A Rocinha Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro

While tanned sunbathers soak up the sun on the infamous beaches of Ipanema and Cocacabana, the other side of Rio de Janeiro rises up into the surrounding mountains. An estimated 750 favelas, or shanty towns, are found inside and around the city – the poor, crowded masses that service the city’s wealthy elite and thriving tourism industry. Some 20% of the Rio’s population live in favelas, and in a country with one of the highest income gaps in the world, favelas are impossible for locals or tourists to ignore. Drug violence and poor social conditions inside have been likened to an urban civil war.

With the introduction of walking tours designed to expose tourists to this world, an increasing amount of visitors are heading into the slums, entering high crime zones where few locals would dare to tread. Some argue that these tours have merely created a human zoo. Others feel it is essential to truly appreciate the city. To figure out who is exploiting whom, I decided to go see for myself.

A row of moto-taxis greet us at the bottom of the hill. Rocinha, the biggest of all favelas, is also considered the largest and most infamous slum in Latin America. Narrow alleyways and open sewers separate square-shaped cement living quarters. Painted or plain, they are jammed atop one another, sprawling up the hill like a house of cards. Be-a-Local has been offering favela tours for six years, and is the only company that offers walking tours through the alleys of Rocinha. Other tour companies prefer the safety and ease of a minibus.

Each member of my group, made up of mostly budget travellers, gets on the back of a motorcycle, which promptly speeds off into chaotic traffic up the main road. It’s a white-knuckle ride, as the moto-taxis narrowly slip between trucks and buses. We are all unaccustomed to the speed, traffic, or riding without helmets. Five exhilarating minutes later, we are deposited at the top of the hill, and our guide Marcio tells us the basic rules. “If you see someone with a walkie-talkie or machine gun, please, no photographs,” he says. We do not need to be reminded. Rio’s favelas control a massive drug trade, with entire slums patrolled by armed gangsters, ruled by drug kingpins, and off-limits to even the police.

While favelas are largely a no-go zone for both tourists and locals, these group tours are deemed completely safe, operating under the protection and one would assume with the blessings of the ruling drug lords. “For ten years, I have been bringing tourists here,” explains my guide Marcio. “I know everyone, they know me, there has never been any problems.” He explains that some children might ask for money, but we should refrain from giving it to them. 40% of the company’s profits go directly into Rocinha community projects, and Marcio proudly points out day-care programs and schools sponsored by the company.

We cross the main road, the artery that feeds Rocinha, and slip single file into the alleys. The further the living quarters are located from the road, the cheaper they are to buy or rent. Hole-in-the-wall shops offer groceries, hair salons, Internet, and pharmacies. With an estimated 150,000 people, everything the local population needs is catered for by enterprising tenants.

I hear a firework, a sudden explosion that makes me jump. Young children set these off to warn drug dealers if any police or outsiders are approaching, an entry-level task for children entering the violent, bullet-riddled world of the favela. But amongst the drugs and crime, there are also hardworking honest citizens, living the best they can, sending their children to one of four schools. Huge knots of wires hang above us, the power largely hijacked by makeshift electrical engineers. Although Rocinha has open sewers, the community has its own garbage control, postal system, and governing authority. Compared to slums I’ve seen in India or Africa, conditions are not nearly as bad as I imagined they would be. People flash their famous Brazilian smiles.

When I told local friends in Rio I would visit Rocinha, they could not understand why. Favelas are associated with danger, not with tourists. “Some people say this is voyeurism, but it’s essential if you want to try and understand both sides of the city,” says a traveller on holiday from South Africa. “You can really get a sense of community here.”

We visit a local artist, who sells some paintings to an American in our group. Backpackers are not the only ones interested in favela tours. We stop off at a grocer who sells some pastries, one of which he calls a “Kravitz” after the singer Lenny Kravitz, who once visited his store.

Today, I don’t encounter any guns, and not once do I feel threatened. While some may challenge the ethical value of visiting a slum, there’s no doubt it sheds a fascinating insight on an important component of Rio, and South America in general. Anything that brings people together, across the income or cultural gap, can only be a good thing.

Bucket List Caves

For millennia, mankind took shelter in caves, so perhaps it’s no accident that we continue to be drawn to these dark, silent spaces. Underground caverns offer a foreboding and mysterious beauty.  From major attractions to truly offbeat adventures, here’s our round-up of bucket list caves.  

