leopard cat. One evening, we crept on foot into the forest to find tarsiers and a Wallace’s flying frog. A scientist had rigged up a camera trap and it revealed a small herd of elusive wild cattle called banteng. A long night of seeing very little culminated in the sighting of two sun bears, only a few hundred metres from our base camp. We followed a trail of ripped up vegetation and piles of dung and it led us to a family group of diminutive Borneo elephants.

    There is one animal that has really made Deramakot’s name, though. It is a show-stopper; the rarest and least known of the world’s big cats: The clouded leopard. Mike Gordon, one of the first people to come to the forest to assess its wildlife viewing potential, has probably had more sightings of clouded leopards than anyone one else on earth — he had 33 in Deramakot last year. So, although the chances of seeing one here might be higher than anywhere else, many leave unsuccessful, including me.

    But there is another animal found here, one even more rare and elusive. It was two years before Mike discovered they lived here. It is called an otter civet, and there, in the beam of Siti’s torch, was this extraordinary animal, snuffling along in a ditch. We looked at each other with amazed delight that we should be so lucky.

    We humans make huge demands on our planet’s resources, often at the expense of all other species. But what I discovered in Deramakot, is that it is possible to use nature’s resources in a way that satisfies our demands for things like timber, provides jobs and generates income, but not to the detriment of a habitat and its wildlife.

    And with that optimistic realisation I finally drifted off to sleep as the first light crept into the sky and the gibbons started to sing.

    Most of the UAE population is made up of expats, and one thing most of us do at least once a year, if not a lot more, is fly. If you’re looking for a credit card that gives the best earn rate for Skywards miles and the perks that come with flying Emirates, the Citibank Ultima credit card is for you.

    Here’s what makes the Citibank Ultima credit card shine:

    1. Best Skywards Miles earn rate

    The biggest draw for Emirates Citibank credit card is its jaw-dropping air miles potential – the highest in the UAE. Giving you Skywards miles per $1 spent on Citibank’s Ultima credit cards: 2.5 Skywards miles for purchases on Emirates.com; 1.5 miles for overseas spending and 1 mile for domestic.

    2. Flexible redemption

    The concept is simple: Spend money on your credit card and earn Skywards miles that you can then redeem on Emirates Airline and flydubai. You can use the miles to purchase a reward ticket or upgrade an existing booking from Economy to Business or from Business to First Class with Emirates.

    You can also redeem the points you earn on the cards at select Emirates partners in hospitality, car hire, lifestyle, retail or at Emirates partner airlines. Every time you book a flight, you have the added flexibility of using a combination of cash plus miles to pay.

    3. Skywards Silver Membership

    The Citibank Ultima card offers complimentary Skywards Silver membership, which means you can experience Emirates airline’s world-class service both on the ground and onboard. If you are flying from Dubai, this means complimentary access to the Emirates Business Class lounge regardless of what cabin you are flying in, priority check-in, excess baggage allowance, seat upgrades and more.

    4. Big sign-up bonus

    In a crowded field of competing airline credit card sign-up bonuses, the Citibank Ultima credit card holds its own. The card is a winner giving you a big-time a sign-up bonus of 25,000 Skywards Miles.

    Plus Citibank will throw in another 10,000 miles annually when you renew your card.

    5. It’s made of metal, not plastic

    All of these benefits come in one exclusive 100 per cent metal card.

    4. #Loungelife

    Like many travel cards, Citibank’s Ultima credit cards don’t just allow you to earn free reward flight and upgradess. Arriving at an airport and knowing you can head straight to a lounge to kick back and enjoy a free beverage or snack while using the complimentary Wi-Fi eases the stress of travel dramatically. Citibank Ultima credit cardholders are entitled to unlimited access to more than 1,000 lounges worldwide for primary and supplementary cardholders plus one guest each with Lounge Key.

    The Bottom Line: If you love the benefits of flying with Emirates, the big sign-up bonus and best earn rate for Skywards miles make this card a must have.

    Apply here for the Citibank Ultima card.

    Quick Facts

    • Best miles earn rate in the market up to 2.5 miles

    • 25,000 Bonus Skywards Miles welcome bonus and 10,000 Skywards miles annually upon renewal

    • Skywards Silver Membership

    • Up to Dh40,000 in savings a year

    • Metal card, not plastic

    • Host of redemption options on both Emirates and Flydubai

    Dubai: The UAE Embassy in Jakarta has issued a travel alert for tourists after a volcano erupted in Bali.

    Mount Agung erupted at 3.21am local time on Sunday morning, and spewed ash up to 2,000 metres high.

    The UAE mission alert citizens travelling to Indonesia’s holiday destination to be vigilant for any further development regarding the volcano’s activity.

    In a statement, the embassy said: “Due to the state of Mount Agung, the UAE Embassy in Indonesia advises Emiratis on the island of Bali to stay away from the volcano, take precautions and follow safety instructions. Please register with the ‘Twajudi’ service so we can locate your whereabouts. In the event of an emergency, contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation’s call centre on 800 44444.”

    A number of areas across Indonesia, including in Sulawesi, Lombok and the Sumatra region, are still reeling from the aftermath of earthquakes that broke out in February and March 2019.

    As of Wednesday, April 24, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against all travel within four kilometres of the Mount Agung crater in east Bali, and to stay at least seven kilometres away from Mount Sinabung crater in Kalo Regency, North Sumatra.

    “These are exclusion zones put in place by the local authorities due to ongoing volcanic activity. If you’re in either exclusion zone, you should leave immediately,” said the FCO.

    Dubai: The General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA) in Dubai issued a total of 679,389 entry permits for expat residents from GCC countries in the last two years, an official told Gulf News.

    Colonel Omar Ali Al Shamsi, Assistant Director General for Entry and Residency Permits, said that his department issued 321,109 entry permits to GCC expat residents last year compared to 358,280 in 2017.

    “Our visa department is operating round the clock for (expat) residents in GCC countries to apply for entry permits. While GCC nationals don’t need to apply for entry permit visas, expat residents from the GCC need to using the website or smart application of GDRFA. After we approve the permit, we send an email to the applicant with an e-visa to travel to UAE,” Col Al Shamsi said.

    Expat residents in the GCC need to have a valid passports and mention their occupation.

    Col Al Shamsi said that the entry permit is valid for 30 days from the date of issuance and can be extended to another 30 days for one time by applying for extension via the GDRFA website or smart application. The extension fee can be paid without the visitors having to leave the UAE.

    “We are keen to make the visit a joyful one for everybody. All the visa formalities can be done online, including payment. Visitors don’t need to stop at the airport to pay the fees or apply for visa.”

    Major Saeed Khalfan Al Suwaidi, head of Entry Permits for GCC Residents Section at Dubai International Airport, said, “Visitors shouldn’t overstay as they will have to pay a fine of Dh200 for the first day and Dh100 for each day thereafter. Violators can pay the fees at the GDRFA office in T3 of Dubai International Airport with Dh100 extra for leaving the country,”

    Everyone knows off-season is the cheapest time to travel, but who wants lousy weather?

    Rather than strictly travelling in the offseason, when savings can be greatest but weather is often at its worst, the trick is to find soft periods in times of stronger demand. Cheaper travel varies widely by destination, but there are a few general guidelines to follow while planning. In addition to checking convention traffic (Las Vegas lists its meetings at vegasmeansbusiness.com), look for holidays in a foreign destination and probe airline booking calendars for soft travel days. Search engines like Kayak indicate “good days to travel,” meaning bargain days, and the airfare prediction app Hopper shows a calendar colour-coded to pricing.

    “If you’re flexible with your dates, you can get so much more bang for your buck,” said Yves Marceau, the vice president of product at G Adventures, a tour company where spring itineraries to Europe, for example, can save 20 per cent or more over summer trips.

    While not comprehensive, the following month-by-month list, starting with April, provides information on deals in popular global destinations, and a few cautionary flags.

    April

    Spring in Alaska offers early wildlife-watching opportunities as animals emerge from hibernation and whales return. This year, two small-ship cruise lines, UnCruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises, are introducing new sailings that start in April and highlight the season of gushing waterfalls. UnCruise begins its itineraries April 6 with a seven-night sailing between Juneau and Sitka starting at $2,995 (Dh10,999) a person. In July, a similar sailing starts at $4,495.

    Tip: In Latin America and Christian religious sites like Rome, Semana Santa, or Holy Week, can clog not just the week of Easter but the week prior, and you can expect higher prices.

    May

    Orlando, Florida, receives 72 million visitors throughout the year. High season coincides with school breaks, including spring break, summer vacation and the winter holidays. But the window after spring break in late April until Memorial Day, there’s a slight dip. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, for example, has rooms at 25 per cent off during this period (it also has a similar sale for summer if booked by March 24). A recent search on Travelocity showed weekend rates at the Hilton Orlando at $146 in May versus $221 a month later.

