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Monthly Archives: January 2017

The 7 best backpacks for travellers

1. The all-rounder: Osprey Sojourn 80

There’s no need to sacrifice flexibility for capacity, Osprey’s Sojourn 80 has a massive 80 litres of space for your stuff but can still be carried as a backpack as well as wheeled along as a trolley. The wheels are sturdy enough to withstand being bashed up and down steps or slung around by baggage handlers, and the straps are adjustable and made with a trampoline-style mesh for comfort. We also like the multiple zipped internal compartments and the robust handles both top and side for grabbing the bag quickly. A great all-rounder that would suit longer trips.

2. The ultimate cabin bag: North Face Rolling Thunder Roller 19

Looking for a cabin bag? The Rolling Thunder Roller 19 is designed to meet all European hand luggage requirements and is light on materials to leave your weight allowance for what you put inside it. There’s 19 litres of room here, with two external zipped compartments for easier organisation, and the handles on all sides make it easy to grab from overhead compartments or under-the-bus luggage holds. A solid, dependable bag for shorter adventures.

3. For the organised: Antler Urbanite Trolley Backpack

The numerous separate zipped pockets both external and internal on Antler’s Urbanite Trolley Backpack will keep the organised traveller happy – it feels like there’s a place for everything. Although designed to be pulled along by telescopic handle too, this bag looks more like a backpack than most trolley bags, and it’s both light and small enough to be worn comfortably most of the time. You still get 32 litres of packable space though, making this bag ideal for trips that last a week or two and take in multiple stops.

4. For the photographer: Manfrotto off road hiker 30L

Taking that bulky DSLR camera out and about can be a nightmare when you’re travelling. Manfrotto have the answer in the shape of their off road hiker camera backpack, which has a separate easy-access camera compartment as well as a camera strap across the chest. The modular dividers make carrying up to three extra lenses easy, while the water-repellent material and fold-out rain protector keep your gear safe and dry. There’s also an external tripod connection, and the bag is small enough to meet hand-luggage requirements yet still has 30 litres of space. Photographers, look no further.

5. For the hiker: Deuter Act Trail 24

Hiking backpacks should, above all else, be comfortable. The Deuter Act Trail 24 is one of the most comfortable bags we’ve seen: super lightweight and with fully adjustable straps, including mesh hip fins that keep it stable even when scrambling. The two-way zip on the main pocket means you can open the pack from the bottom to retrieve buried waterproofs or snacks, while the opening at its top makes it compatible with hydration systems. There are plenty of pockets too, including both outside and inside the lid and on the front.

 

6. The day bag: Knomo Cromwell

In some destinations security is a bigger concern, especially when you’re carrying a bag on your back. That’s why the Knomo Cromwell has a roll-top – wandering hands have no chance against this tough cookie. It’s weather resistant too, and has a 27.5-litre capacity with a padded internal pocket for laptops up to 14 inches, plus a chest harness and waist strap to spread the weight. A great carry-on and day bag option.

7. For the ultimate adventure: Evoc Patrol 40L Touring Backpack

Going off piste? Few backpacks can keep up with serious adventurers, unless you’ve got an Evoc. Their protective sports backpacks are built for professionals, with both ski and snowboard attachment systems, a reinforced fixation loop in the hip belt for climbing gear, and a quick-access avalanche equipment pocket complete with emergency plan information. Although this bag is perfect for the most adventurous trips, its 40 litres of packing space, rugged build and focus on ergonomic weight distribution make it a good choice for all backpackers.

Exploring Nordlandsbanen On Norway’s north

The journey

Though perhaps less well-known than the Oslo-Bergen train ride, the Nordlandsbanen, which stretches northwards for 729km between regal Trondheim and spirited Bodø, could certainly lay claim to being the more unique route. As well as being Norway’s longest train line, it also crosses the Arctic Circle, one of the few railways in the world to do so.

An efficient service and spacious, comfortable trains make it a delightfully sedate way to make the ten-hour journey, but it’s the huge diversity of scenery that’s most appealing. Gently rolling, emerald-green fields rest under huge skies, and Norwegian flags whip proudly over the pillar-box red hytter (cabins) dotted haphazardly over the hillsides. Moments later, the train will track its way through dense woodland, a wall of pine trees on either side of the train breaking just long enough to snatch a two-second-long postcard of mist haunting the treetops in a shadowy forest beyond.

Then, coasting out of a tunnel, the ground falls away to one side, and suddenly a 100m-high waterfall appears. Plummeting into a churning white froth below, the roaring deluge plays out silently on the other side of the train window. Such spellbinding scenes speed past repeatedly, and then evaporate into the distance, only to be replaced by another a few moments later.

