Venetian Finds: With water everywhere and palaces galore, Venice captivates the imagination like no other city

The only city in the world constructed purely on waterways, Venice has a beguiling beauty. It has over the years provided an endless canvass for writers, painters and philosophers and the backdrop for haunting films. Packed with palazzi and other must-see cultural attractions, this most remarkable of Italian destinations oozes charm, with the lapping canal water leaving an indelible mark on bewitched visitors.

Perched upon more than 120 islands within a sheltered lagoon, the maritime melting pot was the centre of a formidable Venetian trading monopoly in the Middle Ages and Renaissance era; legendary 13th-century merchant-explorer Marco Polo called it home. Inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List in 1987, the city has seen its population dwindle by more than half since the end of the Second World War to less than 50,000 today. Talk of its demise is nothing new, and Unesco has twice considered declaring this wonder of the world endangered as it combats a multitude of existential threats, from tourist overcrowding to subsidence.

Grand tour

The six districts of Venice lie either side of the majestic watercourse known as the Grand Canal, the main artery of the city. There are an estimated 3,000 alleys to explore and 400 bridges to cross. Ponte de Chiodo is the one remaining bridge with no parapet (side wall or rail).

A voyage down the Grand Canal – Canalazzo to the locals – reveals more than 200 ornate palaces and grand houses lining the banks. The vaporetto (water bus) starts at Piazzale Roma and snakes through the city on waters full of colourful flotillas of gondolas, ferries, taxi launches, high- speed police boats and barges stacked high with fresh produce. Ferry line No. 1 takes in all stops and offers the best views. If possible, grab outside seats at the front or rear of the boat for the full journey to San Marco, Venice’s foremost district, then return in order to drink in the full scenic glory of the palazzi from the opposite direction. A night- time boat trip is perhaps even more magical.

Building bridges

The ride passes under some splendid bridges. Dating from 1588, the Ponte di Rialto is perhaps the most famous – an iconic eight-metre-high structure with a span of 28 metres positioned at the narrowest point of the Grand Canal. The bridge is the central focus of the city’s commercial hub, the Rialto. Here the wet market, full of luscious fruit, vegetables and fish, is a treat for the senses and has enlivened the quayside since medieval times.

San Giacomo di Rialto, the oldest church in Venice, is located nearby. To cross the Grand Canal here board a traghetto, a large gondola in which passengers traditionally remain standing. No visit to Venice would be complete, of course, without floating along some part of the canal network in a black-painted, flat-bottomed, banana-shaped boat guided by an expert gondolier – musical serenade optional.

Another notable bridge on the Grand Canal is the Ponte dell’ Accademia. This wooden structure erected temporarily in 1932 has become a much- loved permanent fixture and affords superb views of waterborne life.

Masters of art

Riva del Vin, one of the few banks of the canal with pavement access, hosts a clutch of open- air restaurants and hotels. The colossal Baroque palace of Ca’ Pesaro houses the city’s modern art collection and is beautifully floodlit at night. Works by 19th- and 20th-century masters such as Gustav Klimt and Marc Chagall and a strong Italian assemblage are highlights.

Also located on the Grand Canal is Italy’s leading museum for 20th-century European and American art, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The American mining heiress, who began amassing magnificent paintings while living in Paris in the 1920s, relocated to the 18th-century Venetian palace after the war.

Around the square

Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) is adorned with monuments that bear testimony to Venice’s rich history. Here you will find the great Basilica di San Marco cathedral church, considered the perfect architectural fusion of East and West. Booking a guided visit beforehand is recommended to avoid the queues. The building has been replaced twice, with much of today’s church hailing from 1071, and it became the city’s cathedral in 1807.

Striking exterior details include the original mosaic over the leftmost door – depicting the transfer of St Mark’s body from Alexandria to Venice – and Romanesque carvings above the central door. The interior is embellished with resplendent historical works of art. The Basilica Museum houses the famed quarter of gilt-bronze horses looted from Constantinople by Venetian forces during the Crusades.

Adjoining the basilica is the Doge’s Palace, a superb combination of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Construction began in 1340 and it served as the powerhouse of the city’s rulers until 1797, when Napoleon’s occupation of Italy ended the Republic of Venice. The building became a museum in 1923 and contains terrific works from Venetian painters such as Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini.

Blessed with many architectural styles, Campo Santa Margherita (St Margaret’s Square) is another lovely square. Its cafes provide charming rest stops to sit and soak up the bustling life of thriving market stalls.

Food with a view

Turning to dining delights, Venetian restaurants range in style from cool 18th-century refinement to rustic gentility. Venice embraces a wide range of foreign communities and this influence has given rise to Italy’s most eclectic and subtle cooking, according to many culinary experts. The elegant terrace of Grand Canal Restaurant at Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal in San Marco offers picture-postcard views over the lagoon. Venetian, Italian and international dishes are served including fish soup, vegetable risotto and scampi.

Next door is the legendary watering hole of Ernest Hemingway and many other writers, painters, artists and aristocrats. The success of Harry’s Bar has been attributed to personalised service and lack of imposition. The Bellini aperitivo is said to be invented here and the food is good, too, with an emphasis on classic Italian dishes.

Originally a 1720s coffee house, Antico Martini is another Venetian institution. Located in San Fantin Square beside La Fenice Opera House, it is a lovely place to sit and watch the sun go down. The warm historical ambience, excellent Italian menu and wonderful background music draw in the crowds.

Festia pizzazz

Venice is host to a multitude of fantastic festivals. The most famous, the Carnival, is a spectacular parade of masked, caped and gowned revellers staged during the 10 days prior to Lent. In 2024, the city’s internationally acclaimed film festival will take place from 28 August to 7 September, while music lovers can enjoy evening concerts at various venues – in palaces, churches and the open-air – throughout the year. The word regatta originated in Venice, and an amazing historical water pageant precedes a competitive race around the lagoon on 1 September.

Bohemia Rhapsodies: The ancient spires of Prague nod to a city steeped in history and charm

Prague is one of the most majestic and architecturally amazing cities in Europe. This ancient settlement, once the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, is a gem from a bygone age whose splendid buildings are seemingly unspoilt by modernism, war or natural disaster. The city’s core remains intact and world-famous structures date back more than 10 centuries.

A bird’s eye view of Prague would reveal a melting pot of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque landmarks, plus some 19th-century revivals and a sprinkling of 20th-century Art Nouveau. The tightly knit architectural haven is ideal for visitors to spend joyous days wandering through beautiful alleyways, passages and cul-de-sacs before heading back to one of many luxury hotels now populating the Czech Republic’s main city.

Bridging the past

A dawn crossing of Charles Bridge, a magnificent 14th-century bridge lined with Baroque statues that spans the Vltava River, is considered a quintessential Prague experience. The excursion from the Old Town to the Lesser Town or Little Quarter is made even more memorable by an approach under the arch below Old Town Bridge Tower, which itself is considered one of the finest Gothic buildings in the world. Here, the rib-vaulted viewing gallery provides wonderful views of Prague’s 1,000-year-old hilltop castle. The bridge became pedestrianised after the Second World War, having nobly withstood five centuries of wheeled traffic – its sturdy sandstone blocks were strengthened (according to legend) by mixing the mortar with egg yolk.

The structure’s series of Baroque statues (some are copies, with the originals residing in Czech museums) stare indifferently at the assembled gathering of buskers, jazz bands, hawkers and tourists. One of the artistically most remarkable is the sculpture of St Luitgard, dating from 1710 and based on the vision of a nun kissing the wounds of Christ.

The Little Quarter Bridge Tower, on the opposite river bank, also affords superb views of this glorious City of 100 Spires. Aside from an early morning visit, the bridge is one of many great places to watch the sunset.

Prince of the castle

Occupying a high and commanding position above the river, Prague Castle was founded in the ninth century by Prince Bořivoj. Its walls enclose a complex of palaces, churches, halls, a monastery and picturesque artisans’ cottages – a little village in its own right.

Czechia’s beating heart, the castle has huge cultural and historic significance; it boasts buildings from every period of the country’s history and has contained the seat of presidential power since 1918. There are also many physical treasures within these walls, such as the Bohemian crown jewels and exquisite works of art in Lobkowicz Palace from the former royal family’s private collection. The Prague Castle Picture Gallery contains wonderful paintings from the 16th to 18th centuries, with works by Titian and Rubens among the highlights, as well as some impressive sculptures.

Gothic glory

One of Europe’s most beautiful urban spaces, Old Town Square is a must-visit. Dotted with fine historical attractions, it has been the city’s main marketplace since the 11th century and remains a focal point, with a tourist information centre, plus numerous restaurants, cafés, shops and galleries. The south side of the square has an array of fine Romanesque and Gothic houses, while the east side is home to the Rococo-style Kinsky Palace, now an art museum whose façade is dressed with elaborate stucco decoration, and the 13th-century Stone Bell House, restored as a Gothic palace.

Another of the city’s top attractions is the Old Town Hall, established in 1338 after King John of Luxembourg allowed the district to have its own council. Carefully restored following damage sustained during a 1945 uprising against the Nazis, the complex embraces a row of immaculate Gothic and Renaissance buildings, some of which are open to the public. Atop the Old Town Hall tower is a famous astronomical clock that features, on the hour, a medieval marionette show lasting 45 seconds.

Worship wonders

Important religious landmarks include St Vitus Cathedral, located within Prague Castle and the country’s largest church. Work on the Gothic building began in 1344 and was finally completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first church on the site dates back to 930 and was built at the request of Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia – “Good King Wenceslas” of carol fame was murdered five years later. He became the patron saint of the Czech state, and his tomb can be found within the cathedral, along with the aforementioned crown jewels.

Constructed in the first half of the 18th century, the Church of St Nicholas is a Baroque masterpiece in the storybook setting of the Lesser Town. It was the brainchild of father-and-son architects Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, Prague’s greatest exponents of High Baroque. Its statues, frescoes and paintings are by preeminent artists of their time, notably including Karel Škréta’s Crucifixion.

The Prague Jewish Museum is also worth a visit. It encompasses half a dozen ancient synagogues, a ceremonial hall and former mortuary, plus the Old Jewish Cemetery, all clustered together in a corner of the Old Town.

Cultural cheers

Prague is famous for its beer, or pivo in the native tongue, with the Czechs being among the world’s most enthusiastic beer drinkers. The country perfected the first Pilsner-style lager, the Pilsner Urquell 1842, and the pub is a focal point of Czech culture, a place to have fun, discuss art and put the world to right. The city is awash with breweries, large, small and micro, and craft beers. Favourites include Ležák, a classic pale lager; the yeast beer Kvasnicové; and the coffee-flavoured Kávové.

A few minutes from the castle, U Černého vola Beerhall is one of the best-known old-school pubs, serving classic snacks such as pickled camembert- style cheese, head cheese with onions or baked ham and eggs. Another good watering hole is U Hrocha, located near the British embassy. There are also plenty of late-night drinking spots and dance clubs to party into the small hours. Studio 54’s reputation as an excellent after-hours club playing a wide range of music is well-earned.

Cracking pork

The Czechs are also known for their fondness for pork (vepřový maso), with roast pork, pork goulash (vepřový guláš) and pork schnitzel (vepřový řízek) heading the menu. Boiled bread dumplings (knedlíky) are perfect for soaking up the gravy, while tomato, cucumber, lettuce and pickled cabbage add colour and crunch to local plates.

Ensconced within an iconic Old Town building, La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise prepares modern dishes inspired by 19th-century cuisine and serves them in tasting feasts of up to 11 courses. For panoramic views of this ancient city, visit Villa Richter, where gastronomic delights and exceptional wines can be enjoyed amid the St Wenceslas vineyards of Prague Castle, the oldest in the country.

EL Heaven: A sanctuary of spectacular scenery, El Nido meets the needs of today’s eco-conscious luxury traveller

The remote paradise of El Nido has gained international repute over recent years for its magnificent white-sand beaches, abrupt limestone formations, luscious turquoise waters and amazing coral reefs that are a magnet for scuba divers. As its accessibility has improved, so has its appeal, and it is now one of the most popular resort destinations in the Philippines. Its location in northern Palawan provides the perfect gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, where fabulous island-hopping tours of surreal lagoons and world-famous beaches will take your breath away.

Natural beauty

The northern reaches of Palawan island – the largest province in the Philippines – boasts many scenic locations that are staunchly preserved and attractive villages with tree-lined streets. Here, the indigenous Bataks with their dark skin and curly hair look unlike most Filipinos. Dwindling in numbers, these once nomadic people have settled in river valleys along the eastern coastline.

The municipality of El Nido is fronted by karst limestone cliffs similar to the spectacular rock formations of Guilin in China or Phang Nga Bay in Thailand. These days, its many charms and luxurious accommodations can be conveniently accessed by a flight from Manila that lasts just over an hour. Before the local airport was built, though, the town could only be reached via road from the coastal city of Puerto Princesa about 238 kilometres to the south – a rather precarious journey that could at times fray the nerves. This area is also home to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, acclaimed as a natural wonder of the world for its underground habitat of cathedral caverns, massive stalactites, icy lagoons and swooshing bats.

Birds’ eye views

El Nido means ‘the nest’ in Spanish and is so- called as swiftlets flock to the nooks and crannies of the towering black cliffs to build their homes. Unlike most birds, who conventionally gather twigs, dead leaves, grass or feathers to construct nests, the swiftlets – or balinsasayaw as they are known here – use their own saliva, which hardens when exposed to the air. Locals clamber up rickety bamboo scaffolding to harvest these prized edible nests from the high crags and caves.

The precious nature of this culinary ingredient is reflected in the hazardous method of collection, the loneliness of guarding the scaffolds and nests from poachers, and the effort involved in separating hardened saliva from inedible leaves or feathers. Bird’s nest, often made into soup, is thought by some to have aphrodisiac and youth- preserving properties. It is also said to boost the immune system and strengthen the lungs.

French destination

El Nido has thrived on human endeavour as well as birdlife, with many fine restaurants and beachside bars built so holidaymakers can sit and watch the sun go down. The town has become a favourite destination for French travellers. A beachfront watering and eating hole exuding a relaxed vibe, La Plage Sunset Restaurant & Bar is noted for its French and Asian cuisine and the added luxury of a pool overlooking the beautiful bay. Boasting one of the region’s best hotel bars, La Salangane is also famous for French cuisine – including vegetarian options – and making its own uniquely flavoured rums.

The El Nido Boutique Artcafé, not far from the beach, is another excellent place to eat, drink, relax and soak up the gorgeous surroundings. It has excellent salads using lettuce and arugula from its own organic farm, homemade bread, seafood, curry, pizza and scrumptious sweets like pineapple upside-down cake and chocolate and mango tarts. Live acts perform at least five nights a week while guests sip smoothies, cocktails, beers or wine and take in the sea breeze and stunning views. The venue also acts as a travel centre, offering domestic-flight bookings and local land and sea transportation for trips around El Nido’s famous hotspots.

Marine pleasures

Indeed, El Nido has a slew of diving and tour centres since the most popular activities are island-hopping and snorkelling. It is a haven for lovers of aquatic sports, and visitors can become PADI-certified divers while on vacation. The municipality comprises 45 islands and 50 beaches, some of which have been voted among the world’s finest.

Excursions to the limestone outcrops of Bacuit Bay zip through crystalline waters containing hundreds of species of fish and coral. Much of the area has been given marine-protected status and the health of the underwater ecosystem is monitored. This is a mesmerising landscape of jagged limestone islands, white, sandy beaches, lagoons and coves that leaves a deep impression whether you are underwater or simply soaking up the vista on a beautiful beach.

Numerous upmarket, honeymoon-worthy resorts have pool, beach and canopy villas dotted around these majestic islands, such as Apulit Island in Taytay Bay and Miniloc Island Resort. Some flaunt their eco credentials; at Miniloc, native cottages stand on stilts right over the edge of a cove and guests are invited to hand-feed the wild fish, which will greedily gobble up all offerings.

Paradise found

Miniloc Island is known for its three lagoons – Big, Small and Secret – which are all hugely photogenic. Accessed by an extremely shallow channel and surrounded by unspoiled jungle-clad karst cliffs, Big Lagoon is an enormous, unforgettable natural swimming hole where snorkellers can while away the hours among exquisite coral formations. Reaching Small Lagoon is an adventure since it involves swimming through a hole in a rock wall or paddling through on a kayak at low tide. Inside is a wonderful hidden world with a small cave waiting to be explored. Secret Lagoon is similarly dwarfed by steep basalt walls and requires crawling through a rocky crevice.

Another island worth visiting in the archipelago is Pinasil, which harbours the stalactite splendour of Cathedral Cave, wide enough for motorboats to enter. At Pangulasian Island Resort, an eco-luxury island getaway, you can marvel at the brilliant white sand along the extensive stretch of beach, the jungle trials teeming with wonderful flora, and the marine sanctuary right on the doorstep of your well- appointed accommodation.

State of Grace: From Brisbane to the Whitsundays, coasting through Queensland brings boundless natural rewards

Queensland is perhaps the most beautiful and varied of Australia’s states, and its vast coastline, in particular, has so much to offer. This area is perhaps the personification of the ‘Lucky Country’, with the most appealing sights and pastimes spotlighting the glorious natural advantages of the great outdoors.

The state capital of Brisbane, located in the fastest-growing area of Australia, is blessed with year-round sunshine. Ultimately it is a wonderful place to visit, sandwiched between the world-famous Gold Coast to the south and the charming Sunshine Coast, while further north are the idyllic island getaways of K’gari and the Whitsundays.

Brisbane is named after the state’s longest river, and near the Central Business District is a bend in the Brisbane which was the fishing ground of the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, the area’s traditional custodians. North Quay was home to a penal colony during the country’s inauspicious British colonial beginnings. Times have moved on, however, and Brisbane is now a smart, ultra-modern city with an ever-expanding range of skyscrapers sprouting up to add to the unforgettable skyline.

Brisbane browsing

The architecturally acclaimed Riverside Centre and Riparian Plaza dominate the Riverside Precinct, which features a slew of bars and restaurants overlooking the Brisbane River. The popular Aquila Caffe Bar is a great place to have a wholesome breakfast of eggs or an acai berry bowl and watch the ferries ply the river or eye the climbers on the top girders of Story Bridge. It is possible to join the adventurers on this iconic bridge (see sbac.net.au) to claim the best views of the skyline.

Another popular place to eat is Sage On Ann, with its Turkish eggs or zucchini and asparagus tart for breakfast and lunchtime draws of wild mushroom risotto and beef massaman curry. The Port Office Hotel dining room serves superb steaks, plus excellent vegetarian dishes and seafood. Dining at the Howard Smith Wharves offers sublime views of the river.

Many of the interesting sites and attractions in the city centre are within close proximity so they can be viewed via a leisurely stroll. Along the Rocks Riverside Promenade is the Victorian-era, copper- domed Customs House, a colonnaded construction that provides a striking contrast to the towering skyscrapers. The Anglican St John’s Cathedral was constructed on and off for 100 years, beginning in 1906, and boasts a wondrous vaulted ceiling made entirely of stone. The Old Windmill on the edge of Wickham Park is Queensland’s oldest surviving building; dating back to 1828, it was built by convicts who were then forced to work its treadmill as a form of punishment.

Brisbane City Hall, located in King George Square, hosts the Museum of Brisbane with its superb contemporary art display. Its clock tower affords brilliant views of the city, whose detailed history is also recorded in the museum. One of Australia’s largest maritime museums is in Brisbane – the Queensland Maritime Museum. Queensland Museum, located in the cultural hub at the northern end of South Bank Parklands, holds the World Science Festival Brisbane every March (15 to 24 March this year). A festival of a different sort follows soon after: the Brisbane Comedy Festival, to be held from 26 April to 26 May 2024, is sure to raise more than a few laughs.

Gold Coast rush

From Brisbane, it is easy to explore other parts of Australia’s magnificent East Coast. A car drive to the south reveals the glittering Gold Coast with its golden beaches and colourful theme parks. The chic boutiques and trendy cafes of Main Beach attract the wealthy and stylish, while further along the sandbar at Marina Mirage, luxury yachts vie for attention with designer boutiques, cafés and restaurants. Mariner’s Cove Marina, next door, also has good dining options as well as watersport activities.

As the name of its most famous seaside resort attests, the region is a surfing paradise with excellent breaks all along the coast, many surf schools are introducing the uninitiated to the marvels of standing on a surfboard. Surfers Paradise itself, situated just south of Main Beach, is known for its tasty waves, and rather more controversially, its bikini-clad meter maids. A must-do is ascending to Level 77 of SkyPoint for breathtaking vistas stretching from Brisbane to Byron Bay.

Sun and scenery

North of Brisbane is the Sunshine Coast, where splendid sights can be ticked off during a full day’s outing by car from Brisbane. Take the tourist route for fabulous panoramic glimpses of the Glass House Mountains and access to walking trails along the craggy, eroded volcanic peaks.

A short drive north of here is Australia Zoo, made famous by the late Steve ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ Irwin, where many mammals, birds and reptiles live within natural Australian and recreated Asian habitats. The Edge Restaurant in Montville offers pasta, steaks, salads, seafood and spectacular views across the hinterland to the Pacific Ocean.

Head to the sand

Considered a must along the East Coast is a three-day four-wheel-drive adventure on the world’s largest sand island – K’gari, or Fraser Island. Access is by ferry, and it is possible to hire a 4WD in Brisbane, in the adjacent Hervey Bay, or at Kingfisher Bay Resort – the award- winning ecotourism resort that is a focal point of the island. K’gari is a breathtaking mixture of rainforests, pristine freshwater lakes and streams, and sand dunes accessed along seemingly endless tracks.

Natural wonders are aplenty, from the amazingly clear night sky to a 120-kilometre stretch of uninterrupted sand (Seventy Five Mile Beach) flanked by dunes and the Pacific, to translucent blue lakes of magical beauty. Take a swim at Eli Creek and float down the stream on the freshwater that spews out of the creek. The rusty relic of a passenger liner, the Maheno, that ran aground in 1935 adds a surreal touch to the beach.

Back on the mainland, Hervey Bay is a beautiful seaside resort with an endless beachfront esplanade. There are fantastic opportunities daily to get up close to majestic humpback whales – or dolphins outside of the peak whale-watching season.

Whitsunday wonder

Another popular Queensland destination is Airlie Beach. Located more than 800 kilometres north of Hervey Bay, it is known for its picturesque marina and as a staging post for sailing, cruising, diving and kayaking adventures to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef beyond. A ferry from the port delivers visitors to Hamilton Island, which also has an airport with flights to Brisbane or Cairns on the state’s northern coast.

Spanning 74 isles, the Whitsundays are considered one of the world’s most beautiful archipelagos with adorable secluded bays and coves, deserted beaches and world-class hiking. Notable among the stunning beaches on Whitsunday Island itself is Whitehaven, where azure blue waters lap the pure white silica sand.

Javanese Joy: From Jakarta to the temple to the sea, the world’s most populous island draws visitors galore

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago with literally thousands of isles, but the main focal point of this nation of almost 280 million inhabitants is the elongated island of Java. Housing 150 million of the total population, it is its beating heart and has a great deal to offer the visitor, as much can be experienced even during a short stay.

Jostling Jakarta

Most visits start with a stay in the nation’s capital – the huge conurbation of Jakarta on Java’s northwest tip with a population of around 11 million. Though it has become known as the capital of logjams, traffic congestion notwithstanding there is plenty to do and see. There are a slew of great museums, superb buildings of great architectural heritage emanating from the Dutch colonial period, a lovely old harbour to stroll around, great shopping, antique and craft shops and world-class nightlife.

A must-see is Fatahillah Square in the Old Town – here the enchanted visitor can admire historic buildings in the Dutch architectural style. Some have been converted into museums, such as the neoclassical town hall built in 1712, now the Jakarta History Museum. Guarded by magnificent cannons, its interior is packed with treasures, while outside in the garden stands a statue of Hermes to protect traders of yore.

Other buildings around the square include the Museum of Fine Art and Ceramics (Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik), with its superb collection of rare porcelains and art gallery, the Shadow Puppet Museum (Museum Wayang), housing a plethora of puppets and masks, and the architectural splendour of Red House (Toko Merah), a Dutch colonial landmark dating back to 1730. Street performers in the square entertain amused onlookers during weekends and add vibrancy to the area.

Freedom and beyond

To gain a panoramic view of the capital take a ride up the 132-metre-high obelisk called Monas (National Monument) to the observation deck. Located in Merdeka (Freedom) Square, a wonderful green space in the heart of the city, this perch is awe-inspiring. All the way down in the basement, exhibits tell the story of Jakarta’s fight for independence from the Dutch.

Dotted around the square and well worth a visit are the National Museum of Indonesia, one of the country’s oldest museums, crammed with magnificent exhibits; the Merdeka Palace, the official residence of the country’s president and open at weekends for guided tours, and the neighbouring State Palace, which is used for formal diplomatic occasions. The enormous marble Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, and the splendid Jakarta Catholic Cathedral adjoin the square.

Jakarta life began with spice traders at Sunda Kelapa Harbour and a morning stroll along the two- kilometre wharf is an excellent way to soak up the early beginnings of this great city. Boat tours of the harbour are available, and many traditional wooden boats are still moored here, though they are now often motorised. Further along the waterfront lies a cluster of beachfront hotels, restaurants and the Taman Impian Jaya Ancol theme park.

Shop and dine

The capital of Indonesia boasts some superb shopping experiences with Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia considered two of the best malls. Here you will find an extensive range of eateries and culinary delights to satisfy most tastes. The five-star Grand Hyatt, adjacent to Plaza Indonesia, is an ideal spot for afternoon tea and absorbing superb city views through the huge bay windows. Pacific Place Mall is another great place for relaxing, trying local and international restaurants and browsing luxury shops.

Many fine restaurants are spread throughout the city. Table8 in Hotel Mulia is very popular, serving Cantonese and Sichuan dishes, street food and tea from different regions of China. The Ritz-Carlton’s restaurant, Pasola, is also a good choice.

Thousand surprises

A great way to unwind from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta is to take a day trip to the islands just off the north coast. Known as Kepulauan Seribu (Thousand Islands), they variously offer ruins of an old Dutch fort or beautiful bird sanctuaries. Some of the outer-lying isles are more developed with hotel complexes offering activities such as scuba diving, snorkelling, swimming and fishing.

Another great escape is Puncak Pass where wonderful cool highlands overlook the capital. Visitors can drive through a safari park of free-range exotic wildlife, or take an enlightening tour and horseback rides at Gunung Mas tea plantation. A road trip to the high- altitude Cibodas Botanical Garden affords amazing views of surrounding volcanoes. Cibodas is also home to one of the country’s five presidential palaces – the majestic Istana Cipanas, which is usually open to the public.

Mount Gede Pangrango National Park, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, is situated nearby and has plentiful fauna; a trek to Cibeureum Waterfall to visit the hot springs is not to be missed. Hiking and canopy trails can be explored at Bodogol, a scenic 90-minute drive across the mountain range.

Temple heaven

Many travellers to Indonesia head for the cultural majesty of Yogyakarta in southern Central Java – most notably the attractions of the Royal Palace (Keraton) and Borobudur Temple.

Home to the reigning sultan, the Royal Palace was built in the 18th century for the first Sultan of Yogyakarta and is a fine example of traditional Javanese palace and court architecture. The layout of this magical compound follows the ancient Hindu- Javanese concepts of the cosmos, and the complexities of how Keraton is harmonised with divine forces are best comprehended via a guided tour, possibly with a descendant of the royal court or a servant. Dance performances form a feature of the compound, while a museum houses royal regalia and sacred objects.

Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, is a magnificent Unesco World Heritage site constructed more than 1,100 years ago. It is a site of supreme spiritual importance and again, a local guide will ensure a clearer understanding of its true significance. Amazingly, more than 2,600 intricately carved bas- reliefs provide decoration along the monument’s nine stacked platforms.

After exploring the ancient splendours of Yogyakarta and its vicinity, local specialities like ayam goreng (fried chicken) and gudeg (jackfruit stew) will revive flagging energy levels.

