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Travel

Insider knowledge: Professor G. Scott Hubbard on space tourism

In this guest post, Stanford University’s Professor G. Scott Hubbard – former Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, founding editor-in-chief of the New Space journal, and author of Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery – looks at whether the travel industry is heading for the final frontier.

Having been active in the US space program for 45 years, both with NASA and now Stanford, I’ve seen many proposals suggesting that personal space travel is right around the corner. While this topic has been discussed in science fiction for more than 60 years, making such an experience a reality has been hampered by significant obstacles, both technical and financial. However, during the last decade or two, the world has seen the emergence of wealthy space entrepreneurs who have hired top-notch engineers. Those teams may well now be on the verge of creating space travel for the (well-heeled) extreme adventurer.

View of the Earth from space Will you ever see this view from a spaceship’s window? © Michael Hopkins / NASA

Where is outer space?

The usual definition is that space begins at 100 kilometres/60 miles above the surface of the Earth where air is almost non-existent, and the clutch of gravity can be escaped. As a practical matter, NASA awards astronaut wings for any pilot that exceeds 50 miles even if he/she does not orbit Earth. (This is called a sub-orbital flight). For comparison, the US Space Shuttle flew at about 300 kilometres/188 miles); the International Space Station (ISS) orbits Earth at 250 miles; from the Earth to the Moon averages about 238,000 miles, and Mars is nearly 140 million miles away! All of these distances and destinations represent some form of space travel, but as you might imagine, the degree of difficulty increases radically the further one goes. As of this writing, over 500 people have been to space as defined above; the vast majority (355) on the Shuttle. But only 18 people have flown to the Moon. And of those, only 12 have walked on the lunar surface. No human has ever travelled to Mars.

What is a space tourist?

All of the people cited above had extensive training and were a member of some nation’s space program. Currently, only the US, Russia and China have the independent ability to launch someone into space. The notion of a private citizen with little or no special training going to space went from science fiction to fact with the trip by billionaire Dennis Tito to the ISS in 2001, aboard a Russian vehicle. A total of seven people have made this journey for a reported cost of USD$20m to $40m per trip. Clearly, this expense is out of the reach of all but the ultra-wealthy. So what about some less ambitious (and less expensive) trip to space – the travel to 50 to 60 miles in a so-called sub-orbital trajectory?

Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo takes off for a suborbital test flight © GENE BLEVINS / Getty Images

Who’s in the game?

Space tourism as a trip to the edge of space (50 to 60 miles) with immediate return received a major boost with the Ansari X-Prize, which awarded $10m to any non-government group that could ‘build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, twice within two weeks’. The prize was won in 2004 by a team funded by billionaire Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft) using a design by the iconoclastic engineer Burt Rutan. The team was joined by another billionaire – Richard Branson of Virgin Group fame. Shortly after winning, Branson announced that a new company, Virgin Galactic, using the Rutan design, would soon begin offering sub-orbital flights for six people (and two pilots), providing four minutes of weightlessness. Another company, XCOR Aerospace, formed during the same period, began to develop a smaller vehicle that would carry one pilot and passenger. Finally, the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos founder of Amazon, quietly created the company Blue Origin with similar goals in 2000. In the sparse public reports from Blue Origin, their first market is sub-orbital tourism, followed by orbital flight and trips to the Moon. Bezos has said he is spending about $1bn a year on Blue Origin.

What’s the price point?

Virgin Galactic has given a price of about $200,000 per person. XCOR Aerospace (which has since suspended operations) planned to provide a similar flight for reportedly $50,000. (Independent surveys have indicated that extreme adventure with a price tag of $50,000 would begin to attract a great deal of interest.) Blue Origin’s price tag is said to be $250,000. It is worth noting that the other high-profile space entrepreneur, Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, has not entered the sub-orbital business. However, in a public speech in 2016 (which you can read in New Space for free), Musk predicted he would be able to send individuals to Mars for about $140,000.

People watch as a SpaceX rocket takes off from Canaveral National Seashore People watch as a SpaceX rocket takes off from Canaveral National Seashore © Paul Hennessy / Getty Images

What are the risks?

Travel to space is inherently risky, but then so is climbing Mt Everest. During the 135 flights of the Shuttle program, there were two major accidents with loss of crew and vehicle: Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. By that measure, the chance of dying in a trip to orbit is around 1 ½%. One would assume that a sub-orbital flight would be safer, but the initial flights of Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo have already produced one test pilot fatality. High-speed rocketry with propulsion of controlled chemical explosions is still a challenge. In addition, there are the biomedical risks of subjecting a ‘normal’ population to some of the rigours of space travel: high accelerations up to eight times Earth’s gravity, weightlessness where some experience debilitating space sickness and greater than average radiation exposure. Fortunately, experiments by Dr James Vanderploeg from the University of Texas indicate that individuals of ages 18 to 85 with a variety of common issues (artificial joints, controlled hypertension, pacemaker implants, etc) can easily withstand simulated trips using ground centrifuges and parabolic aeroplane flights. This can also be read in New Space.

When will this happen?

The sub-orbital space tourism community has collectively been surprised that it is now almost 15 years since the X-Prize was won, yet there are no regular flights of SpaceShipTwo or the New Shephard of Blue Origin. The answer mostly lies in the realm of technical issues; in a way, it is ‘rocket science’. Virgin Galactic has struggled to find a propulsion system that will operate smoothly to propel the six passengers to at least 50 miles. However, a very recent successful test in February of 2019 gives an indication that Virgin Galactic may be almost ready. Blue Origin has been very secretive about their progress, but it appears from test flights that the New Shephard is also nearing operational status.

Barring another accident, I think 2019 will see the first tourist flights to the edge of space and back. All it will take is $200,000 and the willingness to sign an ‘informed consent’ document!

