Why 2013 is Amsterdam's Year

If 2012 was all about London, 2013 is shaping up to be Amsterdam’s year. There may not be an Olympics or Jubilee scheduled in the calendar, but there are a succession of key anniversaries and events taking place in the Dutch capital. We take a look at five worth getting excited about:

Frozen Amsterdam canalFour centuries of Amsterdam’s canals

Arguably Amsterdam‘s most iconic sight, 2013 marks 400 years of the city’s historic Canal Ring – a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s most unique urban landscapes. The three most famous are Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht; symbols of the Dutch Golden Age. There are more than 100km of canals in total, in addition to 1,500 bridges and 1,550 monumental buildings.

Canal celebrations tend to culminate on Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) on 30th April, a national holiday that marks the birthday of Queen Beatrix’s mother and predecessor, Juliana. But visit in winter and you may witness the canals freezing over – if the ice is thick enough, as it was last February, locals sporting skates clamber down to the waterways en masse, temporarily finding an alternative to the bicycle as the preferred method of getting around.

Over the course of 2013 various festivals, concerts and exhibitions will be taking place on or alongside Amsterdam’s canals. Among the best will be the Light Festival in December, though you can still catch last year’s until 20th January.

Where: The central Grachtengordel (canal belt).
Cost: Free.

> Amble Amsterdam’s canals with Lonely Planet Amsterdam

Meerkat Artis zoo175 years of the Artis Zoo

The Netherlands’ oldest zoo, located just east of the city centre in the Plantage district, was founded way back in 1838 – making it 175 years old this year. Home to more than 6,000 animals from approximately 900 species, this is a zoo with a difference – more relaxed than its London counterpart, Artis is regarded as a cultural meeting place: a place to sip a cappuccino on the terrace in the company of penguins or zebras.

If the weather’s bad, head to the aquarium, butterfly pavilion, planetarium or insectarium, the latter of which is converted from an old food storage unit. The aquarium, meanwhile, features scenes replicating a number of eco systems, from a tropical coral reef to the Amazonian rainforest.

Look out for special events taking place over the course of the year, and when you leave Artis be sure to check out Entrepotdok canal immediately to the north – home to a selection of excellent cafes, terraces, houseboats and, if you’re lucky, a free view of the giraffes.

Where: Plantage Kerklaan 38 – 40.
Cost: Adults €18.95, Children €15.50, 65+ €17.50.

> Zoom to the zoo with the Amsterdam Flexi Map

Night WatchReopening of the Rijksmuseum

A decade ago, a large section of the iconic Rijksmuseum – the largest museum in The Netherlands – was closed for extensive renovations. While construction work was completed last July, museum-goers have to wait until to April before it fully reopens. But what a treat they have in store…

Architects Cruz y Ortis have built on Pierre Cuypers’ 1876 creation to devise 1.5 km of art, with exhibits dating right back to the Middle Ages. Some 80 halls accommodating 8,000 items have been beautifully restored, which collectively tell the stories of eight centuries of Dutch art and history. Such is the extent of the transformation that just a single item hangs in its original place: Rembrandt’s world famous The Night Watch.

It’s worth noting that the entire museum will be closed between 18th March and 13th April to allow museum staff to prepare for the reopening. Between now and then, the Philips Wing and the first floor will remain open.

Where: Jan Luijkenstraat 1.
Cost: TBC March 2013. Entrance to the Philips Wing is €10.

> Roam the Rijksmuseum with the Supertime Amsterdam Map/Guide

Van Gogh MuseumThe Van Gogh Museum’s 40th anniversary

Temporarily located in the Hermitage Amsterdam (but only until 25th April) the Van Gogh Museum is undergoing major renovations as it celebrates its 40th birthday, and Van Gogh’s 160th, before reopening in the spring.

In addition to housing the largest collection of paintings, drawings and letters by the Dutch post-impressionist, the Van Gogh Museum displays a range of exhibits by the artist’s contemporaries – attributes that encourage 1.6 million people to visit the museum every year (making it one of the 25 most-visited museums in the world).

The Van Gogh Museum doesn’t simply display the artist’s work – it tells the story of Van Gogh as an artist; how and why he explored different themes, what inspired him and why he did what he did, as told through his letters.

Where: Hermitage Amsterdam, Amstel 51 (until 25th April), then Museumplein (Paulus Potterstraat 7).
Cost: €17.50.

> Mosey to the museum with Red Maps Amsterdam

Concertgebouw-AmsterdamThe Concertgebouw’s 175th birthday

In April 1888, Amsterdam’s concert hall – revered the world over for its excellent acoustics – opened its doors for the first time. Arguably rivalled only by Vienna’s Musikverein and Boston’s Symphony Hall, the Concertgebouw puts on more than 700 concerts each year featuring the world’s finest orchestras, conductors and soloists.

To mark its 125th anniversary, the concert hall will host a huge range of Jubilee concerts in its Main Hall and Recital Hall, with stars including Angela Gheorghiu, Valery Gergiev and Bernard Haitink having already signed up to the Jubilee programme.

The Concertgebouw will concentrate on a different period each month, running in chronological order – with themes encompassing music, images and text. These will culminate in a large-scale education project at the end of the year, based on West side Story.

Where: Concertgebouwplein 10.
Cost: Click here for concert ticket prices.

> Commute to the concert hall with Amsterdam City Flash

Introducing #TravelBookChat

Travel reads chatWith thousands of us planning our 2013 break, thoughts are naturally turning to that most important of holiday ingredients: the book. But which to take? If you’re in need of some inspiration, help is at hand with #TravelBookChat!

We’ve teamed up with award-winning travel blogger Jayne Gorman (@jayneytravels) to launch a travel reads Twitter chat – the first of which will take place next Wednesday (16th January) at 19:30 GMT on the theme of India.

