visiting Hunans cool capital with kids

Travelling families will have a ball in Changsha, capital city of China’s southern Hunan province, which delivers all the pleasures of a big city without the frustrations of one of the country’s huge metropolises.

When Mao Zedong was a young resident of Changsha, he paused on Juzizhou, its famous river isle, and penned a poem commonly considered one of his greatest. In it he recalls visiting the city as a youth, and being ‘full of enthusiasm’. Little did he know that future Changsha would embrace visitors from foreign lands and of all ages, including kids.

Though it might not figure prominently on some travellers’ Chinaitineraries, Changsha is a place for pressure-free time and good-value experiences, while still getting a dose of the big-city vibe thanks to its neon-clad streets and busy restaurants.

Changsha sees comparably fewer children from foreign lands, so the smiles and elated requests for selfies with the kids from locals (everyone should be prepared for this) make for a red-carpet experience. Changsha is also the hometown of China’s most famous leader, Mao Zedong, and there are ample possibilities for history lessons that expand young people’s world views. And of course, Changsha’s child- and wallet-friendly attractions, comparatively short travel distances and amazing food only add to the fun.


Sunday in the park

Weekends in China are when families flock to urban green spaces for exercise, dance, play and chat. When non-Chinese families, especially those with little children, join the mix, the friendly, inquisitive and shutter-happy locals make it hard not to feel welcome. Lively and central Lieshi Park is one of the biggest leisure parks in China and features a memorial tower dedicated to the country’s fallen heroes. There are also plenty of distractions for kids, like a climbing wall and bumper cars.

Even more famous is Tangerine Isle, a long, narrow river retreat said to be the largest inland islet in the world. Free to access and full of landscaped gardens through which kids happily romp, its five kilometres are best navigated by hiring bikes or hopping aboard an inexpensive tourist trolley.


New point of view

On the west bank of the Xiang River, Yuelu Mountain, rises 300 meters above sea level and 240 above the city. The park’s multiple peaks and ridges extend for several kilometres, embracing places of both historic interest and great scenic beauty – lush groves of maple, catalpa, pine and chestnut trees are fed by year-round water springs. The path to the top takes adult legs less than an hour but can sometimes be steep for shorter strides. Instead, there is a chairlift up and kid-pleasing toboggan ride down.

Central Asia trekking utopia

The Alay region of southern Kyrgyzstan is the kind of place mountain lovers dream about. Turquoise lakes fringed with yurts sit at the base of towering 7000m peaks, offering some of the world’s most glorious mountain views at every turn. It is simply a stunning corner of Central Asia that is almost completely unknown, cheap to visit and ripe for exploration. What’s the catch? There isn’t one.

Not many trekkers head to Central Asia, fewer still visit Kyrgyzstan and, of those, only a handful continue as far south as the Alay Valley, a claw of land squeezed between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The region consists of two parallel mountain ranges, the Alay and Trans-Alay (spurs of the Tian Shan and Pamir ranges respectively), separated by the high-altitude Alay Valley.

This is the crossroads of high Asia, where roads lead south onto the Pamir plateau of Tajikistan, east over the Irkestham Pass to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province, and north to the fertile silk-growing Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. These routes funnelled a major branch of the Silk Road; even Marco Polo passed nearby.


Trekking the Alay

The Alay today is primarily home to Kyrgyz herders who bring their cows, sheep, yaks and horses to fatten in the summer pastures, setting up yurt camps in the lush alpine valleys from June to September. Framing the pastures to the south, an unbroken chain of peaks rises sheer from the valley’s wide plain. There are no foothills and no pesky approach treks, just massive, stunning views of some of the highest peaks outside the Himalaya.

Mountains, yurts, horses – so far so good, but what makes the Alay region really special is the network of Community Based Tourism (CBT) providers that offer no-hassle vehicle and horse hire, guides, homestays and even a network of herders’ yurts. Set up to provide a source of income for communities bypassed by mainstream tourism, rates for these services offer excellent value because there are no middle men.

For visitors, yurts are the key that opens up the high valleys and their stunning scenery. With CBT’s help, you can hike several routes in the Alay with little more than a daypack, offering all the convenience of Nepali-style teahouse trekking without the crowds. It’s that rarest of travel alignments: world-class mountain scenery, easy accessibility and low cost.

