Monthly Archives: August 2016
Surgical spirit at Siriraj Medical Museum
While trying to find free things to do on our first visit to Bangkok we came across this museum on the same site as the Siriraj hospital in Wang Leng. This museum is not for the faint-hearted. It tells a gruesome tale of Thailand’s medical history, with lots of specimens, some of which are weird and gross. There is an interesting section about the 2004 tsunami, with some accounts from doctors and nurses who flew out to help.
Stunning skyline views
For the best view of the city, take the lift to the Vertigo and Moon bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. You don’t need to be a resident, or even buy a drink, to enjoy this stunning overview of the city. There aren’t many places you can get such an experience for free, and it’s even better at night.
Books, tea and a toastie
After hours walking around in the heat, feeling hot and sticky, I stumbled across Passport bookshop on Phra Sumen road. It’s tiny, quiet and cool with a few small tables to sit at with a cup of tea. There were even cheese toasties! A great spot to step out of the madness for an hour or two.
Canal plus – explore Bangkok’s khlongs
Many tourist itineraries feature a cruise along the Chao Phraya river, but for a more authentic view of local life, venture into the city’s network of khlongs(canals). Hire a colourful longtail boat, or hop on and off one of the ubiquitous water taxis, and get ready to be transported into another world. Pass under ornate Italian bridges and drift past ramshackle wooden stilt houses and walkways hanging precariously over the “fragrant” water. Stop off at silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson’s house, or shop till you drop at the contrasting Bobae wholesale clothes market and ultra-modern Siam Square.
Gem of a riverside guesthouse
The New Siam guesthouse in the old city is well situated for tourists – it’s close to a riverboat stop and the market – and cheap (doubles from £10). Friends recommended this B&B years ago and we have always come back to stay here. I think it’s a real gem.
Makes tracks to the train market
Eight times a day, seven days a week, this train passes – quite literally – through the Maeklong market. Vendors have to quickly remove their stalls from the tracks then resume as if nothing has happened. It’s rather spectacular. The easiest way to get there is to book a half-day tour, which includes the infamous Damnoen Saduak floating market.
Exmoor national park, Somerset and Devon
On the clearest nights on the north Devon moors the human eye can detect about 3,000 stars, with the best sites at Holdstone Hill, County Gate, Brendon Two Gates, Webbers Post, Anstey Gate, Haddon Hill and Wimbleball Lake. Events this year include a 12-hour night run; forest and full-moon walks; and summer family campouts. Exmoor national park became Europe’s first international dark sky reserve in November 2011.
Brecon Beacons national park, south Wales
In the Brecon Beacons, a dark sky reserve since February 2013, the best spots to set up a telescope are Usk Reservoir, the ruins of Llanthony Priory, Carreg Cennen castle and the national park visitor centre. The Stargazers Retreat is a converted stable sleeping two between Trecastle and Crai, and has its own observatory (from £50 a night).
Snowdonia national park, Gwynedd and Conwy
Five of the top spots in this dark sky reserve are the lakes Llyn y Dywarchen, Llyn Geirionydd and Llynnau Cregennen; Tŷ Cipar, a former gamekeeper’s house; and Bwlch y Groes, a mountain pass. The North Wales Astronomy Society organises monthly observing nights.
North York Moors national park
The park has three dark sky discovery sites, where the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye and up to 2,000 stars can be seen: Danby, Sutton Bank and the observatories in Dalby Forest. Other great sites for stargazing are Rievaulx Terrace, Old Saltburn, Boulby Cliff, Kettleness and Ravenscar. Celestial shows to look out for this year include the Perseid meteor shower (peaks 12-13 August), the Orionids meteor shower (peaks 20-22 October), the supermoon (when the moon appears larger than normal because of its proximity to the Earth, 3 December) and the Gemini meteor showers (13-14 December). The Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society holds monthly public stargazing events in Dalby Forest (8-10pm, first Friday of the month, October to March), and Starfest is a three-night camp there each August. Hidden Horizons runs celestial exploring events along the coast, where the northern lights sometimes appear, and the whole region is another Dark Skies festival venue.
Yorkshire dales national park, North Yorkshire
This park has four dark sky discovery sites: Hawes and Malham national park centres, Buckden car park and Tan Hill inn. It is the third location of the Dark Skies festival, and will host a pop-up planetarium in Grassington, rocket-making workshops across the park, and stargazing events and talks in and around Sedbergh. Three holiday cottages in West Burton and Newbiggin supply free kit for stargazing guests, including a telescope and binoculars, a guidebook, deckchairs, picnic basket and blankets (cottageinthedales.co.uk).