 

  1. Matyeshegy Caves, Budapest, Hungary

Millions of years ago, a sea flowed beneath the Hungarian capital, creating a vast network of underground caverns. In Buda, split from Pest by the mighty Danube, it is possible to explore these caves, protected by overalls and guided by a gas-lamp helmet. The Matyeshegy Caves were used as a bomb shelter for citizens in World War II, and while closed to the general public, a company named Barlangaszhat Budapest does take tourists deep into the system. With no wooden boardwalks and few large caverns, prepare to get dirty as you slip through the cracks, and crawl through insanely tight passages.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, Belize

This jungle lodge offers thrilling caving tours beneath and around its 50,000-acre property, sitting atop a foundation of soft limestone perfect for spelunkers. Mayan artefacts have been found deep in the system, and evidence suggests they have been used for centuries. Guests can choose from a variety of caves to explore. The Big Hole lets you abseil 200ft into a sinkhole where you can camp overnight. I opted for the Waterfall Cave, which involves a one-hour hike through stunning caverns to a series of underground waterfalls. Here you can take rock jumping to a whole new subterranean level.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
  1. Cango Caves, South Africa

Only about a quarter of Africa’s best-known show cave is open to tourists, but that’s more than enough. You can choose a Standard tour, or the more challenging Adventure tour, with an exit just under 30cm high. Some of the caverns are massive, eerily lit up with gel spotlights. Expect to encounter spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and huge limestone formations. Walk through the Grand Hall, along The Avenue into Lumbago Alley, which stretches 85m. As in many show caves, names have been given to the most striking rooms and formations, such as Lots Chamber and King Arthur’s Throne. The Cango Caves are located 29km from Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region.  Don’t miss out on the crocodile cage diving nearby.

  1. Cenotes, Mexico

Any visit to the Yucatan Peninsula should take in the cenotes, the spectacular crystal clear cave pools found outside the colonial city of Merida. Sparklingly clean, the cenotes offer amazing swimming, snorkelling and rock jumping. Tour operators offer daily trips to several caves, located about an hour’s drive outside town. At one cenote, a wooden platform lets you dive into blue water with colour as bright as paint.   I swam in three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from trees above descend through the limestone. One cave has a small opening for a thrilling 12m-rock jump into the dark water below.

  1. Rimarua, Cook Islands

The Burial Cave of Rimarua, on the island of Atiu, is unusual for a number of reasons.   Firstly, Atiu is one of the Cook Islands – a postcard perfect island paradise in the South Pacific more associated with honeymoons, hammocks and dreamy turquoise water. Second, Rimarua contains the bones and skulls of dozens of ancient Maori warriors, dumped into the ground, only to rediscovered many years later, and now curiously gazed upon by tourists. Although it has never been formerly excavated, landowners have given permission for Marshall Humphries, a local operator, to lead small groups into to explore the dark, spooky caves. Here you can literally tread on the skeletons of the past while minding your head on the sharp overhangs.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Philippines

It takes a few hours to drive the potholed road from the city of Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, to the Subterranean River National Park.   A rich ecosystem packed with birds, flora and fauna, the park is one of the island’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is also home to the world’s longest navigable underground river, an 8.2km waterway that creeps into a limestone cave. Tourists don hard hats and flashlights, rowing the first kilometre to enjoy the bats and various cave formations.   As the cave mouth slowly disappeared, the acrid smell of guano accompanied a sensation that a beast, complete with rows of stalagmite teeth, was swallowing me.   I reached the cut-off point and gladly turned the boat around. Caves are fun, but not as much fun as seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.

  1. Batu Caves, Malaysia

The Batu Caves contain a sacred Hindu temple in a large limestone cave on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.   It is guarded by an enormous golden statue of Murugan, the second son of Shiva, which happens to be the largest freestanding Hindu statue in the world.   Every year, during the festival of Thaipoosam, up to a million people come here to make personal vows of devotion.   Climbing up the 272 steps, past curious monkeys, I entered the cave to the sound of Hindi music and the smell of incense. Once inside, I stood beneath a massive ceiling of rock with a round opening towards the back.   The sun was directly overhead, beaming its light through the hole like a spotlight in a theatre.

