"Travelling - it gives you home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land"
Ibn Battuta, Moroccan traveller
TRAVEL

DESTINATIONS
   5589 views   
The latest glass-bottomed skywalks open in Gibraltar and Seattle, and the best of the rest...
posted by Richard Green on 30/04/2019
 

Mark Hamill earning his fee. Stormtrooper No2 takes a more casual approach

May the reinforced glass be with you...and with actor Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the 1977 Star Wars (and four subsequent films) and was on hand to declare the platform open. His hamming was aided by the prescence of several extras from Boogie Storm - an unlikely troop of Stormtrooper-themed dancers who appeared in a heat of the UK's 'Britain's got Talent' in 2016.

Gibraltar's glass-bottomed 'Skywalk' is the latest in a global fad for fear-inducing experiences. They take what was already an outstanding view and render it terrifying by adding a pathway and a see through floor.

Skywalk at night. Photo MeteoGib Steve Ball

Bragging rights for these skywalks seem to be all about who's platform is the highest, and how far you can see from up there on a 'clear day'. Which reminds me of a friend in south London who was having new windows fitted in his flat by a workman wag. My mate was on the 5th floor and it's true that he had nice large windows. The workman stood back to admire the handiwork and declared, "on a clear day you could see Barbara Striesand from here".

The Rock of Gibraltar, with the airport runway running beside it

The Gibraltar Tourist Board can't promise quite that from atop The Rock, but for sure you can see the 842 metre high Jebel Musa in Morocco, some 20 kilometers away. The Moroccan sumit is likely the southern leg of the so called Pillars of Hercules - a term used in antiquity for the singular mountains that stand on either side of the strait.

So the latest Skywalk is on the Rock of Gibraltar, at 426 meter high monolith known simply as The Rock. The 360 degree viewing platform was built onto the the foundations of an existing WWII structure and is at a height of 340 metres.

The top of the Rock and Skywalk by day. Photo Visit Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar has been for centuries, and as such has been modified and tunnelled into. Visitors to the upper levels will find the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the Windsor Suspension Bridge, the ancient battlements, World War II tunnels, and the magnificent St Michael's Cave.

The Moorish Castle tower, built in the 14th Century. Photo Visit Gibraltar

puzzle I've been to Gibraltar many times and it makes for a refreshingly different city break, though most visitors day trip there as part of their holiday in southern Spain, plus the territory is inclreasingly popular with cruise lines. It's a friendly place with a facinating geography and history. 
31 Gibraltar International Airport is literlly a short walk from the main settlement and handled 548,000 passengers in 2016. Its runway famously bisects the main raod from Gib to Spain. It currently offers flights with British Airways to London Heathrow and Easyjet to London Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester, and Royal Air Maroc to Tangier and Casablanca.
weather Gibraltar is a year round city break destination, with the same climate as the surrounding south coast of spain. Summers are dry and hot, when temperatures can top 30 °C. Most rain falls between November and February, but generally only in short sharp downpoors, and winter temperatures rarely dipping below 10 °C.
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The Skywalk is inside the Gibraltar Nature Reserve on the Upper Rock. Admission costs £12 for adults and £7 for children ged 5-12, and free for senior citizens. For more information see Visit Gibraltar

Other great Skywalks...

Spece Needle, Seattle, USA: the latest glass-bottomed skywalk experience opened on 8th August 2018 at Seattle's iconic Spece Needle Tower. It's the worl'd first revolving glass floor and is the highlight of a USD$100m renovation, or 'spacelift' as it prefers to call it.

On a clear day you can see the ground. Photo Space Needle/John Lot

Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the Space Needle rises 18m above the city streets and reflects a bold space-age vision of the future. The USD$100m makeover includes what's termed 'The Loupe', after the handle-free magnifying glasses used by watchmakers and jewelers. The gently revolving turntable is original, but now there is a circular glass floor to stand trembling on. 