    Tip: Japan during Golden Week, generally the first week of May (April 29-May 6), is a vacation period that is expected to be particularly busy this year as a new emperor takes the throne.

    June

    Normally pricey, Aspen, Colorado, is a relative steal in early June, when the mountains are green again, and occupancy is at 57 per cent. The Limelight Aspen hotel has rooms from $225, versus more than $400 in summer. Visit before the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, in mid-June, and the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 20-29.

    In the Caribbean, the hurricane season runs June 1-November 30, with the heaviest storm activity historically taking place in September, according to the National Hurricane Center. If you can handle the heat, the calm of early summer brings both deals and good visibility for snorkelling and diving. June and November are both relatively inexpensive. A recent check at Montpelier Plantation & Beach on Nevis found rooms in June at $235 versus $675 in February.

    July and August

    In the United States, the July 4 holiday is a busy time to travel and a lousy time to look for deals. But just on the other side of it, there’s a relative lull in a few unexpected places, including Lake Tahoe, California. Over the July Fourth week, rates at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, according to a recent search, were running from $272, and drop $30 a night the week after.

    In Costa Rica, you will likely see some rain in the afternoons during the May-to-November “green season,” but the forests will be lush. Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota near Los Quetzales National Park has rates in green season from $159, versus $184 in high season.

    September and October

    With family vacations, traffic peaks in Hawaii in summer. But once school is in session, traffic wanes, making early autumn a cheaper time to say aloha. October is its lowest occupancy month when a hotel like the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel in Honolulu goes for $169, versus July at $195.

    San Diego also empties out when school resumes. San Diego businesses sweeten the deal to attract families with a Kids Free San Diego promotion, offering free admission and deals at more than 100 attractions, hotels and restaurants in October.

    November

    In addition to Antoni Gaudi fans, foodies and cruise passengers, Barcelona is popular with conventions, drawing more than 200 a year. The International Congress and Convention Association, which tracks meetings, has Barcelona as its top international location. Go in November for weather in the 60s, but check the convention calendar at barcelonaconventionbureau.com.

    In Egypt, the tourism plunge that followed the Arab Spring is over. Statistics from the World Travel & Tourism Council show 2017 arrivals in Egypt topped 2011 for the first time and tour operators report sellouts are common.

    “The sneaky time to go to Egypt is November 15 to December 15,” said Jim Berkeley, the founder and chief executive officer of Destinations & Adventures International, which specialises in Egypt. “Americans don’t travel there much over Thanksgiving Day, the weather is perfect and it’s not as crowded as holiday seasons.”

    Tip: Don’t miss Cyber Monday sales. It’s one of the few times each year that national park lodge operator Xanterra Travel Collection puts rooms on sale.

    December

    Pre-Christmas is a good time to hit desert destinations in Arizona. The hotel rates in Scottsdale, for example, are a third lower than they will be in February at an average daily rate of $176 while the average high is 20 degrees Celsius, ideal for hiking and golfing.

    In Miami during Art Basel, the first week in December, rooms are at their most expensive. Just after, while many of the art installations are still on view, room rates plummet from an average of $463 to $227 up until Christmas.

    January 2020

    From a savings perspective, January is an ideal time to visit northern US cities. You’ll give up fair weather, but culture fans won’t notice from inside museums and theatres.

    According to 2018 figures from STR, Inc, a research firm that tracks hotel data, New York City was at its lowest annual occupancy rate, 75 per cent, in January with an average daily rate of $185.73, versus an average rate for the year of $262.31 per night. (The figures are similar in February).

    From these metrics, many promotions flow, including NYC Broadway Week with two-for-one tickets for about three weeks in late January and early February, and Hotel Week NYC in early January when hotels like the Freehand New York offered rooms for $100, versus $260 normally.

    Similarly, Washington, DC, is on sale in winter. Its average hotel rates in January, $173, are $100 less than they will be in March when school breaks drive occupancy.

    Tip: Book a cruise during “wave season,” January through March, when cruise lines put their itineraries on sale. CruiseCritic.com, the online cruise publication, cautions that wave season doesn’t necessarily net rock-bottom prices, but it’s a good time to get a cabin upgrade or onboard credits.

    February 2020

    After Christmas and New Year’s weeks, President’s Day week is the busiest, and costliest, on the ski slopes. But back it up to Super Bowl Sunday and you’ll save.

    “As airlines and hotels have shoulder periods, at ski resorts you can find good options in the high period,” said Evan Reece, the chief executive of Liftopia, which sells lift tickets for more than 250 ski resorts in North America. “A few examples are Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday.”

    Operators in Napa Valley, California, have taken to calling the December through March period Cabernet Season, highlighting the cooler temperatures when richer winter foods pair best with the wine region’s signature cabernets. By February, colour returns to the vineyards as wild mustard plants flourish.

    In this period, hotel occupancy hovers around 60 per cent, versus close to 80 per cent May through October, saving, on average, $100 a night, according to Visit Napa Valley.

    Tip: Chinese New Year, which usually falls in February, is seismic in terms of its impact on travel, within Asia and abroad. “You don’t want to be anywhere near China for two weeks on either side of Chinese New Year,” said Stan Godwyn, a California-based travel adviser at the Travel Store, who specialises in China.

    March 2020

    Spring is the time to head to Europe for culture without the crowds. Airfare is about 20 per cent cheaper in March, April and May, versus June, July and August, according to Hopper. Those savings in 2018 ran between $160 and $210 a ticket.

    Among beach destinations, try Bali the last three weeks of March after Nyepi (the Day of Silence), which takes place on March 7. “Bali is one of those places that’s pretty constant temperature wise because it’s near the equator,” said Sandy Staples, the president of Artistico Travel Consultants, a Folsom, California-based travel agency in the Virtuoso network. “In March, some of the hotels are 50 per cent off what they are in July and August.”

    Few things can compare to the vista of seeing Mother Nature in bloom during springtime.

    While thousands pack their bags annually to follow the turn of the season during the annual Cherry Blossom season, the travel industry goes a step further to cash in on the craze through a blitzkrieg of flight deals and tourism campaigns.

    The bouquet of Insta-worthy moments promised plays right into the narrative that Expedia describes in its annual overview of emerging travel trends. On its blog, the travel site explains: “It’s important for destinations to understand the role of social media in travel — and their inherent opportunities.”

    For years, popular destinations such as Kyoto and Washington DC have successfully marketed the annual occurrence through a series of packaged holidays centred solely on chasing the bloom. Online hotel reservations provider Agoda offers up ideal cities to bring you that much closer to the festivities, while Airbnb goes a step further by offering opportunities to ‘increase your Instagram followers and get more likes and comments’ as well with add-ons to you itinerary such as cooking classes and immersive experiences during the spring break.

    With the UAE approaching a two-week long sojourn for schools in less than a month, Gulf News tabloid! chases the bloom to bring you a guide to the hottest cities to catch the annual event.

    Washington DC, US

    The three-week-long National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the dawn of spring while honouring both American and Japanese cultures. The 3,000 trees that can be seen here are a symbol of friendship between the two countries and were gifted by Tokyo’s then mayor, Yukio Ozaki, in 1912.

    During the festival, the Washington DC tourism site advises the most popular place to visit the cherry blossom trees is at the Tidal Basin, which provides great photo ops near the Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial.

    The festive spirit is contagious as you strolls down the shoreline of the East Potomac Park, extending to Hains Point. The National Mall stretch, north of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, also has a few clusters that allows you to take in the vista minus the selfie sticks peppering the skyline.

    When to visit: This year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from March 20 until April 13.

    Where to stay: Staying near the Tidal Basin is the ideal spot to explore the bloom. Agoda suggests staying at the The Hamilton-Washington DC, located in the arts and shopping district.

    Kyoto, Japan

    There is rarely a city that can match the magic of Kyoto when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The destination is also home to some of the best walking trails, including the Philosopher’s Path, a canal lined with hundreds of sakura trees.

    Allow your strolls to take you towards the city’s Maruyama Park, the oldest in Kyoto, which is home to 680 cherry blossom trees, with its central weeping trees particularly famous. They are 87 years old (second generation cherry blossoms), according to Kyoto’s official tourism site, with illumination lighting up the trees at night during the season.

    When to visit: As per the latest forecast, the best time to view this year is between March 30 to April 7.

    Where to stay: Hotels around the Maruyama Park such as the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan Kyoto offer a good base. Also consider areas near the Kamo-gawa River, where trees line up the banks, making it a perfect venue for a lazy afternoon stroll.

    Jinhae, Changwon, South Korea

    The Jinhae Gunhangie Festival attracts roughly two million visitors annually. Historically a memorial service to commemorate Admiral Yi Sun-sin, it is now South Korea’s biggest spring festival.

