Close your eyes and picture yourself… where? Lazing on a paradise beach? Awestruck by the Iguaçu Falls? Tracking jaguars in the wild? Now open your eyes and read on as we tell you how to turn those fantasy travels into reality
SPICING IT UP IN INDIA
Dream-trip highlights: Sunset over the Taj Mahal; a rice-boat cruise on Kerala’s inland backwaters past villages, paddy fields and coconut groves; the old Latin Quarter in Goa’s capital. Ignore the hype about Mumbai’s Gateway of India; the memorial is a hub for hustlers.
Hidden treasure: Most people tick off the Taj, but miss nearby Fatehpur Sikri (fatehpursikri.gov.in). Their loss, your gain: the 16th-century capital of the Mughal Empire is an elegant oasis of mosques, harems and palaces with no crowds.
The nitty-gritty: India is huge, bite off too much and you’ll hate it. Shanti, shanti, as the rickshaw wallahs will tell you: chill! But not about immunisations (consult your doctor before you go) or hygiene (wash your hands before eating, avoid tap water, salads and potentially re-used straws, and you should bypass Delhi belly).
So which bit to choose? Most people go to Rajasthan and with good reason: it’s close to Delhi and the Taj Mahal, and has beautiful towns, such as Udaipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur, as well as tiger reserves, camel-trekking, and elegant hotels in old maharajahs’ palaces.
For our money, though, the tropical-lush south is a better first-time bet: less touristy, less hectic, it’s a more authentic glimpse of an India still packed with temples and fascinating towns. In Goa, dip into bustling Panaji, explore back lanes by moped (rentabike.in; insist on a good helmet) and unwind on the beach (south Goa is sleepier than the north, with Turtle Hill, near Canacona, a boutique favourite; turtlehill.eu). Take an overnight train to Kochi, an ancient spice port still whispering with the ghosts of Chinese and European traders past. Don’t be tempted by the cheap first-class train tickets; second-class A/C is comfy enough and much more sociable. Nearby Alappuzha (also known as Alleppey) is the jumping-off point for houseboat trips; allow two nights to sink into the dreamy rhythms,and bring bug spray. Spend a couple of nights in a lofty treehouse in the Wyanad Forest (vythiriresort.com), a cheaper, more relaxed safari destination than Rajasthan, with elephants, sloth bears and billions of birds. And squeeze in a cultural blast with a two-day tour to Hampi, the most spectacular temple complex in India; sunrise views from its central hill are worth the journey alone.
MEETING PENGUINS FACE TO FACE
Take the easy option: If you don’t mind which species you see (there are 17, found at points south from the Galápagos Islands down to the howling Antarctic wastes), South Africa is the cheapest year-round option. Head to Simonstown, south of Cape Town, where Foxy Beach is home to 3,000 African penguins.
Travel in spring for kings: The classic, tuxedo-wearing penguin that everyone wants to see is the king, and to do that you need to get to Subantarctic islands such as the Falklands and South Sandwich groups. The biggest gathering of birds occurs during the October-November mating season on the remote South Atlantic island of South Georgia. Land on Salisbury Plain beach and you’ll encounter the staggering sight of up to 500,000 king penguins crowding the beach and muddy coastal plain like impatient toffs at a debutante’s ball.
Put your plans on ice: Antarctic ice, that is. For an as-you-dreamt-it sight of penguins on the slippery stuff, you’ll need to board a ship (usually at Punta Arenas, at the bottom of Chile) for the two-to three-day voyage to the White Continent.
You’re guaranteed quality time with Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins in October and November.
Remember small is beautiful: If you’re heading for South Georgia or Antarctica, don’t take a cruise ship: they’re too big and most aren’t built for icy seas. Choose a specialist naturalists’ itinerary aboard a small, ice-proofed expedition vessel, which will get you into remoter spots and will have professional wildlife guides to lead your runs ashore.