The main observation deck, from which on a clear day you can see peaks of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, is above the glass floor level, and has been improved with the addition of 48 floor-to-ceiling glass panels. Visitors are encouraged to lean backwards against these for some harum-scarum selfies. The SkyCity revolving restaurant is on this deck too, and is due to reopen later in the year - also with added glass floors. SeeSpace Needle

Tianmen Mountain, Hunan Province, China: This extraordinarilly sheer-sided massive has long been known to the people of Hunan Province - and in fact there's a Tang Dynasty era Buddhist temple sits at the sumit built in AD 870.

It's not reported what you might see on a clear day - I'd be facing the rock anyway.

The pathway is 61 meters long, some which has 2.5" thick glass pannelling on its floor, is grafted onto the rock some 1,430 meters above the surrounding countryside. high is also 6,35 centimeters thick (2.5 inches).

The cable car rides up to the scenic area from the city of Zhangjiajie, in the northwest of Hunan Province. The city's international airport has flights from across China, plus Bangkok, Busan, Jakarta and Taipei. For more info see Zhangjiajie Tourism

Mirador de Abrante, Canary Islands: anyone driving across the rugged northern side of La Gomera should call here for a coffee and a view. Next door to the cafe/restaurant is a seven-metre overhang with glass sides and floor. If it's not foggy you can see the tiny villages of El Charco, Las Casas and the most isolated, La Montañet in the valley of Agulo, 400 metres below, with its houses and vertiginous agricultural terraces. On a clear day you can see Mount Teide - Spain's highest peak - over on Tenerife. 

On a clear day you can see Mount Teide, Tenerife. Photo Thomas Jundt/Flickr

Get to La Gomera on a short flight from Tenerife North with Binter, or from the port of Los Cristianos on the south side of Tenerife with Fred Olsen, and from Los Cristiano and La Palma with Naviera Armas

Jingdong Stone Forest Gorge, Beijing, China: this new glass-bottomed monstrosity claims to be the world's largest and longest glass-bottomed viewing platform, jutting out 33 meters from the cliff edge. 

Wills Tower Skydeck, Chicago, USA: Remember that scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off when the three friends press their heads against the glass to admire the view of Chicago? Well it was filmed at the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. So many visitors to the tower started doing the same that the developers decided to build four glass cube viewing platforms especially for them – collectively called the Ledge.

Willie Wonka eat your heart out. Photo Skydeck

Despite being built way back in 1973, the tower formerly known as Sears is still the tallest building in the western hemisphere. And now you don't have to strain your neck for a view – you just step into a glass box that extends out 1.3 metres from the skyscraper 400 metres above the bustling city streets. Don't look down, but out to the horizon, where on a clear day you can see across four states - Illinois of course, plus Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Nobody will have been wondering, but just so you know, the glass cubes are retractable, and are brought inside the building for cleaning and maintenenace. The tower is at 233 S Wacker Dr. Admission is $24 for adults, and $16 for children aged 3-11. For more info see Skydeck

Glacier Skywalk, Banff, Canada: the Skywalk stands 280 meters above the Sunwapta Valley in the heart of the Columbia Icefield, the largest area of ice in the Rocky Mountains.  

Nice views, shame about the steel/glass eyesoar. Photo Glaciel Skywalk

The Skywalk is accessed via the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, just off Highway 93 an hour's drive south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff. The nearest gateway airport is in Calgary International Airport, 140 kilometres to the east. Entry to the Glacier Skywalk is CAD $31 for adults and $16 for children aged 6-16. For more info see Glacier Skywalk

Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, Chamonix, France: 'Step into the void' as it is known, is a glass box skywalk at the top of the Aiguille du Midi peak, near Chamonix, in south-eastern France. The part cube may be minimalist, but the vertigo is not. 

David Blaine might be at home here - not me. Photo Wittur Group

With nothing standing between them and the blissful one kilometer void (a sheer drop of 12,604ft), than a 12 mm (1/2 inch) platform of glass enforced by steel frames.

