Monthly Archives: April 2018

Destination Places to go for culture

Travel back in time with this round-up of living monuments to bygone eras.

Explore ancient cities in Iran before the heat builds

The land once called Persia is where misconceptions come to die. Political posturing wins column inches, but there are so many treasures that really deserve the headlines: the extraordinary Islamic architecture of Esfahan, with its intricate blue patterned tiles; the huge, bustling bazaars of Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz or Tabriz; the magnificent remains at Persepolis, dating back two-and-a-half millennia; the deserts; the poems; the food; and – most of all – the warm, welcoming people.

By June the mercury is rising fast at lower altitudes, but prices and crowds are dropping. Summer is also the season for hiking in the Alborz Mountains, particularly the ascent of Mt Damavand, a true icon of Iran.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Tehran, head south to the desert city of Yazd, the ancient ruins at Persepolis, sophisticated Shiraz and majestic Esfahan, before scooting up to the Alborz Mountains to tackle Mt Damavand and roam among the Castles of the Assassins.
  • Need to know: Most visitors require a visa – apply well before you intend to travel. Females over the age of nine should wear a headscarf in visa application photos.
  • Other months: Mar-May – spring, cool, biggest crowds and highest prices; Jun-Aug – hot in lower regions, best for mountains; Sep-Oct – cooler, lower prices; Nov-Feb – cold.

Explore Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian country in the summer

Armenia does ancient like almost nowhere else. This landlocked nation is packed with churches, monasteries and caravanserais dating from the first millennium AD, and with relics stretching back even further, including Karahunj (literally: ‘stone henge’), reputedly constructed 7000 years ago. More than that, the dramatic backdrop of the Caucasus, with snow-capped Mt Ararat peering across the Turkish border, matches Armenia’s turbulent history of invasion, oppression and aggression by neighbouring states.

The weather is most clement in June, after the icy chill of winter and before the mercury soars into the high 30°Cs. From capital Yerevan’s chilled cafe culture to the cave village of Khndzoresk and hilltop monasteries such as Tatev and Noravank, it’s a mesmerising, diverse land that’s not quite like anywhere else. The wine’s not bad, either.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Yerevan and head south to Khor Virap, Noravank, Tatev and Karahunj, then skirt Lake Sevan (stopping to admire the field of Khachkars – engraved cross-stones) to explore the forested hills around Dilijan. Many add a visit to Georgia, just to the north.
  • Need to know: The non-country of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Armenian heritage surrounded by Azerbaijan, is a fascinating coda to Armenia – but check the current safety situation before travelling.
  • Other months: Mar-Jun – pleasant warmth, wildflowers; Jul-Aug – can top 40°C/104°F; Sep-Nov – cooler days; Dec-Feb – very cold.

Discover the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ in Croatia

A crescent of terracotta roofs curling round to embrace an azure coin of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik has been assaulted many times through the centuries – besieged by Saracens, overtaken by Venetians, devastated by earthquake in 1667, then by Napoleon and the war of 1991–92. Yet it’s emerged more beguiling each time, and never more so than in June, the tipping point between spring’s warmth and summer’s somnolent heat, but before cruise passengers cram every alley.

Once you’ve promenaded a circuit of the Old Town’s walls and roamed the marbled streets (ideally very early in the morning), escape to a nearby island – perhaps Lokrum, Mljet or Šipan – to find a quiet beach, and a taverna serving fine seafood and local wines. Or head around the bay to peaceful Cavtat, founded by Greek settlers who fled Slavic attack to build the more famous Dubrovnik in AD 614.

  • Trip plan: Reasonably priced accommodation in the Old Town is limited; you’ll find more in Lapad, a mile or so to the west, which also has a couple of beaches.
  • Need to know: The best spot from which to admire the city at sunset is the top of Mt Srd’s cable car.
  • Other months: May-Oct – warm, clear days (Jun-Aug: busiest, priciest); Nov-Apr – cool, few tourists, many facilities closed.

Head to St Petersburg to float through the daylight of the White Nights

The great city founded on the Neva River by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 was always designed to impress. Its palaces, museums and theatres are as grand as its early masters (and mistresses) could imagine, and in midsummer, when the sun never sets and the city is bathed in a luminous glow 24/7, it looks that much more romantic.