  1. Abismo Anhumas, Brazil

Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which offers a spectacular cave excursion from the region’s adventure capital, Bonito. Tourists must first prove they can physically partake in the activity since they’ll be required to manually climb up a 72m high cave shaft on the way out.   Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. Spectacular stalactites drip from above, and some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall.   Using a belay device, it’s tough work climbing out, but totally worth it.

  1. Gorome, Turkey

Medieval troglodytes carved churches alongside their homes into the soft tufi rock of central Turkey’s Cappadocia, and ducking into a few rooms, I could smell they carved out toilets too. It’s fascinating to explore the Kaymakli underground city, originally used by the Hittites 2000 years ago, and later by persecuted Christians in the Dark Ages.   I was sceptical about the word “city”, but then I found out that 5000 people lived underground in these vast, man-made caverns.   There were eight levels, with at least one room for every family, linked by low, narrow tunnels and carved out steps.  As a museum, only a small portion is open to the public, but it’s fascinating stepping into the dark, and into the past.

  1. Waitomo, New Zealand

I’m deep in a cave, floating on a rubber tube, my headlamp turned off.   A milky way of glowworms covers the rocks above my head.  It is quiet save for the soft patter of water.   Legs linked in a chain of human doughnuts, we float down the underground river.   Located about an hour from Rotorua, the Waitomo region has over 300 caves, and Blackwater rafting is its most popular guided commercial offering.   Lighting up the dark tunnels, floating beneath thousands of twinkling, green glowworms is one of the most romantic sights I’ve ever seen.  It’s life in space, deep in the earth. Then it was time to leave my tube for the next explorer, climb up the narrow waterfalls, squeeze through the rocky gaps, and experience a rebirth into the light of the day.

Bucket List Family Trips

Gone are the days when vacation meant leaving the children at home. Bring the kids with, and throw them in the deep end of immersive, cultural trips. From golf lessons with PGA pros to learning the art of Thai dance from a local expert, here’s a round-up of bucket list family trips for the summer – and beyond.

AFRICA

Language (and chocolate) Lessons

Royal Mansour turns little ones into global citizens with a dedicated Kid’s Club, complete with Moroccan art activities and Arabic lessons. The newly renovated hotel also offers a hands-on chocolate making experience for children in their on-site Chocolate Laboratory, allowing kids to taste-test their creations.

 

Kids on Safari (Credit: &Beyond)

Tanzanian Treehouses

Every child’s dream-come-true – living in a tree house – can become a reality at andBeyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge’s new Family Suite. The stilted two-bedroom accommodation in Tanzania’s mahogany forest opened in December 2016. Kids can enroll in the WILDChild program, which consists of butterfly walks, cycling through a village, bow and arrow shooting, playing soccer with the staff and roasting marshmallows on a fire.

ASIA

A Child’s First Job

Budding botanist? Future Michelin-starred chef? Belmond Napasai in Koh Samui lets young travelers indulge their career aspirations with the “My First Job” program. Guests can join the hotel’s head chef in the kitchen to create chocolate roses, or blend local papaya and coconut juices with the bartender for a delicious mocktail. Kids can also learn the art of Thai dance from a local expert.

CARIBBEAN

Coconut Carving with Ian Fleming’s Former Gardener

Jamaica’s GoldenEye was the former home of Ian Fleming and the site where he penned all 14 James Bond novels. His gardener, Ramsey Dacosta, still works on the property and leads activities, including coconut carving and nature walks for children. Daily complimentary kid’s yoga is also available.

‘Maman’ (Mom) & Me

The littlest guests checking in at Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France this year will be delighted to find teepees set up in their room with games and a doll. Kids can also romp around St. Barth’s beaches in matching mommy-and-me pareos (wraparound skirt).

Sugar, Spice & Everything Nice

St. Lucia’s Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort’s Sugar Club and Spice Club offer kids and teens their own version of paradise. The Sugar Club welcomes children ages 4-12 and offers treasure hunts, arts and crafts, and coconut bowling, while the Spice Club caters to teens and tweens with ping pong, croquet, pool tournaments, and pinball machines, as well as a sailing school.

EUROPE

Evian Golf Resort

 

Golf Lessons from PGA Pros

Nestled within a 47-acre park between Lake Geneva and the French Alps, Hotel Rôyal is home to the largest Kid’s Club in France, offering everything from circus lessons to ceramics classes. Offsite activities include skiing in the Alps, sailing on the lake, and the Golf School at Evian Golf Resort – the only major course in continental Europe and host of the Evian Championship – where kids can learn first-hand from PGA pros.    