Grand Canyon Skywalk, Nevada, USA: jutting out over the canyon 1,219 meters above the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon Skywalk opened in 2007 and has since proved hugely popular, especially as it's so much closer to Las Vegas than the more familiar views from the South Rim.

When the natural edge of a canyon just isn't enough. Photo Skywalk Grand Canyon

The horseshoe-shaped Skywalk extends out beyond Eagle Point by 21 meters and is a four-hour drive west of the South Rim visitor centre, and two hours east from Las Vegas.

The Edge, Eurika Skydeck 88, Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne's Eureka Tower is a self proclaimed 'gem in its urban skyline' located down by the Yarra River. It opened in 2007, is 297 meters tall, and as if a 91-story monolith isn't eye catching enough, its top 11 floors are 24 carat gold plated.

The Edge projects out from the 88th floor at about 300 meters above the city. No self respecting attraction down under would be complete with a few 'in the southern hemisphere' epethettes, and getting to the Edge, 'the ighest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere' will mean travelling on the fastest lifts in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Some bright spark grafted a glass box onto 88th floor. Photo Eureka Skydeck 88

The Edge is at 7 Riverside Quay, Southbank. Admission is AUD $12 for adults and $8 for children. For more info see Eureka Skydeck


DESTINATIONS
   6982 views   
Summertime and the swimming is easy...10 spots worth packing your trunks for...
posted by Richard Green on 20/04/2019
 

Ik Kil, Mexico: just four kilometres from the Chichen Itza pyramids in Yucatan is the the magnificent fresh-water swimming hole of Il Kil. It's the most famous cenote in the area, which is an old Mayan word meaning 'sacred well', which are sinkholes formed when the roof of a limestone cave collapses. The pool is 35 metres deep, is home to shoals of black catfish, and the jungle scene is topped off by a curtain of vines dripping with beads of water.

The Mayans had a penchant for human sacrifice, so its no surprise that a giant steep-sided pool would be a green light for some drownings - in this case young people thrown in sacrifice to their rain god.

These days getting out of the water and back to the top of the cenote is a synch, as steps and tunnels have been carved into the walls and through the living rock.

Practicalities: some coach tours to Chichen Itza from Cancun call in at Ik Kil and it gets busy at times. There's a restaurant and a few stalls around the rim now too. If you want to dodge the hoards and sleepover to enjoy a morning or evening swim, then Hotel Ik Kil is right by the rim, or the Hotel Dolores is a 10-minute walk away. The swimming hole is about midway-ish between Merida (140 kilometres) and Cancun (205 kilometres) airports.

Erawan Falls, Thailand: this gentle 7-tier cascade fills numerous emerald green ponds along its 1.5 kilometre descent and is named after the three-headed white elephant of Hindu mythology because its top tier is supposed to resemble an elephant’s head.

Practicalities: the falls are in the Erewan National Park, a three-hour drive west of Bangkok. There are walking trails and footbridges as far as the 7th tier - which takes about an hour and a half to reach from the base. The national park is open daily from 7am to 4:30pm: it gets packed at weekends, so arrive early in the day if you can to beat the crowds. There are places to eat, bungalows and a camp site if you want to stay overnight, and frequent busses from Kanchanaburi. The nearest airports are Bangkok's Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports, about 200 kilometres away.

Fairy Pools, Scotland: on the Hebredian island of Skye, the Fairy Pools are a delightful waterfall and pool complex backed by textbook Scottish scenery and wildlife. While you are jumping off the rocks and splashing about keep an eye out for deer, sheep, rabbits, curlews, herons and plovers. 

Practicalities: the pools are about a 20 minute walk from the car park in tiny village of Glen Brittle. Go Skye run shuttle busses from Portree to the Fairy Pools car park in summer. People bathe and swim here in high summer in swimsuits, but most people most of the time you'll be better off with a wetsuit. The best airport to use is Inverness, 196 kilometres away. 