    Enjoy the festival by taking a stroll down the picturesque Romance Bridge, where cherry blossoms canopy the Yeojwacheon Stream, or head to the Gyeonghwa Station where the trees line the railway track.

    When to visit: The best time to visit is late March to April.

    Where to stay: The bus ride from Seoul to Jinhae is about four hours. You can choose to commute from the South Korean capital or stay close to the Gimhae Airport.

    Edinburgh, Scotland

    Pack a picnic and head to The Meadows in Edinburgh. Once you’ve laid claim to one of the benches along the tree-lined paths, you can take a breather and soak in the pink-hued scenery. Edinburgh’s tourism site also recommends the Princes Street Gardens, while the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh opens the gates to gorgeous cherry blossom-lined walkways.

    When to visit: From late March to mid-April or even early May during some years.

    Where to stay: Stay at the retro inspired Eden Locke apartment that’s just a 10 to 15-minute walk to Edinburgh old town attractions, including the Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile.

    Paris, France

    Few places are as romantic and picturesque as the beloved City of Lights. Every spring, neighbourhoods and parks in the French capital are dotted with cherry blossoms. For prime viewing, take a stroll through Jardin du Palais Royal or even the Parc du Champ de Mars, set in the shadows of the world-renowned Eiffel Tower. Another viewing spot to consider is south of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral, where a fluff of pink flowers frame a picturesque setting.

    When to visit: While there’s isn’t a firm forecast for the peak bloom, the magic usually happens between the last week of March, heading into mid-April.

    Where to stay: The Shangri-La Hotel Paris, a former residence of Prince Roland Bonaparte and listed in the French ‘Monuments Historiques’.

    Tokyo, Japan

    Kyoto may claim the crown for its sakura blooms, but Tokyo comes a close second. The popularity of Japan’s capital city saw nearly 7,600 people from the UAE visited the country, up 11 per cent from 2017, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO).

    For the spring experience, Airbnb recommends the Yanaka neighbourhood in Tokyo, an area known for Japanese sweets, tea and artisanal shops. Springtime, interestingly, sees Yanaka Cemetery bursting with expansive cherry blossom trees.

    When to visit: For 2019, Tokyo’s sakura blossoms are expected to start opening around March 21, with peak bloom around March 30 according to the latest forecast released.

    Where to stay: Hotels around the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, one of the key places to catch the bloom is ideal.

    Vancouver, Canada

    The city is bursting with nearly 40,000 cherry blossom trees that bring a new shade to the British Columbian capital every spring. Vancouver’s original 500 cherry blossom trees that were gifted in the 1930s by the mayors of Yokohama and Kobe are nestled in the Van Duses Botanical Gardens.

    Don’t miss out on a stroll through the Queen Elizabeth Park and Stanley Park for a stunning vista as well.

    When to visit: The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival runs from April 4 until April 28 with fairs, live music and a big picnic day. It is serious business for the Canadians.

    Where to stay: Yew Street in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood is perfect setting to be close to the blooms.

    You could be forgiven for thinking that the constraints of river cruising — narrow, meandering waterways at the tips of their bows, following a precise direction dictated by the currents — limit sightseeing. Far from it.

    Many of the greatest inland cities on the planet, from Paris and Budapest to Moscow and Cairo, owe their location and fame to the river on which they were founded.

    River cruises are conduits for holidays that take in the world’s most feted places, putting passengers on a floating course for encounters with Far Eastern temples, South American jungles and African archaeological treasures. A river cruise can be a fine way to see them, allowing time for exploration where you know your room for the night is docked at the heart of the matter. Here are a few examples to help you spend your next holiday sailing away.

    Budapest

    The lovely Danube is abuzz with capital cities, from the elegance of Vienna in Austria, with its sophisticated cafe culture, to the less-hailed joys of Bratislava, Slovakia, a short journey downstream. But it is arguably Budapest that sings most sweetly to tourists. Hungary’s urban hub boasts the photogenic dome of St Stephen’s Basilica and Szechenyi Chain Bridge, which spans the river to connect the two halves of the city (Buda and Pest).

    The Three Gorges

    Our perceptions of China tend to be dominated by its vibrant cities and the 21,197km shadow of the Great Wall, but it also offers an equally spectacular attraction along the middle section of the Yangtze river. The Three Gorges — the Qutang, the Wu and the Xiling — are one of the main reasons to tour the country by boat. Towering cliffs rise on both sides of the river, while a hydroelectric dam that fuels the world’s largest power station only emphasises the scale of the scenery.

    The Amazon jungle

    Brazil’s mighty rainforest may appear to be an impenetrable mass of greenery, but the 6,400km river that shares its name acts as a natural motorway, making the region more accessible than you might expect. One moment you can be gazing at howler monkeys in the canopy, the next strolling the streets of Manaus, the regional capital that is home to the Amazon Theatre, one of the world’s best opera houses. Nearby is the natural attraction of the Meeting of Waters, the point on the edge of the city where the light and dark rivers Solimoes and Negro merge, like cream into coffee.

    The Lorelei

    Germany is rarely more beautiful than in the giant form of the Lorelei, the 433ft bluff that towers above the Rhine at the town of Sankt Goarshausen. German literature has it as the home of a siren who, sitting on the lip of the abyss, combing her golden hair, has long lured sailors on to the rocks. It is an engaging tale, although the Lorelei needs no assistance to charm visitors. Nor do nearby landmarks such as the 12th-century Marksburg Castle, whose medieval grandeur has helped elevate the Rhine Gorge to Unesco World Heritage status.

    Monet’s garden

    So synonymous with its second city is Portugal’s fabled fortified beverage that they share a name. A visit to Porto is always an opportunity to drink in the magic and mythology of this ruby nectar — not least in the lodges on the opposite side of the Douro river, in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. A cruise can also be instructive, taking you upriver, past valley slopes where vineyards sway in the wind, and on to towns such as Regua, where the Igreja Matriz church rears tall above the riverbank. Plus, getting there is much easier now as Emirates has announced it will launch Dubai-Porto flights from July 2.

    St Petersburg and Moscow

    The interlinked network of waterways that spreads its fingers across western Russia (including the Neva and Moskva rivers, which are connected to the Volga, Europe’s longest) means visitors to this huge country can enjoy seeing its two most famous cities on a single cruise. St Petersburg is a metropolis of fantasy architecture, fanning out around The Hermitage — the former royal palace that is now arguably the world’s finest art gallery — while Moscow is swarthier, but no less fascinating, awash with history in the Kremlin complex.

    The Pyramids

    No country is more entwined in the image of its great river than North Africa’s playground of history. Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt — the civilisation that sprouted on its marshy banks. Nearly every prime sight in the country is found on the edge of its waters, from the Aswan Dam to the Valley of the Kings. The most iconic structures visible via a river cruise? Almost certainly. For many the star attraction will always be the pyramids, looming out of the dust where the chaos of Cairo gives way to the ancient yesteryear of Giza.

    Angkor Wat

    There is a persuasive argument for Angkor Wat being the most formidable religious site in south-east Asia. This epic 12th-century Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple is a seductive spectacle, especially at sunset, when its domes are silhouetted against the sky. And yet, it is just one of the structures that made up the “lost” city of Angkor (the Ta Prohm temple is also unmissable). Thanks to its proximity to the Mekong river, it can easily be viewed via a cruise that takes in Cambodia’s other essential moments, such as the capital, Phnom Penh.

    Bagan

    If Angkor Wat is the must-see temple in south-east Asia, the shrines and stupas that decorate the fertile plains of the Mandalay region of Myanmar are a close second. More than 10,000 Buddhist temples were built in the ancient city of Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries and more than 2,000 of them can still be seen today, peeping through the tree line. Their beauty is underscored by their picturesque position on the edge of the Irrawaddy — the river that dissects this often mysterious country as it wends its way 2,200km to the Andaman Sea.

    The Balkans

    Such is the length of the Danube 2,850km that Budapest can be a starting point to go east into a region that, in European terms, is relatively unexplored. The river crosses the Balkans via Croatia (the rarely seen city of Vukovar), Serbia (Belgrade) and Bulgaria (Ruse, with its neo-Baroque homes) — before pouring its soul into the Black Sea. Some cruises end with time in Constanta, the Romanian port.

    From the blue-tiled mosques of Bukhara to the remote semi-autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan offers ancient culture and ample opportunity for adventure. Highlights include riding Tashkent’s glitzy metro, admiring Silk Road-era architecture and strolling Samarkand’s backstreets. Add to this Uzbek hospitality, as warm as it is heartfelt, colourful festivals and the fact you’re following in the footsteps of the greatest travellers and conquerors in history and there are all the ingredients of a riveting trip. Getting into the country, and getting around it, is now much easier.

    There’s less bureaucratic hassle, plenty of excellent English-speaking guides, an expanding and efficient rail network.