Northumberland national park, Northumberland
Together with Kielder Water and Forest park, this international dark sky park has gold-tier status, which means “the full array of visible sky phenomena” can be viewed, such as the northern lights, airglow (atmospheric light), the Milky Way, zodiacal light (sunlight scattered by space dust) and meteors. There are 12 dark sky discovery sites, including Battlesteads hotel and observatory (doubles from £100 B&B), which holds weekly events including shooting star suppers, and Stonehaugh, which has a stargazing pavilion. Kielder Observatory has daily events such as night sky safaris, aurora nights and full-moon parties, whileKielder Waterside Park (lodges sleeping four from £304 a week) has new luxury lodges with their own stargazing pods.
Galloway forest park, Dumfries and Galloway
More than 7,000 stars and planets are visible with the naked eye from this first UK dark sky park (designated in 2009), and it has a sky quality reading of 21-23.6 (the scale is 0-25; Edinburgh would be eight and a photographer’s darkroom 24). The best places to stargaze are Clatteringshaws vistor centre, which overlooks the darkest part of the park, and the panoramic viewing points at either end of the Carrick Forest Drive. Clatteringshaws and Kirroughtree visitor centres run stargazing events with talks by dark sky rangers. The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory near Dalmellington also hosts events, and visitors can observe the sky through its research-grade telescope.
Coll, Inner Hebrides
Coll was the world’s second dark sky island (after Sark in the Channel Islands), and has three dark sky discovery sites: Arinagour, RSPB Totronold and Cliad football pitch. Deep-sky objects that are visible in far more detail to the naked eye than in urban areas include star clusters such as the Beehive and the Double Cluster, and the Great Orion Nebula. New hostel the Coll Bunkhouse (dorm beds from £21 a night) holds three stargazing weekends a year (from £81 adult, £67 young person if booked two months ahead, 18-19 March, 16-17 September, 14-15 October) with a mobile Cosmos Planetarium. The course includes 10 hours of tuition with astronomers.
For a long time, whenever I was spotted using Google Maps to navigate London’s public transport network a friend would look over and prod: “Oh, don’t you use Citymapper?” Eventually, I relented.
Comprehensive, easy to use and also playful, Citymapper offers more detailed journey planner information than Google, including real-time departures and disruption alerts, as well as Uber integration and cycle routes. It is available in around 30 cities worldwide, with all the obvious city-break destinations covered. It even tells you how long your journey will take by jetpack – useless information really, but hopefully something to cheer you up when your train is cancelled.
Over 70 million people have registered with Duolingo, a free and incredibly well-designed language learning app. Though not a replacement for proper language tuition, the app is a fun way to get the basics, or to keep yourself fresh on grammar and vocabulary, before a trip abroad. Just like a computer game, the app guides you through levels that you need to complete before advancing, and you gain experience points along the way.
XE is the go-to site for currency conversions on the web, so it’s no surprise that its app is so popular: with over 20 million downloads since launch. It has lots of business-oriented features, such as rates for precious metals and historic currency charts, but for the traveller it is most useful for the simple fact that it’s able to convert every world currency. It also functions offline by saving the last updated rates, which is great if you’re in a place with limited connectivity or trying to save on data.
A bit like a pocket travel agent, Tripit pulls together travel information from your confirmation emails for flights, hotels, rental cars, events bookings and converts it into a single itinerary. Just forward your emails to the app and it will do the rest. If you’re travelling with others you can easily share the plans, making this a useful app for coordinating a group trip.
There is a selection of apps out there to help you split bills (Tipulator, Splitwiseetc), but Splittr is geared up for travelling, providing a simple platform to share costs between friends. You can enter expenses as you go, including who paid what and the app will do the rest. A nice touch for longer, multi-destination trips is that all currencies are supported and you can mix currencies without having to do the conversion yourself.
App in the Air
Not exactly slick by name, though certainly slick by nature, App in the Air is a smart, straightforward, flight tracking app that has the best coverage of airlines and airports. It will keep you updated about flight status – even if you don’t have internet coverage – and helps you manage your time at the airport, breaking down each flight into four stages; check in, boarding, takeoff and landing time. It also integrates with Tripit (above) allowing you to import all your flights.
This translator can be a useful tool to support your own, more serious language learning, but realistically, it’s most useful on a practical level quickly translating day-to-day words you come across on your travels. For example, you can hold your camera up to text – such as a sign, or a menu – and Google will translate it for you instantly. It’s an essential app for any traveller.
This ambitious app creates a digital journal of your travels so you can look back on your trips on an interactive map. The app tracks you as you go, marking a red line along a map on the exact route you take; the app also monitors your speed and altitude, making it great for adventure travellers, though it’s just as fun to look back at your route around a city. You can add pictures, video, audio and text along the way, creating a multimedia travel diary you can share.