We spent several weeks scouting the best trips in the Alay and the following are our favourites, ranging from a four-day trek to a series of day hikes done from a comfy yurt base at the foot of Peak Lenin. All offer epic scenery and adventure without the need for expedition-style planning. To arrange them, contact CBT in Osh or Sary Moghul a day or two in advance.

Viking fire festival

Standing almost horizontal against gale-force winds and the kind of rain that makes you wish you’d spent your life savings on waterproofs, I begin to question my motives for visiting Shetland in January. I’m pressed up against a cold stone wall, counting down the minutes.

Suddenly all the streetlights are extinguished and the tiny town of Lerwick is plunged into darkness. Around me, the dances of sodden spectators trying to warm up regain some of their buoyancy as excitement rises. There’s only one reason thousands of people would come to the edge of the world in the dead of winter to stand outside, for hours, in the pitch black – the Up Helly Aa fire festival.

At 7.30pm on the dot, bright purple-orange flares crack through the din. The distant rooftops seem to blossom with fire as down on the streets below 1000 torches are lit for an army of as many men to march through the streets, led by a battle-clad and bearded band of Vikings known as the Jarl Squad. Flames dance off the winged helmet and shield of their leader, the Guizer Jarl, who commands a replica Viking longship which is wheeled at the head of the procession.

I’ve only been in this remote part of the world for a few days, but the whole thing feels utterly and undeniably Shetland.


A land fit for Vikings

This remote archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland is part of the UK. But touching down here, after a journey of progressively smaller planes and progressively friendlier people, feels like landing somewhere very distinct from the rest of the British Isles. Indeed, the Shetland Islands are closer to Scandinavia than London, and Shetland was part of Norway until it was sold to the Scots in the 15th century.

This is a land awash with Norse heritage, evidence of which is rife in the capital of Lerwick. It’s not just in the street names (kings of yore, from Harald to Haakon, can be found at nearly every turn) or the Scandinavian twang in the accent. The whole place screams Viking. Big, moody skies loom over a patchwork of resilient stone buildings and rugged landscapes, battered by unforgiving weather that can steal your breath and soak your bones – it’s brilliant, but bracing.

Shetland has its everyday rhythms – farmers tend to their land and livestock, local business owners open shop and those on a nine-to-five head into the office. But there is the inescapable sense that Mother Nature rules the roost here. Big storms and rough seas can still cut the archipelago off from the mainland, as one local explains: ‘if the boats can’t come in, no one can get anything’.

A classic Cuban road trip

The Malecon comes alive at sunset. This broad ribbon of cement curves around Havana’s waterfront, and as the sun wanes, the sky turns pink and the road is washed in coppery gold light. Orderly rows of fishermen perch on the sea wall, chatting as they cast their lines and hoping for a haul of bonito tuna or red snapper. Locals sit in pairs, laughing and occasionally canoodling, while the sea breeze brings with it the sound of a three-piece jazz ensemble that’s just started up along the way.

This stretch is considered the classic drive of Havana, tracing over four miles (7km) along the coast from the colonial centre of the Old Town to the business district of Vedado via a stately lineup of weather-faded houses from the 19th century and brutish Russian-style architecture.

It’s here that the city meets the surging ocean. When a strong cold front hits this coast as it often does, waves hurl themselves against the sea wall and over, spraying dozens of feet in the air and flooding the road, but today the sea is calm and mild, lapping innocently at the dark rocks of the shore.

Unlike most great drives, where the highlight of the journey is glorious scenery passing by the windows, the best sights on the Malecon are on the road itself. Vintage 1950s American cars of all colours and kinds parade along its length. One second there is a dreamy round-nosed Buick in duck-egg blue; the next, a Chevrolet Bel Air convertible in brilliant red with silver fins followed by a royal purple Cadillac. They are so numerous and so perfect-looking, it could be a city-wide classic car rally.

The truth is, these vintage cars are not always a dream to drive. As I make my way along the waterfront behind the wheel of a 1955 Chevy – royal red and gold in colour – the gears show flashes of temperament, sticking and occasionally slipping, and the steering has so much give, each turn of the wheel is little more than a gentle suggestion. But there is an indefinable joy in driving one of these vehicles, and it’s not just the warm, fusty smell that evokes the old girl’s decades on the road or her soft leather bench-seats, so broad and comfortable it’s like driving a sofa.