Leave the zoom lens at home: Penguins are the easiest birds to photograph. You’re supposed to maintain a ‘respectful distance’, but the birds, which clearly haven’t read the rulebook, will quickly mob you, pecking at trousers and nosing around in rucksacks. So you don’t need a ton of glass to get the shot. You can get so close that even a smartphone will do.
TRACKING JAGUARS IN THE WILD
Choose Brazil: Although jaguar habitat extends across an area of Latin America stretching from the Sonoran Desert in Mexico to Argentina’s Iguaçu Falls, your best chance of spotting the world’s third biggest feline lies in Brazil’s Pantanal, a 194,000 sq km swathe of tropical wetland in Mato Grosso do Sul state.
Wait until dry season: To maximise your chances of seeing El Tigre, as he’s known in these parts, you need to visit at the back end of dry season – between August and October. Not only are the temperatures and insects more bearable, but also the baias (lagoons) are drying up, thus concentrating the prey species and the big cat that eats them. Jaguars are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk, so be prepared to get up early.
Avoid Porto Jofre: Thanks to its guidebook-led reputation as the launchpad for jaguar-spotting tours, this northern Pantanal town is an overcrowded backpacker magnet; tours involve a full day on the river surrounded by other boats, often run by operations contributing little or nothing to conservation. Head south to the lodges around Miranda, which are more ethical and eco-conscious and, yes, more expensive.
Stay on dry land: The Onçafari Jaguar Project is a conservation project run by Caiman Ecological Refuge (caiman.com.br) in the southern Pantanal. Its African-style safaris give you an unequalled opportunity to get near wild, but habituated, jaguars.
BLOWING YOUR MIND IN JAPAN
Dream-trip highlights: Tokyo – visually still the spine-tingling epitome of a future city; Kyoto – Japan’s cultural heart and keeper of its traditions; Osaka – the unrefined, food-loving antidote to temple-heavy Kyoto.
Ignore the hype… about the ‘floating’ torii gate on Miyajima – it’s little more than a photo opp. Combine it with an overnight stay on this sleepy island, or bypass it to spend longer in thriving nearby Hiroshima.
Hidden treasure: Semi-tropical Kyushu, for volcano hikes and cosmopolitan Nagasaki.
The nitty-gritty: Expect a head-swirling collision of technology and tradition. It’s disorientating and tiring, so give yourself two weeks to soak it up. Thanks to the superb rail network, you can pack in loads: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka; Hiroshima, with its Peace Memorial Park and Museum; and less urban spots in Kyushu, such as the beautiful Mount Aso area for hiking and onsen (hot springs). You can skip Hakone, unless you’re into art (it has some great museums). Most first-time visitors end up there for its onsen and views of Mount Fuji, but there are onsen countrywide, and you’ll see Fuji-san from Tokyo on a clear day, or from the bullet train to Kyoto (travelling west, sit on the right).
Travel in spring or autumn: temperatures are comfortable and the parks and countryside are at their most photogenic. But dodge cherry-blossom season, from late March to late April, when flight prices spike and hotels are fully booked. (This isn’t an issue during the autumn leaf-viewing season as it lasts longer – from late October to December – and sites are less concentrated.)
Get around by bullet train using a Japan Rail Pass: buy a seven-day pass before you leave or at a JR Ticket Office at selected stations in Japan. If your trip starts in Tokyo, don’t waste your pass by validating it at the airport. Instead, activate it on leaving the capital, and before it runs out, you’ll be able to cover the big distances to Hiroshima or Nagasaki and back to Kyoto or Osaka, with day trips to the samurai town of Kurashiki and Himeji Castle.
If you stick to the main tourist drag (ie, along the Tokaido-Sanyo bullet-train line), travelling independently is easy.
Pack antiperspirant (hard to find here) and cash, as foreign credit cards aren’t always accepted and usable cash machines are hard to find (your best bet is a 7-Eleven store). Rent a pocket wi-fi (japan-railpass.com/services/pocket-wifi), not just for social media, but Google Maps: addresses are unfathomable, even for locals.