Why India?

Few destinations have inspired as many books as the subcontinent, from Gregory David Roberts’ epic Shantaram to Suketu Mehta’s revealing account of Mumbai in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. And with the film adaptations of Life of Pi and Midnight’s Children pulling in cinema audiences, we think it’s the perfect time to discuss all things India in the world of travel literature.

How will #TravelBookChat work?

Simply log into your Twitter account at the date and time mentioned above and search for the hashtag #TravelBookChat. Jayne will be tweeting a number of questions and comments to discuss over a period of approximately 45 minutes. These will be labelled Q1, Q2 etc, so you’ll need to label your answers A1, A2 with the #TravelBookChat hashtag. Feel free to respond to other people’s answers so we can get the debate going!

Book clubWhat’s up for discussion?

Anything to do with India and travel writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Jayne will be asking the following questions to get the conversation flowing:

  • Who are your favourite fictional characters? 
  • Is there a non-fiction must-read? 
  • What’s your biggest tearjerker? 
  • What’s your most memorable read? 
  • What’s the best guidebook? 
  • What’s the best and worst film adaptation? 
  • Shantaram – yay or nay?

Win a £15 online Stanfords voucher!

We’ll be picking a #TravelBookChat participant at random to win a £15 online Stanfords voucher. To be in with a chance of winning, simply follow @StanfordsTravel and get tweeting next Wednesday evening!

French Guiana: Land of Chocolate Seas and Space Rockets

French Guiana coastLily Taylor travels to French Guiana and discovers a small slice of France in South America: one that’s home to the ‘Coca Cola’ sea and its very own space centre.

Before my friend moved here for a year abroad, I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of French Guiana – or any of the other Guianas for that matter (Suriname and British Guiana). Throughout the year I heard lots from her about what it was like but still couldn’t really imagine – so there was only one thing for it; I had to see this little-known South American destination for myself.

History and geography

So what’s it like? Well, French Guiana is about 90 per cent rainforest with the odd city cut into the middle, although the biggest settlements are on the coast. The only way of getting there from Europe is to fly from Paris Orly to Cayenne, the capital, with Air France.

French Guiana is a department of France, and it quite resembles a ‘little part of Europe’ in this small slice of South America – though I get the impression it’s almost forgotten by the motherland. In almost every way it’s different to Europe, but it does have the Euro and is run by the French government. Interestingly, although it’s in South America the region is very Caribbean in lifestyle, though its mix of people is rather unique. Many retirees have emigrated from Métropole – mainland France – while it’s impossible not to notice the sizeable Brazilian population and the influence of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Arguably French Guiana’s most famous attraction is away from Cayenne in a smaller town called Kourou. The reason? It’s home to the Guiana Space Centre, a facility used by the European Space Agency thanks to its proximity to the equator.

French Guiana beachAmong the region’s greatest natural attributes are its beautiful beaches, which stretch for miles and are mostly pretty deserted. Lined with palm trees and warm sand, these beaches really are stunning. Don’t be put off by the colour of the sea, which has earned the nickname ‘Nesquik Sea’ or ‘Coca Cola Sea’ – it may not be the prettiest colour, but the water is in fact lovely to swim in at all times, including the early hours of the morning

French Guiana’s history is rather interesting. Originally, it was used as a French penal colony, particularly its off islands: Iles du Salut, where it’s possible to visit and see what’s left of the prison. This is also the setting for Henri Charrière’s Papillon, the story of an island prisoner and his escape.

Food

I found the local dishes good if a little greasy; many fast food vans line the Place des Palmistes serving savoury crepes and hot dogs. Brochettes are very common here (meat on kebab sticks served with satay or other sauces). For those with a sweet tooth, ice cream is ubiquitous – my favourite was peanut flavour but there are also many exotic fruity sorbets on offer. An excellent place for ice cream in Cayenne is Joe la Glacier, where your choice of sweet treat is served on a waffle.

French Guiana rainforestFrench Guiana is big on spice, so lots of recipes are hot and seasoned with the region’s famous spice, Cayenne pepper. Often on tables there will be a pot of what appears to be breadcrumbs. This is farofa, which is eaten with almost everything to boost flavour and provide a little crunch. Farofa is made from manioc flour fried with garlic and other herbs and spices.

Getting around

The main way of getting around in French Guiana is hitching – an unusually safe way of travelling here. Obviously you have to take the normal care and precautions, but as long as you’re with at least one other person it is the most convenient way of getting from A to B. Buses are quite infrequent and walking anywhere in the heat takes quite a while.

> Find out more about French Guiana with our range of travel guides and maps.

China's Power Handover: What it Means for Travel

China BeijingShanghai-based writer and teacher Tim Neesham continues his series on modern-day China, asking what the recent presidential handover means for the country’s travel sector and its economy.

On the same day the people of the United States were giving President Obama four more years, the Chinese government was also preparing itself for major political movement.

Whether or not this is merely coincidence is up for debate, but far from the fanfare of minute by minute updates, professional opinions and the almost Eurovision-style party that accompanies America going to the polls, the Chinese changeover is by contrast understated, mysterious and clandestine. If rumours are to be believed, the new President and leader of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping, has had his sights on Hu Jintao’s position for as long as three years.

Yet while the differences in style are as opposite as yin and yang, the questions of political policy are remarkably similar; cutting carbon emissions, boosting the economy, foreign policy – so how will the new government tackle the key issues?

Travel and tourism

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a nation of such size and stature has to contend with a variety of domestic and international disputes. Within China itself, regular rumblings of discontent emanate from the already autonomous western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, whereas the increasing influence the United States is having in Taiwan is also a sore and ongoing saga.