    WHERE TO BEGIN

    Overlanders may cross one of many borders from a neighbouring ‘stan but the capital, Tashkent, is the most common entry point. Begin centrally, at the Amir Timur statue (that’s 14th century Turco-Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, cast in bronze, on horseback), marvel at the hulking Hotel Uzbekistan, then buy a token for the Tashkent Metro. Modelled on the Moscow Metro, it’s all marble, chandeliers and carved alabaster (have your camera ready, photography restrictions were lifted early in 2018).

    Alight at Kosmonavtlar station, dedicated to Soviet space travel (look out for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space) and visit the Museum of Applied Arts for a primer on silk weaving, Uzbek hats (tubeteika) and local ceramics. Take the metro to the Old Town’s sprawling Chorsu Bazaar and wander lanes full of dairy goods, dried fruit and pyramids of vegetables. Buy a takeaway bag of salad and a roundel of Non bread. Tashkent deserves a few days, so don’t rush off.

    SILK HERITAGE

    Next, head to the Fergana Valley for 3-4 days. Take the morning train to Margilan (five hours), the hub of Uzbekistan’s silk industry. Arrive at lunchtime and go to the Yodgorlik Silk Factory to see master weavers working under mulberry trees and, if the fruit-filled Kumtepa Bazaar is on, (Thursdays and Sundays), visit that, too. Next, take a shared taxi (two hours) to historic Kokand. Visit its impressive mosques, try some local halva (sweets) and see some of the 100 or so rooms at the Khan’s Palace. Stay at Hotel Kokand, then, for a slice of village life, daytrip to little Rishton (45 minutes, shared taxi) for the famous pottery workshops and the Rishton Ceramic Museum.

    Continue to Andijan (also Andijon), a laid-back city with a decent bazaar (Jahon) and museums but infamous for the horrors of its 2005 massacre. One taste of Fergana’s celebrated melons and you’ll see why Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire and the city’s son, missed them so in India. Train back to Tashkent is around five hours.

    From the capital, bag a seat in a shared taxi and travel an hour north to Chimgan national park. If it’s summer, spend a few days hiking there taking in rock paintings, waterfalls and wild tulips. In winter, skiing is an option.

    Zip back to the capital and take the speedy Afrosiyob train to Samarkand and get your fill of towering and resplendent turquoise-tiled madrasas and mosques. Emir B&B is keenly priced with views of Gur-e-Amir, Tamerlane’s mausoleum. At night, have a drink at the atmospheric Blues Cafe.

    Next, escape the tour groups by heading north to the Nurata Mountains, taking shared taxis via Navoi, and spend a few days hiking and overnighting at yurt camps such as Sputnik. Try a camel ride and relax at the Chashma Spring, home to holy fish.

    BOWLED BY BUKHARA

    Bukhara is the most romantic of Uzbekistan’s cities with former merchant house B&Bs, boutiques galore and decent cafes (Cafe Wishbone is good for European coffee). It is easy to spend a few comfortable days here exploring the fortress known as the Ark of Bukhara and craning your neck at the Kalon Minaret (47 metres tall). Don’t miss Shavkat Boltaev’s long-established Bukhara Photo Gallery or Silk Road Spices for tea and sesame brittle.

    From Bukhara, make the long journey in a shared taxi to Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, via a necessary connection in Urgench (seven hours, then two more to Nukus). Now’s the time to add in ancient Khiva for more mosques and museums, if you don’t have Silk Road fatigue by now.

    In Nukus, allow half a day for the incredible Savitsky Museum, which is home to the second-largest collection of Russian avant garde art after St Petersburg’s State Russian Museum. Splurge by staying at the charming Jipek Joli hotel, complete with on-site museum, then side-trip to the former fishing port of Moynaq, to witness the Aral Sea Crisis and the resultant desolate ship graveyard.

    Uzbekistan’s rail network is expanding and it has fast trains between tourist cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, with a line to the western city of Khiva almost ready. The slow Soviet trains can be a drag and it’s often better to do as the locals do and take shared taxis: the cheapest, if sometimes slower (and often your only), option. They leave when they fill up. Pay extra for the front seat: more room, plus potentially less motion sickness.

    Bukhara has the lion’s share of family-run inns with character. My favourite is Kavsar Hotel, with its courtyard and antique-filled rooms. Samarkand’s hotels get booked up by tour groups, especially during the spring festival of Navruz and in the early summer and autumn (peak travel times) so book ahead.

    Accommodation-wise, an open mind helps in Uzbekistan as the country’s tourism scene is in its infancy and options are limited — especially in Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan. One night you could be in a Soviet-built monster, the next a basic motel-like inn. Tashkent has some five-star properties but there are few low-cost hotels to pick from.

    Overrated…

    Over-zealous restoration work has blighted much of Uzbekistan’s Timurid-era architecture and, unfortunately, Shahrisabz, south of Samarkand, is a key example. Hasty renovation — and a bid to offer a sanitised version of Uzbek tourism — has destroyed the very thing that made the city special: its medieval townscape, irrecoverably altered forever. Several residential mahallas (neighbourhoods) have been flattened, along with the historic bazaar and in their place is a new plaza.

    Underrated

    Everyone visits Bukhara’s Jewish quarter but hidden behind Samarkand’s enormous Registan ensemble is a warren of alleys with bread-makers, schools and children running amok, offering a slice of traditional mahalla life.

    If you eat or drink one thing

    Plov is served almost everywhere in Central Asia and Uzbeks are the masters of this layered rice dish that is generally eaten at lunch. At its most simple, plov is rice, onions and carrots usually topped with mutton, lamb or beef. More than just a dish, it represents hospitality, community and identity.

    Wherever you are, you’ll notice the distinct aroma of carrots, meat and rice that drifts up from bubbling cauldron-like kazans (large cauldrons) in courtyards and kitchens. Lagans (ceramic plates) of plov feed entire families. Eat it at one of the dedicated plov centres in Tashkent and Samarkand.

    Daily budget

    In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan generally offers the best value with its excellent and affordable homestay network. Oil-rich Kazakhstan, where hotels are often aimed at business people, is pricey, as is tricky Turkmenistan (where, unless you’re on a transit visa, you need a guide outside the capital). Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are on a par but in Tajikistan hiring drivers, for the Pamir Highway, for example, pushes the cost up. Food and drinks are generally cheap.

    Moving on

    From the Fergana Valley, use the Dostyk border between Andijan and Osh for Kyrgyzstan. Osh has an excellent market, pilgrimage sites (Suleiman Too) and decent homestays. From Samarkand, the nearby Penjikent border crossing, into Tajikistan, reopened last year. This border is the gateway to Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains, fantastic for trekking.

    We were midway through the Central Asia Rally in 2013 when we first heard of the mysterious ghost ships of the Aral Sea. All we knew were snippets of a conversation — uttered half in Russian — shared over a dubious coffee in a bordertown village of Kazakhstan.

    Tired and dusty from a mammoth 900-odd kilometre journey from Russia over the past few days, our adventurous spirit was briefly put on hold as we wearily crossed the border into Uzbekistan, with the aim to set up camp for the night in Moynoq (also spelled as Muynaq).

    Snuggled in our sleeping bags around a roaring fire that night, counting satellites as they moved across the starry night, it was there we first heard the tragic history of the Aral Sea. The water body, divided between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once known as the fourth largest lake in the world in terms of area.

    However, due to the former Soviet Union’s plan to launch a global cotton industry in the 60s, the rivers that fed the lake were diverted to fuel this short-lived venture. By the late 90s, human intervention and climate change had all but dried up the lake, leaving behind a ship graveyard that serves as a haunting history of man-made disasters.

    If time permits, do take a detour to visit these bleak ghost ships, lying abandoned and rusted in an endless sea of sand, mutely narrating their own terrifying story of a time gone by. The best route to visit the place is by heading to the city of Nukus, which lies north of Bukhara.

    How do I get there?

    flydubai will operate five flights per week between Dubai and Tashkent starting March 11. Flights to Tashkent will operate from Terminal 3, Dubai International Airport. The average cost of a return ticket is Dh1,550.

    They arrive in battered cars, on crutches and sometimes on a stretcher barely able to breathe – but salvation is close for thousands of Hindus who go to the holy city of Varanasi each year to die.

    Some end up in homes for the elderly overlooking the revered Ganges river where they eventually hope to be cremated but a few struggle to the Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan, or Salvation House, which is reserved for those with only a few days to live.

    About 20 men and women each month come from around the world to finish their days at Varanasi’s ‘Death Hotel’, a tired old red colonial-era building with 12 sparse concrete floor rooms.

    Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi releases them from the eternal cycle of life and death reincarnation. Cremation in the Ganges is an added spiritual bonus.

    There used to be more guest houses like Mukti Bhawan, but the buildings have increasingly become regular hotels for tourists who bring more cash to the city where 24-hour cremations on the holy river are a huge draw.