To find out more about space entrepreneurship and innovation, check out the New Space journal. Professor Hubbard’s book, Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery, is available from the University of Arizona Press, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Travel

Wonderings: are the stars our destination?

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay considers tourism’s final frontier: space © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Aside from a few forays to France, the furthest my maternal grandparents travelled was Pembrokeshire, Wales (repeat visits to a wind-buffeted static caravan in Croes-goch, if you must know). Just a generation later, my parents’ peregrinations had encompassed most of Western Europe.

As of writing, I’ve visited about 50 countries (I counted them up once, but have forgotten the total), most of them during two spells of backpacking – first across the US, then around the world – plus others as and when the opportunity arose.

My wife has been to twice that number of destinations, and I’d wager that a significant proportion of the people who comprise Lonely Planet’s extended community – staff and contributors, followers and fans – have led equally footloose lives.

The trend continues, too: my son, four, and daughter, one, have already visited many more places than my grandparents did in their entire lives. In fact, Harvey probably covered more miles in utero than they managed in total.

Our expanding horizons

You can visualise each generation’s expanding horizons as a series of concentric circles, like ripples spreading out from a stone dropped in a pond; assuming that trend doesn’t go into reverse (which is possible, of course, given variables like climate change), where will the edge of my children’s known universe lie? Just as I have explored the far side of this planet, might they explore the far side of another world?

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. As it often does, the stuff of science fiction has become the stuff of science fact: the race for space is more competitive now than it has been at any time since Neil Armstrong took that famous first step on the surface of the Moon, an epoch-defining moment that happened 50 years ago this July.

An astronaut walking on the Moon with the Earth rising in the background Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon 50 years ago; what’s the next ‘giant leap for mankind’? © Caspar Benson / Getty Images

From moonshots to Mars

The US government recently vowed to revisit our lonesome natural satellite within five years, but the real action is arguably elsewhere as a trio of companies bankrolled by billionaires – Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX – compete to conquer the final frontier.

The obstacles are formidable; the progress is remarkable. Whether or not we witness commercial space travel take off in 2019 (in both senses of the phrase), the expert analysis of Stanford University’s Professor G. Scott Hubbard – a former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center – suggests that we stand on the threshold of a new era.

After the moonshot, the US wants to send astronauts to Mars. And then? Because we won’t stop there. Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 Command Module around the Moon as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounded across its sterile surface, expressed this ever so well: ‘It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand,’ he said. ‘Exploration is not a choice, really; it’s an imperative.’

Or as another Buzz might say: to infinity and beyond.

The Grand Tour redux

So will my children ever enjoy a Grand Tour of the Solar System, as envisaged in NASA’s charming Visions of the Future posters? (Do check them out.) Will they stand in the shadow of Mars’ Olympus Mons, which rears to more than twice the height of Everest? Will they gape at the raging auroras of Jupiter, hundreds of times more powerful than our own Northern Lights? Will they sail the methane lakes of Titan, Saturn’s most enigmatic moon?

Alas, no. If it comes to pass, such a journey would be the preserve of a privileged few for many generations; just as the original Grand Tour of Europe was restricted to the aristocracy, so a round-trip of our galactic neighbours would remain beyond the reach of all but a coterie of plutocrats for the foreseeable future.

There’s a fair chance, however, that my children’s generation will see the curvature of the Earth from a sub-orbital flight, and some of them might, just might, leave a footprint on the Moon (thanks to Wallace and Gromit, Harvey already spends a lot of time speculating about this possibility).

A young boy looks at the surface of a planet from the window of a spaceship Will our children’s children evolve into a spacefaring species? © James Whitaker / Getty Images

A mote of dust

In his exquisite book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan predicts we will eventually evolve into a spacefaring species, exploring the Milky Way in much the same way as we once sailed this planet’s uncharted seas. But there is nothing triumphalist about his vision; in fact, that dot – the Earth photographed from the Voyager 1 spacecraft; ‘a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’ as Sagan describes it – proves to be a profoundly humbling sight.

It’s a stance shared by the UK’s current Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, who argues that we should avoid the term ‘space tourism’ altogether. According to Rees, that formula of words gives us an excuse to ignore the perilous predicament of our planet, misleadingly implying that we could start again elsewhere once this world has been utterly exploited and exhausted.

Space excites me; perhaps it excites you, too. I think that’s because, from Star Trek to Star Wars, our culture often depicts it in a way that fits neatly into a traveller’s conceptual model: it’s the realm of the new exotic, the absolute last word when it comes to getting off the beaten track we call… home.

You can no more suppress our species’ longing to reach the stars than prevent a curious child from exploring the boundaries of its world. Sooner or later, we will boldly go – and not just astronauts or the ultra-rich, but ordinary people like me and you. But when we do, amid all the excitement, let’s not forget our point of origin.

In the words of Sagan from 25 years ago, let’s remember that: ‘Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves … Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.’

A lonely planet indeed.

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Travel

Just back from: Taiwan

Louise at the Longshan Temple in Taipei Louise at the Longshan Temple in Taipei © Louise Bastock

Louise Bastock, Assistant Editor at Lonely Planet, recently returned from a trip to Taiwan.

Tell us more… When I used to think about Taiwan, the dominant images in my mind would be of its capital city Taipei, specifically the skyscraper-studded skyline against a blue or lilac sunset, or the twinkly Tokyo-esque lights of its streets and lanes. But, beyond this vast metropolis, there is so much more to discover. Blasted up from the ocean by volcanic activity, Taiwan is a fertile ground for breathtaking natural landscapes. With that in mind, I set off for northeastern Taiwan to explore the island’s capital as well as its wild wonders, and expand the image in my mind’s eye of what this tiny island nation has to offer – spoiler alert: a lot!