Tibet in particular has long been a headache for the Chinese government, and the pain shows no sign of subsiding as the new regime takes power. Stories of self-immolation by sympathisers campaigning for a free Tibet are sadly a fairly regular occurrence, but for the time being it is the western media that seems to pay them more heed.

The difference between Tibet and Xinjiang is that the former has long been a place of interest for travellers, with the regular opening and closing of the border between the two rarely going unnoticed in Europe and the Americas.

Similar border issues have been reported recently when travelling to Taiwan so tourists – both foreign and Chinese – planning trips to these regions are always advised to plan ahead.

Shanghai cityscapeEconomy

While still booming by European standards, the Chinese economy is nevertheless beginning to show signs of slowing down. For this reason, and perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the government’s newest policy implementations is to encourage more foreign financial investment in China. Extensive measures have been taken to relax stringent rules on foreign direct investments (FDIs) by cutting out much of the red tape and bureaucracy that accompany foreign companies directly investing in China through foreign currency transactions.

Additionally, restrictions on borrowing and lending between Chinese and foreign companies are being loosened. Chinese companies with foreign investment will now be allowed to lend money to their overseas parent companies, while Chinese people will also be able to carry out overseas lending using foreign currencies from within China.

Such measures represent a huge shift in policy for a nation that until now has not been known for paying too much attention to the world outside its own territories.

Foreign policy

The sense of nationalism that courses through the veins of sections of powerful Chinese is undeniable, and this is sometimes highlighted by the way the government deals with international disputes – and the widespread support its foreign policy enjoys among members of the public.

One of the latest in a long, long line of arguments with the Japanese centres on the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japanese), which lie in the middle of the two and to which both lay claim.

Such is the ferocity of support for the Chinese cause within China that people actually stopped shopping at Japanese-owned stores and boycotted Japanese-brand cars, while some Japanese factories in China were forced to cease operations. One news story even reported a gang of particularly passionate protestors charging around a second-tier city smashing up Mazdas.

But while the government will undoubtedly continue to take advantage of such overwhelming displays of solidarity by its people, the mere fact that these disputes, among others with countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea, are even taking place represents another example of the changing foreign policy by Chinese governments; one more outward looking and internationally focused.

This was further demonstrated in the autumn of 2012 by the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, plus its continued investment in African industries such as mining and the stepping up in operations of its aerospace program.

Great Wall Of ChinaEnvironment

Anybody who has heard anything about China over the last 20 years will be aware that the country has some fairly serious pollution issues. It’s not uncommon for the air in and around a Chinese city, even Shanghai or the capital, Beijing, to be thick, grey and dusty.

Interestingly, due to its global situation as a developing country, China, like India, does not have to conform to the same rules and regulations put forth by the Kyoto Protocol as many other, more developed nations.

However, there does appear to be the dawning of a change in attitude from the Chinese government and cutting carbon emissions is now high on the agenda. A cut of 40 per cent is reportedly the target on airborne pollutants that apparently spread as far and wide as the coasts of Australia and the United States.

However, and if you’ll excuse the pun, critics say the policies are nothing more than cleverly-worded smokescreens. For example, even if the government does stick to this target, China would actually see a 60 per cent rise in emissions due simply to population growth.

Regardless of nationality or political orientation, everyone these days seems to have an opinion on China and the Chinese and many of these policies are open to extremely wide interpretation. What’s for sure though is that China is changing at a pace never before seen in global broadcast media, and there is no doubt that the international community is keeping at least one eye on the east.

Want to find out more about China? Check out the following five titles:

His and Hers Guide to the Globe: A New Travel Series

His and hers travelToday, Matt and Sharon Ward are leaving Australia for Singapore. Last month, the recently-married couple set off from their native Edinburgh on a honeymoon like no other. Having packed up and waved goodbye to their old lives, they’ll be travelling the world while writing a ‘his and hers guide to the globe’. As they begin the second leg of their adventure, Matt tells us more about the concept.

The His and Hers Guide to the Globe will offer a unique insight into some of the usual and more unusual holiday destinations across the world, from a ‘his and hers’ perspective. Whether it’s enjoying wine tasting in Perth’s Swan Valley, exploring Cambodia’s hidden temples or backpacking from San Francisco to Mexico, this series will supply a down-to-Earth assessment of what’s hot and what’s not.

Told through the eyes of a recently-married couple in their 30s, this travel guide will not only provide an open and honest opinion of what we discover and experience, it will also assist in answering any backpacking questions you may have ahead of your own adventure.

Matt and Sharon WardThis is not designed as a couples’ guide to travelling the world; rather it’s aimed at men and women who wish to travel with a partner, spouse, family member or friend. Whether you’re on a shoestring budget or have money to burn, our regular posts will give you tips and pointers on what mode of transport is best for which country and which accommodation best suits your requirements.

Having started our trip from Edinburgh last month, we’re embarking on a less-than-traditional type of honeymoon as we methodically take in all aspects of travelling the world. Having spent Christmas and New Year on the west coast of Australia, we’re departing for Singapore before experimenting with trains, boats and buses en route to Malaysia, Thailand and its islands, Cambodia and Vietnam before catching a flight to Beijing.

Singapore skyline

From China we’ll be flying to the east coast of Australia and New Zealand’s North and South Islands before setting off for the west coast of America. After experiencing all that California has to offer we’ll be making our way to Mexico, Cuba, South America, South Africa and Morocco before arriving in Europe.

Once back on the continent, we’ll recharge our batteries before embarking on the final leg of what promises to be an extraordinary journey: an expedition through central Europe while on the lookout for a permanent home and somewhere new to rest our hats.