Pamukkale Pools, Turkey: okay okay, I know it's not exactly wild swimming, more wild paddling really, but this surreal phenomenon in southwestern Turkey is an unforgettable place to dip. Pamukkale means 'Cotton Castle' in Turkish, and the shallow pools are filled with slow-flowing water and are made form travertine - a sort of limestone that's deposited by the calcium-rich hot springs. It's what stalactites and 'mites are made from in grottos and caverns. It's a popular tourist site, but at 2,700 metres long and 600 metres wide, there's always space for you to strike to find a pool of one's own. 

Practicalities: the closest airport and train station are at Denizili, 65 kilometres from the pools. This cascade has been attracting tourists for over a thousand years and it's now protected as a World Heritage Site. Strictly speaking, visitors are only supposed to dip their feet in the pools, although this is hard to police.

Las Grietas, Ecuador: the extraordinary atmosphere of the Galapagos Islands gives this remote flooded crevasse a decidedly Jurassic Park-like twist. There are a couple of steep-sided cool-water pools of dazzling clarity, and a submerged one-metre swim-through tunnel that connects them.

A cleft in the rocks reveals the perfect finger of water at Las Grietas. Photo Gringos Abroad.com

Practicalities: take a speedboat taxi from Puerto Ayora to the ‘otro lado’ (other side) and follow the signs to the Finch Bay Hotel. Pass to the left of the hotel and follow the path across a lava field and through a forest of cacti for about 15-minutes, then descend the winding wooden steps. The nearest airport is one on the adjascent island of Baltra, which is connected to Santa Cruz Island by a short 5-minute ferry crossing.

Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa: this sublime natural swimming hole is by the village of Lotofaga on the south coast of Samoa's main island, Upolu. A volcanic eruption led to some ground collapsing to form a 30-metre deep circular pool that's fed from the Pacific Ocean via a number of small channels and tunnels. There is now a flight of wooden steps leading down to a diving and swimming platform.

Practicalities: the tropical climate means that this swimming spot is good year round. The main airport on Samoa is Faleolo Airport, 47 kilometres away. See Beautiful Samoa

Cummins Falls, USA: this handsome waterfall has been a hit with bathers for over a century. It's Tennessee's largest falls by volume of water, and the main drop is 23 metres, reached along a two-kilometre hiking trail. The main curtain of water splashes onto a wide and worn-smooth shallow terrace of rock pools.  

The waterfall and bathing plinths at Cummins Falls. Photo Michael Hicks/Flickr

Practicalities: the falls are 122 kilometres east of Nashville, which is also the closest airport. See Cummins Falls State Park

Ghasri Valley, Malta: on the north western coast of Malta's sleepier and smaller island of Gozo you'll find a sinuous inlet that looks purpose made for swimming and snorkelling. It winds between rugged limestone ridges for 300 metres before reaching the sea at the pebbly Ghasri Bay.  

Practicalities: the Gozo Channel ferry from Malta to Gozo takes just 30 minutes, and the nearest place to stay is the nearby village of Gharsi, which is home to the Gordian Lighthouse, with a light that began scanning the horizon in 1853. There's a road from the centre of the village to the Ghasri Valley. See Visit Gozo

Agua Azul, Mexico: this dramatic cascade of waterfalls is a cracking place for a jungle-fringed dip. This gorgeous stretch of the River Shumulha has plenty of pools upstream of the main area too. In fact, it’s best to head a little upstream to put some distance between you and the the tourist kiosks by the car park - that way you'll  probably find a pool all to yourself.

Practicalities: the falls are popular and you’ll find that many hostels and tour operators offer day trips or excursions to them from Palenque or San Cristobel de las Cassas. The car park is four kilometres from the main road. The nearest airport is Palenque, a 90 minute drive away.  

Devil's Pool, Zambia: a small plunge pool on the lip of the Victoria Falls in Zambia isn't a place for a leisurely swim, but with tons of water plummeting 108 metres down into the gorge right behind you, it is perhaps the world's most terrifying dip. 