During the White Nights, roughly from the second week in June to the start of July, St Petersburg is a whirl of opera, ballet, music and general zhizni radost (joie de vivre). Stroll alongside the Neva or the Summer Garden, watch the bridges open and the ornate fountains of the Peterhof sprinkle.

  • Trip plan: You could spend a week wandering the riverbank, parks and streets, but make time for St Petersburg’s grand palaces and churches, the incredible Hermitage Museum in the white, green and gold Winter Palace, and the monuments of the Peter and Paul Fortress, at least.
  • Need to know: Tourists must obtain a Russian visa, usually through a tour agency or invitation from a hotel, before arriving. Be prepared for high prices during White Nights.
  • Other months: Apr-Sep – warm, bright; Oct-Nov – cold, grey; Dec-Mar – dark, freezing, but magical.

Tips to build a perfect road-ready camera kit

With mobile phones that feature sophisticated cameras in the hands of most travelers, taking photos has never been easier. But if you want to level up your Instagram game with quality images beyond the typical smartphone fare, follow our tips for picking and packing a travel photography kit.

Selecting your system

There’s a perfect setup for every kind of adventure – pack according to the likeliest scenarios you’ll encounter and stay mindful of factors like climate, seasonality, the local culture and the length of your trip. Pick the proper camera system for yourself – think about features and controls you’ll need and get familiar with them long before you hit the road.

Bodies

DSLRs by big brands like Canon and Nikon have long been the go-to brands for serious shooters, but lighter and smaller mirrorless options are gaining traction with hobbyist and professional photographers alike. Mirrorless systems like the Fujifilm X Series (fujifilm-x.com) or Sony Alpha (alphauniverse.com) have the advantage of being extremely compact– half the size of traditional DSLRs – and many models host interchangeable lenses for an image quality that’s superior to point-and-shoot cameras.

Lenses

Lens selection depends on the nature of the trip and your planned itinerary. In general, opt for wide angle lenses (20mm and lower) for landscapes and telephoto lengths (50mm or higher) for shooting faraway subjects.

A versatile zoom lens that shoots from wide angle to telephoto provides enough range to capture a variety of travel scenes and situations. On the other hand, prime (fixed focal length) lenses are often more compact and an overall better choice for their faster optics and broader aperture settings. You can’t zoom with these lenses, which can be a good thing – it forces you to interact more with the environment as you work toward that perfect shot.

Select primes that cover a range of bases: 50mm is a popular ‘standard’ lens with a field of view that closely resembles the human eye; 35mm is a good wide length for landscapes, street scenes and architecture; 85mm is a solid choice for portraiture. When shooting wildlife, pick primes between 300mm and 600mm. Because animals tend to move quickly, a telephoto zoom lens ranging from 70mm to 400mm is also a good option.

Filters 

Thanks to digital editing, the use of filters on camera lenses to modify an image isn’t as necessary as it used to be, but there are still a couple of useful ones. UV filters cut atmospheric haze and protect your lens (many opt to leave them on at all times). Circular polarizer filters are good landscapes; they can boost color saturation, reduce glare and cut reflections on water or glass.

Flash

With the world as your studio, it’s typical to rely on available light when shooting your travels. That said, a flash can be beneficial when the ambient light isn’t sufficient indoors or when you’re trying to capture quickly-moving subjects outdoors at night. Luckily, hot shoe mount flash units are compact enough to pack with ease. For travel photography, use ‘through the lens’ (TTL) metering rather than manual flash for travel photography. The unit to select depends on the camera’s brand, as most are only compatible with specific models.

Bag basics

Luggage is a significant consideration for anybody who travels, but for the itinerant photographer, it’s key that the form fits the function. A camera bag’s style and capacity should suit not only your gear (an expensive investment, after all) but also the nature of the trip.

Spring for a bag with just enough room for your essentials so you won’t be tempted to overpack. Size and weight are important not only for airline carry-on restrictions, but also because the burden of toting cumbersome luggage can get annoying and painful quickly. Save your back and shoulders by selecting something comfortable enough to carry for an extended period of time. Backpacks are best for hands-free movement, and messenger styles allow easy access to your gear.