Highlights of the Nordlandsbanen

All aboard at Trondheim

Before you board the train in Trondheim, take some time to explore the picture-postcard pretty city itself. The compact centre is relatively flat and easy to explore on foot or by bike. Marvel at the mighty Nidaros Domkirke, an ornate Gothic cathedral built on the burial ground of the much-revered Viking King Olav II, then linger as you cross over the quaint Old Town Bridge for views of the 18th-century waterside warehouses.

Trondheim’s old-world charm continues at Baklandet Skydsstasjon. Owner Gurli serves up hearty, homemade fare such as super-fresh fish soup and silky-smooth blueberry cheesecake. Wash it down with that most Nordic of spirits, the potent, herby aquavit: there are 111 varieties to choose from here. Meanwhile, across town, sleek Mathall Trondheim (mathalltrondheim.no) – part store, part bar-restaurant – offers a more modern take on classic Norwegian cuisine, serving up a variety of smørbrød and a good selection of craft beer.

Verdal for Stiklestad and The Golden Road of Inderøy

After a little less than two hours on the train from Trondheim, alight at Verdal for Stiklestad, the location of the famous battle of 1030 that saw the demise of King (later Saint) Olav. It’s now home to the Stiklestad National Cultural Centre, which hosts a variety of events throughout the year, and the 11th-century Stiklestad Church. This ancient place of worship was reputedly built over the stone on which Olav is said to have died.

Verdal (or alternatively Steinkjer, the next stop along) also makes a good jumping off point to explore The Golden Road – a route through traditionally agricultural Inderøy – which brings together a collective of sustainable culinary, cultural and artistic attractions, such as farm shops, restaurants and art workshops.

Swing by Nils Aas Kunstverksted (nils-aas-kunstverksted.no), a workshop and gallery dedicated to one of Norway’s most celebrated artists. Aas’ famous statue of King Haakon VII stands near the Royal Palace in Oslo, but a collection of his pieces is also on display in a small sculpture garden just a few minutes’ stroll from the workshop.

The highlight of the road, though, is the aquavit tasting experience at Berg Gård (berg-gaard.no), a working farm with its own distillery. Book ahead to get rosy-cheeked while tasting this fiery spirit, flavoured with herbs and spices such as caraway, cardamom and anise, as the owner explains the artistry and innovation involved in creating it.

Must-see Mosjøen

A further three-hour train-glide north brings you to diminutive Mosjøen, nestled in the imposing Vefsnfjord and surrounded by wooded peaks. The oldest part of the town, Sjøgata, is almost an open-air museum in its own right: saved from demolition in the 1960s, the beautifully-preserved 19th-century wooden buildings tell the tale of a historically prosperous town, of hardy fishermen and thriving sawmills, a story echoed at the small but informative Jakobsensbrygga Warehouse museum.

Nowadays in Mosjøen the main industry is aluminium, and a factory hums somewhat incongruously amid its pristine surroundings. Nevertheless, the surrounding hills of the Helgeland region beckon visitors to explore. Hike up the 818m-high Øyfjellet for spectacular views of the town and beyond.

The town makes for a scenic spot to overnight and break up the journey to Bodø. With its cosy nooks and unique, one-room museum, Fru Haugans Hotel, northern Norway’s oldest inn, has occupied a peaceful spot on the Vefsna river since 1794.

Blink and you’ll miss it: crossing the Arctic Circle

From Mosjøen the landscape seems to change in preparation for the Arctic Circle crossing, as lush trees give way to the rolling, rocky terrain and barren peaks of the Saltfjellet mountain range.

With no defining geographical features to signal your passage across The Circle and into the chilly wilds of Arctic north, you may have to use your imagination. But keep an eye out for the two large pyramidal cairns either side of the tracks, and Polarsirkelsenteret, a visitor centre visible some distance from the train line, to indicate that You Were Here.

Last stop Bodø for street art, sky-gazing and the Saltstraumen

The final stop on the line, Bodø is a proud and lively cultural hub, with the world-class concert venue, Stormen (stormen.no), and an impressive clutch of murals painted all over the city by international street artists. One particular gem is After School by Rustam Qbic, a heart-warming homage to the aurora borealis that ensures the Northern Lights are always on show in Bodø.

If you’re not content with an artist’s impression, cross your fingers and hope to catch sight of the elusive aurora with your own eyes. The most vibrant sightings usually happen away from the light pollution of urban centres, but gaze skywards with a cocktail in hand on the balcony of Scandic Havet’s Sky Bar (scandichotels.com), and you might just be in luck.

End your journey on a high-octane note, by witnessing the fearsome force of the Saltstraumen, one of the world’s strongest tidal currents. Swirling into a frenzy every six hours, this furious maelstrom 33km from Bodø is caused by 400 million cubic metres of water rushing through a strait just 150m wide.

