3 days in Budapest for baths, architectural gems and nights out in the ruin bars

Big fan of Budapest.  The city itself has a certain unusual quality compared to other well known European cities just because of its history in the Austro-Hungarian empire and strong Eastern European (and Middle Eastern) influence.  This combined with the bath culture and great energy from the easily accessible night spots (think beer gardens rather than clubs) make it quite a gem for a long weekend trip

A day in Almaty

Almaty is described by the Lonely Planet as being the highlight of Central Asia – I certainly wouldn’t go that far, mainly because the city itself is just a bit too former-Soviet-concrete and without enough wow factor to justify that, but more than anything there are some great experiences around the rest of Central Asia

 

That being said though, there are some things that are definitely worth doing and its nice to walk through some of the streets which feel more European in style and vibe than Asian.  I’ll only provide a short entry here as, of the two times I’ve been, one was quite some time ago (2008) and the other a bit of a lash / partying blur.  I’d suggest though giving yourself a full day and checking out:

 

  • The picture perfect Zenkov’s Cathedral – gorgeous and sits within the pretty Panfilovtsev Park.  I visited in summer and autumn, but I’ve seen photos of the cathedral in winter with the snow and looks stunning
  • The views from Kok-Tobe Hill are worth taking the cable car up for – and you can often get to the Golden Eagles there which is cool
  • The Arasan Bathhouse – a great for experiencing the Russian-style thrashing with the birch branches
  • In the evening, if up for a big night, make sure to visit Sky Barlocated on the roof of an old factory, it’s split into various themed sections and is great fun.  Might be one of the best clubs I’ve been to

Day trip from Taipei to Wulai

Wulai is a mountainous jungle area to the south of Taipei that has activities like swimming and hiking, and some cable cars to allow you to ascend up the steep sides of the valleys for views of the mountains and impressive waterfalls.  It comes highly recommended as a day trip from Taipei, but I think you need to include a hike or swim / visit to the spas to get the most out of the visit.  My error was to turn up and just generally have a walk around and take the cable cars, which left me feeling a bit underwhelmed

Skiing in Niseko

Niseko has a strong shout for being the world’s best skiing destination. Yes, yes, I know the North American sites have vast slopes and every other room has a hot tub; the Alps are wonderful for their apres and interconnected communities; and I get that Queenstown has bungee jumping, but there are 3 killer reasons for why Niseko has to take the crown:

  1. It is the undisputed King of Powder, with 15m / 50ft of wonderful light powdery stuff on AVERAGE each year
  2. Its Japan.  This means that everything works perfectly, people are 10/10 polite (no fighting over chair lifts), you finish your ski with an Onsen and the food . . . even the most basic of meals demands a quality zat wud mek even ze french jelos!
  3. The views.  Think less endless mountain chains, and more looking at the perfect conical volcano of Yotei-zan, aka Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji
It can be expensive, especially around the holidays, but a must experience if you’re a skier

Cycling around Kyoto and sampling whiskies in the Suntory Distillery

Kyoto has been Japan’s Imperial capital for a thousand years and has . . . a thousand temples.  If, like me, you can get a bit templed out, its quite easy to get tired walking from one temple to the next and, honestly, whilst I enjoyed the trip to Kyoto, I don’t remember any of the specific temples.  So, my tips for a visit:

  • Rent a bike to cycle around the temples, and generally around Kyoto.  It adds a different angle to the day as you can see areas outside of the standard temples, including the large gardens, are not restricted by a driver, and Kyoto city centre is very safe to cycle, including being able to cycle along the canals
  • Unless you are a Japanese history geek, one day is more than enough for the temples
  • The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in the west of the city is definitely worth checking out as it’s super dense green bamboo forrest makes you think you’re in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
  • I’d highly recommend taking a half day trip to the Suntory Whiskey Distillery just outside Kyoto.  Even if you are not a whiskey fan, it’s a nice experience as they show you how the whiskey is made, tell the history and give you some free samplings at the end.  Considering the standard of these whiskies and their recognition internationally (they won many of the world’s best awards), this is very generous.   It’s only a 25min train ride (which is fun on its own) from Kyoto Station and has very pleasant surroundings nestled in a glen
  • As with all things Japan, try and stay somewhere with an Onsen – coming back and relaxing in them at the end of the day really adds to the overall Japanese experience.  You’ll find your blood pressure dropping quickly and even catch yourself dropping in a small bow to people in the lifts
  • We stayed near the station, which was a perfect location
  • For more details on how Kyoto can fit into a week itinerary for the highlights of central Japan, see the individual travel entry for – A week in Japan from Tokyo, to Mount Fuji and Kyoto

2 days of baths and the Bosphorus in Istanbul

The crossroads of Europe and Asia and the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul is steeped in history and makes for a world-class destination city.  I only spent 3 days there, so won’t write a detailed review, but high level tips:

  • Hagia Sofia – the star attraction and will no doubt be on your list.  Be sure to not only see this incredible structure from the outside, but also to visit the extraordinarily beautiful interior
  • Definitely get a Hamam – these Turkish Baths, whilst a bit on the pricey side (around USD100 for the entrance and some treatments), are just the perfect way to relax after a day of seeing the sights and some have the most beautiful interiors
  • Best river views – try to find a spot that gives you both the views of the Golden Horn with its various bridges and the Suleyman Mosque.  Watching the sunset from one of the restaurants round there was one of our highlights of Istanbul
  • Take a boat – even if it is just a short one over the Golden Horn, its a great way to get views of the city
  • The Grand Bazar – worth a visit just for its sheer size and bustle
  • The airport – the lines for immigration can take hours, so be prepared.  You’ll have to pay for a visa sticker (45 euros, bit of a joke) which is quick, but then the immigration queue itself can be long

3 week European roadtrip for mountains and wine

If you look through a typical European highlights itinerary it will invariably be dominated by the cities.  For instance, the Lonely Planet’s top itinerary for Europe is 12 cities and nothing else, and of its 24 overall European highlights, only 6 are not cities (the Norwegian Fjords, the Matterhorn, Greece’s Santorini, Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, Transylvania, North Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid . . .  if you’re interested).  It’s understandable – Europe is a centre for culture and stunning capital cities, but it also has some world class experiences to be found outside of the cities and this itinerary gives you a flavour of those with a focus on its mountain and wine regions

 

With this itinerary you will enjoy:

  • Mountains – the most spectacular views of Europe’s premier mountain regions with Switzerland’s “big three” of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau from Interlaken, and the Pyrenes’ Cirques de Gavarnie
  • Wine regions – 4 of the best wine regions France has to offer with Bordeaux, Provence, Alsace and Champagne
  • Lakes – 2 of the world’s truly stunning lakes with the simply magnificent Lake Como and the Swiss Lakes surrounding Interlaken
  • Coastline – the epitome of luxury and style with the most famous stretch of coastline in Europe with the Cote d’Azur, its trio of corniches and Monaco
  • Hilltop villages and rural regions – the prettiest in Europe with the hilltop villages and elegant treelined streets of Provence and the timbered fairytale villages of the Black Forrest
  • Roman Ruins – some of the best preserved Roman Ruins with the Pont du Garde and the Arles Amphitheatre
  • Driving – and of course, some of the best driving scenery in all of Europe as you pass from one mountain range to another and along some of the prettiest countryside on the continent

Hiking near the hot springs of Altyn Arashan near Karakol

Hiking in the Ak-Suu mountain region of Kyrgyzstan must be the highlight of Central Asia.  Snow capped mountains, remote lakes, thermal springs, great hiking routes, and a feeling of being in a place that the modern world has largely untouched as you still see farmers moving their animals to markets on the same routes you are hiking and people generally being open and friendly to help you.  Also, without the usual hoards of tourists for a place so beautiful  . . . I mean, how many people have Kyrgyzstan on their summer holiday list?!

 

As with all places in Kyrgyzstan, there isn’t really an established infrastructure to make things easy for you when you arrive, but this is all part of the charm and giving you that feeling of adventure.  So, I’ve added some tips below for how to get the most out of the trip

Climbing the Frans Josef Glacier

As part of the trip up the stunning west coast of New Zealand, one of the must-do activities is to see one of the fastest moving accessible glaciers in the world, and, even better, to climb through it

 

5 tips:

  1. Climbing – climbing through the glacier with the crampons on and the ice axe at the ready was what made this such a great experience, so be sure to give yourself the day to include this.  The only issue is the price.  A few years ago you were able to simply rock up to the glacier and climb through it, whereas unfortunately now you often need to take a helicopter further up the glacier and explore from there.  On the plus side, you’ll get some amazing views of the glacier from the helicopter
  2. Climbing can get a bit hairy! – when climbing, be prepared for it to be a little scary at times.  We thought it would just be a walk but, depending on your guide, you may be climbing up sheer slopes and starring down into the ice abyss below – you’ve been warned!
  3. Fans Joseph or Fox? – both are similar, but their nearby towns make it a choice between bigger with wider facilities but a bit busier (Frans Jospeh) and smaller with few facilities but quieter (Fox).  When I visited, I went for Frans Jospeh and it was a great experience.  It also has Glacier Hot Pools which would be great to enjoy after the climbing
  4. Hiking – if you don’t want to climb, one activity that you simple must do is a hike to get a feel for the scale of the glaciers.  The Glacier Valley walk for Frans Jospeh is fantastic as its gives you a nice walk past the small lakes and view out across the glacier.  6km / 3.7miles return and will take around 1.5hours
  5. Two things we wish we’d done – we left thinking that we would have loved to have taken a scenic flight to see the glaciers from the sky (you can cover this now with the helicopter trip) and also kayaked in the more tranquil nearby Lake Mapourika, with the “Classic Trip” taking 3 hours in the early morning