    Bhairav Nath Shukla, who has been Mukti Bhawan’s caretaker for more than four decades, said most of his residents pass away within in a few days.

    Normally, two weeks is the limit for using a room.

    “There have been some exceptions. Some people were really sick but were still alive after more than a week,” said Shukla, who is often to be found in the courtyard in front of the entrance.

    “Sometimes we ask their family to take them home and come back again later. Sometimes we let them stay longer.”

    Because of the growing development in Varanasi, Mukti Bhawan, which is run by a charity, no longer has a view of the river. But there is still no shortage of mainly poor people wanting to die there.

    Many have travelled thousands of kilometres (miles), sometimes taking a plane from a foreign country, or even just being put in the back of a car in an isolated Indian village.

    The residents pay about a dollar a day for their room and a fan.

    Daily prayers are led by an elderly “pandit” Hindu priest who also offers residents Ganges water, which is considered pure and holy by Hindus.

    For those with extra cash, a local Hindu choir can also be hired to perform holy songs for the ailing visitors.

    “All kinds of people from different backgrounds come here,” said Shukla. “They come from the east, the south, remote northeast India and abroad.

    “Most come here with their family who pray and wait for the end.”

    Shukla reckons more than 15,000 people have died at Mukti Bhawan and been taken to the Ganges for cremation since it opened in about 1908.

    And while Hindus maintain their undying belief in Varanasi’s spiritual powers the Mukti Bhawan path to salvation has a bright future, he says.

    Skiers descend in long, rhythmic swoops down pristine white slopes in northern Pakistan, braking in a spray of snow as soldiers carrying semi-automatic weapons watch impassively.

    Dozens of athletes took part at a rare international competition in the South Asian country, which boasts some of the world’s highest mountains but remains off-piste for most winter sports enthusiasts after years of conflict and a lack of infrastructure.

    Nestled in the Karakoram mountain range, the Naltar Ski Resort has been at the heart of Pakistan’s efforts to draw winter sport tourists since the first international competition was held there in 2015.

    “Pakistan has a lot of things to learn but with every year it’s getting better,” said Ukrainian skier Anastasiia Gorbunova, who admitted she used to think it was a “pretty dangerous country”.

    “Now I know it’s a cliche because as I saw, people are sweet, they are nice, they try to make you feel like you’re at home and I appreciate that.”

    Security has dramatically improved across Pakistan following a crackdown on militant groups in recent years.

    Authorities recently re-opened another resort in the nearby Swat Valley that had been closed for years by insurgent activity, while other ski facilities are being developed elsewhere in the country.

    Laura Moore, a representative of the International Ski Federation with the Azerbaijan team, said Pakistan boasted unrivalled ski conditions.

    But she added that lengthy road travel and the regular grounding of flights during inclement weather made access to ski fields a tricky prospect – “off-piste and maybe with a helicopter”.

    “I think it’s definitely more for the adventurer,” Moore said at Sunday’s competition.

    Pakistan is home to several peaks higher than 8,000 metres including K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world.

    Skiers at the Naltar event were hosted by the Pakistan Air Force, who own the ski resort and facilitated their transport from the capital Islamabad.

    “Not all countries have mountains like this,” Berkin Usta, a Turkish skier who won the men’s Grand Slalom event. “It’s really good.”

    Highlight

    Japan is pulling out all stops to attract tourists to its shores steeped in tradition and natural beauty, including investing in a halal-friendly environment
     

    Holidays are like relationships. Just like some people are fleeting moments in your life, not every destination sticks with you. Some, however, leave an indelible imprint on your life. Japan fits this analogy perfectly. One visit is all it takes to start an enduring relationship with this country where antiquity and modernity exist in harmony. Japan has a modern outlook anchored in technological innovation. A rich culture, profound Buddhist and Shinto spiritual traditions and picture-perfect natural attractions make it appealing to travellers of all hues.

    Japan welcomed a record 31 million tourists in 2018, up 8.7 per cent from 2017 and rising for the seventh straight year. Last year, 7,600 people from the UAE visited Japan. This is an 11 per cent increase from 2017, but the country is not resting on its laurels.

    “More than 80 per cent of Japan’s tourists come from East Asia,” says Dr Akima Umezawa, Consul General of Japan in Dubai. “We are widening the scope of our travel marketing to other regions, including the Gulf. We are working on improving visa relaxation rules and facilities to make tourists, especially Muslims, more comfortable.”

    Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) has launched a campaign called Enjoy My Japan to target frequent travellers who do not see the country as a travel destination. JNTO’s mandate is to change this perception and achieve the government target of 40 million visitors by 2020, with visitor expenditure reaching 8 trillion yen (Dh267 billion) and repeat visitor numbers reaching 24 million.

    “We want to send a clear message to the UAE travel industry that we are finally here,” says Kazuhiro Ito, Executive Director, Global Projects Department, JNTO, during a presentation at a seminar on Japan tourism hosted recently in Dubai by the consul general.

    With the number of Muslim visitors increasing considerably in recent years, Japanese tourist associations and businesses are making efforts to ensure they feel at home. “For example, we are working with the government, hotels and restaurants to create a halal-friendly environment,” says Ito.

    “We have created a website (Muslimguide.jnto.go.jp/eng/) to make it easy for Muslim tourists to find halal places to eat. The website is available in 11 languages, including Arabic.”

    Hotels too are introducing facilities such as prayer rooms and halal menus. “We put food labels on all items, for religious sensitivity, allergies and so on,” says Yugi Ogino, Sales Manager at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo. “We also have a halal restaurant map for Muslim guests.”

    When to visit?

    Japan’s climate can be distilled down to four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter), and each is culturally important. Late spring (March to May) and late autumn (September to November) are considered the best times to visit as there is little rain, clear skies and mild temperatures. What’s more, the magical sakura (cherry blossoms) in spring and the vividly-hued trees in autumn are visually stunning. In Tokyo, the flowers usually bloom sometime between end March and early April.

    “Spring is known for its beautiful cherry blossoms, but we also have a lot to offer throughout the year,” says Dr Umezawa.

    “The prefectures that are proud of cherry blossoms have their campaigns every year, but the Japanese tourism strategy is not focused on the cherry blossom season alone.

    “We have a lot to offer in summer and autumn too,” said Dr Umezawa. Japan receives the highest number of visitors in April followed by June and July. “We also get considerable tourists in winter because of the food, scenery or activities such as skiing.”

    Lesser-known regions

    While Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are a must-visit for first-time tourists, Japan’s 47 prefectures are dotted with plenty of just-as-appealing sights, culture and history.

    “I have travelled to almost all 47 prefectures, but I’ve never set foot on Shikoku Island,” revealsDr Umezawa. “It offers the warmest hospitality with great food and accommodation, but it is a bit challenging to get there even though we now have a train. Lack of easy access means lesser tourists, but also ensures that the island remains pristine.”

    Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu, is also a paradise for tourists looking to get off the beaten track. The lush green countryside is home to active volcanoes, waterfalls, natural hot springs and a semi-tropical coastline. “Kyushu has seven prefectures,” says Kenji Ichimura, Deputy Manager, Global Projects Section, Global Projects Department, JNTO. “You will encounter untouched nature.”

    Sushi is sophisticated, but we have food that while not being as presentable is absolutely delicious. For example, we love ramen even if it does not look great in terms of presentation.

    What people don’t know

    In 2013, Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural organisation, added traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It joined French food in the exclusive club.

    Japanese cuisine conjures up mouth-watering images of sushi, sashimi, tempura, teriyaki and Wagyu beef, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Certainly, these are delightful foods made popular abroad, but Japanese cuisine is much more diverse,” says Dr Umezawa. “Sushi is sophisticated, but we have food that while not being as presentable is absolutely delicious. For example, we love ramen even if it does not look great in terms of presentation.”

    Finally, the million-yen question. Does everyone in Japan practise minimalism, an art that is the rage globally? “It’s minimalism for the rest of the world, but for us Japanese it simply means tidying up our surroundings and minimising waste,” says Dr Umezawa.

    “We were taught to clean up our classrooms, especially in elementary school. We believe that using fewer items in daily life leads to less waste.”

    Film City Mumbai, officially known as Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagri, is the place where stars sparkle during the day.

    Sprawled over 520 acres of land, the unique “city” boasts 40 outdoor locations and 16 air-conditioned studios, nestled in the centre of miles of lush green expanses.

    Established in 1977 by the state government to provide facilities and concessions to the film industry, it is 500 acres of pure action, that unveils more than a hundred films within the year. The plan for Film City was prepared and executed under the guidance of filmmaker V Shantaram. It was renamed Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari in 2001 in memory of India’s first producer-director-screenwriter Dadasaheb Phalke, considered the father of Indian film industry.

    Bollywood, renowned for its intricate plots and mysterious schemes, weeping tragedies and side splitting comedies, as well as its plain yet highly entertaining productions, owes the film city for practically every production, both on the small and big screen.