Treasure Hunting in the British Museum

Claridge’s has partnered with children’s entertainers Sharky & George on new programming for kids. Experiences include everything from an MI5 race against time around the Houses of Parliament to a Harry Potter quest using the Marauder’s Map. The duo will even put together a bespoke adventure tailored perfectly to a family’s favourite activities.

A Private Treehouse for Kids Only

Rising above the shores of Lake Geneva is La Petit Réserve at La Réserve Geneva, a treehouse with game tables, an obstacle course, suspension bridge, and fireman’s pole. In the summer, the property offers swimming, diving, sailing, paddle boarding, wind-surfing on the lake as well as tennis lessons.

City on Scooters

Explore the streets of Barcelona with Majestic Hotel & Spa’s scooter program, offering folding scooters and helmets (both child- and adult-size), a backpack with water and snacks, and an iPad loaded with themed maps and itineraries. Extra credit: families can select the Spanish language tour option to take in La Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila in the native tongue.

Behind-the-Scenes at the Zoo

Head down the rabbit hole for a Mad Hatter Afternoon Tea Party aboard Belmond Northern Belle, complete with purple cakes and strolling magicians. Alternatively, arrive in style at the Chester Zoo, where Belmond guests receive an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek with a zookeeper.

Be Our Guest

Inspired by the recent movie release of “Beauty and the Beast,” Town House at The Kensington in London is offering a ‘Tale as Old as Time’ Afternoon Tea, with Mrs. Potts and Chip Potts dishware, a Cogsworth Chocolate Tart, and a Lumière White Chocolate Mousse.

Learn How to Play Petanque

Domaine de Manville, a 250-acre restored farming estate in the heart of Provence, has allocated two caravans amidst the olive country as aKid’s Club where children can participate in a French immersion program including language lessons and cooking classes. Additional activities include how to play Petanque – the outdoor sport similar to bocce that’s traditionally played in the South of France. At night kids can watch French and American films in the private cinema while parents sip rose in the courtyard.

NORTH AMERICA

Facials and Massages Sweet as Honey

The “Bee Pampered” children’s treatment at Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa’s Kinan Spa includes a honey facial and a foot massage tailored to tiny feet. The honey is sourced from Kinan Spa’s own hive of native Melipona bees, and is known for its strong anti-microbial and healing properties. As a memento, tots take home Meli, a Melipona bee stuffed animal.

The Unexpected Napa Valley

While Napa Valley is famous for wine, the region has plenty to offer to families. Sign up for a tour of the Castello di Amorosa, a 13th-century Tuscan castle and winery perched on a hill just south of Calistoga, where kids can sip on grape juice. Gondola rides and colouring books are also offered. Stroll di Rosa, a museum where families can participate in activities including painting portraits.

In-Room Camp-Out and Mini Chef Program

Nantucket’s White Elephant, situated on Nantucket harbour, will launch the Mini Chef program, where children are invited to decorate cupcakes and cookies in 45-minute weekly sessions in July and August.  For a fun night in at the hotel, children can snuggle up in kid-sized robes and have an in-room camp-out, complete with teepees and faux, indoor campfires. 

SOUTH AMERICA

Capoeira for Kids

At UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa  in Trancoso, Brazil, kids can learn the ancient art of Capoeira, a traditional Bahian sport that blends martial arts, acrobatics, and dance at the local school sponsored by UXUA. Guests are invited to either train privately in the hotel’s studio, or side by side with over 65 local children and young adults at the Casa da Cultura (Cultural Center).

14 of the World’s Best Beaches

I did an interview recently and was asked if I’m a beach guy.  Born and raised in a sprawling landlocked city, the beach had a different significance to me than my wife, who grew up a block away from Copacabana Beach in Rio.  Lounging on sand wasn’t part of my culture, but symbolized vacation, a break from the norm, and lots and lots of sand.  I’m too restless to lie back and do nothing for too long.  What makes a magical beach is as much about what surrounds it as it is the beach itself.   A tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, cafes in Barcelona, people watching in Rio, robed monks in Cambodia…here’s 13 memorable beaches from the Global Bucket List. 