The Devil's Pool is next to Livingstone Island. Hotel staff guide swimmers to the pool for safety. Photo Tongabezi

Practicalities: the Devil's Pool can only be attempted safely in the dry season - mid August to mid January - when the river level is low enough not to sweep swimmers over the edge. The falls are almost two kilometres wide and are shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe, but the pool can only be reached from the Zambian side, after a walk over rocks and a swim. The Tongabezi is a riverside lodge that offers escorted trips to the pool. The Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Zambia is 10 kilometres from the falls, or Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe is 20 kilometres away. 


LIVERY OF THE MONTH
   7946 views   
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Well no, it's the painted on beaks of Thailand's Nok Air...
posted by Richard Green on 10/04/2019
 

The trademark beak paint-job on the front of every Nok Air 737. Photo Nok Air

Nok is the Thai word for bird, and nobody can accuse Nok Air of being shy with its liveries. Its slogan is 'Smiling across Asia', and the bright yellow beaks are painted on all 33 of its aircraft. The fuselages follows through on the daftness and come in various parrot-like colour schemes.

No, I don't know why Nok has an aircraft with a clown fish fuselage behind the beak either. Photo Nok Air

The airline's major shareholder is Thai Airways, but Nok does its own low cost thing from its base at the old Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok - flying to 26 domestic destinations, plus Yangon, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore. One-way fares start at about 900 THB (£20)

A bevvy of beaks on Nok Air 737's. Photo Nok Air

How can Nok Air work for you?

It's well worth keeping Nok Air in mind for domestic flights within Thailand, or to make a low cost hop across to Vietnam.

Pro's: the fleet is new and the cabins are fresh, with hard-working crews. There are three travel classes - 'Promotion', which has no free baggage allowance for the hold, Nok Eco that has a free baggage allowance of 15kg, and Nok Flexi that has a free 20kg allowance and the maximum flexibility to change dates and routes etc.

All classes can make a free seat selection in advance and get an in flight snack, plus free at the gate and on board WiFi - currently free WiFi is fitted in three aircraft, but the system is being rolled out fleet-wide.

Nok Air crew and beak on an ATR-72. Photo Nok Air

& Cons: the seat pitch and width - at 30 inches and 17.2 inches, isn't great, though fine enough for the airlines' relatively short sectors. Keep in mind that the airline's hub is the old Bangkok Airport to the north of the city and not the newer Suvarnabhumi Airport to the west of the city - fine if you are already in Bangkok, but not a good option for connecting to or from international flights, which mostly use the new airport. There is no frequent flyer club.

Front views of a NokScoot Boeing 777. Photo NokScoot

A few facts: Nok Air was formed in 2004 as a low cost airline, partly owned by Thai Airways. Its fleet is made up of eight Bombardier Dash 8's, two ATR 72 turboprops and 23 Boeing 737-800s. The average fleet age is 6.5 years.

Good to know: just when you thought that airline names couldn't get more silly, Nok has teamed up with Scoot Airlines of Singapore to bring us NokScoot. Oh well, it's a low cost medium to long haul airline formed in 2015 that for now is focussing on routes from Bangkok to China and Taiwan. It has three Boeing 777-200ER's.

Blessing aircraft in order to bring good luck is a Buddhist tradition in Thailand. Photo NokScoot

See Nok Air and NokScoot


TRAVEL PIONEERS
   8296 views   
Socialite and shockingly bad driver Rose Macaulay 'discovered' the 'little playa of Torremolinos'...
posted by Richard Green on 02/04/2019
 

Novelist, 1920s It girl and dreadful driver, Rose Macaulay (1881-1958)

Since Rose Macaulay visit Spain's south coast in 1948, millions of us have thudded onto the tarmac of Malaga’s vast airport, and places like Marbella and Torremolinos are now familiar to the point of contempt. But when Macaulay wrote about them, she was introducing the undiscovered and the exotic. This is how she described Torremolinos:

“The mountains had withdrawn a little from the sea; the road ran a mile inland; the sunset burned on my right, over vines and canes and olive gardens. I came into Torremolinos, a pretty country place, with the little Santa Clara hotel, white and tiled and rambling, with square arches and trellises and a white-walled garden dropping down by stages to the sea. One could bathe either from the beach below, or from the garden, where a steep, cobbled path twisted down the rocks to a little terrace, from which one dropped down into 10 feet of green water heaving gently against a rocky wall.