    Myth or mystique, fact or fiction, dance or drama, you can pick any combination and just let the camera roll. From ‘Burning Train’ to ‘Devdas’ or ‘Chanakya’ to ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’, there are reels of evidence to support the diversity to be found.

    There are several other permanent locations such as the temple or church we see on countless television shows. Others include the courtroom and the police station, jail, chawl (low-budget housing), bank, car parking, shopping arcade, log hut, cottage, tribal village, multipurpose building exterior suitable for college, hospital and hostel entrance, which serve the immediate needs of filmmakers.

    In addition to the man-made marvels, perhaps no other studios complex has such an offering of natural spots including gardens, lakes, dense forests, hills, valleys and 8km of WBM (Water Bound Macadam) road.

    The Film City provides a world-class facility for colour film processing within its complex, managed by highly skilled professionals. It also offers Digital Intermediates (a motion picture finishing process) and Telecine facilities. Also featuring the Whistling Woods International Institute of Media and Arts, promoted by Indian filmmaker Subhash Ghai, and Mukta Arts and Film City Mumbai, aspiring filmmakers and actors can pursue their dreams right in the heart of where the action happens.

    In 2014, the tourism board of the Maharashtra state government launched guided tours of the Film City for the public, each ticket costing Rs600 (Dh30.7). This tour gives you a chance to step into the magical world of Bollywood. Your guide will give you insight into the film production process. It is an absolute dream world, where everything is beautiful, perfect, and it is almost easy to trod the thin line between ‘real’ and ‘fake’.

    Your visit to Mumbai is incomplete until you have had a taste of Bollywood through Film City.

    My last visit to film city was almost 28 years ago, when Mumbai was just Bombay and Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagri was just Film City.

    I was excited to relive those memories of Bollywood in the 90s, chatting with the actors, directors and crew members, not realising that just like the outside world, this magical land of hopes and dreams has changed over time. Those were the days when you could talk and walk with the stars without any restrictions; this time, the extreme sense of barriers and tight security was felt right at the entrance.

    I remember meeting the late actor Om Puri on the sets of Bharat Ek Khoj in the green room. Rekha, who was a top star back then, had dropped in for an impromptu meeting with Puri. He introduced me to Rekha, who, on a whim, decided to join us for a light-hearted chat.

    On that same trip I had a one-on-one with Amitabh Bachchan on the set of Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi, while the late great Dev Anand was shooting on another set with Aamir Khan for the film Awwal Number. Impromptu meetings with the late Sridevi, Jitendra, Chunky Pandey and Neelam were all in a day’s work. But these days, it is next to impossible to enter Film City unless you are a tourist willing to pay the price at the gates.

    A lot of the work culture has also changed over time: production shoots have moved indoors; sitcoms have visibly surpassed movies being shot there. Both, the production teams and the actors, prefer staying in the comforts of air-conditioned vanity vans when possible.

    Touring Bollywood

    One of the best ways to explore the streets of Film City is through guided tours, which are readily available for all and this opportunity is a unique one that allows the tourists to witness the ropes of movie-making in action.

    It’s like a rendezvous with Bollywood in the most intimate manner, of course without actually meeting the faces of the productions. Being on the tour you will get a glimpse of the hard work that goes into making movies and how the story of Indian Cinema unfolded. The Bollywood Dream Tour is a two-hour excursion of the Film City studio that mainly covers the history of Bollywood and post-production activities, giving an interesting insight into what goes into making a movie. Ticket prices for the same start at Rs599 (Dh30) per person.

    The tour is pretty strict about starting on time, with a 10 minute buffer given. The sets are beautiful and meticulously built. The biggest drawback of the tour is, except for two locations, you’re not allowed off the bus, even to take photographs on the sets. Secondly, if you are expecting to spot some Bollywood bigwigs, don’t hold your breath since the chances of that happening are very slim. And even if you do spot someone, you’re not allowed to click pictures since it will disrupt the shoot.

    You get a bottle of water and a packet of chips. The bus is comfortable and so is the ride. The guide starts off by showing his audience a movie on the brief history of Bollywood, setting up the right mood for the trip. As you cruise through the by lanes of Film City, the tour guide gives you a brief description of the sets.

    With six tours every day, the process may seem clinical to many, but anyone who has ever been curious about the magical world of films will live their dream in a small way.

    Dubai: After he was elected in March 2013, Pope Francis was shown the papal apartments where the supreme pontiff traditionally stays. He reportedly exclaimed “But there is room here for 300 people!”

    Breaking the Vatican tradition, during a secret conclave of cardinals, he decided not to live in the apostolic apartments.

    According to a 2013 Telegraph article: “Instead he opted to remain in the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican residence which accommodates visiting clergy and lay people, where he had stayed with his fellow cardinals during the conclave. He lives in a suite of rooms in the residence, which sits in the shadow of St Peter’s Basilica, on the other side of the Vatican city state to the apostolic apartments.”

    The pope, is the Bishop of Rome and the ex officio leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. Since 1929, the pope has also been head of state of Vatican City, a city-state enclaved within Rome, Italy.

    Vatican City

    The Vatican City State is universally recognised under the international law as a sovereign State, distinct from the Holy See – the office of the Pope.

    The Vatican’s history as the seat of the Catholic Church began with the construction of a basilica over St. Peter’s grave in Rome in the 4th century AD. The area developed into a popular pilgrimage site and commercial district.

    In 1309, it was abandoned following the move of the papal court to France. However, the Church returned in 1377 and famous landmarks such the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel and the new St. Peter’s Basilica were erected within the city limits. Vatican City was established in its current form as a sovereign nation with the signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929.

    Timeline

    The term ‘Vatican’ was used in ancient times to identify the marshy area on the right bank of the Tiber River, between the Milvio Bridge and the present Sixtus Bridge. During the monarchy and the republican age, the area was known as Ager Vaticanus. During the early years of the Roman Empire, it became an administrative region populated by villas, as well as a circus built in the gardens of Emperor Caligula’s mother, to let the charioteers train. It was later restored by Emperor Nero who reigned from 54 to 68 AD. Tradition has it that Peter suffered martyrdom there in the great Christian persecution ordered by Nero in 64 AD.

    In 313, after embracing Christianity, Emperor Constantine I, with the Edict of Milan, began constructing a basilica over St. Peter’s tomb in 324.

    Originally, the word ‘basilica’ was used to refer to an ancient Roman public building, where courts were held. It also served as a meeting place for administration, as a law court, and as a marketplace.

    St. Peter’s Basilica soon became a spiritual center for Christian pilgrims. This led to the development of housing for clergymen and a marketplace that became the thriving commercial district of Borgo.

    In 846, an attack by pirates damaged St. Peter’s. Pope Leo IV ordered the construction of a wall to protect the holy basilica and its associated precincts. The 39-foot-tall wall was completed in 852 and enclosed the Leonine City, an area covering the current Vatican territory and the Borgo district. The walls were continually expanded and modified until the reign of Pope Urban VIII in the 1640s.

    Although the pontiff traditionally lived at the nearby Lateran Palace, Pope Symmachus built a residence adjacent to St. Peter’s in the early 6th century. It was expanded hundreds of years later by both Eugene III and Innocent III. In 1277, a half-mile-long covered passageway was assembled to link the structure to Castel Sant’Angelo.

    Rebuilding St Peter’s Basilica

    In 1309, the papal court was shifted to Avignon, France. Rome and St Peter’s were abandoned for over a century. Although the popes returned to Rome in 1377, another fifty years passed before the city regained its former lustre. The possibility of completely rebuilding St Peter’s was first broached in the mid-15th century.

    Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) had the architect Bernardo Rossellino draw up plans for enlarging the Basilica, adding on an apse more prominent than the Constantinian one. The project had to be abandoned a few years later when the Turks started to advance and Constantinople fell. Between 1477 and 1480 Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1492) started building a great chapel, named “Sistina” or the Sistine Chapel after him. It was decorated with frescoes painted by the then leading Renaissance artists like Botticelli and Perugino. It was inaugurated on 15th August 1483.

    Significant changes to the city took place after Julius II became pope in 1503. He started to pull down the Constantinian basilica, began work on the new Saint Peter’s, and built the famous Belvedere Courtyard. His intention was to connect the small Palace of Belvedere, which was constructed by his predecessor Innocent VIII (1484-1492) and which stood to the north of the courtyard, with the cluster of medieval buildings to the south. Pope Julius also summoned Raphael and Michelangelo to Rome, asking them, respectively, to fresco the papal apartments and the Sistine Chapel. Work continued throughout the century. After various initial difficulties were overcome, the Basilica of Saint Peter was planned and built by Michelangelo (mid-16th century).

    Measuring 452 feet tall and encompassing 5.7 acres, the new St. Peter’s stood as the world’s biggest church until the completion of the Ivory Coast’s Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in 1989.