 

costarica

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

 Costa Rica has some pretty sensational beaches along both its Pacific and Caribbean coasts, with long stretches of sandy beach, warm seas, and, ahem, hot bodies . Manuel Antonio was a standout for me because it’s located in a national park, is free of any development whatsoever, and gives the feeling that you’ve just stumbled onto something wild and untouched. Take the monkey warnings seriously, though, the cheeky buggers appear out of nowhere and love snatching whatever they can get their hands on!

ipanema

Ipanema Beach, Rio, Brazil

When it comes to Rio, arguably the best beach city around, you’ll want to walk along the Copacabana, but spend your time soaking up the sun and waves at Ipanema.   This perfect sandy beach frames the city, and on a hot mid-week day, you’ll find yourself wondering if anyone in Rio actually works for a living.   Besides the water and beautiful surrounding mountains, Ipanema has plenty of yummy, fit, tanned and ripped Brazilians to look at. There’s no better place to observe the best looking nation on earth in their natural habitat.

 

bondi-beach

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

 Sydney is blessed with spectacular beaches – Coogee, Manly, and the most popular of them all, Bondi.   What strikes you is just how pretty this beach is – a perfect semi-circular bay with bluer water than one would expect rushing into a major urban centre.. With some of the highest UV levels around, there’s not an umbrella in sight. Thousands of people bake beneath the sun just about every day. Surfers gather like vultures amongst the waves, Japanese tourists walk about fully clothed, while the babes and hunks of Bondi balance it out with swimwear made of dental floss. As for the lifeguards, they’ve got their own hit reality show, Bondi Rescue, to add even more buzz to this busy beach.

 

Alona Beach, Bohol, The Philippines 

A nation made up of thousands of islands, the Philippines has no shortage of spectacular beaches. Boracay, El Nido, Caramoan, Samal Island…any could belong on a list like this.  Here’s a little one that is fast becoming one of the most popular beaches in the country.    Alona Beach is found about twenty kilometres from the regional capital of Tagbilaran, blessed with milky white sand the azure warm sea of dreams.  One and a half kilometres in length, it is serviced by dive shops, bars, resorts and restaurants, and the snorkelling is sublime.  Cradled by rocky cliffs on either end, there’s a a bustling nightlife and steady stream of international travellers to keep you company.

 

 

barcelona

Barceloneta Beach, Spain

Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre.   Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world.    Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists.    While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement.  But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it.  Close to the port, it’s also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.

dhermi

Dhermi, Albania

The Adriatic that rests off Italy and Croatia has some standout beaches, although purists might deduct points for pebbles. Yet the colour, clarity and sparkle of the water more than make up for the slight discomfort of stones. I’ve picked the little known Dhermi in the very off the beaten track Albania because a: I can illustrate what it looks like b: it’s badass to say you’ve been to Albania and c: how many other pristine beaches in Europe can you pitch a tent and just do your thing? Plus it has old abandoned bomb shelters, and some pretty amazing beach bars.

waikiki-jenschapter3

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu

The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head –  all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.   Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels.  A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers.  The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.

goa

Goa, India

The entire state of Goa offers wonderful and colourful beaches to explore. Some are rocky, some have red earth, some with white sand. However it’s not uncommon to see a local relieving themselves in the open, and I wouldn’t exactly jump into the Arabian Sea without checking to see if there’s a settlement around the corner. That being said, when you stay in villages like Arambol or the infamous Anjuna, the beach becomes part of your daily life.   You eat on the beach, you party on the beach, you explore the beach.   Extra points for the occasional holy cow wandering about. Deduct three for any stray dogs, and the odd burned out hippie.

 

ilespins

Iles des Pins, New Caledonia 

Off the coast of a cigar shaped island named New Caledonia in the South Pacific, the Island of Pines still has, in my experience, the whitest, finest and most powdery sand I’ve seen anywhere, and the calmest, clearest water.   The closest I’ve seen is Nungwe Beach in the north of Zanzibar (sorry, I’m lacking digital photos from that trip).   Both times I picked up sand to take home with me in a bottle, and both times I decided that it looked too much like that other illegal white powder to risk packing in my luggage.

tofino

Long Beach, Tofino, Canada

On the other hand, not every beach needs to have perfect white sand, or even warm blue water. Long Beach, on the west coast of rugged Vancouver Island, borders the Pacific Rim National Park and the wild waters of the Clayoquot Sound.   While surfers play mostly in the summer, the beach exudes magic year-round, including the storm season, when thunder batters the coast and the raw energy of nature crackles in the surrounding forest.   Excellent accommodation sits right on the beach, which stretches for 12 miles and makes for excellent long, slow walks to ponder if life, is in fact, a beach after all.