Ensure it has well-made protective features like padded, Velcro-adjustable compartments and waterproofing elements to help safeguard your gear. Typical bags (made from black nylon or polyester fabric) can be conspicuous – try one of these trip-specific designs to keep a low profile:

Best for adrenaline junkies

The MindShift Gear (mindshiftgear.com) Rotation 180 Series backpacks are made for photographers with a passion for high-octane adventure. Their rotating belt packs allow quick access to your camera when you see a shot, and safe stowing when you need to focus on the adventure in front of you – all without ever taking the backpack off. There’s ample room for essentials like snacks, extra layers of clothing and a hydration bladder.

Best for urban-to-outdoor adventures

For city slickers who regularly heed the call of the wild, the Langly (langly.co) Messenger Tote or Alpha Pro Backpack are ideal for seamless style that fits into photography settings from bustling urban centers to cozy campsites. Removable and adjustable inserts allow for customizable configuration. Bonus: you can match your bag with one of their sturdy and stylish camera straps or memory card and battery holders.

Best for style-savvy snappers

Fashion-conscious traveling photographers don’t have to sacrifice style for function. Beautifully-crafted bags like the Claremont by Lo & Sons (loandsons.com) are ideal for those who prefer to keep their kits covert. The comfortable cross-body looks like a chic satchel from the outside; inside are ideal features to protectively transport your gear.

Other necessities

With your camera picked and packed, get the most out of it by bringing the right accessories to help you get the shot in any situation.

Travel tripods

Tripods are necessary if you plan to do any kind of long exposures. There are compact models that provide steady support while minimizing weight and bulk. Try one from the Gitzo Traveler series (gitzo.us) or Joby’s GorillaPods (joby.com), whose flexible, rubberized segments can be set up like a traditional tripod or wrapped around available structures like trees, light poles or furniture.

Mind mother nature

Protect your camera from any kind of elemental forces (sand, snow, dust, salt spray) with a rain cover. Choices run the gamut of price point and sizes – disposable plastic covers can be picked up for under $10 from a photo supply shop. High-tech versions include the ThinkTank Hydrophobia (thinktankphoto.com) or Aquatech (aquatech.net) Sport Shield.

Power up

If there’s one thing to overpack in your kit, it’s batteries – especially if you’re shooting in situations where it’ll be tough to find a power source and recharge. The Watson (poweredbywatson.com) Duo LCD Charger, available for different battery styles, allows two batteries to charge at once. If you’re carrying different types of batteries, Watson’s Compact AC/DC Charger has interchangeable plates so you can save space and charge them all with one device.

Memory cards and storage

Bring at least two or three memory cards (in case one gets corrupted) and a card reader to regularly transfer your images off your camera. Transcend (transcend-info.com) has compact readers for multiple card formats to transfer and backup images onto a laptop. If you can’t bring a laptop with you, you can offload images onto an external hard drive using a portable memory backup device – the HyperDrive ColorSpace UDMA2 (hypershop.com) and Nexto DI (nextodi.com) ND2901 allow you to review images and single out selects on the go.

Cleaning supplies

Keep your camera clean with a squeeze-bulb blower, retractable brush (never touch the bristles), and microfiber lens cloth or pre-dampened lens wipes. If you choose to clean your camera’s sensor yourself, Photographic Solutions (photosol.com) Sensor Swabs are small enough to pack and remove dust from quickly and easily

Just because you’re not shooting with a smartphone doesn’t mean you can’t take selfies – remote shutter release controllers are great for setting up self-portraits and help eliminate vibrations caused by physically pressing the camera’s shutter release during long exposures. Most brands make models specifically for your camera, but Foto&Tech (fotoandtech.com) sells good, cheap versions for nearly all makes and models. Also see if your camera brand has an app to turn your smartphone into a remote controller – that’s one less thing to pack.

Destinations to go for Relaxation

Soak up the Caribbean sun away from the hurricane belt

It’s the Caribbean, but not as you know it. The ABC islands, as Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are playfully known, sit just off the north coast of Venezuela. Although they’re geographically part of South America, they’ve been governed by, and been part of, the Netherlands since the early 17th century. June is the sweet spot between the high season (which also happens to be the rainy season) in the northern winter, and the slightly hotter summer months. Since the islands are outside the hurricane belt (unlike most of the other Caribbean islands), they’re a safe bet at this time of year, yet hotel rates are low and beaches less crowded.