    In 1984, the Vatican City was declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultoral organisation (Unesco) as a World Heritage Site under the Cultural category.

    Where does the pope live?

    Traditionally, the Apostolic Palace is the official residence of the reigning pope.

    However, Pope Francis chose not to live in the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace, but to remain in the Vatican guest house, in a suite in which he can receive visitors and hold meetings. He is the first pope since Pope Pius X to live outside the papal apartments.

    The Apostolic Palace

    Also referred to as the Vatican Palace, the Papal Palace, the Sacred Palace and also the Palace of the Vatican, it is located North-East of St. Peter’s Basilica and next to the Bastion of Nicholas V and the Palace of Gregory XIII. The construction of the current Apostolic Palace started on the 30th of April 1589 during the reign of Pope Sixtus V and it was completed by his successors Pope Urban VII, Pope Innocent XI and Pope Clement VIII.

    The Apostolic Palace is a complex building comprising of several Papal Apartments, the Vatican Museums, some of the Catholic Church’s government offices, the Vatican Library, and a number of both private and public chapels among other buildings.

    Generally, there are over 1000 rooms within the Apostolic Palace. The palace is not merely the pope’s residence. It is also houses offices that are used for other administrative functions of the Holy See.

    The renowned Sistine Chapel and the Raphael’s Rooms are a part of the Apostolic Palace.

    Armed forces

    The Vatican City State has never had independent armed forces, but it has always had a de facto military provided by the armed forces of the Holy See: the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the Noble Guard, the Palatine Guard, and the Papal Gendarmerie Corps. The Pontifical Military Corps, except for the Swiss Guard, was disbanded by will of Pope Paul VI, as expressed in a letter of September 14, 1970. The Gendarme Corps of Vatican City State is responsible for all police activities and answers to the State Authority. It is a civil, not a military, organization.

    The Museum of Bad Art

    There’s always a feeling of insignificance when you walk through art museums and see works by brilliant artists. MOBA, as it is known for short, is a museum that prides itself on its collection of bad art in all its forms. You won’t feel terrible about any lack of talent and will walk out of the museum feeling like you are an incredible artist. Their slogan is: “art too bad to be ignored.”

    Location Brookline and Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

    Salt and Pepper museum

    This museum in is home to over 20,000 sets of salt and pepper shakers from around the world. The unique museum is the only one of its kind. It has so many different salt and pepper figurines and they are cute as heck.

    Location Tennessee, USA

    Cup Noodle and Instant Ramen Museum

    Cup noodles are the top choice for struggling students and bachelors everywhere. This instant ramen museum in Japan will show you the vast array of options you have when it comes to instant noodles. Make sure you check out the tunnel of instant ramen. There’s even a restaurant, where you can make your own instant noodles and enjoy a lovely meal.

    Location Ikeda-shi, Japan

    Cancun Underwater Museum

    In this museum, you’ll need to be in scuba or snorkel gear, as it is around 8 metres below sea level. The museum is made up of over 500 permanent life-sized and monumental sculptures and is one of the largest underwater art attractions in the world. The sculptures are made out of natural clay, which allows marine life to thrive on their surfaces.

    Location Cancun, Mexico

    Museum of Broken Relationships

    The idea behind this museum is to give people the opportunity to immerse themselves in the heartbreak of others. Heartbroken individuals can also donate their things to the museum and contribute to the collection. It’s a bittersweet feeling. You’ll get to see things that people have been hanging onto. You’ll laugh cry as you admire the awesome and very human collection.

    Location Hollywood, USA

    Sulabh International Toilet Museum

    This museum is all about showing people the importance of sanitation. It is home to a rare collection of toilets and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC to date. If you are interested in toilets and how they’ve evolved over the years, then definitely add this weird museum to your list.

    Location New Delhi, India

    Torture Museum

    The Torture Museum is not a place for the light hearted. This one will take you back in time to the dark European history. The museum is home to over 40 different instruments of torture.

    Location Amsterdam, Netherlands

    The Museum of Human Disease

    There is a reason we never stop needing doctors -There’s tonnes of different diseases out there. The Museum of Human Disease looks at a huge variety of diseases and their effects on the human body. They show you how to dissect. You can also choose to look at some of the most common causes of death. Very educational.

    Location Sydney, Australia

    Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum

    If you love weird and maybe slightly creepy collections (thank you horror films), then definitely check out Vent Haven. Ventriloquism is a cornerstone of entertainment history and Vent Haven Museum is the only place in the world dedicated to this centuries old performance art. The founder, W.S. Berger, spent more than 40 years adding to his personal collection of everything related to ventriloquism.

    Location Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, USA

    From active cruising to riding the new sky-high ski-lift in Zermatt, here’s a list of where you should be taking your holidays this year.

    A is for ACTIVE CRUISING

    The general assumption is that a cruise involves a lot of sitting about on deck with the occasional day exploring a fascinating port of call, but not much in the way of exercise. This will change in the summer with the arrival of Blue World Voyages — a start-up marketing itself as “the world’s first cruise line dedicated to sports and wellness”. This will equate to a series of on-board gyms, spinning studios, yoga spaces and a swimming pool that is created by lowering a floating frame on to the sea. Voyages are likely to visit Cuba, Costa Rica and the Mediterranean.

    B is for Brexit

    The European Commission’s intimation that, following Brexit, Britons will not need a visa to visit the EU for stays of up to 90 days but will need to enrol in the new scheme Etias (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) has brought a modicum of clarity to the question of how people will travel on the continent after March 2019. But those booking their summer vacations may face the misery of delays and cancellations at the airports.

    C is for CRUISING THE CURRENTS

    The rise of river cruising shows no sign of abating. The main players in this surge are Europe’s two key rivers for travel, the Rhine and the Danube — meandering giants whose mixtures of splendid scenery and historic cities makes for grand journeys. Options are myriad; follow an eight-day Best of the Rhine itinerary, which sails the river south-east between Cologne and Basel, pausing in Strasbourg en route.

    D is for DAVID ATTENBOROUGH

    Sir David Attenborough’s decision to voice a show for Netflix marks another shift in our viewing habits — away from conventional television and towards streaming services. ‘Our Planet’ will run in eight parts, available from April 5, and will feature footage of 50 countries, filmed over four years. It’s a fair bet the Sahara will feature, so if you want to trace hallowed footsteps, you could try a Southern Morocco odyssey for a 10-day birdwatching group trip that searches for the feathered inhabitants of the globe’s largest desert.

    E is for ESCAPING THE EUROZONE

    While it is difficult to make concrete predictions about the chess game that is Brexit, the strength of sterling has been rather easier to ascertain. So it would make sense to book a sunshine holiday beyond the eurozone. Almost four years after the terror attacks that so hurt its image, Tunisia is in focus again. Turkey could be another port in the travel storm.

    F is for FAMILY TRAVEL

    The era of people packing away their passports at the first cry of a newborn is over. While Orlando, Florida was, perhaps unsurprisingly, named as the most popular destination for families last year, the top five also featured Las Vegas. Those who want to take their offspring across continents, but to somewhere more inspirational than a Nevada casino, could consider the Family Inca Trail Adventure offered by Explore which takes in the Peruvian Amazon as well as Machu Picchu.

    G is for GALLERY GETAWAYS

    While it always seems a little odd to recall someone’s death with gusto, there is no doubt that the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s last breath (May 2, 1519) will be a spark for travels in 2019. Make a pilgrimage to Milan for an audience with The Last Supper at the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie.

    H is for HONEST PRICING

    We have all been in that do-I-don’t-I? situation — caught in a moment of minor consumer panic as the screen tells us that there is but one more room available at this unbeatable (and never-to-be-repeated) price. To book or not to book? That is the question. Last June, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) cracked down on hotel booking websites, and the practice of “pressure selling”.

    I is for INTERNAL TRAVEL

    Whatever emerges from the Brexit labyrinth come March, one beneficiary of leaving the EU in 2019 is sure to be the British travel industry — as many holidaymakers seek refuge from the uncertainty by setting up breaks on home soil. A raft of new tours for suggests there will be demand for holidays in the UK. If you have to pick one, take the Peter Sommer Travels Exploring Wales: Millennia Under The Gaze Of Mountains, a seven-day guided group trip, which will dissect the history of south and west Wales via Roman sites in Gwent and Tudor castles in Pembrokeshire.

    J is for JAIME LANNISTER

    Or Cersei Lannister. Or Arya Stark. Or Jon Snow. Take your pick. ‘Game of Thrones’ is set to return for its eighth and final series in April, and travel adventures in its armoured bootsteps are sure to follow. Where? Croatia remains fertile ground, Dubrovnik as the Westeros capital King’s Landing. Same itinerary includes a 15-day highlights of Croatia fly-drive break that spends four nights in the city and also visits Sibenik, that has served as Braavos.