I make my way down the Malecon and turn onto the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, Havana’s Old Town. Left to crumble after the 1959 revolution, Havana is a time capsule, its formerly grand buildings broken and pocked with neglect. The Old Town dates back to the 16th century, and retains vestiges of its former glory. Grand, palm-filled squares are surrounded by streets with imposing churches, houses painted in cheery pastel colours, and tiny kiosks selling freshly butchered meat or piles of fruits warmed by the sun.

Overhead, neighbours call to one another as they hang out washing in colourful strings from balconies; others gather on doorsteps to shoot the breeze, as often as not with fat Cuban cigars dangling from their fingers.

Guide to Ile de Re

Come July and August, irresistible Ile de Ré is where you’ll find half of Paris on their holidays. With absurdly pretty villages, strips of uninterrupted golden fluffy sand and some freshly-caught (but farcically cheap) seafood, this tiny island is laid-back French seaside chic at its best.

Sun, sea, sand, salt and cycles are the five elements that work together to make Ile de Ré so appealing, and even during the annual Parisian invasion, you can still find quiet corners of this exquisite Atlantic outpost if you know where to rummage. Here’s how to get started.


Explore the island by bicycle

The first thing you’ll notice on Ile de Ré is that everyone is on a bicycle. As the island’s highest point is only 19 metres high and there’s a 100km network of excellent cycle paths, it makes sense to get around on two wheels. Every village has hire shops where you can find tandems, electric bikes, trailers for kids (or, just as often, for dogs) as well as the classic city bike with baskets for your market shopping.

All of the villages are connected by bike lanes, as are almost all of the beaches. Trails dip in and out of vineyards, glide past fields of wheat and poppies and duck through pine forests. One of the wilder landscapes is the nature reserve at Lilleau des Niges on the north-western end, with its salt pans, marshes and thousands of birds. Ile de Ré is only 30km by 5km, but it can take at least two hours to cycle from one end to another – worth bearing in mind if you’re with small children.


Seek out secluded strips of sand

Sandy beaches cover much of the island’s coast, which curls into a fishhook at its western end. And that’s where you want to go to avoid the summertime crowds. Plage de la Conche des Baleines is one long sweep of sand backed by dunes and pine forests, merging into Plage de la Conche and Plage du Lizay. You won’t find ordered rows of rented sun loungers here – just sand and the occasional rollicking surf. Carry on to Les Portes-en-Ré for another collection of beaches, including the sheltered Plage du Trousse Chemise and Plage de la Patache.

The beaches on the southern side are closer to the main villages and, as a result, are more popular. However, outside of the main July-August holiday period (which starts to calm down from the third week of August), the dozen beaches that form an unbroken sandy chain around the island are surprisingly spacious.

Surfers should head to Plage de Gros Jonc near Le Bois Plage-en-Ré for gear rental and lessons. If you’re into kayaking, rent a canoe near the village of Loix for a lazy jaunt through the salt marshland.

Local Carly Hulls moved to Vienna

But beyond the classical architecture and the famous concert halls, Carly fell for Vienna’s secrets: old factories converted into art galleries, pop-up indie stores, delicious brunch spots and the city’s great markets.

When friends are in town… we always take a walk down the Ringstrasse to visit the highlights first. We duck into Volksgarten Pavillion for a coffee and views of the Hofburg Palace before ticking off Karlsplatz and the Rathaus. Then we head for the MuseumsQuartier and the hip 7th district where cool bars and indie clothes stores prove that Vienna isn’t just about classical music and old palaces. We round off the day with beers along the Donaukanal, a hip stretch of drinking dens and street art looking across to Kahlenberg hill.

A typical weekend involves… brunch at one of my favourite cafes – either Waldemar, Jausenstation Meierei or Das Augustin – or I try out the latest local hotspot. Then I hop on my bike to explore one of the creative districts in the city with my camera in hand. Sometimes I cycle to an outdoor nature reserve like Steinhofgründe or Lainzer Tiergarten, but if the weather is rubbish you can’t beat cosying up with a book in a classic cafe like Cafe Sperl.

For a night out on the town… I have a few cocktails at Miranda Bar then head to U4 for silly dancing with the girls. It hosts 1980s, hip hop, rock and techno nights. Bettel-Alm, a multi-storey student bar, can be relied upon for a boogie too. The DJs mainly spin chart-friendly tunes. For something a little more refined, I head to hip hop club Vie I Pee or Volksgarten ClubDiskotek in the heart of the city.