There’s a lot resting on our trip, and we hope you’ll join us as we travel from country to country – we’ll be blogging from each destination, so make sure you check the Stanfords Facebook and Twitter pages for the latest updates. Bon voyage!

Where to Travel in 2013: Our Top Tips

We spoke to bloggers and travel industry experts to find out the top destinations to add to your travel wish list in 2013.

Turkey 2013Laura Lindsay: Turkey

Where would I recommend visiting in the next 12 months? The possibilities are endless, but one destination I know I’ll be returning to this year is Turkey. One of Lonely Planet’s top countries to visit in 2013, Turkey is a fabulous travel destination because of the sheer variety this vast and fascinating country has to offer. Ancient history, the incredible landscapes of Cappadocia and the relatively undiscovered eastern towns of Mardin and Midyat are just some of the reasons to visit this year.

Turkey is well loved for cosmopolitan Istanbul and the country’s stunning coastline, but beyond the coastal resorts there is also a wealth of unexplored gems in this incredibly beautiful nation just waiting to be discovered. I visited in 2012 and experienced fabulous food, the friendliest of welcomes and fantastic scenery. I’m counting down the days until I can go back!

Laura Lindsay is part of the Lonely Planet media team.

> Target Turkey with our range of travel guides and maps

Burma 2013Paul Bondsfield: Burma

This year Burma is south-east Asia’s real up-and-coming destination. It’s been described as the Thailand of old – a country that boasts all the sights, cuisine and climate but without the tourists. Isolated both politically and in terms of tourism, Burma is still a relatively unknown country. There aren’t many parts of the world that remain untouched, yet Burma is one of them.

Forget the bright lights of Bangkok, the capital city of Yangon is a stark contrast. The pace of life is much slower, yet there is still plenty to see and do. Seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda, for example, is an absolute must.

Elsewhere, you can watch the sunrise over 4,000 stupas at Bagan or stay in the floating villages at Inle Lake. Another popular spot among travellers is Kalaw, where you can trek in the surrounding hills and forests. Also, Burma has some of the world’s best unknown dive sites – well worth checking out if you’re a keen scuba diver. Whatever you decide to do in Burma, you won’t be disappointed.

A country of original infrastructure, culture and traditions, far from the electronic world. Travelling doesn’t get more authentic than this.

Paul Bondsfield is Head of Marketing at My Adventure Store.

> Backpack around Burma with our range of travel guides and maps

Iceland 2013Macca Sherifi: Iceland

Iceland is a small country yet it packs a big punch. 2013 is tipped to be one of the best years to see the Northern Lights; with Iceland not only do you get to see the lights but you can also see geysers, icefalls and some stunning scenery, too.

Reykjavik is the capital, and when the white stuff falls here in winter it pretty much resembles a snow globe. There’s plenty to do in the city, and after a spell of sightseeing the places to kick back and relax are the Ice Hotel or the Olgerdin Brewery. Reykjavik is the perfect place to base yourself to go to places like the Blue Lagoon and whale-watching, and of course, you’ve got to see the geysers.

Also, with easyJet now flying to Iceland, the island nation is more accessible than ever before.

Macca Sherifi is the Travel Editor of gapyear.com.

> Be inspired by Iceland with our range of travel guides and maps

Sri Lanka 2013Charlie Gilbert: Sri Lanka

This Indian Ocean island nation’s recent history has been far from incident-free, but with civil war over its tourism industry is receiving much-needed investment. If you’ve done India and south-east Asia, there’s probably no better place to travel in 2013 – visitors can expect excellent beaches, eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites to explore and low prices (both in terms of accommodation prices and flights, especially when travelling from Bangkok).

Must-sees include Dondra Head on the southern coast, where blue whales can be seen between January and April; Arugam Bay, which offers some of the best surf in Asia; and the 17th century Dutch fort in Galle, the best example of a European-built Asian fortified city.

Overseas visitor numbers have been steadily increasing since civil war ended in May 2009, and this year’s total could break the one million barrier with British Airways launching flights to Colombo, Sri Lanka‘s capital, in April.

Charlie Gilbert is Stanfords’ Online Editor.

> See the best of Sri Lanka with our range of travel guides and maps

Majorca 2013Lauren Holden: Majorca

Your New Year goals may include stepping aboard a plane to some far-flung destination, but don’t forget those holiday hotspots that are a little closer to home in 2013.

Yes, Vegas may be the US party capital, and Florida might be hot, hot, hot, but I wouldn’t rule out a cheaper European trip that won’t break the bank – and that doesn’t necessarily mean having to discover somewhere new.

I’ve always been a big fan of Majorca thanks to its beautifully sandy beaches, stunning local markets and tasty eateries. The perfect spot for a long weekend or a relaxing fortnight with the family, it really does offer something for everyone.

If you’re planning on holidaying anywhere near Magaluf, make sure you pay a visit to the famous Pirates show. It came highly recommended when we visited nearby Alcudia a few years ago, and it’s undoubtedly still as fun today. An all-singing, all-dancing show featuring acrobatics, stunts and a whole lot of audience participation, it’s loads of fun for kids and adults.

Away from the larger, more established resorts are the likes of Pollenca and its coastal sister town Puerto Pollenca – both located in the unspoiled north-east. The former is the place to go to get away from it all and experience some authentic Spanish culture, while the latter is there when the beach and the warm waters of the Mediterranean start calling.

Travellers will find it more convenient to travel to Majorca this year thanks to Vueling, Spain’s second-largest airline, launching new flights to Palma from Heathrow just in time for the 2013 summer season.

Lauren Holder is a freelance travel writer.