Taipei's skyline snapped from the top of Elephant Mountain Taipei’s skyline snapped from the top of Elephant Mountain © Louise Bastock

Good grub? The stand-out superstar of Taipei’s skyline is Taipei 101; formerly the world’s tallest building, it bursts through the high-rises like a futuristic bamboo shoot and was the perfect setting for dinner on our first night. Despite her humble origins, first operating from a Taipei back alley diner in 1977, the owner of Shin Yeh restaurant now commands the 85th floor of Taipei 101, serving up elegant, contemporary creations inspired by traditional Taiwanese home-style cooking.

Chefs making dumplings at Din Tai Fung, Taipei Delicate dumpling work at Din Tai Fung © Louise Bastock

Though seemingly a far cry from the glamour of Taipei 101, my second favourite meal was, surprisingly, at a shopping mall, beneath the tower itself. Prepare to battle wayward queues and huge crowds of hungry people if you want to eat at Din Tai Fung. This Michelin-starred restaurant (yes, you heard right, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a shopping mall) is famed for its xiǎolóng bāo (steamed pork dumplings), but, in all honesty, absolutely everything they brought to the table was insanely delicious. With windows looking into the kitchen, you can spend hours digesting your dumplings and watching the chefs meticulously craft these bite-sized beauties.

Northeastern Taiwan is a blanket of green forest Northeastern Taiwan is a blanket of green forest © Louise Bastock

Quintessential experience… With so much nature to see – from marble cliff faces to emerald oceans of forest – hiking is a quintessential experience in northeastern Taiwan. Our first taster was the 500-step slog up Elephant Mountain in Taipei – totally worth it to watch the sunset over the city and get my own snaps of the skyline. We also hit the hiking trails that lace through Taroko National Park (roughly a three-hour drive from Taipei). The scenery is wilder here and even though it can get blustery on the peaks, the strong wind does help disperse some of the eggy smell from the region’s sulphuric vents – a small price to pay for hiking around hot spring territory.

Louise's private hot pool at the Gaia Hotel Louise’s private hot pool at the Gaia Hotel © Louise Bastock

Any incredible accommodation? Speaking of hot springs: our last night was spent in the stunning Gaia Hotel, where each room came equipped with its own personal hot pool. After a long day of hiking and thigh-busting stair climbing (stairs are synonymous with hiking in Taiwan), it was a dream to be able to flop from bed to bath (grabbing a glass of wine en route) and recline in style in the comfort and privacy of my own room.

Louise jumping off a rock face into water Louise proving there is such a thing as TOO MUCH enthusiasm © Louise Bastock / Love Wilds Co., Ltd

If you do one thing… don a wetsuit and helmet and give river tracing a go. Known in other parts of the world as canyoning, this activity earns its more poetic moniker in Taiwan; without wishing to geek out too much, the landscapes here could easily have been plucked from the pages of Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings (Rivendell, eat your heart out).

We spent a whole afternoon wading through the Sa Po Dang river in Hualien, jumping off huge boulders, squeezing through tight crevices and scaling small waterfalls before stopping for tea, snacks and snorkelling around a secluded turquoise pool. It’s a fantastic way to not just view the landscapes from afar, but to get in amongst them and experience them up-close.

Louise eating at huge portion of chocolate ice cream at the Modern Toilet Cafe Shocked and a little squeamish, Louise was ultimately delighted at her dinner © Louise Bastock

Bizarre encounter… From fine dining in spellbinding landmarks, soaking in my private hot spring and revelling in Mother Nature’s gifts, I leave you with Taipei’s epic toilet cafe! Enlisting every faucet – oops, I mean facet – of bathroom decor, the Modern Toilet Restaurant is a veritable playground for anyone with a sense of humour – and, at times, a strong stomach. After excusing myself from the table to use the actual bathroom, I was crying with laughter on my return to find on my delicately chosen chocolate ice cream piled in huge swirls, sprinkled with all manner of brown biscuits goodies, came served in a yellow porcelain squat toilet. If, like me, you think this might just be the best place in the whole world, bag yourself a souvenir from their shop which sells all manner of poop-themed paraphernalia.

Louise Bastock travelled to Taiwan with support from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and China Airlines. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

With legacies as varied as its adventure landscape and spirited traditions thriving alongside the cream of Asian sophistication, Taiwan is a continent on one green island.

Lonely Planet will get you to the heart of Taiwan, with amazing travel experiences and the best planning advice.

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Travel

Pathfinder spotlight: Maria and Katerina, It’s all trip to me

Maria and Katerina exploring their home city of Athens Maria and Katerina exploring their home city of Athens © It’s all trip to me

While the life of a full-time traveller may seem like an idyllic existence, it’s not for everyone. Ties to home – from family responsibilities to a budding career – might keep us from committing to a nomadic way of living, but it certainly doesn’t mean travel is off the table.

We caught up with Pathfinders Maria and Katerina from It’s all trip to me to talk upcoming adventures, all things travel blogging and how to fit your trips around a nine-to-five.

Give us the low down on your blog…

Myself and photographer Katerina both love to travel and have always been very fond of consulting travel blogs to plan our trips. To us, a travel blog always seemed like a brilliant way to record our travel memories and help others create their own at the same time. So we combined our passions for writing and photography and here we are now, hoping to inspire people with full-time jobs like ourselves to travel more and see the world one trip at a time.

Describe your travel style in three words…

Immersive, budget-splurge-balanced, short-term.

Top three places you’ve visited?

That’s a really hard one but we’ll give it a shot. Tuscany in Italy, the Nile Valley in Egypt and London in the UK.

Catching the sunset in London Catching the sunset in London © It’s all trip to me

What destinations are on your 2019 bucket list?

We’ve already planned two separate trips to Poland (Warsaw and Krakow) as well as a trip to Istanbul, Turkey. We’ve just started planning our big 2019 trip: two weeks exploring the regions of Puglia and Basilicata in Southern Italy. A couple of short trips to London and Romania are also on the table as well as at least two Greek Islands in the summer. And towards the end of 2019 we are planning our first ever trip to Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand. It’s going to be an amazing year of travel magic!