Wolfram Sun Exposure
There are a few apps out there that help you manage your time in the sun safely, but this one offers the most detailed information to keep you informed. You enter your skin type and it calculates how long you can spend sunning yourself before getting burned, based on the time of day, where you are and the strength of sun cream you’re wearing. It also provides UV forecasts for your location.
When you’re done browsing Guardian Travel, of course, the Time Out app is a great directory of ideas of things to do in cities around the world. With coverage from Accra to Amsterdam, Edinburgh to Singapore, the app covers everything from bars, restaurants, attractions and events. The event finder is a particularly useful tool, meaning you’ll never struggle to find the most popular concerts, festivals or one-off happenings going on around you. You can also book restaurants and concert tickets through the app and create a customised travel guide for your holiday.
The Best Time to Visit The Big Island
Tourism season dips between September and November as families are leaving from summer vacations, so this is great time to enjoy reasonable hotel prices and lots of sunshine.
Surfers will likely catch the best waves from December to March, but it’s also pricey time to visit in late winter as many people come to escape harsh winter conditions in other areas of the country. Visiting during April or May can lead to cheaper hotel prices as well, but temperatures won’t be as warm as in the fall.
You can expect to spend a large portion of your trip’s budget on your flight to Hawaii, so try to save money here any way you can. Travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday for the lowest airfare prices; depending on where you fly out from, just being flexible on the day you fly out will save you on average between $100-$300.
It might be easier to just click the “round-trip” button when searching for flights, but booking flights separately can pay off in a really big way. Booking a domestic flight from your nearest city to the west coast (think Los Angeles or San Diego) through a budget airline like Southwest, and then booking your flight from there to the Big Island can save you $100+ total per person.
If you want to explore both sides of the island, consider booking one-way flights, arriving in Kona and departing from Hilo — or vice versa.
Lastly, book as early as possible. This is not one of those vacations you’ll want to “wait and see” if you’ll find any last-minute deals, because you almost never will. I would recommend booking at least 5 months in advance, but plan your trip even sooner if you can.
Consistently temperate weather on the island with temperatures in the 70’s and 80’s make Hawaii a warm, tropical paradise all year long. Daily showers are common in any month or time of year, however there are usually more storms and rainfall in winter months between October and March. With this in mind, pack light layers!
Where to Stay on The Big Island, Hawaii
A short 30 minute drive north of the Kona Airport is Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel — just a two-minute walk from the widely popular Hapuna Beach. All rooms boast amazing ocean views, and the hotel itself has every vacation amenity you could need. Families or groups might consider renting a condo for more space and cheaper prices, like the beach-side condo resort Royal Sea Cliff Kona that has a central location and rates as low as $115/night in the off season.
On the eastern side of the island, the Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and intimate Hale Kai Hawaii Bed & Breakfast are great options near Hilo.
How to Get Around
Without a doubt, rent a car. A drive around the entire island (without stops) can be done in as little as 6-7 hours, so splurge a little on a 4 wheel drive and spend a few days exploring! There are too many must-see spots scattered around — both along the coast and hidden in lush reserves — to stay in one spot the entire duration of your stay.
Hawaiian Airlines does offer flights from one side of the island to the other, and taxis are available in urban areas near hotels and airports, but both are pricey; I would recommend against both. Renting a car is the best bang for your buck, given the freedom it allows you and the time it saves.
Top Things to Do on the Big Island, Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
With one of the world’s most active volcanoes, this beautiful national park might be one of the most unique parks in the country! Lava flow straight from the volcano into the sea at Kamokuna is a sight not to be missed, and take a drive around the Crater Rim for a spectacular view.
I’d also recommend making one of your stops the Thurston Lava Tube — an awesome lava tube discovered over 100 years ago with lush forest surroundings and interesting formations created by rushing red lava.
The Waipi’o Valley is a stunning valley on the northern coast of the island, and is most easily experienced with a guide rather than navigated alone (private property makes accidental trespassing all too easy!). Take in the towering Hi’ilawe Falls — Hawaii’s tallest waterfall! — from afar at the Hi’ilawe Falls Lookout, or hike through the valley floor to reach the foot of the falls and experience it firsthand.
Fair Wind Snorkel Cruise
A half-day morning cruise with snorkeling, BBQ, and water slides is the perfect way to spend a day on the water in Kona! Should you choose a shorter trip in the evening, you can even have an up-close-and-personal experience with the gentle manta rays known to inhabit an area just five minutes from the coast. We love that this activity is great for couples, friends, and families alike!
Just west of Hilo lies the 80-foot Waianuene waterfall, nicknamed Rainbow Falls for its abundant rainbows. This postcard-worthy beauty is easily accessible (for viewing) in the Wailuku River State Park, but if you’re set on swimming you can do so at the nearby PeePee Falls and adjoining boiling pots at your own risk. This is a great place to see a spectacular waterfall without having to venture too far off the beaten path.