> Make the most of Majorca with our range of travel guides and maps

Ethiopia 2013Rahul Aggarwal: Ethiopia

Prepare to be astounded in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity, in 2013. Explore ancient rock-hewn churches and towering stelae in the north. Take part in the Ethiopian festivals of Genna and Timkat and experience Christianity as it was practised centuries ago. Trek to the source of the Blue Nile and come face-to-face with gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains. For adrenalin seekers, trek to the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on Earth, and witness a volcanic eruption.

In the south, meet the enchanting tribal people of the Omo Valley, experience market day in the villages and take a boat ride on the Great Rift Valley lakes looking out for crocodiles, hippos and birdlife. The spectacular Bale Mountains are a trekker’s paradise and are also home to the endemic mountain nyala and rare Ethiopian wolf, while nearby the dramatic Sof Omar Caves will leave any traveller breathless.

This part of the world may be challenging at times, but the rewards are immeasurable.

Rahul Aggarwal is a Director at Travel The Unknown.

> Explore Ethiopia with our range of travel guides and maps

Salobrena 2013Ian John: Salobrena

Millions of tourists head through Malaga each year en route to the famous Costa resorts of Marbella, Fuengirola, Benalmedina and Torremolinos – but for a change in 2013, head east rather than west from Malaga to the tranquil beauty of Salobrena. With a 10th century Moorish castle overlooking this quaint Spanish village, this is a destination that remains relatively untouched by large-scale commercial tourism.

Salobrena boasts five beaches separated by ‘El Penon’ or ‘the rock’, a large outcrop of sandstone that’s also adjacent to a number of fabulous beach-side restaurants where the local seafood dishes are supreme.

The town is a popular destination for Spanish holidaymakers and can get busy during August in particular – but nowhere near as hectic as the more established resorts. Beaches are popular both day and night with sun worshippers and in the evening with many local anglers.

Day trips to local markets in and around Frigliana and Orgiva are well worth the effort and Motril, Almunecar and Salobrena itself offer ample dining and shopping opportunities.

Ian John is a freelance travel writer.

> Discover more of Malaga and its surroundings with our range of travel guides and maps

Togean IslandsVenetia Rainey: Sulawesi

Everyone who travels to Indonesia goes to Bali. But if you want incredible beaches all to yourself, encounters straight out a documentary and a healthy slice of adventure, try Sulawesi.

This K-shaped island is severely under-travelled and yet it offers a huge range of experiences to suit every visitor.

Enjoy world-class diving in Bunaken or Wakatobi, both of which offer ample opportunity to swim with sea turtles and observe some of the most varied and colourful coral in the world.

Culture vultures should head to the central region of Tana Toraja, where tourism revolves around burial caves, baby graves in trees and elaborate, week-long funerals.

And for the perfect beach getaway you really can’t do better than the Togean Islands, a genuine paradise where the living is slow and the scenery is stunning.

Beirut-based journalist and photographer Venetia Rainey writes for The Independent, The Telegraph and Reuters.

> Sample the best of Sulawesi with the Periplus Folded Map

New York State: The Other NY

New York State coloursGregor Swiderek explores the other New York – New York State – and discovers a land of mountains, forests and lakes.

Hear the words ‘New York’ and what springs to mind? Gleaming skyscrapers? Yellow cabs? A buoyant nightlife? Probably. But let’s look at another New York – New York State. Sure, it’s home to all the Big Apple’s iconic attractions, but there’s also the ‘upstate’ region where forests, mountains, lakes, small towns and industrial heritage are the norm.

And that’s where I entered the state. Not via one of the bustling airports or traffic-choked highways of NYC, but by crossing a small bridge from Vermont across Lake Champlain. You could say it was the proverbial middle of nowhere; farms on the Vermont side of the water and forested mountains on the New York side. It was getting dark, fog had started wrapping the hills and the entire landscape was as rural as you can get.

My first stop was the town of Ticonderoga. Surprisingly, the chain hotels were all full but they directed me towards some older independent motels. The one I finally stayed at looked like it was straight from the 50s judging by its look and décor, but its owner was super-friendly. The Wi-Fi didn’t work but he was so apologetic that I just couldn’t go anywhere else. And I got a discount.

Fort Ticonderoga GunThe next day the sun was shining and I hit the streets of Ticonderoga early; or rather one short main street, just a few blocks and two sets of traffic lights. But that was enough to have a good local luncheonette where I treated myself to a truly awesome breakfast, after which I was ready to visit the main reason I was in this neck of the woods: Fort Ticonderoga.

Built by the French between 1754 and 1757, it was of strategic importance during the 18th century colonial conflicts between Britain and France. It again played a role during the American Revolutionary War as it controlled an important route between the Hudson River Valley and the Saint Lawrence River Valley.

Picturesquely located on a peninsula at a narrows near the southern end of Lake Champlain, the fort is nowadays lovingly restored (or rather reconstructed – not much is left of the original fort after it quickly fell into ruin after the Revolutionary War). Luckily it was acquired by the Pell family who started its reconstruction in 1909, making it one of the oldest preservation projects in North America. Nowadays you can wander around the fort by yourself or join one of the tours led by the period-dressed guides. I would recommend the second option as these guys are really knowledgeable but also have a good sense of humour – they also offer musket firing and other presentations.

The best way to appreciate the layout of the fort is to look at it from the nearby Mount Defiance – just a 10 to 15-minute drive away, but get a leaflet with precise directions from the museum store as it can be a tricky route. Don’t be put off when the road gets rough – it is steep, narrow and full of potholes but the view from the top is amazing. You can clearly see the fort as well as big swaths of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains in Vermont and the Adirondacks in New York.