    House Stark crops up again in Northern Ireland, where Castle Ward in Co Down is now better known as the family’s ancestral home Winterfell. A 10-day Shamrocks and Leprechauns group tour that charts both Irelands, and visits Castle Down for an archery session at the range on the film set. Guests can also dress up in costumes from the show.

    K is for KENYA ET AL

    The country’s resurgence is down to the quality of its safaris — and there is no reason why this upward arc shouldn’t continue in 2019. A nine-day Greater Kudu Fly-In Safari allows you to spend four nights amid the big cats and elephant herds of the Maasai Mara. Botswana’s ranking high on a list of African safaris is due in part to the majesty of the Okavango Delta. This can be seen with Natural World Safaris, which takes a careful approach to the country in its 11-day Botswana Silent Safari — gliding into the wetlands by boat, and exploring the bush on foot at the Shinde Concession.

    L is for LOW-COST SKIING

    Skiing is rarely seen as a cheap pursuit, but younger travellers will be able to save money this season — without compromising on style — via the boutique hostels that have been popping up across the French Alps. Ho36 is leading the way, having opened a low-cost ski-in-ski-out retreat in traditionally pricey Les Menuires — beds from €22 (Dh91) a night. A sister hostel exists in La Plagne from €21 a night. The pattern continues in Oz en Oisans, where the Moontain Hostel has a restaurant and bar as well as beds from €23 a night.

    M is for MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

    Few things boost the profile of a historical figure like a major cinematic biopic, and the release of ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ on January 17 in the UAE with Saoirse Ronan in the title role, and Margot Robbie as her cousin-nemesis Elizabeth I — is likely to revive interest in the 16th century’s most interesting (yet conflicted) monarch. Her story is easily traced at Linlithgow Palace, near Edinburgh, where she was born on Dec 8 1542 — and at Stirling Castle, where she was crowned barely a year later, on September 9 1543 — her father James V having died when she was six days old. Both sites make clear her relevance to the politics of the time.

    N is for NEW FLIGHTS

    Every year witnesses a burst of new flights, and 2019 will be no different. The trend for “ultra-long-haul” will continue with Singapore Airlines — fresh from restoring the world’s longest flight, its 9,534-mile (15,343km) marathon from Singapore to Newark (New York), to the map in October — launching an almost-as-far hop to Seattle (8,070 miles/12,987km) on Sept 3.

    O is for OVERTOURISM

    A word that barely existed a year ago has become a key part of the travel lexicon — “thanks” largely to a 2018 that saw celebrated places stretched to the seams by the weight of their own popularity. Venice was an ocean of queues and people-jams on Easter Sunday, when it received 125,000 visitors — as many as Bangladesh receives in a whole year. And a tour bus was briefly hijacked by demonstrators in Barcelona in July — just another protest in a continued outpouring of concern about tourist numbers in the Catalan capital. The issue will only grow in significance in 2019.

    P is for POLAR POSSIBILITIES

    The idea that anywhere as vast and remote as the frozen continent could be managed by a stroke of the pen may seem a curious one. But next December nonetheless marks the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty — the international agreement, signed by 53 countries, which protects the last landmass as a scientific preserve where military activity is banned. World Expeditions makes a point of this, taking guests ashore only in small numbers, in the company of qualified naturalists. It has a 10-day Antarctic Discovery cruise, scheduled for March 22, which will focus particularly on whale migrations as it sails towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

    Q is for QUEEN VICTORIA

    Although she died almost 118 years ago, the woman who occupied the British throne for nearly two thirds of the 19th century rarely falls too far from public perception. The third series of ITV’s dramatisation of Queen Victoria’s life (with Jenna Coleman wearing the crown) — an apposite moment, as the new year is also the ex-monarch’s bicentennial (she was born at Kensington Palace, on May 24, 1819). Her birthplace will host an exhibition (from May 24) that will let visitors explore the rooms that framed the Princess’s strictly governed childhood.

    R is for RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL

    The decision by the Central American country Belize to phase out all single-use plastic products by Earth Day on April 22, 2019 should be a marker for travels where we consider our impact on the world around us. You can do your bit by travelling with Responsible Travel, an online agency that pools forward-thinking breaks from more than 400 operators, describing its mission as to provide “authentic travel experiences that cause the least damage to people and places”. One example is its Belize Sea Kayaking Holiday — a seven-day group tour where you chart the country’s coast using your own paddle power rather than a car.

    S is for SINGLE-PARENT TRAVEL

    Here is another growing market, as tour operators wake up to the fact that there are single parents and their holiday needs are as important as anyone else’s. Single With Kids deals in “holidays for single parents in group settings”, with lone mums or dads and their broods relaxing together. A seven-night all-inclusive getaway to a resort on the Dubrovnik Riviera is something to consider.

    T is for TRAINS

    The American rail network is often seen as a slow-moving relic — but in 2019, this will be a good thing. May 10 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Great Transcontinental Railroad — the first train line that connected the east and west coasts of the US (the final track being laid at Promontory Summit, Utah). You can roll west yourself on the exact day via the April 27 departure of the Trans-American Rail Tour 2019 offered by Great Rail Journeys — a 19-day trip between New York and San Francisco via the likes of Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas.

    U is for UNDERTOURISM

    One answer to overtourism is to choose destinations that are (relatively) undersubscribed. This may mean thinking laterally, and trying places that offer the same enticements as the old favourites, but less of the headcount. For Barcelona read Valencia, which revels in nightlife and restaurants in Ruzafa and, in Playa de la Malvarrosa, has a beach where you can find space. Better still, the world is full of unexplored corners. You can find them in Europe. Take an eight-day Georgia food and drinks tour that charts this fascinating yet little-seen country.

    V is for VISION OF THE FUTURE

    It’s nice to put a face to a name. This old conversational gambit will have a more modern application in 2019, as facial recognition technology becomes more prevalent at airports. Last May, easyJet began trialling a “self-boarding” procedure on selected flights from Gatwick. It involves passengers’ photographs being taken as they scan their passports and boarding passes at check-in, and their identities being verified remotely at the gate. What once needed several staff members is now — security aside — free of all human interaction.

    W is for WALKING HOME

    The coming year will feel timely for those who like to place one foot in front of the other. September will mark the 100th birthday of the Forestry Commission in the UK, whose work has forged the likes of Argyll Forest Park — the 82 square mile treescape on the Cowal Peninsula in the Highlands, which stands as a haven for quiet strolls. December will mark the 70th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which prepared the ground for the likes of Snowdonia National Park. Good enough reason to escape to one, or both? Most certainly.

    X is for XENOPHILIA

    If recent times have felt defined by mistrust of outsiders, and you are fed up with that, there is an antidote. For what is the opposite of xenophobia? If we stroll the marbled hall of the Greek language, we find “xenophilia” — “an affection for unknown or foreign people”, and a single-word manifestation, if you will, of the thought that travel broadens the mind. How to convert this idea into actual travel? Craft trips that bring visitors closer to their hosts. These include a 14-day India Cultural Immersion Tour — which, as well as showing off the sights of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, lets participants volunteer at a school and work on a water conservation initiative at Chandelao, a village close to Jodhpur.

    Y is for YOUR OWN WAY

    Do you need friends, family, lovers or partners in tow to enjoy a holiday? Increasingly, research says not. This trend should continue in 2019, as specialist operators tap into this growing market. Travel One has added Puntarenas on the Pacific edge of Costa Rica to its brochure: nine-night, half-board holidays for single travellers at the four-star Hotel Punta Leona.

    Z is for ZER-MATTERS

    The general principle of skiing is that you go downwards. But up is also important — and Alpine resorts are proving as much this winter with the unveiling of new state-of-the-art lifts. Swiss playground Zermatt has just inaugurated the world’s highest tri-cable lift system — the Matterhorn Glacier Ride, which will whisk skiers from piste to piste with added speed, connecting the Trockener Steg and Klein Matterhorn peaks. Not to be outdone, Zermatt’s compatriot Andermatt is playing a similar card, inaugurating the pacy Oberalppass-Schneehuenerstock gondola to neighbouring Sedrun.

    Dubai: The diamond and textile hub of India, Surat will now be linked to the UAE via a direct, non-stop flight to Sharjah that will operate twice a week. India’s budget carrier, Air India Express will launch its maiden flight on February 16, 2019.

    With this flight, Surat will become the 20th Indian destination in the Air India Express network.

    Air India Express flight IX-172 will depart from Sharjah at 7.35pm and arrive in Surat at 11.45pm on Mondays and Saturdays. Flight IX-171 from Surat to Sharjah will depart from at 12.30am with arrive in Sharjah at 2.15am on Tuesdays and Sundays.

    Air India Express is offering attractive all-inclusive inaugural fares starting from Rs8,849 (approximately Dh450) on Surat-Sharjah sector and Dh529 for travel from Sharjah to Surat.

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