Volcanic spectacle

Java is also an island of volcanic might. Spectacular moonscapes can be observed atop the huge volcanic crater at Mount Bromo in East Java. For the most memorable view of this ancient caldera, take an early morning hike to the crater’s edge and stare into the mountain’s sulphur-belching hole. The whole of the Tengger highlands holds great spiritual significance for the local Hindu community. Near the village of Sapih is the enchanting natural grandeur of Madakaripura Waterfall, thought to be the final meditation place of an ancient warrior.

Off the west coast of Java lies Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau). The island, which was formed in 1927 during further volcanic activity 44 years after the devastating eruption of Krakatau – one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded – can be accessed by boat from Carita, 150 kilometres west of Jakarta.

Sensational Ski: Head north for the fresh powder snow of China’s many premier winter resorts

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics placed China on the global stage as a major winter sports venue and underscored the ongoing success story that is China’s ski industry. From only about 20,000 visits to the ski slopes in 1996, numbers soared to 15 million by 2012, and last year’s sporting fiesta was a further fillip to this burgeoning industry. Plentiful powder snow now attracts visitors from around the world to mountains that historically have played a rich part in Chinese cultural identity.

There are more than 20 large ski resorts across the country in areas as diverse as Jilin, Heilongjiang, Yunnan and Hubei provinces. These resorts obviously gained a huge boost from Beijing being chosen to host the Winter Olympics as many locals suddenly wanted to learn to ski or partake in some way in the run-up to the Games. The slopes across China have been built on the back of successive rounds of investment and this money is crucial to their continuing maintenance. Recent funding has focused on upping the luxury level of hotels and amenities, as well as opening more runs and facilities for beginners.

Northern Exposure

Two of the largest ski resorts in China’s far north are Beidahu Ski Resort in Jilin and Heilongjiang’s Yabuli Ski Resort, the latter being situated about 200 kilometres southeast of the famous winter ice city of Harbin, home of the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival from December to February.

Beidahu Ski Resort, which played host to the 2007 Asian Winter Games, has established itself as one of the country’s premier ski resorts. Located in a tiny village some 50 kilometres south of Jilin City, the resort has runs over two mountains plus the adjoining valley and is served by an excellent network of gondolas with limited queuing required. It is famous for its steep slopes and boasts the highest vertical drop of any resort in China. The runs from the top of the right-hand mountain would be considered intimidating to most beginners, but recent investment has created slopes suitable for less advanced skiers and the resort now caters to all levels of skiing proficiency.

Most lodging at Beidahu is at the base of the mountain. The original 200-room hotel created for the Asian Games is an option, although five- star accommodation with superior eating and dining facilities is now available. The nearby village also hosts a clutch of decent restaurants.

Covering an area of 22 square kilometres, Yabuli Ski Resort has the distinction of being China’s first and largest destination ski resort and the training area for the Chinese Olympic ski team. After an influx of investment since 2009, the resort has grown considerably and now spans two mountains with a good division of advanced, intermediate and beginner runs as well as an international-standard competitive alpine skiing area. High-quality lodges have been built to cater to more discerning visitors who want somewhere to relax and recuperate in style after a gruelling but exhilarating day spent skiing or snowboarding on the slopes.

Many seasoned skiers believe Yabuli offers the best all-around facilities and ski experience in China. The alpine ski runs here are the longest in Asia, with nine downhill runs, seven cross-country ski trails, six ski lifts and synchronised platforms, and a 90-metre- high alpine jump platform among the attractions. Access to the slopes is facilitated by three chair lifts, three cable-car lifts and a towing cableway. Snow is usually guaranteed as there are multiple snow-making machines to ensure good skiing throughout the season.

Harbin highlights

A visit to Harbin can be combined with a wide choice of skiing destinations. Scenic Jihua Changshou Mountain Ski Resort is located about 45 kilometres from the city in Binxi National Forest Park. This basin setting surrounded by beautiful mountains provides shelter from the severe winter winds. One run here extends over 2.3 kilometres, while another is 100 metres wide, and the vast complex can accommodate 5,000 skiers at any one time. It is considered ideal for cross-country skiers.

Moon Bay (Yueliang Wan) Ski Resort in Harbin’s Songbei district is easily reached from the city centre. It has a comprehensive range of accommodation, entertainment and leisure facilities. Nearby attractions include the Siberian Tiger Park to the north, home to magnificent Siberian tigers in near wild surroundings, and Sun Island Park to the east, the location of the beautiful winter snow sculptures. The Ice and Snow World here features illuminated full-sized buildings made from blocks of ice that stand among the finest examples of ice art in the world.

The skiing at the Window of Eurasia Ski Resort in Nangang district, located within a theme park housing the world’s classic architectural landscape in miniature, is tailored to beginners. Beidahuang Agricultural Park Ski Resort in Xiangfang district is noted for its abundance of seasonal activities aside from skiing, such as horse riding, hunting and dog sledding. The picturesque setting at Longzhu Erlongshan Ski Resort, situated about 60 kilometres from downtown Harbin in the Erlong Mountain Scenic Zone, elevates its attractions including slopes suitable for all abilities. A good choice for the next generation of Olympic champions is the centrally located Mingdu Ski Resort in Harbin as it has a ski run specifically for children.

The city’s International Golf Club Ski Resort is convenient for transportation, hotels and shopping malls. The complex comprises ski training, jumping and snowmobiling slopes, a fishing lake and golf driving range, and ice and snow and entertainment areas. The country’s first ski race venue was established at Wujimi Ski Resort in 1964, 100 kilometres from Harbin. The location – Shangzhi – has earned the title of “ski town of China” as a result. Yuquan Weihushan Forest Park Ski Resort is only half that distance from Harbin and has skiing, skating and ice hockey among other winter activities.

Eastern promise

Recent slopes to be developed include one on the border with North Korea at Changbaishan, about 15 kilometres from the local airport. Wanda Changbaishan International Resort has a fantastic luxury alpine village offering top-of-the-range hotels, restaurants and private condominiums, and it operates a guest pick-up service from the train station or airport.

Skiing at the Beijing Olympics (apart from the downhill competition) took place around the village of Taizicheng in northwest Hubei province, where a cluster of resorts welcomes enthusiastic amateurs. These include Wanlong Ski Resort, a premier ski destination known for its powder snow, the family- friendly Thaiwoo Ski Resort, and Genting Resort Secret Garden, which has won awards for the quality of its skiing.

Bavaria Euphoria: Visitors come here for the beer – but also a countryside of fairy-tale castles and folksy festivals

The southern German state of Bavaria is so full of charm and beguiling beauty that it has been known to stimulate feelings of envy in the enchanted visitor. There are castles galore and the amazing Alps to behold, as well as the cultural melting pot of Munich and a host of medieval towns and villages that flaunt their folksy credentials in this prosperous region of Europe’s richest country. Time and tradition seem to have stood still at the plethora of festivals running from spring to autumn, where the men wear leather breeches and the women parade around in intricately embroidered dresses and aprons.

Bavaria, the largest of the states within the Federal Republic of Germany, has always had a distinct identity. The capital, Munich, is famous for its Oktoberfest, which runs from late September to early October and lures hordes of hedonists eager to indulge in the pleasures contained within raucous beer tents run by traditional breweries. Held in Theresienwiese in the centre of the city and dating back more than 200 years, this is the largest beer festival in the world and attracts millions of visitors – many joining in the hearty German spirit by donning the aforementioned lederhosen and dirndl.

Brewing pleasure

Indeed, beer gardens and beer halls are commonplace throughout Bavaria and the many local breweries are said to produce some of the world’s finest beers. These brews must adhere to strict quality and purity standards and be composed of water, hops and barley – the so-called Reinheitsgebot formula.

Munich itself houses some outstanding historic beer halls and taverns, and a visit to Hofbräuhaus is a must. Considered the most famous beer hall in the world, it has a darker side as the stage for the first Nazi Party event in 1920, but today it remains the definitive Munich pub for swaying tourists soaking up the atmosphere; the resident oompah band keeps the joyous and convivial mood flowing along with the beers.

The expansive beer gardens are marginally less crowded than the beer halls. Chinesischer Turm located within the English Garden has about 7,000 seats and an international clientele gathering for drinks in sight of the Chinese pagoda that counts as one of the city’s most notable landmarks. In Munich’s largest beer garden, Hirschgarten, Augustiner Edelstoff – first brewed by Augustinian monks in 1328 and regarded as the champagne of Bavarian beers – is served on tap from a huge wooden barrel. Other notable Bavarian beers are Lowenbräu, which dates to the 14th century and is made in Munich’s largest brewery, and Hacker- Pschorr, first mentioned in 1417.

Pigging out

As for culinary delights, the most famous of the Bavarian dishes is undoubtedly the wurst, or the sausage. They are popular across the state, but locals differ on the best time of day to enjoy them. Munich prefers its veal sausages (or weisswurst) for breakfast; Nuremberg to the north likes miniature bratwurst at lunch; and Regensburg, in between the two on the Danube river, loves the simple sausage for dinner.

Much Bavarian cuisine has its roots in Bohemian Austrian cuisine, such as knödel (dumplings), mehlspeisen (pastries) and schnitzel. Roast pork (the succulent schweinebraten) is also a popular dish and often the meat is continuously basted with dark beer while it is roasting, so the rind develops into crispy crackling. A beer-garden favourite is “Considered the most famous beer hall in the world, Hofbräuhaus … remains the definitive Munich pub for swaying tourists soaking up the atmosphere” obatzda, a spreadable cheese made from Camembert, butter, quark, paprika and onion. Of course, Bavaria is also noted for its gorgeous desserts, most notably the delightful apfelstrudel (apple strudel); others include elderflower pancakes and steamed dumplings.

Munich boasts a plethora of cafes, bars and bistros and some outstanding restaurants. The Landersdorfer & Innerhofer has a delightful Austrian-inspired menu, while Matsuhisa Munich, sitting inside the Mandarin Oriental, offers fine dining in a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines. Aside from the Mandarin Oriental, the city has a slew of fantastic luxury hotels.

City of culture

Central Munich also embraces an outstanding museum quarter hosting Bavaria’s top art museums and other world-class attractions. There are superb science exhibits and some outstanding private collections – plenty to keep the enthusiast occupied. Like some historic areas of the city, many of the museums that were bombed during the Second World War have been painstakingly reconstructed or redeveloped. Further afield, in the north of the city lies the bowl-shaped BMW Museum, a delight for car and motorbike fans. The city is also a shopper’s haven; Residenzstraße is where the leading luxury brands are situated.

There is also magnificent theatre, concert and opera in Munich. The famed Munich Philharmonic will delight classical music lovers, while the Bavarian State Opera draws half a million visitors a year for more than 400 performances annually. An intimate and recently reconstructed historic theatre – the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz – hosts operas, operettas and musicals.

Land of tradition

Munich is ideally situated to explore wider Bavaria. The land is full of traditions which are played out throughout the year and the calendar is filled with picturesque rituals and spectacles. For instance, on the first Sunday in November there are processions on horseback or in painted carts throughout Bavaria in honour of St Leonard, the patron saint of horses.

The German National Tourist Board recently revealed the Top 100 tourist destinations and many Bavarian destinations figure prominently, including Rothenburg, which achieved fourth spot and is renowned for its fantastic medieval architecture. Situated in northern Bavaria, this magical town is worth visiting.

King of the castles

Another must-see is Neuschwanstein Castle (sixth on the above list) in the foothills of the Alps, and a day trip from Munich to Füssen – which is about six kilometres from the castle – is recommended. Visits are only possible as part of a guided tour. Commissioned by oddball king Ludwig II as a homage to composer Richard Wagner, this fairy-tale castle is one of the most popular in Europe and has a mystical, romantic air nestled in a forest of fir and pine; it is breathtaking in the early morning sunrise. Ludwig himself kept an eye on construction from nearby Hohenschwangau, a neo-Gothic building where he grew up. Not far away, the Museum of Bavarian Kings on the shores of the scenic Alpsee Lake tells the story of the Wittelsbach family dynasty and their 700-year tenancy of the long-abolished Bavarian throne.

There are numerous ancient monasteries and world-famous churches within easy reach of Munich, including Wieskirche, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which is noted for its magnificent rococo interior.

See sights

The many lakes in southern Bavaria, formed by huge glaciers that melted countless centuries ago, attract water sports enthusiasts, swimmers and other outdoor activities. Chiemsee, also known as the Bavarian Sea, offers fantastic yachting opportunities.

Well worth a visit is Starnberger See, a magnificent lake surrounded by several palaces, including Berg, the summer house of the Wittelbachs. It was near here that Ludwig II died in mysterious circumstances – a cross a few metres from the shore marks the tragic scene.

Alpine heaven

Bavaria may only contain a small slither of the Alps, but the landscapes are dramatic, and Germany’s highest mountain, Zugspitze, can be easily reached by mountain railway and cable car.

The observation platform on the top of the mountain has wonderful vistas that reach out as far as the Italian Dolomites on a clear day. The terrain is perfect for skiing in the winter, and there are countless cable cars offering access to superb ski runs.

Volcanic Fury: For many tourists, there’s no crater joy than a volcano that has just erupted

Iceland’s volcanic eruption this summer set the tourist industry into overdrive. People from all over the country and overseas made a beeline for one of the most awe-inspiring sights nature has to offer – an active volcano.

Litli-Hrútur, a hill about 38 kilometres from Reykjavík, began spewing lava on July 10, in an area which has seen an unusually large amount of volcanic activity in recent years. It is part of a volcanic system on the Reykjanes Peninsula that also experienced eruptions in 2021 and 2022 at Fagradalsfjall. Some estimates put the number of sightseers in 2021 at 350,000 as the lava flowed off and on for six months.

Since no lava was seen running from the crater at Litli-Hrútur after August 5, total visitor numbers there will likely fall short of those previously recorded in other parts of the peninsula. Acutely aware of the whims of plate tectonics, some tourists booked flights to Iceland within an hour of the initial eruption for the chance to see close up the perhaps once-in- a-lifetime opportunity of nature unleashing its molten fury.

Creation in view

Authorities created a path to the hill and day by day a column of hikers made their way to within 1.5 kilometres of the cone and touching distance of smouldering fresh lava. Some visitors sent drones over the top of the boiling inferno to get a bird’s eye view of the mesmerising spectacle.

Indeed, flying drones over the rims of lava-spewing craters has become something of a craze for YouTubers; one ‘decommissioned’ his beyond-repair probe on a final flight down into a volcano in Iceland last year, churning out some remarkable footage.

Professor Thorvaldur Thordarson, a volcanologist at the University of Iceland, was awestruck when he saw the Litli-Hrútur eruption, telling a reporter from the Financial Times who was with him: “You’re looking at creation. The crust makes Earth a habitable place. Volcanoes maintain our atmosphere and are the reason why we have life on Earth.”

Icelandic blast

With some 30 volcanic systems running beneath it, and historically 130 volcanoes onshore and off it, Iceland has long attracted throngs of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of an active one. Status reports on volcanic activity are regularly issued in the island nation, one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet with an eruption every four years on average.

Some eruptions can be huge, like the one in 2010 in the main crater of Eyjafjallajökull which caused a vast cloud of ash to spread over large areas of northern Europe, while in others, lava flows quietly from fissures.

Some tours of Iceland are centred purely around volcanoes – being lowered by lift into a cavernous magma chamber of the dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano, visiting huge lava cave complexes, undertaking spectacular hikes along volcanic peaks, or visiting the interactive volcano exhibition in Hvolsvöllur known as the Lava Centre.

The striking cone-shaped peak of the Snæfellsjo ̈kull National Park in the west of the country is thought to be the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Volcano volume

Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia and other countries also promote their volcanic heritage. The world’s largest active volcano is Mauna Loa (Long Mountain) in Hawaii, covering more than 5,200 square kilometres.

Like Iceland, Japan is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. It is located above the Pacific Ring of Fire, sitting on top of four tectonic plates on the edge of a subduction zone. About 60 of its 186 volcanoes are still active in geological terms.

One active Japanese volcano popularly on people’s bucket lists is Sakurajima (Cherry Blossom Island) in Kagoshima Bay, appearing to rise more than 1,120 metres directly above the water, this regularly spews ash.

About half a million people live within 10 kilometres of its crater, and taking the spectacular ferry journey to Sakurajima from precariously positioned Kagoshima city is recommended. The volcano is also accessible by road around the periphery of the bay since the former island has been joined to the peninsula since a 1914 eruption spilled out three billion tonnes of lava.

Springing forth

Iceland and Japan are known for their vast number of hot springs which pepper the countryside and are located close to areas of volcanic activity. Here, the water temperature increases through circulation close to magma reservoirs below the surface.

This manifestation of geothermal energy is evident in geysers, bubbling mud pools and hot springs. The mineral content of hot springs is thought to impart health benefits. In Iceland, many hotels offer baths fed by local hot springs. The Viking Pool in Leirubakki is made special with views of Mt Hekla in the background.

Japan places cultural significance on its more than 20,000 hot springs of volcanic origin. Many hot- spring resorts (onsen) follow a tradition going back centuries and are often located next to hiking, skiing, climbing and crater-viewing areas. In Hokkaido, Toyako is famous for its hot-spring baths with lake views.

Not far off, Showa Shinzan is a lava dome that emerged only in 1944, and parent volcano Usuzan stands nearby. The hot springs of Noboribetsu are a memorable must-try. In an amazing spectacle, indoor marble-tiled hot springs fed by geothermal energy at the Dai-ichi Takimotokan Hotel can accommodate 1,000 bathers simultaneously.

Zao Onsen, 20 kilometres southeast of Yamagata City, is an all-year hot-spring resort – go hiking or skiing during the daytime, then chill out before dinner in a mountain hot spring and contemplate the finer things in life.

Crater close-encounters

Famous for its geysers at Rotorua, the hot springs in New Zealand play an important part in the Māori culture, as do the volcanoes. The country offers some spectacular hiking across volcano areas, notably in Tongariro.

Home to three breathtaking volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe), the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has oft been described as the best one-day hike in the world, taking you over red craters, green and blue lakes and wild open countryside. It was briefly closed in 2012 due to volcanic activity from one of the cones.

With close to 130 active volcanoes, Indonesia can also boast some fantastic volcano tourism. There are organised tours to see Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau) in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, though it is now considered a dangerous mountain and access depends on its level of activity.

Mount Merapi is another favourite destination, especially given its proximity to the World Heritage site of Borobudur. Further to the east of Java, watching the sunrise over Mount Bromo – named after Hindu god Brahma – can provide glorious views.

Perhaps lured by the element of danger, tourists have been attracted to volcanoes for centuries. By the mid-1860s, Thomas Cook, the pioneer of package tours, was arranging visits to Pompeii in Italy, and Vesuvius, the volcano that buried it in 79 A.D.

In the 1880s, a funicular was built to take tourists to the top of Vesuvius. Active volcanoes burn on and on in the imagination of adventurous travellers, calling them to the edge of their craters.

Space for Everyone: A spacesuit may soon be all you need to pack as travel crosses the final frontier

In late June, the rocket-powered Virgin Galactic 01 was released from its carrier plane and propelled itself to the edge of space, reaching an altitude of 52.9 miles and a top speed of Mach 2.88. It then entered suborbital space for about four minutes. The journey was historic as it heralded, perhaps, the dawn of mass commercial space flights – or space tourism.

Other adventurers have paid to go to space before this voyage, but these trips tended to be piecemeal arrangements and cost millions of US dollars. The Russians, for instance, have long entertained fee-paying space jet-setters, and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who made his fortune via e-commerce and was once a drummer in a punk-rock band, famously went to the International Space Station at the end of 2021; he now aspires to fly to the Moon. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has also sent wealthy businessmen to the space station.

Blue Origin, the private space travel company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is another competitor of Virgin Galactic. It has already taken customers into the final frontier, though there have been no flights since last September as its craft developed nozzle failure. Operations are expected to resume later this year.

After its successful first mission, Virgin Galactic has now rolled out bolder plans; the Galactic 02 commercial spaceflight for private astronauts is scheduled to commence this month and deliver monthly jaunts thereafter. This is the culmination of a nearly two-decade vision by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson.

Dream trip

Since establishing Virgin Galactic in 2004, Branson has reportedly spent a fortune in his ambition to get mass space tourism off the ground. Last year the company reportedly made a loss of US$500 million and accrued just US$2.3 million in sales. Indeed, Branson’s wider Virgin empire was clobbered by the impact of Covid-19 and at one stage he feared all may be lost.

But Branson is a driven man. He conquered space himself in 2021 on a test flight, and prior to the Galactic 01 inaugural trip, he said: “I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me to never give up and to reach for the stars.” He later affirmed: “Space does belong to us all.”

Commercial flights were originally due to begin last year. However, the process was delayed following an investigation into the Virgin craft deviating from its designated airspace on ascent during a July 2021 flight.

Weightless coup

After the successful completion of test flights in May this year, the first fee-paying crew members to board the space plane were three Italians who used the voyage for research purposes. They conducted experiments involving the likes of radiation and materials science. Only one, Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei, got out of his seat and fully experienced the joys of unrestrained weightlessness at the apex of the flight, unfurling an Italian flag. The other two remained strapped to their seats.

The Italians later issued a statement that the mission had allowed them to carry out their first suborbital research experiments, affording a preview of what scientific discoveries may result from reliable access to space. It is these kinds of sentiments that advocates of space tourism have long used as justification for the vast expenditure and outlay of resources involved in the dream of ordinary (well-heeled) travellers rising to the stars.

Sky-high price

The cost of a seat on a Virgin Galactic voyage has soared to US$450,000, a considerable markup on $200,000 put down by early enthusiasts. There is reportedly a backlog of 800 tickets for Branson to honour on its anticipated monthly voyages. Blue Origin tickets for suborbital flights are typically priced between US$200,00 and $300,000, with outlays much steeper for those looking to jet into orbit.

David Cullen, Professor of Astrobiology and Space Biotechnology at Cranfield University in the UK, believes normal supply and demand will affect the long-term pricing structure of space travel. More broadly, the onset of mass space tourism involves a myriad of implications and ethical dilemmas, and he and his team at the British postgraduate public research institution have been considering how biology and space engineering come together in a diverse range of situations.

It is a natural human instinct to seek the unknown and reach places few have ventured, be it the deep sea, high mountains and now the wonders of space. Cullen believes the main attraction of space for tourists joining the current suborbital flights is the brief period of weightlessness, along with spectacular views observed from the spacecraft window.

Flight risk

Such out-of-this-world experiences pose a certain element of risk. The recent catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible on its mission to observe the wreck of the Titanic brought safety considerations of adventure tourism into sharp focus. The vessel that went down was uncertified.

Naturally, some observers will express concerns about space tourism; it is a field lacking in government regulation. Passengers on Virgin Galactic are required to sign a pre-flight waiver acknowledging the risks.

Cullen stresses that suborbital space flights (those that cannot achieve the velocity needed to circle Earth) have decent safety standards, but his optimism comes with a caveat. “The technology is clearly viable given that two different companies have already got proven technologies,” he says. “There have been zero major failures on flights to date viewed as space tourism, but as with all transport, there is a non-zero probability of failures and associated negative outcomes going forward.”

He stresses he would never make a recommendation to a potential paying customer on whether this form of travel is safe, but would educate them so they can make a better self-judgment. He highlights two potential risks: “The failure of the space system and secondly, in the future for longer orbital flights, dealing with biological/medical situations given the exposure to extended space environments.”

Sex in space

There is the distinct possibility of wealthy travellers wanting to have dates in space or even go on space honeymoons. Indeed, Cullen places romantic rocket trips as high on the list of reasons for tourists venturing into space and suggests providers may need to cater to such desires. He and his team at Cranfield University recently studied the implications of sex and uncontrolled human conception in emerging space tourism, a consideration which he feels needs to be urgently addressed.

“At present, it appears the space tourism sector has not openly considered or discussed the possible risks associated with sex interactions in space and specifically those that lead to human conception,” he says. “Further research is needed to explore the risks of early stages of human reproduction occurring in space environments of weightlessness and increased levels of ionising radiation.”

The latest Virgin Galactic mission appears to be just the start of our journey into the unknown.

Family-Friendly Fun: Discover Asia’s Top Cities for an Epic Vacation

Asia is a continent blessed with diverse cultures, mesmerizing landscapes, and unique experiences that make it an ideal destination for a memorable family trip. Whether you seek thrilling adventures, historical wonders, or simply want to relax on beautiful beaches, Asia has something for every family to enjoy. In this article, we put together the top five destinations in Asia that offer a perfect blend of fun, adventure, and cultural exploration for families of all ages.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

family trip

Rarely mentioned as one of Thailand’s tourist destinations, Chiang Rai is undoubtedly an underrated city that locals would recommend you visit for all the hidden gems you can see at this place located on the Northern side of the country. Particularly, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten) and the Black House Museum (Baan Dam Museum), which are all architectural wonders constructed with such attention to detail, will leave you admiring the building for minutes before you can even enter. There is also the historical Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park which houses a plethora of ancient artifacts ranging from Lanna art to 19th-century mural paintings. Some of the other spots you should visit during the family trip include scenic standouts like Doi Hua Mae Kham, Mae Fa Luang Garden, Singha Park and Doi Chang, which are all spacious enough for the kids to play around and beautiful enough for the grownups to take as many pictures.

Baku, Azerbaijan

family trip

Baku is surrounded by a magnificent seaside view and has pleasant weather with the city being windy most of the time – it is literally nicknamed the city of winds. The city is perfect for witnessing both modern skyscrapers and archaic buildings. In fact, you may want to set aside a day just to explore the UNESCO Heritage site Old City (Icherisheher) which has many fascinating places where you can look at the culture and history of different civilizations that go back to the 12th century. A few such areas include The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, The Maiden Tower and The Museum of Miniature Books. Plus, while you are there on your family trip, don’t forget to take some family photos because you cannot ask for a better backdrop than the alleys of this walled city. For something more contemporary, you can take the kids on a fun riverboat ride after sunset and look at the iconic Flame Towers, or if you and your family love to go swimming, you can do that on private beaches surrounded by the Caspian Sea.

Udaipur, India

family trip

Ardent travellers often look back at Udaipur as one of the most stunning cities, even comparing it to Rajasthan’s capital city Jaipur and choosing Udaipur as an alternative for its much more peaceful and less bustling presence. Udaipur has an array of marvellous places that you should add to your itinerary like the City Palace, Monsoon Palace, Fateh Sagar Lake, Lake Pichola and more. Aside from these tourist attractions, there are also several exciting activities that you can enjoy as a family such as watching puppet shows at Bharatiya Lok Kala Mandal, rafting in the Gomati River, helicopter rides over the city and many more. You can add more extravagance to your trip by staying at the coveted palace-turned-hotel Taj Lake Palace and devouring a hearty meal at the Jagat Niwas Palace. You should also stop by some nice antique shops where you will surely find something incredible to take back home.

Jeju Islands, South Korea

family vacation

For families that love partaking in fun activities in the waters and are always fascinated by the many wonders of nature, Jeju Island is certainly a paradise. There is so much you can plan to do here to keep the family trip fun and exciting throughout. You can climb the Seongsan Ilchulbong Volcano; watch performances by women divers who will bring back fresh fish from the sea and cook them right there for you to eat; or visit one of the beaches. Also, the entire family can challenge themselves to find their way out of the human-sized Gimnyeong Maze Park which can apparently take less than five minutes or an hour to complete. Also don’t forget to visit the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Manjanggul Lava Tube, Osulloc Tea Museum and the Aqua Planet.

Malé, Maldives

family vacation

Another top-class destination for an amusing and luxurious vacation is Malé, an island in the Maldives. It offers a wide selection of hotels, shops and accommodations. There are a couple of family-friendly resorts like the frequently applauded Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and the Angsana lhuru where your entire family can relax. Simultaneously, if you are looking for something adventurous, you can try surfing, diving, snorkelling and more. Besides, as the capital city of the archipelago situated over the Indian Ocean, you can even book a submarine tour to explore the marine ecosystem there. When you are looking to explore the city, there are places like the Victory Monument, Sultan Park & National Museum, Tsunami Monument and more.