And what beaches: from gorgeous Eagle Beach on Aruba, beloved of honeymooners, to the resorts of Curaçao’s southwest. Come to Aruba for nightlife, Bonaire for wonderful diving and snorkelling, and Curaçao for Dutch-influenced culture and cuisine, and to explore its colourful capital, Willemstad.

  • Trip plan: Direct flights from New York and Amsterdam serve Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba, with flights from Miami to the first two.
  • Need to know: Corals spawn off Bonaire around September or October – a nocturnal spectacle for scuba divers.
  • Other months: Feb-Sep – consistently warm and dry; Oct-Jan – rainy season.

Dive and snorkel clear, warm, turquoise waters in Mozambique

Are these the most beautiful tropical islands on Earth? The Bazaruto Archipelago faces stiff competition from other Indian Ocean destinations (and Mozambique’s own Quirimbas Archipelago) – but wriggle your toes into the silky sand on a glorious June morning (the start of the dry season), or gaze through your mask at impossibly colourful reef fish, and maybe a humpback whale migrating past, and they could stake a fair claim.

Much of this chain of five islands off Mozambique’s southeastern coast is protected as a national park, conserving dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles and around 2000 fish species. Oh, and Nile crocodiles – but perhaps you’re not so keen to see those… This is a paradise for divers, but also for anyone seeking a truly barefoot beach holiday.

  • Trip plan: Several islands have airstrips, and access is usually by plane or helicopter, speedboat or dhow from the mainland port of Vilankulo. Day trips from Vilankulo are possible but most visitors arrive on a package to one of the luxury lodges with an upmarket tour operator, often incorporating South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
  • Need to know: Humpback whales migrate past the archipelago from June or July to September or October.
  • Other months: Jun-Oct – dry; Apr-Jun & Sep-Nov – best diving; Nov-Mar – rains build.

Soak in the sun and Mediterranean before the crowds hit Sardinia, Italy

Italy’s second-largest island is, fair to say, famed mostly for one key asset: beaches. Nowhere else is the Mediterranean such an incredible shade of jade-turquoise-azure, lined with such perfect white-sand beaches. Best known is Costa Smeralda, the archetypal millionaire’s playground, but there are plenty more for mere mortals to enjoy. And June’s the time to enjoy them, with fine, clear weather but before the hordes of high summer descend.

Which beach? South of capital Cagliari is Chia, with not one but five fine beaches; The Sinis Peninsula has good snorkelling and Greek ruins; Alghero has popular resorts; from Cala Gonone on the east coast boats depart for secluded beaches; and the Costa Rei further south is exquisitely beautiful. If you can stir from the sand, you’ll find great hiking in the Gennargentu Mountains, historic old town centres – Cagliari included – and 3000-year-old nuraghi dwellings to discover.

  • Trip plan: International airports at Cagliari, Alghero and Olbia all receive low-cost flights.
  • Need to know: Many facilities close for a siesta in the early afternoon, particularly outside the main tourist resorts.
  • Other months: May-Jun – clear days; Jul-Aug – high season; Apr & Sep-Oct – shoulder, lower prices; Nov-Feb – colder.

Relax in the tropical paradise of Bora Bora in its balmiest season

Blue, turquoise, azure, teal, indigo… there aren’t enough words to describe the hues of the Pacific Ocean around French Polynesia on a clear, calm, sunny day. And there are plenty of those in June, the start of the driest season, when the main island of Bora Bora and its motu (ringing islands) bask around the high 20°Cs.

This is the stuff of movies, with luxurious resorts perched over the crystal waters, shaded by swaying palms – and you need to be a film star to afford the prices at the very top hotels and resorts, though more modest accommodation can be found. As if the scenery wasn’t paradisiacal enough, the snorkelling and diving, over coral gardens and with sharks and rays, is spectacular.

Walk on the wild side with these animal encounters that invite you to get up close and personal with some of the planet’s most incredible wildlife.

Between silverback gorillas, whale sharks and manta rays, these adventures will see you rub shoulders with some of Mother Nature’s giants. Alternatively, downsize the creatures but scale-up the number, watching legions of baby turtles hatch in Borneo; or discover the whole cast of the Lion King with a walking safari on Zambia’s vast plains.

Dive with giants on Australia’s other barrier reef

Now’s the time to think Big. Visit Australia’s largest state (area: around one million sq miles; 2.5 million sq km) in June to swim with the world’s heftiest fish, the whale shark (length: up to 60ft; 18m) and manta rays (wing width: up to 18ft; 5.5m) as well as watching humpback whales (weight: up to 30 tonnes) on – OK – only Australia’s second-largest reef, Ningaloo.