From Ticonderoga I headed south to Albany, the capital of the Empire State. That’s correct; it’s not the Big Apple. There are different explanations why this is the case (and I’m not sure which one is correct), but it doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact that Albany is a rather unique place. For a start, the state capitol has a bit of an unusual shape as it lacks a dome. Apparently there were plans for one, and even a tower, but during 32 years of construction it was discovered that the weight of the building was causing it to shift downhill, resulting in some fractures. So, no dome then. In effect the building looks like an oversized château from the Loire Valley, kind of out of place in upstate New York.

New York CapitolIf the capitol is a bit incongruous then its surroundings are absolutely bizarre. The Empire State Plaza is a complex of state government buildings located immediately south and south-west of the capitol. Built between 1959 and 1976, it was the brainchild of Governor Nelson Rockefeller – and it’s huge, consisting of various marble and steel buildings set around a row of three reflective pools. On the west side there is a row of four identical, so-called Agency towers, each 23 storeys tall. On the east side there is the 44-floor Erastus Corning Tower and The Egg performing arts venue, named for its shape (you’ll know why once you see it). On the south end (opposite to the capitol) there is the Cultural Education Center, which looks so weird that it’s hard to describe in a few words. It is also big, with 1.5 million sq ft of floor space.

To be honest the whole complex looks and feels massively oversized for a city the size of Albany. But it’s also absolutely fascinating and photogenic, especially on a sunny day. The best way to fully appreciate it, and to get an understanding of its layout, is to visit the viewing deck on the 42nd floor of the Corning Tower (which happens to be the tallest building in New York State outside NYC). From there you will be able to see all the government buildings located around the reflecting pool as well as the rest of the city (which feels dwarfed by the complex). Then there is the Hudson River and endless mountains and forest surrounding the city, stretching far into the horizon.

Albany is an easy place to visit. You can leave your car in one of the vast parking lots underneath the Empire Plaza, which are connected to the underground walkways connecting all the buildings. For anyone interested in grandiose architecture, Albany is a must-visit destination – together with cities like Brasilia or Canberra, it is one of the largest purpose-built government complexes in the world. Some compare it to buildings constructed by Fascist governments and criticise its size and cost (approximately $2 billion, and 9,000 people were displaced during its construction). There is no denying, however, that it is a unique and well-worth-visiting place.

From Albany I headed west towards the Finger Lakes region in the centre of New York state. On my way I stopped for a night in Binghamton where, by coincidence, I also stayed five years ago on my previous trip to this part of the world. It is one of those nondescript towns where I usually end up staying in cheap chain motels and eat in one of the countless fast food joints on the strip malls that stretch for miles and miles. They are not highlights of any trip, but I have seen similar towns across America and I’ve grown to like them. I can’t explain why but I find them strangely fascinating with their grittiness and anonymity. They all look the same; it doesn’t matter if they are in Michigan, Colorado or Kentucky. This is where everyone minds their own business and you can easily blend in. By and large no-one sees you as a tourist; they don’t visit places like Binghamton, but I would say that this is the real face of America rather than beaches of Santa Monica, the theme parks of Orlando or the boutiques of NYC.

Taughannock FallsAfter Binghamton everywhere looks beautiful and fascinating, but Fingers Lakes is genuinely interesting. My time was limited so I only chose one destination to visit: Taughannock Falls State Park. Beautifully located on the banks of Lake Cayuga it’s home to one of the tallest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains. Its main cataract drops 66 metres, which is a full 10 metres higher than the mighty Niagara. You can hike to its base at the bottom of a long and narrow gorge (with walls reaching 120 metres tall), or you can take the rim trails that offer great views from the top of the falls. In other words, this small state park is a real gem. In fact, I suspect that in many countries in Europe it would be designated a national park.

This was the turning point of my journey. From Taughannock Falls I started heading back east, ultimately all the way to the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. But that was still hundreds of miles away and for now I was simply enjoying a peaceful drive across the New York countryside.

I would recommend upstate New York to anyone visiting north-eastern USA. Even if you mainly come for the highlights of NYC, it is well worth sparing a day or two to tour this fascinating region.

> Discover more with our range of New York State travel guides and maps.

Indian Railways: A Window to the Subcontinent

Indian railwayTravel blogger Aditya Akhauri explains how the railway has become a microcosm of Indian society.

When the British started their Indian railways project in 1853, their intention was to have a means to transport troops, supplies and goods as a means of controlling the country’s political and economic landscape. However, what they didn’t envisage was that if they were able to use the railways to move around swiftly, so too could the Indians. Soon, the huge flow of people across different regions led to the unification of the country – and ultimately the end of the British Raj.

Interesting history apart, the Indian railways today are a network of 65,000 km and more than 7,500 stations. They are the veins that run through Read More Indian Railways: A Window to the Subcontinent

New Year's Eve: Our Favourite Destinations

With four days to go until New Year’s Eve, we spoke to bloggers and travel industry experts to find out the best places to welcome in 2013.

Budapest New Year's EveAlice Bzowska: Budapest

Hungarians take New Year’s Eve seriously and it should come as no surprise that one of the most exciting places to celebrate the end of one year and the start of another is in the capital city of Budapest.

Szilveszter, as it’s known to the locals, comes in the form of anything from swanky fancy dress balls to dinner on the Danube River with traditional folk dances and live gypsy music.

Partying in one of the many charming and cobbled squares is a great way to welcome in the New Year, and one of the most exciting of these is Vorosmarty Square. Winter parties in this stunning square speckled with snow are already in full force a couple of weeks before the first day of January, with merriments beginning before Christmas.

The special three-day celebration for New Year’s Eve starts on 30th December and includes an eclectic mixture of theatre performances and live music from bands from all over the world, as well as an art and crafts fair with handmade trinkets.

No New Year’s celebration is complete without sampling some of the local food, and Budapest has some scrumptious dishes, from traditional roast pork to a hearty lentil soup. Many revellers taste the regional delicacy in one of Budapest’s restaurants before pouring out onto the streets to continue partying it up!