The Saltstraumen Bridge overlooks the strait, but a more exhilarating way to experience the power of the current is on a RIB boat excursion. Stella Polaris (stella-polaris.no) can zip you across the icy waters to the Saltstraumen at high speed, slowing down every now and then to catch a glimpse of local wildlife such as sea eagles and whales.

Winter sports in the Slovenian Alps

Unspoilt wilderness in Vogel

The only ski area situated within the Triglav National Park, Vogelbenefits from an almost unbelievably picturesque location, surrounded by towering mountains and with views over Lake Bohinj towards Mt Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak. The terrain is unusually beautiful too – an array of snowy hillocks, which feels like skiing on the contours of a fluffy cloud or through a Renaissance vision of heaven.

Despite its relatively diminutive size (22km of pistes), the area’s varied topography makes it feel much bigger, and there’s a magical laid-back atmosphere, perfect for carefree coasting down the well-groomed blue and red runs. When conditions are right and there’s plenty of snow, it’s also a great destination for off-piste skiing and ski touring.

Most skiers stay down in the pretty Bohinj Valley, taking the high-speed gondola up from Ukanc, but there are restaurants, bars, ski-hire facilities, chalets and even a hotel up on the mountain.

Family-friendly facilities at Kranjska Gora

Uniquely for Slovenia’s major ski resorts, Kranjska Gora’s ski area is located directly adjacent to the village, allowing many of its hotels to offer ski-in, ski-out access. The piste layout is compact and straightforward, with several parallel lifts providing access to a range of side-by-side nursery, blue and red slopes. It’s a perfect proposition for families and beginners, as it’s virtually impossible to lose anyone and super-easy for parents to swing by and check on their kids in ski school.

Plenty of artificial snow cannons make up for the relatively low altitude, and night skiing until 10pm makes it easy to pack plenty of slope time into even a short visit. More advanced skiers can test their mettle on the steeper red and black runs over the hill in Podkoren, including a challenging world-cup downhill run that seems almost vertical in places.

Cross-border skiing at Kanin

Slovenia’s highest ski area, right on the border with Italy, Kaninreopened in the 2016–17 season after refurbishment of the cable-car connecting it to the town of Bovec in the Soča Valley below. In contrast to the Cold War era, when the border with Italy was guarded by soldiers with guns, skiers can now pass freely across into Italy thanks to a state-of-the-art cable car connection with the resort of Sella Nevea.

Kanin’s runs are sunny and south-facing, ideal during chillier conditions, whereas Sella Nevea’s north-facing runs come into their own as conditions warm up. The scenery on both sides is spectacular, with dramatic rocky outcrops and views all the way to the Adriatic sea on clear days.  Thanks to high altitudes of up to 2300 metres, conditions remain good into the spring, allowing the unique possibility of a combining winter- and water-sports in the same holiday once the rafting season has begun in mid-March down in the Soča Valley below.

Slovenian Alps Regional Ski Pass

Although most of Slovenia’s ski areas are relatively small, suitable for beginners, families and those on short breaks, a great option for more experienced skiers is to combine more than one resort in the same holiday, using the regional ski pass (slovenian-alps.com). This currently covers Vogel, Kranjska Gora, Krvavec (30km of pistes located close toLjubljana’s airport), Cerkno (a family-friendly area incorporating a thermal spa) and Dreiländereck, just over the border in Austria, and may be expanded to include Kanin in the 2017–18 season.

Though not a winter-sports hub itself, picture-postcard Bled, with its pretty lake and castle, is located just a 35-minute drive from Vogel, Kranjska Gora and Krvavec. You can get a great deal by buying your ski pass as a package with accommodation in Bled, with some three-star hotels charging as little as €69 for one night’s accommodation and a two-day lift pass.

Cross-country skiing and biathlon at Pokljuka

The Pokljuka Plateau is the perfect place to get back to nature, skiing through towering coniferous forests and beautiful alpine meadows, without the infrastructure and hustle-bustle of a major ski resort. The heavily forested plateau is situated on the eastern edge of the Triglav National Park at an elevation of around 1,100 to 1,400 metres.

Slovenia’s prime destination for cross-country skiing, it has over 30km of cross-country tracks that snake through the wonderfully peaceful forests and out into sunny meadows that become pastures for cows in summer. Visitors can hire equipment and take lessons in cross-country skiing, and also try their hand at biathlon (a combination of skiing and shooting), using an air rifle.

Learn to ice-climb in the Mlačca Gorge

Adventurous types who dream of strapping on crampons, wielding a pair of ice axes and hacking their way up a frozen waterfall will find that it’s easy to turn their ice-climbing dreams into reality in Slovenia.  The ideal place to get started is the Mlačca Gorge (lednoplezanje.com), not far from Kranjska Gora, where local ice-enthusiast Pavel Skumavc creates artificial waterfalls each winter by trickling water down the frozen cliffs each night.