A lot of travel bloggers quit their jobs to hit the road; you do things a bit differently. How do you fit your travels around your nine-to-five?

Who wouldn’t want to travel the world full-time? However, we can’t afford to do so – at least not at the moment. But we wouldn’t let our day jobs hinder neither our passion for travel nor our desire to blog about it. We make sure we spend all our vacation time (25 days per year), public holidays and as many weekends as possible travelling. We plan a two-week trip to someplace new once a year and a 10-day island vacation every August to recharge our batteries. Those aside, we also go on shorter trips either abroad or in Greece (where we’re based) throughout the year.

Andros in Greece is one of Maria and Katerina's top choices for an island escape Andros in Greece is one of Maria and Katerina’s top choices for an island escape © It’s all trip to me

What advice would you give someone who thinks they don’t have enough time to travel?

There is always time to travel! It all comes down to setting priorities and planning ahead. First of all, it’s important to save vacation time for travel. We know that sometimes life gets in the way and we may be tempted to use our vacation time to tend to unfinished business or simply stay at home and rest. We feel that vacation time is hard-earned and should be reserved for travel.

Secondly, when travelling on a tight schedule it’s very important to have pre-planned itineraries so as not to waste any valuable time during the trip itself. Lonely Planet guidebooks and travel blogs packed with tips and info are the best sources of inspiration and valuable tools for people with limited travel time.

And last but not least, travel requires adjusting to a new mentality and seeing things from a different perspective. It doesn’t have to take loads of money or time to travel. Start by playing tourist in your own hometown and discover all its hidden gems, the way we do in Athens. Then go on and plan weekend breaks or three-day getaways. Soon you will realise that you actually have time to plan that longer trip you always dreamt of.

Why do you love travel blogging?

Through travel blogging we’ve learnt more about ourselves and discovered skills we never knew we had, which are constantly developing. Our favourite part of travel blogging though, is that it offers us many opportunities to meet like-minded people from all over the world. No gift is greater than having friends across the globe!

If you’re a member of our Pathfinders community and would like to share your story, drop us an email at [email protected] and tell us what exciting things you’re up to on your blog.

Friendly and fun-loving, cultured and historic, Thailand radiates a golden hue, from its glit-tering temples and tropical beaches through to the ever-comforting Thai smile. Lonely Planet will get you to the heart of Thailand, with amazing travel experiences and the best planning advice

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Travel

Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz

Planet Earth photographed from space How well do you know our home planet? © Dima Zel / Shutterstock

Do you know the name of the world’s third-highest mountain? Or in what year the euro was introduced as legal tender? Pit your wits against our toughest travel quiz to date – a thirty-question, all-encompassing behemoth of world trivia, with questions taken from Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz – our new title containing over 100 fun travel-themed quizzes for all ages.

So strap yourself in and prepare to put your world knowledge to the test. There’s no way you’ll score full marks, but how close can you come?

TAKE ON THE CHALLENGE

Find more quiz questions just like this in our book Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel Quiz, the perfect companion for any trip.

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Travel

7 Christmas dinners done differently around the world

It’s that time of year again: the shelves begin to fill with advent calendars and Lynx gift sets, and people begin the stressful task of Christmas shopping in preparation for the big day.

But what’s the best thing about Christmas? Ask anyone and they’ll probably say eating allll the food. Oh, the food! Your Mum brings out the KP salted peanuts, the assorted biscuit tin, and the box of Celebrations she’s been hiding in the cupboard for the past three months. And the waist naturally begins to expand!

If you’re not counting down the days until it’s time to devour your Christmas dinner, well, are you even human? It’s the only time of year it’s socially acceptable to drink booze as soon as you wake up, gorge on pigs in blankets (heaven on Earth) and eat an unattractive amount of roast potatoes. Don’t judge.

Whether you’re travelling this Christmas or just fancy indulging in another culture’s traditional dinner, here are some of our favourites/the weirdest we could find from around the world.

Christmas Dinner in Japan

It’s no secret Japan is wacky and likes to do things a little differently to the rest of the world, but their Christmas dinner takes the biscuit. Three words: deep-fried chicken. The Japanese go crazy for a family bucket of KFC. It’s so popular that in some chains, the special Christmas dinner must be ordered in advance. We can’t decide if it’s genius or just plain wrong.

christmas-dinner-japan

Christmas Dinner in Italy

Another one for the pescetarians out there, Italy serves up a feast of seafood. Traditionally, ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’ is served up on Christmas eve. Why? Because the Roman Catholic tradition is to abstain from eating meat the day before a feast day. Fair enough.

Christmas Dinner in Australia

Obviously, the heat in the height of summer in Australia is just too much to be eating a slap-up turkey dinner on Christmas day, so BBQ it is. Everyone should experience a hot Christmas at least once. There’s something pretty special about relaxing on a beach and watching the waves crash as you tuck into your burger and BBQ seafood on Christmas day. Throw another shrimp on the barbie, Bruce!

christmas-dinner-australia

Christmas Dinner in Norway

Ah, Norway. Land of epic fjords, Vikings, and some of the most scenic roads in the world. Oh yeah, and the traditional sheep’s head for Christmas dinner. ‘Smalahove’ is prepared for two days, served with potatoes and rutabaga (swede), and eaten on the Sunday before Christmas. Think we’re alright, thanks.

Christmas Dinner in South Africa

We all love South Africa. How could you not? It’s got great wine, some cool caves and a beach dedicated to penguins. But, their traditional Christmas dinner of fried worms is a little too unorthodox. Try worming your way out of that one.

Christmas Dinner in Czech Republic

The Czechs mix it up by eating freshwater carp on Christmas eve. Carp can be bought dead from carp sellers but traditionally, it should be bought alive a few days before the 24th. People will then run home, fill up the bath and yep, you guessed it, plonk the poor fish in to keep it fresh. It becomes the new family pet until it’s ready to be eaten. That’s an o-fish-ally weird Christmas.

christmas-dinner-czech-republic

Christmas Dinner in Russia

This is possibly the strangest Christmas dinner tradition: Selyodka Pod Shuboy, or ‘herring under a fur coat’. Yep, you read that right. Basically, it’s a layered dish consisting of potato, herring, carrots, beets, and mayonnaise, topped with a grated egg. So kind of like a trifle, only, not.

Whether you’re travelling this Christmas or spending it avoiding Aunty Trish’s sloppy kisses, Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!

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Travel

You Can’t Miss the Best Christmas Markets in Europe 2019

Boughs of prickled green holly adorns the top of cabined huts. Bratwursts sizzle in the crisp night air. Mitten-hands hold cups of warm mulled wine. The jingling sounds of All I Want for Christmas can be heard from far and wide. It can only mean one thing – the Christmas markets are on their way and your presents is required!

Amsterdam Christmas Markets

It’s not a well-kept secret that Amsterdam is one of the prettiest cities in Europe, especially when the winter weather hits and the canals are glossed over with a clear sheen of ice, ready for the brave souls that skate across them. But if you’re new to this Dutch gem, and wanting to avoid the areas that are bustling with bicycles, Contiki is on hand to show you the magic of Christmas. Think fairy-lights, holly and ivy above quaint cafes, mulled wine steaming from outside teapots and enough Christmas trees to be rockin’ around until the new year – yule be sorry to miss it!

Paris Christmas Markets

Paris for Christmas? The city may well be the romantic capital of the world but the annual Christmas markets take it to the dizzying heights of romance that you only see in the movies.

If you’re spending your day as a tourist and lapping up the Parisian culture, climbing to the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower or catching a glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, then the Magic of Christmas (or La Magie de Noel for all the fluent French speakers) is next to this world-famous museum. Here, you’ll get to walk through the miniature village of cabined wooden huts, picking up homemade pastries or warming the cockles with a French wine tipple or three.

Escape the hustle and bustle of the Paris city centre and venture into the cultural hub of Montemartre. Home to the Sacre-Couer, meaning the Sacred Heart of Paris, this delightful spot gives you Instagram-worthy views of the city (spot the Eiffel Tower in the distance!) and authentic Parisian cafes full of warm croissants and pain au chocolat. This Christmas market is a classic choice for anyone into the arts and crafts, with many people of the arts using Montemartre as inspiration for their work and showcasing them at the market!

Barcelona Christmas Markets

The thriving Spanish city of Barcelona sets the standard high for the magic of Christmas with a sleigh-full of Christmas markets with all Santa’s finest goodies.

A Christmas market against the backdrop of Gaudi’s finest buildings? Yes please. Fira de Nadal de la Sagrada Familia sits in front of one of the most famous buildings in the world – La Sagrada Familia. With over 100 stalls to enjoy and the man in red himself doing his rounds, it’s the perfect place to take the family for a walk in a winter wonderland.

There’s snow way that you’ll run out of Christmas markets in Barca though, especially with its oldest Christmas fair, Fira de Santa Llucia bringing the North Pole to this European hotspot. Think Nativity scenes, arts and crafts, Christmas trees aplenty and enough tapas to feed a nation – we’re booking our tickets already…

Rome Christmas Markets

There’s no better time to go to Rome than when it’s dusted with a wintery layer of white snow and your Contiki tour can take you there. The romance, the history, the magic of Christmas cloaking the Coliseum; it’s enough to make you want it to be Christmas every day!

Wrap yourself up against the winter chill and enjoy the smells of chestnuts roasting on an open fire at the Piazza Navona Christmas market by Bernini’s Quattro Fiumi. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year, you’ll still be treated to festive rides on the nostalgic carousel, enjoy live Christmas acts and unique arty presents that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Got a hunger pang that chestnuts just can’t fill? Give your sweet tooth exactly what it’s looking for with some delicious Roman sweets. Well, you know what they say, when in Rome…

Venice Christmas Markets

Venice needs little in the way of introduction but what you might not know is this Italian city is a festive gem come December time. Leading up to the big day, the whole of Camp Santo Stefano becomes home to a live-singing, all-dancing, food-offering, present-buying Christmas Village. Yes you read this right, not a market but a whole village awaits you. This classic Christmas experience gives you all the authentic Italian traditions that you dream of – homemade breads, buttered pastries, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, pastas and of course, flavour-filled panettone freshly baked and ready for your Christmas Day dinner table.  The food isn’t the only thing that should be setting your heart racing, there’s so many wonderful gift ideas that you won’t have to opt for an Amazon gift card late Christmas Eve. This could prevent a whole load of arguments on 25th December morning…

Vienna Christmas Markets

Ah Austria, you absolute beauty. With its rolling hills and breath-taking landscapes, it’s almost impossible not to fall instantly in love with this country and least not, it’s capital city Vienna. Famed for its unforgettable festive markets, Vienna has become a trending Christmas destination over recent years, with every Instagram story within a 12-country radius giving us FOMO for opting out of the Vienna-life and staying put in the flu-infested office.

But this year, it could be you showing off on your Insta story with panoramic shots of the Viennese Dream Christmas Market, sat in front of the City Hall and illuminated by thousands of gold twinkling lights. Here, you’ll be taught how to make the most delicious festive cookies this side of Europe, ready for you to showcase your culinary skills on Christmas Day. Whilst you’re tackling the chunky chocolate dough, you can singalong to the Christmas carols, performed live by choirs from across the country, before exploring the independent stalls for handmade jewellery, scented candles and soaps, and chocolate. Lots and LOTS of chocolate. Mmmm.

Berlin Christmas Markets

There’s no Christmas market more authentic than in its original birthplace – Germany. The Germans know how to delight guests in their country and it’s with Christmas Markets bursting at the seams with Bratwursts, Currywursts and basically, any giant, deliciously meaty sausage ending in ‘wurst’.

If you’re in the capital enjoying selfies by the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, then it’s almost Grinch-like to not take a sneak peek into the festive markets. We know it’s not all about size but if you’re looking for a big one (market that is), then head to Spandau – it’s huge. Decorated with thousands of fairy lights and a whole host of wonderful twinkling decorations illuminating the city far and wide, it’s safe to say that they definitely do know it’s Christmas. Here’s our tip though, make sure you try some traditional Stollen, Spritzgebäck and Lebkuchen washed down with a cup of piping German mulled wine.

London Christmas Markets

Don’t forget Contiki tours start in London and London does big well. Big Ferris wheels. Big bridges. Big skyscrapers. And most importantly, they sleigh it with BIG Christmas markets.

The most popular Christmas market that this cosmopolitan city has to offer is the aptly dubbed – Winter Wonderland. Situated in the middle of London’s Hyde Park, Winter Wonderland welcomes over a million visitors every December to celebrate the festive season with heart-stopping rides, live entertainment (think Cinderella on skates – like really) and a Christmas market filled with trinkets, hot chocolate, handmade jewellery, personalised Christmas cards and a whole host of other festive delights for you to enjoy.

If the busyness of Winter Wonderland puts you off, you can have a calmer festive experience at London’s Southbank. Although on a much smaller scale, the Southbank Christmas market gives you the space to see each cabin’s offerings at your own leisure whilst tucking into a roasted marshmallow or cup of eggnog as you browse!

There’s so much to see and discover in Europe in winter time, least not when Contiki offer tours that take you to these Christmassy-decorated cities. We’ve got the tours, have you got your passport?

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Travel

Wild card destinations in Australia and New Zealand you need to visit

Australia and New Zealand may be far away from pretty much everyone, but they’re both hot on the list for most adventurers. And so they should be. They’re awesome.  

Since they’re so close to each other though, they tend to get lumped together, which makes us cry a little inside. We’re gonna let you in on a little secret here: they could not be more different!  

The main differences are these: Australia is huge, while New Zealand is tiny. Australia is freakishly hot at times, while New Zealand is a normal amount of hot. Australia is fairly flat in parts, while New Zealand is hilly as hell. But they’re both incredible countries to visit, with more places to explore than your little legs will take you to.  

So, we’re spilling the beans on some wild card destinations in each country for four types of traveler, so your trip will stand out from the rest.  

For the beach babe (or buoy)

Noah’s Beach, Cape Tribulation (Oz)

Australia has obviously been hit with the beautiful beach stick. It’s got more than 10,000 beaches to choose from and they’re pretty much all worth a visit. It’s not fair, but that’s life.  

Most people looking for a beach head straight to the squeaky white sands of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays – and they’re right to. It’s literally postcard perfect! But venture a little further up the East Coast to Cape Tribulation and you’ll be rewarded with the long stretch of wide white sand that is Noah’s Beach.  

You’ll struggle to find more than a few souls on the beach at any one time, and it’s backed by the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, the Daintree Rainforest. Make the most of it and camp just beyond the trees. 

The one downside? Tropical North Queensland is saltwater crocodile country so you can’t swim in the ocean, but there are plenty of swim holes in Cape Tribulation that are safe to cool off in.  

New Chums Beach, Coromandel (NZ)

You can always count on good ol’ Aotearoa (that’s Māori for New Zealand, btw) to bring the goods when it comes to nature. OK, so it hasn’t got anywhere near as many beaches to choose from as its bigger, hotter neighbor, but they do tend to be less crowded.  

One such beach is New Chums Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, where the waters are warmer and the views are just as hot. It’s only accessible by foot or boat, though. But that just means you can be sure you won’t be sharing the sand with hundreds of other people.  

Make the drive to Whangapoua (another great beach) and follow the path on the left-hand side of the beach over tree trunks and rocks. Around 30 minutes later you’ll be in your own little oasis. 

Stick a Jack Johnson song on and relax in peace. Or hike up to the lookout for even better views.  

For the hiker 

Hinchinbrook Island (Oz)

Don’t be fooled by the fact that Hinchinbrook Island is the largest island on the Great Barrier Reef. To protect all that is great and wonderful, only 40 people are allowed to stay on the island at any one time. It’s a hiker’s heaven.  

Take a boat from Lucinda on the mainland to Ramsay Bay or George’s Point and switch off from there. The main reason people visit the island is to hike the 20mi Thorsborne Trail along the island’s east coast. It takes around five days but you can make it longer if you want to. And with camping costing a mere AUD$5 per day, staying longer is not exactly going to break the bank. Make sure you’re prepared though, it’s not for the faint hearted.  

For something less challenging, try the Prince Henry Cliff Walk in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. The 4.5mi (one way) hike hugs the cliff edge of the mountain range, which are named after the blue tinge they wear when seen from a distance.  

Pouakai Crossing, Taranaki (NZ)

New Zealand is known for its tramps (that’s hikes to you). It’s got thousands to choose from that take you through every kind of scenery you’d expect to see in the land that brought Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to life – deep valleys, snow-capped mountains and rich forest.  

If you’re looking for a full day hike that ticks off all of these, try the 11.5mi Pouakai Crossing in the Taranaki region on the country’s West Coast. It’s much quieter than the famous Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand’s oldest national park, so no need to worry about being photobombed or your overly competitive side coming out when another hiker overtakes you. Doesn’t happen to you? Just us then. That’s embarrassing…  

For the island lover 

Kangaroo Island (Oz)

Is it even a proper trip to Australia if you don’t see a kangaroo? Jump on a ferry for 45 minutes from Adelaide and bam! You’ll be hanging out with Skippy and his mates in no time.  