clifton-warrenski

Clifton, Cape Town

Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton.   Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand.   There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds.    All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city.   First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers.  Third Beach is a popular gay hangout.   Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love.   Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.

malibu

Malibu, California

Barbie comes from Malibu for a reason.   The coastline of Southern California seems to stretch on as endlessly as Barbie’s disproportionate legs, speckled with the jewelled mansions of the fabulously famous and wealthy.   Sunsets are spectacular, the waves offer great surfing, and the mystique of California Dreaming, – all tan and blonde and healthy – is addictive. I prefer the vibe down the beach in Venice, where whacky characters gather and hard men work out, but in the beauty stakes, Malibu definitely adds something special to our paradise punch.

tel-aviv

Metzitzim Beach, Israel

Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city.   Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns.  There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach.   It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas).     Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs

sihanoukville

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I arrived in Sihanoukville, a beach town that competes with anything that you’ll find in Thailand, and along stroll two monks in their bright orange robes.   I just managed to snap this photo before they walked past me.   Beach cabins were rustic but improving as more tourists discover the joys of this former war-torn country. Bars play reggae, small ladies offer cheap beach massages, and the beer is always cold.   Surrounding poverty means you do have to be careful with your belongings, but Sihanoukville’s reputation for squeaky beaches and a laid back vibe will hopefully bring more tourists, and prosperity for the locals.

 

Bucket List Gondolas, Trams and Funiculars

Chamonix, France
Chamonix, France

Chamonix, France

Let’s start with Europe’s highest gondola, the Aiguille du Midi.   Beginning its journey across the Alps in the tourist hotspot of Charmonix, the téléphérique gives visitors sweeping access to the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, with unparalleled views of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc.   Once atop Aiguille du Midi, hop into the red télécabine for the three-mile, 40 minute journey over a dazzling glacier to the Italian border. Drawing heavy crowds in all seasons, beat the queues by leaving early, and by making return reservations once you arrive at the top.

Table Mountain, Cape Town
Table Mountain, Cape Town

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Named for the cloud that often sits atop it like a tablecloth, Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most distinguishing landmark. The Table Mountain Cableway has transported over 20 million tourists on the four to five-minute journey to the top, with circular cabin floors rotating to give everyone a good view. Lions and leopards are no longer roaming the mountainside, but this World Heritage Site is home to a variety of small animals and endemic plants.   Closed during strong winds, the temperature can be up to 6C colder at the top, so bring a sweater.  Once there, you can take one of three short walks offering fantastic views of this famously picturesque city and surrounding mountains.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro
Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

 

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

I’ve been in love with gondolas ever since I saw the James Bond film Moonraker, featuring a thrilling chase scene of the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain.  Ascending almost 400m, first up Morro da Urca and then Sugarloaf, the gondola offers 360-degree views of the beaches, ocean, mountains and landmarks that make Rio one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Of course, Moonraker also made me wonder how the villain Jaws managed to literally chew through the steel wire transporting the 65 passenger cars.   Fortunately, the system has been fully updated, ensuring no bad guy will be using this cable car for dental floss (see below).

Banff Gondola
Banff Gondola

Banff Gondola / Jasper Tramway

The two towns that serve Canada’s oldest national parks boast a world-class gondola and tramway. There are technical differences between gondolas and aerial tramways. Tramways work like elevators, with a counter-balance car, where as gondolas can leave more frequently, like ski lifts.   The Banff Gondola Mountaintop experience is an eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain, in a four-passenger cabin climbing to an elevation of 2,281 metres. At the top you’ll find a restaurant, a Cosmic Ray Station Historic Site, and a 1km self-guided interpretative Skywalk.   The Jasper Skytram is the longest and highest guided tramway in Canada, giving visitors spectacular views of six mountain ranges, glaciers, alpine lakes, and the town of Jasper itself.