With streets packed full of people of all ages singing, throwing confetti and blowing on paper horns, the excitement is electrifying, making Budapest one of the best European cities in which to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

> Explore the Hungarian capital with our Budapest travel guides and maps

Amsterdam New Year's EveCharlie Gilbert: Amsterdam

Away from the coffee shops and the Red Light District, Amsterdam has one of the best nightlife scenes on the continent, and at no time is this better showcased than New Year’s Eve.

One of the biggest events is Heineken Music Hall’s TIKTAK New Year’s Eve – an electro, dubstep and house party that’ll still be in full swing at half five in the morning. But top of my recommendations is Dazzleville, a one-night New Year’s Eve festival featuring 45 DJs on seven stages and boats at NDSM-Wharf. Just about every music taste is catered for (my thing is roots reggae and dub, a genre that receives a dedicated yurt), and at the stroke of midnight a large wooden beast is burned, which has something to do with Chinese astrology.

For something more family-friendly, I’d suggest heading to the official celebrations in Oosterdok, with the iconic Nemo science centre, VOC Ship and Scheepvaartmuseum forming an impressive backdrop to what’s become a legendary fireworks display. This year looks set to be the biggest yet with Amsterdam celebrating a number of milestones next year: its canals will be 400 years old, the Rijksmuseum will reopen after a major renovation and the Artis Zoo – easily the best zoo I’ve been to – will celebrate its 175th anniversary.

Remember to wrap up warm – Amsterdam in mid-winter can get pretty chilly (so cold in fact that the canal’s freeze solid and ice skating usurps cycling as the preferred method of getting around).

> Discover more of Mokum with our Amsterdam street maps and travel guides

Las Vegas New Year's EveLauren Holden: Las Vegas

Owing to its bright lights and entertainment factor, grim and dreary Blackpool has earned the title of the ‘Vegas of the north’. But I know where I’d rather see in the New Year. Here’s a clue: it doesn’t begin with B. There’s a reason the celebs roll into Sin City year after year, and it’s not for candy floss and Kiss Me Quick hats. True, it’s tacky, but it really is a playground for adults. Want a night to remember? You’ve picked the right place. From dazzling fireworks lighting up the famous strip to poolside parties and top shows featuring big name acts, counting down to midnight in one of the world’s most unique holiday destinations certainly beats spending the night downing shots in another dodgy UK club. And don’t get me started on the gambling. If you’re heading to Vegas, you’ve got to have a go.

> Learn more about Las Vegas with our range of travel guides and maps

Sydney New Year's EveJayne Gorman: Sydney

The best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever experienced was in Sydney, Australia. Perhaps due to the temperate climate and dazzling sunshine, NYE in Sydney is as much about the daytime activities as it is the night.

We were up and out by 8am to reserve our space on the harbour, picnic rug and snacks spilling out from our shopping bags. During the days leading up to the event the council had been giving out maps in the city listing the best viewing points for the famous fireworks, so we already knew where we were heading. We guarded our small spot of grass all day, enjoying champagne and snacks from the onsite food vans, and when the first round of fireworks went off at 9pm I couldn’t imagine them getting any better at midnight. But they did. The theme that year was ‘Time of Your Life’ – it certainly was.

Jayne is an award-winning travel blogger who manages 40before30.com.

> Explore the best of Sydney with our range of travel guides and maps

Iceland New Year's EveRobin Wild: Reykjavik

Seeing in the New Year is a particular cause for celebration for Reykjavik’s locals, especially near Hallgrimskirkja. Icelandic law states that all fireworks and the sale of fireworks is illegal – but only until 30th December. As a result, every New Year’s Eve the city is lit up with fireworks displays!

Robin is an adventure specialist at My Adventure Store.

> Reveal the best of Reykjavik with our range of maps and travel guides

Rahul Aggarwal: North-east India

North-east India is a remarkable place to spend New Year’s Eve – particularly the state of Meghalaya, known as ‘the Scotland of the east’. Among my favourite destinations is Shillong, the state capital, where the locals put on quite a spectacle where archery is concerned. It’s here that the NYE celebrations are centred, though festivities are relatively low-key and relaxed, which are part of their appeal. Other highlights include driving through a landscape dominated by waterfalls to Cherrapunjee, the wettest place on Earth, and visiting the Sacred Forest of Mawphlang.

Rahul is a director at off-the-beaten track tour operator Travel The Unknown.

> Be inspired by north-east India with our range of travel guides and maps

London New Year's EveLondon

The capital’s official New Year’s Eve celebrations will culminate with a spectacular fireworks display in front of the London Eye. But where to get the best view? And what else is happening in London?

Caroline Sandes: I’d recommend avoiding the Millennium Bridge, which spans the river between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern. While you’d perhaps think you’d get a great view of the fireworks at midnight, the bend in the river and the tall buildings between the bridge and the Eye – from where the fireworks are set off – means you can barely see anything!

Olivia Haughton:Street Feast London in the heart of Shoreditch promises a great evening at any time of year, but it will undoubtedly be even better on New Year’s Eve. With traders serving food from all over the world, it has a real international flavour.

> Discover the best of the capital on NYE with our range of London street maps and travel guides

Europe's Top 5 Value Ski Resorts

It’s time to get the skis out. Snow has been falling across Europe’s mountain resorts, resulting in ideal deep snow conditions usually reserved for the end of January. But with ski holiday prices at the big five – Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland – notoriously expensive, which is the best-value resort to head to?

We take a detailed look at five of the best European ski resorts as named in the Post Office Travel Money Ski Resort Report, which revealed that it’s not just snow falling at the continent’s mountains – prices are too, especially in Italy.