Adventure Places Can Go in April

Tackle an Alpine classic when conditions are best

The 75-mile (120 km) Haute Route links Chamonix/Mont Blanc andZermatt/the Matterhorn via some of the Alps’ finest terrain. It ticks off two countries, skirts beneath most of the range’s highest summits, crosses cols, traverses lakes and descends glaciers. Simply, it is the crème de la crème of ski-touring, and only for those with experience.

Long days at high altitude (it tops out at 12,434ft (3790m) Pigne d’Arolla) make it a challenging prospect. The main Haute Route ski-touring season runs from mid-March to late April. This is when the glaciers are safely covered in powder, the weather is generally milder, and the mountain huts are open, heated and cooking up hearty hot meals. Don’t ski? Come back in summer to do it on foot.

  • Trip plan: Skiing the Haute Route takes six days. Allow time in lively Chamonix and Zermatt too.
  • Need to know: You will need both euros (France) and Swiss francs (Switzerland).
  • Other months: Mar-Apr – best snow conditions; Jun-Sep – route hikeable; Nov, Feb & May – conditions not ideal for either.

Discover flowers, festivals and on-foot adventures in Nepal

Quick! You can just squeeze in a trip to Nepal before the summer monsoon renders it hot, wet and treacherous. Indeed, March to April is a great time to explore the Himalaya: the rhododendron trees are in full and fabulous bloom, painting the land in incredible reds, pinks and purples, turning to white higher up.

Long, warm days also make this an appealing time to hike. In particular, there’s a buzz in the Everest region as hardcore mountaineers start gathering (most summit attempts are made mid-May); tackle theEverest Base Camp trek to rub shoulders with the climbing elite. TheKathmandu Valley is lively too – Bisket Jatra (Nepali New Year) is celebrated in mid-April, most exuberantly in Bhaktapur, where a god-toting chariot is dragged through streets and tug-of-war contests are held.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Kathmandu. Explore the temples and towns of the Kathmandu Valley, where there are also good short walks. Lukla, gateway to the Everest region, is a 35-minute flight from Kathmandu; the Base Camp trek takes 14 days.
  • Need to know: If trekking, take out travel insurance that covers you at higher altitudes.
  • Other months: Oct-Nov – clear, pleasant; Dec-Feb – cold; Mar-Apr – flowers, warm; May-Sep – hot, wet.

Visit KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for stable weather, mighty mountains, moving history and massive mammals

For an excellent South African all-rounder, look no further thanKwaZulu-Natal. The province has golden Indian Ocean frontage, the country’s highest peaks and brilliant big-game parks (including some of Africa’s best rhino-spotting). Its earth is soaked with history too, most notably the bloody skirmishes of the 1879 AngloZulu War, best appreciated on guided trips to the battlefield sites of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

Soak it all up in the austral autumn, when the weather is still warm (24°C; 75°F) and the skies dry. Conditions are generally stable in the spear-like Drakensberg Mountains too, opening a world of wonderful walking of all levels, via geological amphitheatres, pools and waterfalls, imposing spires and San rock art.

  • Trip planner: Head inland from coastal Durban to the Drakensberg (Lesotho is an easy detour, country-tickers). Continue to the battlefields for guided tours. Finish with a safari in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve.
  • Need to know: In Durban, try local speciality bunny chow, a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry
  • Other months: Sep-Nov & Mar-May – stable weather; Dec-Feb – hot, thunderstorms; Jun-Aug – cold, snowy.

Avoid the crowds on this epic American hike

You’re going to need about six months and a lot of grit and stamina to complete the 2190-mile (3525 km) Appalachian Trail. But, wow – just imagine if you do? Tackling one of the world’s longest marked footpaths unravels 14-states-worth of impressive scenery, and spending that long carrying your kit, camping wild, and dealing with blisters and bears is also life-changing stuff.

Most northbound thru-hikers start at Georgia’s Springer Mountain between March and mid-April, to ensure they’re finished before winter descends on the end of the AT, at Mt Katahdin, Maine. However, better is to start late April/early May, to avoid both the chances of late snow in the south and the log-jam of other thru-hikers all setting off at the same time.

  • Trip plan: Start slowly to avoid injury (around 7 miles, or 12 km, a day), and build from there. Note: only one in four thru-hikers successfully completes the AT. If you’re short on time, walk a section. Maybe 100 miles (161 km) through Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)? Or a 2-mile (3km) hike to Anthony’s Nose (New York), from where you can see the NYC skyline.
  • Need to know: Avoid starting on 1 April, the most popular start date; weekdays are typically less busy than weekends.
  • Other months: Mar-May – thru-hike start time; Jun-Oct – warm, snow-free (for short sections); Nov-Feb – largely cold.