It’s wild and full of other animals, including koalas, sea lions and wallabies. And it’s rocking the, err, rock formation thing. Plus, it’s got 315mi of coastline with some of the best beaches any island lover could want. Fancy frolicking in rock pools? It’s got ‘emWanna catch waves with dolphins? You got it. Can you get your tan on amongst sea lions and white sand? You betcha, buddy 

Rangitoto Island (NZ)


This tiny little island off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island is a perfect alternative day trip out of the sprawling city. It’s the youngest and largest volcano in the Auckland volcanic field, but don’t worry, scientists say it’s unlikely to erupt again. Leave your campervan on the mainland and head over for a day of hiking up to the summit for views across the Hauraki Gulf, Waitakere Ranges and Hunua Ranges. Or go full adventure mode and kayak over there from Auckland. Even better, try a night kayaking trip.

For the nature lover 

Tasmania (Oz)

Tassie, as it’s affectionately known, is seriously underrated as a destination. It’s got adventure coming out of its ears (if islands had ears). Think warm blue waters, white sand beaches, artsy cities and bumbling wombats and elusive Tasmanian Devils.  

Plus, it’s got green rolling hills for days. You could easily think you were touring the great English countryside, until you hit the beach or melt in the Australian sun, obvs.  

It’s also home to World Heritage listed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. The park’s star is Cradle Mountain, which sits at over 5,000ft above sea level. Impressive rocky outcrops surround pine forests, calm lakes and flowering heaths. You’ll feel like you’re in another land. And who doesn’t want that on an adventurous trip Down Under?  

Catlins Forest Park (NZ)

New Zealand’s South Island wins the award for the country’s most impressive national parks. Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park and Abel Tasman National Park are all slap-you-in-the-face beautiful, so they should be on any traveler’s list of places to check out. But so should Catlins Forest Park.  

Sitting pretty just up the road from the Southern-most point of the South Island (Slope Point), the park is as green as your mates will be once you show them photos from your trip.  

There are countless hikes to get lost on that will take you through moss-laden forest to Purakaunui Falls, Matai Falls and McLean Falls. Or follow coastal tracks to blowholes, surf spots and the mahoosive Cathedral Caves. Oh, and there’s a shipwreck and a century-old lighthouse to explore. OK, we’re done now.  

Ready to explore Australia and New Zealand? Check out out Fiji Airways cheap flight deals here. 

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Travel

Your Guide to Responsible Travel to Thailand

There’s more to Thailand than full moon parties and delicious food. We are given the privilege of travel, so why not give something back? By volunteering in Thailand you’ll immerse yourself in the country’s culture and really get to know the wonderful people of Thailand. Whether working with animals is your thing or you’ve always wanted to teach English, here are some fantastic ways to immerse yourself in Thailand…

Thailand Coastal Conservation Expedition

There’s not many things more rewarding than giving up your time to the conservation of some of the world’s most delicate and endangered species and their habitats. Away from the hustle and bustle of busy Bangkok life, you can spend your days on the Thailand Coastal Conservation Expedition, saving the planet and making tons of international friends who just happen to share your passion of giving back on their travels!

Located in Phang Nga, you’ll get to choose between the turtle conservation projects, use your expertise at preventing the continuous plastic waste that is ever-more quickly polluting our planet or get involved in educating local communities on how to be more environmentally-friendly. There’s so much that you can get involved in that will help to change the world; just one little bit at a time.

Photo courtesy of GVI

Plastic Pollution and Conservation in Thailand

One of the biggest threats to our environment is plastic pollution, with many companies across the globe now trying to reduce their plastic production and waste and in turn, consumers opting for more plastic-friendly options such as reusable water bottles. However, the problem is far greater than this and you can see first-hard the effects of plastic pollution with this conservation project in the Phang Nga Province. From beach cleans to marine debris, conducting and analysing local survey results on coastal debris to promoting better plastic usage in local communities, you’ll get to be involved in something far bigger than you anticipated your Thailand trip to be!

Photo courtesy of GVI

Volunteering with elephants

Big shout out to our wise traveller Emma Moreton for telling us about her personal experience at the Elephant Nature Park… she was the one scooping the poop!

Where should I volunteer with elephants in Thailand?

The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to start. It’s a sanctuary for ill and injured elephants. The park is situated in a lush jungle a short drive outside of Chiang Mai and is run by a lady called Lek. She is a woman on a mission to rescue every mistreated elephant from the tourist and illegal logging trades. She’s trying to promote tourists to visit conservation projects and rehabilitation parks rather than go on elephant treks. The Elephant Nature Park allows you to interact with and admire the beautiful elephants without any cruelty or mistreatment. It is a safe space for elephants to roam freely and peacefully. They are able to walk around their natural habitat, with their herd, eating whatever they please without a hook or chain in sight.

What does a normal day at the park involve?

Emma fill us in…

There are daily tasks performed on rotation, you’ll start the day by prepping tasty meals for the elephants, this involves washing and chopping fruit as well as preparing the very popular banana balls! Later, you’ll head out to a nearby field to cut corn to feed the ellies – it makes for a fun trip in the back of an open top truck, even funnier when the truck is full to the brim with corn and you have to sit on a corn mountain to get home!

Throughout the day you’ll help in general maintenance of the park, replacing fences and an obvious favourite… waste management! Everyday you’ll have to help clear the poo out of the enclosures and take it to the surrounding mountains to fertilise the land. Some elephants don’t stray far from there enclosures so like to come in and lend a hand with shovelling poop! In the afternoon the elephants will head down to the river for bath time, watch them splash about with each other in the water – SERIOUSLY adorable.

There’s loads of free time in evenings, relax after a hard day with a Thai massage and cold beer. The park also puts on lots of activities each night such as tea ceremonies, rubber tubes to go tubing down the river or visits to local schools to practice your Thai!