For my 30th birthday… I took advantage of the summer weather and celebrated at Mayer am Nussberg, a large open-air heuriger on the outskirts of the city that overlooks Kahlenberg hill. The cute Heurigen Express train picks up passengers from the base of the vineyard-dotted hill and stops for tastings at each of the wineries en route. I remember sitting on a sun lounger with a glass of crisp fresh Grüner Veltliner and watching the sun set over the city itself.

When I want to get out of the city… I hop on a regional train to one of the surrounding villages or cross the border into neighbouring Hungary or Slovakia. Austria’s Wachau wine region is nearby and the 11th-century Stift Melk abbey makes for a great day trip too. If I really want to treat myself though, I head to historic Salzburg. This gorgeous, fairy tale city is also only a two-hour train ride from Vienna. If I get on an early train (breakfast on ÖBB Railjet trains is fantastic) I can enjoy a full day exploring. It’s surprising how very different the mountain cities can be to the capital.

How it must feel to be king of all you survey

It’s hard to imagine how it must feel to be king of all you survey. To look out from the palace walls as the sun dips behind the silhouetted hills, and know that everything you see from horizon to horizon is yours to rule. 

Short of a marrying a monarch, daydreams are probably the closest most people will get to the extravagant existence enjoyed by the rulers of India’s princely states, but behind the whitewashed walls of Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace, you can get just a taste of this life of lavish luxury.

Run as one of India’s most nostalgic heritage hotels, the Taj Falaknuma Palace serves up a perfect introduction to Hyderabad, city of palaces, perfumes and pearls. From this hilltop vantage point, the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad – once the richest man in the world – looked out over the rolling hills of India’s wealthiest princely state, worth more in its heyday than many European nations.

In fact, living the royal life in Hyderabad is easier than you might imagine, thanks to the thriving traditions that persist from the Nizam’s time. Even if you can’t afford to stay in the Falaknuma, you can swing by for high tea or haggle for pearls and ittars (Islamic perfumes) in the same bazaars as generations of Hyderabad royals.


Sleeping with royalty

My own brush with royalty began with an almost absurdly ostentatious arrival at the Falaknuma, rolling through gardens teeming with peacocks in an open, horse-drawn carriage, before climbing the palace’s marble steps beneath a shower of crimson rose petals. It was a wonderfully theatrical introduction to the former palace of the enigmatic (and succinctly named) His Exalted Highness Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi, Bayafandi Asaf Jah the VIIth, last Nizam of the princely state of Hyderabad Deccan.

Laid out in the shape of a scorpion, with two wings embracing the Palladian central hall like protective claws, the Falaknuma is an elegant sprawl of staterooms, courtyards and formal gardens, and a splendid clash of East-meets-West ideas. While the Islamic star and crescent rises proudly from the rooftop, the stained glass windows depict Beefeaters, kings and cavaliers. For every Indo-Saracenic turret and Mughal arch, there’s a nude-crowned marble fountain or a neoclassical colonnade.

Every community in Iceland has its own public swimming pool

Large or small, rich or poor, every community in Iceland has its own public swimming pool. Here neighbours catch up, children misbehave and the local mayor is confronted about his latest decision. Mix in naturally heated water and some wonderful settings right across the country, and it’s easy to see why a trip to the sundlaug is a great way for visitors to soak up Iceland.


Hike between the mountains to Seljavallalaug

Iceland’s earliest pools were sited in places where geothermal water came naturally from the ground and mixed with rainwater. Seljavallalaug, the country’s oldest still-standing swimming pool, owes its stunning location between a steep mountain and a river to practical reasons: here it can be warmed with runoff from a small hot spring. The pool is a 10-minute walk from the parking lot, and facilities are basic: the lockers can be dirty, and there’s no shower.

Today, almost a century after Seljavallalaug was built, Iceland boasts one pool per 2,000 people. Most of them sprung up after swimming lessons were made mandatory in 1940, usually within walking distance of a schoolyard; the technology to drill for geothermal water and build pipelines brought the pools into towns and villages.


Follow the pool-signs on Route 1

Klébergslaug in the village of Kjalarnes is a miniature example of what nearly every pool in the country has to offer. In addition to a swimming pool – in this case, just 17m long – it has multilevel hot tubs (for the lazy) and a small waterslide (for the crazy).

Travelling clockwise around Iceland, Kjalarnes is the first village on Route 1, the Ring Road, after leaving Reykjavík. As elsewhere, a road sign directs the way to the local pool; a blue frame around a head sticking from water – notice how the illustration is not urging any kind of swimming!