Livigno ski1. Livigno, Italy

Located on the Swiss border, this central Alpine resort offers fantastic ski and snowboard slopes for people of all abilities. Spread over four villages, Livigno is Europe’s highest permanently-inhabited resort at almost 6,000ft.

There are 110km of slopes to explore, with the longest stretching for approximately 7km. Most are beginner and intermediate-friendly, though there 13km of pistes for more experiences skiers and snowboarders.

Part of Livigno’s appeal is its tax-free status – Italian VAT is not paid here – which has encouraged 250 duty-free outlets to set up shop at the resort. And while prices have historically been kept relatively low, they’re approximately 10 per cent lower still this year.

According to the Post Office, the cost of equipment hire, ski passes, ski lessons, meals and drinks comes to £361.85 per person, making it the fourth-cheapest ski resort in Europe.

How to get there: Fly to either Milan or Zurich (both are about 200km away) and transfer via train, bus or hire car.
When to go: Late November to early May.

> Discover more with KOMPASS-Verlag’s Bormio-Livigno map

Bansko ski2. Bansko, Bulgaria

Eastern European resorts are famously cheap, but they have suffered a poor reputation thanks to rickety ski lifts and a lack of facilities. Fortunately, neither is the case at Bansko – a resort boasting modern lifts and first-rate hotels.

Located in the scenic Pirin National Park, Bansko offers excellent accommodation, fast lifts and an interesting town to explore. But most important are its slopes – considered the best and certainly the longest in Bulgaria, they’ve hosted Super-G and World Cup Women’s downhill races; testament to the resort’s facilities and credibility. While the most challenging slopes will be a doddle for experts, there is some excellent tree skiing and opportunities to go off-piste with an instructor.

Snow reliability and management is excellent in Bansko by Bulgarian standards, with the north-facing slopes resulting in favourable conditions throughout the season.

Central to the resort’s appeal are its prices – according to the Post Office, prices per person for the purchases mentioned above came to £264.52, making it the cheapest ski resort in Europe.

How to get there: Fly to Sofia (160km away) or Plovdiv (180 km) and transfer via car or private transfer. While the train journey to Bansko from Sofia is worth it for the views, it does take seven hours – twice as long as travelling by road.
When to go: Mid December to mid April.

> Discover more with Domino’s Bansko (with ski routes) map

Soldeu ski3. Soldeu, Andorra

Located 1.5km from Soldeu is the small village of El Tarter, home to one of Europe’s most respected ski schools. If you’re skiing with the family, this is one of the best resorts to head to – not only will the kids be taught by some of the best instructors around (there are 200 speaking a multitude of languages), a ski holiday here won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Soldeu and El Tarter are home to 16 family-friendly hotels and 75 rental apartments, all within easy reach of the resort’s 86km of trails (spread over 52 runs, the longest of which, Gall de Bosc, stretches for 8.2km). All slopes are accessed via a gondola or chairlift.

According to the Post Office, a stay in Soldeu this winter is a whopping 18 per cent cheaper than last year, costing a relatively modest £1,121.14 for a family of four – less than £3 pricier than the Slovenian resort of Kranjska Gora, one of the cheapest in Europe.

How to get there: Fly to Carcassonne, Barcelona, Girona, Reus or Toulouse and transfer via car, shared airport transfer or private transfer.
When to go: Mid December to mid April.

> Discover more with IGN’s St Gaudens-Andorra map

Sestriere ski4. Sestriere, Italy

The second Italian destination to make the top five list, Sestriere, which hosted the World Alpine Championships in 1997, is described by the Post Office as “the bargain choice” among the country’s world-class ski resorts.

Here, the cost of equipment hire, ski passes, ski lessons, meals and drinks comes to £418.85 per person – 73 per cent cheaper than the £725.73 you can expect to pay at Zermatt in Switzerland. So what do you get for your money?

Well, some of the most reliable snow in the Alps (Sestriere is located in the Vialettea region on the French border) and challenging-to-advanced slopes for starters. There’s access to 400km of slopes spread over 146 runs in the Milky Way region, the longest of which stretches for 5km.

Because Sestriere is a purpose-built result, it’s geared up perfectly for skiers and snowboarders. There are almost 3,500 beds to choose from in various accommodation types, while the 40 shops, 30 bars and dozens of restaurants keep visitors entertained.

How to get there: Six airports are relatively close by, but the closest is Turin (90km to the east). From here, it’s a 1hr 40min train journey to Oulx, where buses operate to the heart of Sestriere.
When to go: Mid December to mid April.

> Discover more with IGC’s Sestriere – Claviere – Prali map

Slovenia ski5. Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

Among the best ski resorts for beginners and young families, Kranjska Gora – located in the Zgornjesavska Valley section of the Julian Alps – also happens to one of the best value.

Not far from the Austrian and Italian borders, Kranjska Gora boasts inescapable Alpine charm and excellent accommodation options, with nine hotels and a plethora of apartments to choose from. Its well-groomed runs stretch for over 30km on the north-facing section of Mount Vitranc, with visitors having the opportunity to try night skiing.

Part of the destination’s appeal is that holidaymakers aren’t limited to a single resort – the more adventurous can head to nearby Planica, a location famed for its ski jumping (the first ski jumping hill was constructed here in 1930; the location of the first jump over 200m in 1994).

According to the Post Office, Kranjska Gora is this winter’s second-cheapest continental ski resort, with the average cost of the above purchases coming to £324.56.

How to get there: Fly to Ljubljana, which is 66km away (a 45-minute drive). Alternatively, fly to Klagenfurt in Austria or Trieste in Italy.
When to go: Mid December to late March.

> Discover more with the Triglav National Park map