“A round full moon rose corn-coloured behind a fringe of palms. Swimming out to sea, I saw the whole of the bay, and the Malaga lights twinkling in the middle of it, as if the wedge of cheese were being devoured by a thousand fireflies. Behind the bay, the dark mountains reared, with here and there a light. It was an exquisite bathe.

Scenes from 1950s Torremolinos

“I got up early next morning and went down to the garden path again to bathe. There were blue shadows on the white garden walls, and cactuses and aloes above them, and golden cucumbers and pumpkins and palms. I dropped into the green water and swam out; Malaga across the bay was golden pale like a pearl; the little playa of Torremolinos had fishing boats and nets on it, and tiny lapping waves.”

BORN IN 1881, Macaulay was instilled with a sense of adventure from the age of six, when her family moved to a small village in Italy. Returning to England, she graduated from Oxford and set herself up in London, where she achieved great acclaim as an author, writing 23 novels. She became something of a 1920s It girl, fraternising with Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden.

She also had a passion for speed and, despite being an appalling driver, managed to survive a spin across the USA in 1929, a wartime stint as a London ambulance driver and, in 1948, the tour described above. Fabled Shore was her only factual travel book, but rarely has one account had such a profound effect on the development of a region. Macaulay missed the package boom, though — she died in 1958.

Reading the Fabled Shore on the beach at Torremolinos today is an unusual experience, so scarred by development is the landscape, but take an evening swim and squint, and Malaga still looks as though a “wedge of cheese were being devoured by a thousand fireflies”.

Torremolinos was an 80s byword for overdevelopment and overcrowding, but today is popular with Spanish holiday makers

Visiting today: the resort town had its heyday in the 50s and 60s, when - hard to imagine I know - stars like Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Orson Wells would rush to be seen there.

But then the resort built too many hotels too fast and became notorious for being the very worst of the Costa Del Sol - think Kiss me Quick hats, oversized Whicker Donkeys and Watney's Red Barrel.

Today the town has jettisoned the worst of its image and has a more Spanish feel again. A few more discerning restaurants and bars have opened, and of course there are still lovely spots along the coast and just inland, and places such as Marbella have worked hard to resurrect themselves as more upmarket resorts.

One more thing...Frank Sinatra become embroiled in a nasty little incident in 1964. He was filming Von Ryan's Express in the area, and dropped into the then hip bar of the resort's first luxury hotel - the 1959 built Pez Espada Hotel. He was involved in a brawl with a Spanish tabloid journalist/photographer and his bodyguards, over a a Cuban 'singer' who had likely been planted by the journalist to get a story. He was arrested and subsequently fined fined of 25,000 Pesetas, which only added to his bad boy image.

The hotel is still there, and its bar is now called 'Frankies Bar', with Sinatra themed cocktails and a wall of his framed album covers. See Hotel Pez Espada

Getting there: Torremolinos is just eight kilometres southwest from Malaga's Costa del Sol Airport, which is Spain's fourth busiest and handled nearly 17 million passengers in 2016. You can fly to Malaga year round from across Europe, with even more destinations served over the summer months. Airlines include Aer Lingus, British Airways, Easyjet, Finnair, Flybe, Iberia, Jet2, Lufthansa, Monarch, Niki, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair, SAS, Thomson Airways, and Vueling

Further information: see Visit Costa del Sol

What to read: alas Fabled Shore is out now of print, but you can easily find the marvellous Towers of Trebizond (Flamingo £8.99) for a flavour of Macaulay’s lively and eccentric style. It begins thus: “‘Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”

 


 
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