All of the elephants at the park have been rescued from a life of entertaining tourists or from the illegal logging trade, many are blind, injured or limp. There is a huge emphasis on the elephant’s care and freedom. It’s a wonderful place that fills you with hope for the survival of Asian elephants and is a truly eye-opening experience. Oh and there’s a dog sanctuary on site, full of the cutest puppies.

Teaching children in Thailand

Where should I teach children in Thailand?

Well what’s more ideal than teaching children at the beach? Koh Samui is a picturesque island on the east coast of Thailand, off the port of Surrathani. The island is a mix of buzz and pure relaxation, from the lively Chaweng Beach to timeless Bophut’s Fisherman Village. But there’s more to Koh Samui than its beautiful beaches, there are several large schools on the island. Between them they employ about 25-30 foreign teachers, so there’s plenty of opportunity to teach and it really doesn’t get much better than teaching on paradise island.

What does a normal day teaching involve?

You’ll work from Monday to Friday supporting children aged 5 to 12 years old with their English language skills. You’ll probably work about a 15 hour week, which may not sound like much but you’ll need lots of spare time to plan lessons and take part in after school activities, such as sports, arts & crafts and drama.

Typically you will teach between 9.00am and 3.00pm, working with a Thai teacher, assisting their lessons and improving their own English language skills. Your knowledge of British culture will be valuable as it gives students an idea of what life is like in the UK. Make the most of your lunch breaks, obviously because you’ll need a break but also because it’s the perfect opportunity to get to know the other teachers at the school. Take the opportunity to brush up on your Thai vocabulary!

But again there is plenty of free time at the weekends and after school. Take time to relax, nothing beats a hard day’s teaching more than chilling out on Chaweng Beach or kite surfing on Mae Nam Beach and it’s well worth getting a boat to Ko Taen for some of the world’s best snorkelling.

Also check out the neighboring islands from the Elephant Gate, definitely visit the Buddha’s Magic Garden and take a peek at the mummified monk at Wat Khunaram. You can eat out so cheaply in Thailand, a delicious seafood dinner would be about $5! Plus there are LOADS of markets to grab cheap souvenirs and clothes for your mates back home.

Teaching is one of the most rewarding things you can do while traveling a country. You’ll get a full immersive experience of Thailand’s diverse culture. There’s nothing like the challenge of volunteering and living in a different in country, you’ll push yourself completely out of your comfort zone and it will be an experience that you’ll never forget.

Photo courtesy of GVI

We hope this has given you a little bit of an insight into volunteering and teaching in Thailand. Take a look at some of our volunteering trips and give something back to the awesome world we live in.

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Travel

Places you never thought to go to in Egypt

There’s more to Egypt than the Pyramids of Giza! I spent a month there, traversing deserts and oases, discovering off-the-beaten path towns and temples, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Here are some of my favorite spots, places I didn’t know even existed until I arrived! In these places, you’ll get to experience some of Egypt’s lesser-known minority cultures and lifestyles, that of the Amazigh Berber, Nubian and Arab Bedouin peoples.

Siwa Oasis

Don’t let the 12-hour overnight bus-ride from Cairo be a deterrent: Siwa, an oasis town in the Sahara desert near the Libyan border, is an enchanting place with dozens of natural hot and cold springs and archaeological sites. In old Siwa, climb up to the top of the hilltop ruins for a view of the surrounding landscape, or dive right in, on a dune-bashing and desert-exploration tour with a local Berber guide. If you look carefully, you’ll discover small crystal-blue lakes, even saltier than the Dead Sea. The ancient Oracle’s temple, where Alexander the Great was coronated as King of Egypt over 2200 years ago, is one of many historical places to visit near this town, making a 2 or 3 day excursion to Siwa worth your while!

Sinai Peninsula

Ditch the hostels and camp out with a semi-nomadic Bedouin tribe instead! The Sinai Peninsula is full of beautiful beaches, dive sites, party-towns and quiet villages, making it perfect for New Years Eve in Sharm el-Sheikh or a peaceful retreat in Nuweiba or Dahab. Bedouin ‘camps’ rates range from $3 bare-minimum bedding-and-mosquito-nets to $20-per night reed huts on the beach, with mattresses and wifi.

Feeling adventurous? Trek for 1-3 days into the Sinai’s interior regions to visit famous Abrahamic sites such as Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery.

The White Desert

Deep in the Egyptian Sahara near Farafra, bizarre white rock formations are scattered about an area known as ‘The White Desert’. While these rock formations are cool to see during the day, the real magic happens during sunset and sunrise, when some of the white rocks appear blue in the low-light. To see this unusual phenomenon, hire a local guide and pitch a tent for the night– you’ll feel the temperatures drop but don’t worry, there’s always plenty of hot sweet tea to go around.

Aswan

Nicknamed ‘the Gateway to Africa’, Aswan charms visitors with its slower pace, colorful villages on its Nile river islands. Kitchner’s and Elephantine Island are brimming with picturesque traditional Nubian homes, beautiful gardens, and ancient ruins from the Pharaonic, Hellenistic, Coptic, and Islamic eras. Sail across the river in a felucca boat to West Aswan to explore the ancient “Tombs of the Nobles” and sample local Nubian food. Nearby, the majestic temples of Philae and Abu Simbel host impressive hieroglyphics and larger-than-life statues of Egyptian gods. There’s no shortage of things to do in Aswan; I spent a week exploring its many sites, and still didn’t see everything!

Egypt is full of culture and history, so after you’ve had your fill of mummies and pyramids, venture out of your comfort zone. Hop on a local bus, stop at any town along the Nile and you’re bound to find something ancient, friendly people and delicious food. This list includes some of my favorite places in Egypt, but remember the best part of traveling is going out and finding your own!