Coral spawning from March prompts a zooplankton explosion, attracting the sharks until mid-August, while manta rays – present year-round at Coral Bay – tend to visit Exmouth May to November, and humpbacks migrate past June to November. The turquoise waters are beautifully clear for snorkelling and diving among dazzling reef fish, too.

  • Trip plan: Coral Bay and Exmouth are both good bases for visiting the reef. Learmonth airport near Exmouth is served by flights from Perth, an 800-mile (1300 km) drive away. For a road-trip, stop off en route at the Pinnacles Desert near Cervantes, craggy Kalbarri National Park and the ancient stromatolites of Shark Bay.
  • Need to know: No more than 10 people are allowed in the water with a whale shark, and must not approach closer than 10ft (3m).
  • Other months: Apr-Jul – moderate heat, whale sharks; Oct-Apr – summer, high 30s°C/90s°F; Aug-Sep – warm.

Explore jungles and see turtles hatching in Borneo’s dry season

For some of us, Borneo seems a long way to travel for a beach. But if that beach is liable to erupt with hatching turtles and is backed by wildlife-rich rainforest, in which former head-hunters live largely traditional lifestyles – well, then the long journey seems entirely worthwhile. That’s Borneo – or, more specifically, the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, at their best in the (relatively) dry month of June, when turtles hatch and orangutans thrive on plentiful fruit.

Sarawak has the longhouse communities along the Batang (River) Rejang, the bat-thronged caves of Gunung Mulu National Park, the proboscis monkeys and enormous rafflesia flowers. Sabah has mighty Mt Kinabalu, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, fine diving and those turtle-nesting beaches. Both offer incredible wildlife and cultural experiences. And yes, both have beautiful stretches of sand on which to simply lie back and relax.

  • Trip planner: Fly to Kuching or Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur. There are regular flights between those two state capitals, and buses and boats serve other regional destinations.
  • Need to know: Some governments advise against travel to islands off the far eastern coast of Sabah. Check the latest advice before visiting those areas.
  • Other months: Apr-Sep – driest, but rain possible any time; Oct-Mar – wet, still hot.

See eye to eye with a silverback gorilla in Rwanda

That something so huge (a male gorilla can top 180kg) can be so vulnerable is hard to understand. Yet only 700 or so endangered mountain gorillas survive in two isolated subpopulations. June, the start of Rwanda’s dry season, is the time to venture to Volcanoes National Park to track one of its 10 habituated groups; prepare for muddy, steep trails, heady altitude (around 9850 ft; 3000m) and the heart-melting sight of a precious primate family.

A gorilla encounter is far from the only reason to come to Rwanda. The calm, neat capital, Kigali is a fine place to start, redolent with the aroma of Rwanda’s great coffee; Nyungwe Forest harbours large populations of chimpanzees and Rwenzori colobus monkeys, while to the east Akagera National Park is a pretty mix of savannah, hills and valleys, with giraffe, zebra, elephant and some shy lions.

  • Trip plan: Fly to the capital, Kigali. Independent travel is fairly straightforward, with a good minibus service, though it’s easiest to book a tour (including gorilla tracking) with an international operator.
  • Need to know: Book your gorilla-tracking permit (currently US$750) well in advance for this popular season.
  • Other months: Jun-Aug – driest season, gorilla-trekking easiest; Mar-May & Nov – heaviest rain; Sep-Oct & Dec-Feb – damp, possibly cheaper, better gorilla-permit availability.

Walk with the wild animals in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

The eyes of a lion give nothing away: not anger, not fear, not curiosity. That’s something you notice when you encounter this majestic carnivore without the protection of a vehicle – on foot in the birthplace of the walking safari: Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. June’s the ideal time to explore ‘the valley’ as it’s the start of the dry season, before vegetation has withered.

Amble alongside one of the continent’s finest guides, spotting elephants, giraffes, dazzling birdlife and, if you’re lucky, even wild dog. Seeing wildlife of any kind on foot is both electrifying and enlightening, bringing into focus not just the sights but also the sounds and smells of the bush. Leopards and various nocturnal species are often seen on night drives, too.