The counter-clockwise drive, beginning in southern Iceland, arguably makes for an even better first pool. Sundlaugin Laugaskarði by Hveragerði looks like an old villa and until 1966 boasted Iceland’s longest pool. The steam bath is superb.

Cafe scene has only recently begun to blossom

Although Jordanians have been drinking coffee since the 15th century, Amman’s cafe scene has only recently begun to blossom, with a number of independent, espresso-style cafes now open in the capital. Local coffee roasters, combination cafe-bookshops and terraces with spectacular views have popped up across the city, from West Amman to the hipster neighbourhood of Jebel Lweibdeh.


Rumi Café

Rumi is a Lweibdeh institution. Starting out as a tiny space, it has now been expanded and redesigned with geometric patterned charcoal-and-white floor tiles alongside handmade reclaimed wooden furniture and tables. Rumi is justifiably popular, largely thanks to the atmosphere cultivated by the genuinely friendly and welcoming staff. Pass by on a weekday morning for a cappuccino and fresh croissant, and you’ll find folk enjoying the sunny patio on Lweibdeh’s main thoroughfare, Kulliyat al Sharee’ah. By night, it transforms into the throbbing heart of the neighbourhood. The cafe’s tea selection has won many hearts, served in individual vintage teapots, in particular the cardamom-spiced Iraqi tea and the Iranian tea with rosewater. As the poet Rumi, the cafe’s namesake, said, ‘Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray’.


Dimitri’s Coffee

Dimitri’s Coffee was born from the passion of owner Hisham ‘Dimitri’ Abubaker, who travelled the world for four years visiting coffee roasters. His mission was to establish a speciality coffee roastery in his hometown of Amman, and Hisham’s commitment is evident in the range of coffee available. There are no less than six single-origin coffees and various manual brew methods, including aeropress, siphon, pour-over and chemex. Hisham is a master at customer service and has passed this onto his staff, winning fans from his first cafe near Mecca St and the second outpost in Abdali. You’ll taste the difference from any standard coffee shop brew when you order a pour-over using Costa Rica Rojo beans and prepared with the v60 tool.


Caffè Strada

One of few cafes in Amman with a smoke-free policy is Caffè Strada, a social hub just off vibrant Rainbow St, serving Italian coffee as well as cakes, paninis and salads. The baristas are knowledgeable about different roasts of coffee, and they also serve more than 30 types of tea. The vibe is laidback and arty, with regular fun initiatives, such as a design your own coffee cup contest. Try the bresaola, mozzarella, tomato and rocket panini for a light lunch.

Things to do on O ahu

Whoever said nothing in life comes free has obviously never experienced the numerous (and thrifty) thrills that the island of Oʻahu offers. From paradisaical public parks and dazzling firework displays to an open-air cinema under the stars, enjoying your time on Oʻahu doesn’t have to break your budget, and in these Hawaiian havens, you really don’t have to pay to play.


Cost-efficient community yoga

Break a sweat – not your budget – under the sun at Courtyard Yoga. Hosted by Honolulu’s Ward Village, taking advantage of this free community yoga class will give you the chance to reset your mind, restore your spirit, and most importantly, retain the green that’s in your wallet. Think of it as economical enlightenment for the cost-effective inclined.


Budget-friendly beacons of light

Next up, take a hike, literally. The Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trailepitomizes the perfect marriage of great views and fresh air, but without all the mud, dirt, and 4-wheel driving that comes with most Hawaii hikes. Located just a hop, skip and a jump from Honolulu, the trail is a roughly 2-mile, smoothly paved nature path accessible for all, including parents with stroller-cruising kiddos. And the best part? Waiting at the top of the steady ascent is Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse, one of Hawaii’s most familiar landmarks, along with a million-dollar view that doesn’t cost a dime.


Windward botanical gardens

Oʻahu’s east side boasts one of the most beautiful tropical oases in the entire Aloha State, Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens in Kaneʻohe. Here, amid 400 acres of lush verdant land, native Hawaiian plants flourish, and the glimmering waters of a 32-acre lake sets a stunning scene. With no entry fee, numerous nature trails, camping on the weekends and an educational visitor center, this public property is a proverbial Hawaiian playground. Set aside a day and bring the whole family, and if you and the keiki (children) love fishing, come on a weekend, when the Gardens hosts a catch-and-release program, providing bamboo poles with barbless hooks – all you have to do is bring the bait.