Quebec City Funicular
Quebec City Funicular

 

Old Quebec Funicular, Quebec City / Valparaiso, Chile

Neither are very long, nor very thrilling, but these old funiculars are definitely fun, not to mention convenient.   Opened in 1879, Quebec’s 64m long funicular is an easy way to transition from Upper Town to Lower Town, where you can explore the Petit Champlain district, port and museums.   Open until midnight in the summer, it is the only funicular of its kind in North America. Valparaiso is a city of hills, serviced by 10 funiculars, although at one time there were 26 working elevators.   Protected by the World Monument Fund as an endangered historical treasure, the funiculars are not only practical to navigate Valparaiso’s steep hills, but they also give great views of the city and harbour.

Singapore Flyer
Singapore Flyer

Singapore Flyer / London Eye

OK, these are Ferris Wheels, but since both involve you getting into a glass-domed car, ascending high into the sky, and taking pictures of a city’s view, the sentiment is the same. Opened in 1999 at a cost of £70 million, the London Eye has quickly become the biggest tourist attraction in the UK. It takes a half hour to make a full rotation, with 25 mile long views in every direction. When it opened in 2008 – the Singapore Flyer – stole the Eye’s thunder and, at 42 stories high, is currently the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. Located at the Marina Centre, the Flyer’s 28 air-conditioned capsules take a half hour to rotate, with terrific views of the city. Both the Eye and the Flyer can be rented out for corporate events, dinner parties and weddings.

Whistler's Peak 2 Peak
Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak

Peak 2 Peak, Whistler

When the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb decided to connect via gondola, it needed one serious engineering achievement.   The resulting Peak 2 Peak Gondola holds the world gondola records for the highest point above ground (436m), and longest free span between towers (3.03km), and the two largest lift terminals in the world. Each winter, the 11-minute journey gently ushers over 4000 people an hour between the mountains of North America’s largest ski resort. Only two of the 28 cabins have a glass bottom, so consult the wall chart at the terminal to see when it is approaching. Cars arrive and depart ever 49 seconds.

The Peak, Hong Kong
The Peak, Hong Kong

The Peak, Hong Kong

Opened over 120 years ago, The Peak is one of the world’s oldest and most popular funiculars, rising 396 metres above sea level on a gradient so steep it appears buildings are leaning on their side. Besides the expected gift shops and restaurants, it’s well worth visiting the Peak Tower for the panoramic views of Hong Kong.   There’s also the Sky Terrace 428, with the highest viewing platform in the city, and you can walk along one of several walking trails. The funicular itself ascends up Victoria Peak on a 1.4km railline, and takes just under five minutes to reach the top.

Grouse Mountain
Grouse Mountain, Vancouver

Grouse Mountain Skyride, Vancouver

North America’s largest aerial tramway system offers visitors to Grouse Mountain stunning views of Vancouver, surrounding forests, mountains and the Gulf Islands in the distance. The 45-passenger car runs 365 days a year, depositing tourists and locals at the top to enjoy a range of activities, including a gourmet restaurant, wildlife, and a busy ski resort in winter.   During summer, you’ll find a grizzly bear enclosure, bird of prey shows, logging demonstrations, and ziplining and paragliding for the more adventurous.   On the way down, you might notice some particularly sweaty passengers. A popular local pastime is to hike up the punishing Grouse Grind, and take the Skyride down to the parking lot.

The Sea to Sky Gondola

The Sea to Sky Gondola

Western Canada is making a bold claim to the Bucket List gondolas podium. Squamish, located between Vancouver and Whistler, has the outstanding Sea-to-Sky Gondola with astounding views of Howe Sound, Sky Pilot Mountain, and one of the world’s bucket list climbing walls, the mighty granite Stawamus Chief. The 849m-long gondola takes you right to the top of an adjacent mountain, where you’ll find a 65m-high suspension bridge, scenic walking loops, as well as new hiking and biking trails. Celebrate the commendable execution of BC’s latest attraction with a craft beer on the sunny patio of the Summit Lodge.

Ba Na-Suoi M, Vietnam
Ba Na-Suoi M, Vietnam

Ba Na-Suoi Mo, Vietnam

Fifty kilometres west of Da Nang City is the world’s longest single wire cable car system, spanning over 5 kilometres in length. The Ba Na Hills gondola trip takes 15 minutes to reach the top, with passengers enjoying views of the surrounding mountains, the Han River, and lush jungle. A 27 metre high Buddha also rests at the top, along with gardens and an impressive pagoda. The gondola prides itself on being built to European standards of comfort and safety.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re afraid of getting into a gondola or tramway,  I’m almost entirely positively certain that this will never happen.

jaws