GIVING REAL LIFE THE SLIP IN THE INDIAN OCEAN
Ignore the hype… about Mauritius. It’s over-developed and can’t top the Seychelles or Maldives for castaway-style romance (although it is fantastic for families).
Hidden treasure: Consider good-value Mozambique for a more thought-provoking take on Indian Ocean beaches. It has the white sands, plus sleepy Portuguese colonial towns, crowd-free safari reserves and responsible resorts that give back to the local community.
The nitty-gritty: Don’t imagine the Seychelles and Maldives are interchangeable. Like the bone-white island dollops they inhabit, Maldivian resorts are pristine and perfect. Activities extend to dipping, dozing and diving. If you’re intent on the latter, opt for a resort in the north, where neon fish scatter like confetti over shipwrecks and underwater caves. On the remote Baa Atoll, Soneva Fushi still ticks all the boxes. More romantically shipwreck-chic than many of the region’s hotels, it’s large enough to prevent island fever and has good diving, plus star-spotting in its observatory (you can even see Saturn). Cheaper resorts can mean patchier service, so if this is your dream trip, it’s worth saving up to do it properly.
The Seychelles are less manicured, more dramatic: wave-pummelled, boulder scattered beaches are backed by Jurassic looking forests populated by a rainbow of bird species. Service can be less slick, rooms more authentic (lots of bamboo and tiled floors). Unlike in the Maldives, you don’t have to stay in-resort: most hotels are on the islands of Mahé, La Digue, Silhouette and Praslin, alongside a scattering of restaurants on photo-perfect beaches, and independent diving and fishing-boat operators (try bigbluedivers.net).
FEELING THE HEAT IN SOUTH AMERICA
Dream-trip highlights: Spectacular Iguaçu Falls, surrounded by forest teeming with toucans; the jagged 6,000m-high peaks of Peru’s Andes, their velvet-green ridges dripping with waterfalls; Brazil’s Bahia – where rolling rainforest meets incredible beaches, whales bask offshore and you could walk for a week along strands of sand like flour.
Ignore the hype about… Uruguay’s Punta del Este. In ‘South America’s St Tropez’, the sea’s cold, the beach is backed by concrete towers and the resorts are over-priced.
Hidden treasure: Brazil’s northeast; with reef-ringed Atlantic islands, and where cities celebrate the continent’s biggest, brashest carnival.
The nitty-gritty: South America is huge. With two weeks, you’ve time for one country, so choose Brazil, for the continent’s finest shores, waterfalls, wildlife and party spirit. If your heart’s set on a carnival, remember that the whole country celebrates it. In Rio it’s a cash cow, so instead, do carnival in Recife-Olinda (in the beach-perfect northeast), where it’s free and the dancing is in the streets. Then visit Rio between April and June when the skies are clear and prices are lower. The best beaches aren’t on the brochure-hyped Green Coast, they’re in Bahia, around the mini-resort of Trancoso (airport at Porto Seguro, fly from Rio). While there, whale-watch and visit the secluded southern beaches including Espelho, the golden strand where Beyoncé lays her sarong.
The Amazon is astonishing (especially on the mozzie-free Rio Negro), but it’s about the views (not animals) – oceanic rivers, forested horizons and, August to December, endless white-sand river-beaches.
For wildlife, fly to Cuiabá in the Pantanal, South America’s Serengeti and the only place in the world where you can near guarantee seeing a jaguar, alongside caimans, parrots and giant otters. In Iguaçu, book the Belmond hotel (the only one inside the park), to see the waterfalls crowd-free, at sunset and under moonlight. Still dreaming of Machu Picchu? Stretch beyond a fortnight and you’ve time to fly into the old Inca capital, Cuzco (driest April to October). Do nothing but acclimatise on the first day – you’re a heart-racing 3,000m high. Then visit Machu Picchu by train (not the standard one; the glass-roofed Vistadome has better Andean views), or by foot on the Inca trail (trek numbers are limited so book ahead).
The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing