Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fired up in Bulgaria

The voice of new Bulgaria resonates throughout the artist enclave of Plovdiv
by Nellie Huang

Fire dancers at the Otets Paisiy Street Festival in Plovdiv.
SLIGHTLY moody but charismatic, with a hint of melancholy, Plovdiv left a deep impression as I walked past its graffiti-covered walls and timeworn architecture.

On the surface, this central Bulgarian city can pass off as any other Western European town with its cobblestone paths, churches and Roman ruins. But underneath Plovdiv's skin is a city of contrasts - edgy urbanites in spunky outfits living amid grim communist-era buildings.

A former Eastern Bloc nation, Bulgaria has had its fair share of political battles and communist governance. For decades, its citizens were told how to lead their lives. Today, a young generation of Bulgarians are breaking out of the mould; expressing themselves through contemporary art and music - and they have chosen Plovdiv as their stage.

So long, drab world

Art News Cafe
Transforming from a historic city to a vibrant, progressive art enclave, Plovdiv seems to have skipped decades to be where it is today. Art student Silvina Burdzhieva, however, has a different perspective: "Plovdiv hasn't changed much. It is us, the people, who have changed."

The proof is in the city, which has retained its air of nonchalance even as its inhabitants speak passionately about a brave new world.

Burdzhieva said: "Art allows us to freely express our thoughts and emotions. We have come a long way and I'd like to think that art has helped us to advance and progress."

She's not alone in her enthusiasm.

"Contemporary art is very hip at the moment. Plovdiv is now on the wave of popularity, and if we continue doing what we do best, we can be at the forefront of art, like the rest of Europe," said Burdzhieva's partner Stanimir Vrachev, who is a professional photographer.

We hiked up the cobblestone slopes of Plovdiv's historic centre to the peak of the Hill of the Liberators.

From here, the view is of hills, ruins and outdoor cafes. As the second largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv is surprisingly compact. Yet, even with a population of some 380,000, it has, in addition to its numerous art galleries, a centre for contemporary art. Housed in an ancient Roman bath, the centre promotes various forms of modern expression. This summer, the focus is on the performing arts.

Pushing boundaries is "not so scary"

Black and white mosaic painting on a building in the historical city centre.
Snaking past teahouses and boutiques, Otets Paisiy Street soon revealed that it too could be a venue for art. Larger-than-life photos of the street shot during the '60s were spread tastefully on its chiselled walls. According to Burdzhieva and Vrachev, this was part of the preparations for the Otets Paisiy Street Festival.

At the end of the road is the couple's favourite hangout, a stylish and minimalist bar cum art gallery aptly named Art News Cafe. The news aspect is neatly contained in the cafe's rows of catalogues, magazines and books on contemporary art. A newsletter produced by the cafe details events in the art world.

Owners Katherine and Vesselina Sarieva are the pushing force behind Plovdiv's emerging art scene, having organised several events here as well as the Otets Paisiy Weekend Festival.

Despite bureaucratic obstacles, they have succeeded in setting up a popular arts centre. In their words: "Contemporary art is not so scary and it does not hurt."

At the cafe's outdoor patio, we were joined by Burdzhieva's friends - several photographers, a philosopher and a sculptor who left her hometown of Sofia for Plovdiv. She said: "I like the liberal and free-thinking vibes in Plovdiv, it's very different from Sofia. Contemporary art is about being yourself, and I can only completely express myself here."

Comfort zone? What's that?

Graffiti in Plovdiv
The next day, the street festival was in full swing by noon. Music performances and graffiti demonstrations drew revellers and curious passers-by to the thoroughfare.

At Dzhumaya Dzhamiya square, a literary flash-mob gathered to read aloud simultaneously. In another area, professional modern dancers Ana Salazar and Monika Pungerovs sashayed around blindfolded, touching street poles and caressing the faces of the audience.

We passed awestruck spectators to get to the Sariev Gallery, founded by the Sarieva sisters to give artistic expression free rein. There, a performance artist stood behind a white screen with nothing but his face and private part - painted in gold - on display. Titled 24 Carat Art, the audacious act featured Emil Mirazchiev, a symbolic figure in the Bulgarian contemporary art scene.

As night crept in, street artists lit up the dark with twirling balls of fire. The crowd roared in awe; I cheered too - not only for the fire dancers - but for the thriving art scene that makes Plovdiv a thrilling place to be.

Trip notes

Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv
Go: The gateway to Bulgaria is its capital, Sofia. Lufthansa, Air France, KLM and British Airways fly from Singapore to Sofia with one stopover. From Sofia, there are regular buses to Plovdiv. The ride is two hours. The best time to go is spring (April to June) and autumn (Sept to Oct), when temperatures are pleasant. Summer is a popular time to visit as Plovdiv's International Music Festival is held every May to July.

Stay: Bulgaria is becoming a noteworthy travel destination as it is a less expensive alternative to its Western European neighbours. The currency used is Bulgarian lev, which is similar in value to the Singapore dollar. A restaurant meal costs about $10; lodging ranges from $10 for a dorm bed (Hiker's Hostel) to $100 per night for a luxury hotel room (Trimontium Hotel).

- www.artnewscafe.com
- www.sariev-gallery.com

From TODAY, Travel; source article is below:
Fired up in Bulgaria

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Greek back-up: it doesn't sound Greek, does it?

The strikes and natural disasters have all come and gone, but the chance to go and have a Greek holiday isn't over yet.

Take that chance!

Greek back-up

Government promises free room and board for travellers affected by strikes, natural disasters
Ammoudi Bay near seaside tavernas on the island of Santorini, Greece.
Greece has offered to cover the costs of tourists who are stranded as a result of industrial action or natural disaster in what is effectively a free "insurance policy".

The move is designed to repair the damage done to its important tourism industry as a result of industrial action and the ash cloud caused by Iceland's volcano.

Athens issued the undertaking as the country faced a wave of protests called by unions against government austerity cuts.

Pavlos Geroulanos, the Culture Minister, announced that the government would "guarantee" extra room and board payments if return flights are cancelled or postponed.

"We are certain that it will be a calm summer, and that there will be no major strike disruptions," an official said. "But just in case something happens, the Greek state is prepared to cover these costs."

Tourism generates almost one-fifth of the Greek gross domestic product but bookings have collapsed by 10 per cent since the onset of the financial crisis.

Budget cuts have provoked stoppages and strikes among public sector workers. Unions have called a general strike, the fifth since the start of the year, on June 29.

Public life has been met with continual disruption since the Greek government hit the financial buffers last year.

But Mr Geroulanos said there were indications that visitor numbers would be better than forecast.

"The numbers are not really as gloomy as they were with the first cancellations," he said. "Some destinations have suffered greatly due to the crisis, but others are doing better than before."

Greece has moved to ensure that the cost of visiting is reduced. It has suspended landing fees at all regional airports and relaxed visa rules for Russians and Ukrainians. The Daily Telegraph

From TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 24-June-2010
Greek back-up

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Thursday, July 8, 2010


Green heart of Seoul
South Korea's capital is transforming itself into a model of eco living. A visit has one looking forward to the future

Unlike South Africa's football pitches this month, the World Cup Stadium in Seoul is decidedly quiet. It has been eight years since the world's most watched sporting event was held here. And eight years since Sky Park - the highest situated of five areas that make up World Cup Park - has been turned from a garbage dump into an enlightened hilltop oasis.

Looking at the vast stretch of grass that leads the eye to pale, distant buildings, you wouldn't for one moment suspect the park's humble history.

Low-lying plants such as thistle and clover, as well as man-height feathery pampas grass, cover the hilltop and the view of the city from the 22 lookout points is striking - much like the softly gleaming, metallic pod seats next to them.

Taking it all in, I feel like I'd beamed down from the SS Enterprise into a Star Trek world of enlightened urban planning. Certainly, the green principles of reuse and recycle apply here.

Having been converted from a landfill into a usable public space, the park is an example of up-cyling. What's more, the area's energy is supplied by a sustainable source - in this case, graceful wind turbines that meld into the landscape. Classical music is played from the sound system.

In one space, science is combined with culture, the rustic with the futuristic, greenery with panoramic views. The result is surprisingly pleasant.

The view down under

Sky Park, Seoul
There will be more of these spaces as Seoul transforms itself into a model of green living. Spearheading the developments is the city's newly-re-elected mayor and environmentalist Oh Se-hoon. In the long term, the city plans to replace all its buses and taxis with electric or hybrid vehicles. More parks and green trails linking major landmarks will be created.

One of Seoul's premier green attractions, however, can be enjoyed now. Like Sky Park, Cheonggyecheon Stream works its magic slowly, and so best appreciated with a cuppa and snack in hand.

Cheonggyecheon Stream is much more than its name suggests. It's not just a body of water, it's a lush garden-cum-creek situated below street level that stretches for 5.8km through downtown Seoul. And like Sky Park, it exhibits a breezy loveliness that belies its dirt-filled origins.

The stream used to be polluted, so was covered with concrete to make way for roads. It was cleaned up and opened in 2005 by then-mayor - and now South Korea president - Lee Myung-bak. Lee received "Hero of the Environment Award" from Time magazine for the project.

Cheonggyecheon today is a place for Seoulites from smartly-dressed youths to suited salarymen to gather, picnic and promenade, making it one of the best places to people watch in the city.

River Renaissance

Hangang, Seoul
Like many visitors to Seoul, I've come ready to trawl the city's famous shopping districts - Insa-dong with its side streets of tea gardens and art galleries, and the fashion universes of Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun and the like.

Sky Park and Cheonggyecheon are pleasant diversions. So, too, a liberating bike ride along the banks of the Hangang, which divides the city into north and south. On a typical day, the stretch fills ups with locals indulging in all manner of activity - from rollerblading to jetskiing, to children splashing in the public pools.

The river area is set to change dramatically by 2030 as part of the Hangang Renaissance. When completed, there will be three artificial islands offering gardens, cafes and cultural venues; and eight waterfront towns connected by river taxis.

One of bridges that span the Hangang, the double-decked Banpo, boasts the world's longest bridge fountain.

Installed last September, the Moonlight Rainbow Fountain makes art out of river water by pumping it out in rainbow-coloured sprays to the music of Vivaldi and other classical works.

Designer tastes

Cheonggyecheon Steam, Seoul
The transformation of Sky Park, Cheonggyecheon and Hangang, lend an intriguing dimension to a city that at first glance looks like any other built-up metropolis. But Seoul is eager to distinguish itself as a tourist destination, and not only with its eco projects.

Last November, the city launched its first gourmet food festival, Amazing Korean Table, where top chefs from around the world were invited to cook with Korean ingredients.

This year, it was named World Design Capital 2010, allowing it to highlight its urban projects and design plans. The centrepiece is Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park by renowned architect Zaha Hadid which will merge architecture and nature into one seamless whole.

Beam me down to that green patch, Scottie.

iTour Seoul

Recognising that visitors may have difficulty with the language barrier, the city has rolled out a free application that shows the user's location as well as hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions. iPhones with the application which can be borrowed free of charge at the SHOW Global Roaming Centre at Incheon International Airport, Gimpo International Airport, or City Air Terminal near Coex. More information at www.visitseoul.net

From TODAY, Travel; source article is below:
Green heart of Seoul

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South Africa and Football

Beautiful game, colourful nation
Beyond the World Cup stadiums, South Africa offers a lot more action

by Kevin Soon

FOOTBALL fans heading down to the Rainbow Nation for the 2010 World Cup are in for an exciting time both in and out of the stadiums.

For the 19th edition of the beautiful game's most prestigious tournament is aptly being held in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

From Polokwane in north-east Limpopo province to Cape Town in the Western Cape Province, each World Cup venue offers myriad world-class attractions.


Pretoria has a peaceful charm unlike bustling Joburg.
World Cup visitors will likely be spending some time in this area as three of the 10 stadiums hosting the matches are located in these two neighbouring cities.

Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, is famous for its suburban Soweto township - where Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu grew up.

A tour of this vibrant township, which contains most of Johannesburg's black population, is best done as part of an organised tour group. This is because although Soweto is by and large a safe place to visit, chances of getting lost in this sprawling, maze-like township are high.

South Africa football.
A good way to meet the friendly locals here is to ask your guide to take you to a "shebeen" (drinking place) for a pint or two of the popular South African Castle Lager.

The capital city of Pretoria - also known as the Jacaranda City for its pretty jacaranda trees - has a peaceful charm unlike bustling Jo'burg.

A must-see here, especially for airplane aficionados, is the Air Force Museum located at the Zwartkop Air Force Base. The history of the South African Air Force is well captured in this fascinating museum in the form of old aircraft, uniforms, missiles, aeronautical displays and paintings.

Cape Town

A stretch of the Golden Mile becomes a football pitch.
The must-do thing here is to take the cable car to the top of iconic Table Mountain for a spectacular view of the city - with the Green Point stadium standing out like a gleaming white cocoon.

After the excitement on the field, head out for greener pastures - specifically the vineyards of Stellenbosch.

A two-hour drive from Cape Town, Stellenbosch is the most famous wine-growing region in the country.

The wineries are open to visitors for wine-tasting and cellar tours, and you can buy a very drinkable Cabernet Franc red wine from a well-known estate such as Eikendale for about 60 rand ($10.90).

If your favourite team won its match, you might want to celebrate at one of the happening city-centre bars such as Joburg (yes, it's in Cape Town, go figure) - where an attractive, young crowd gyrate to the latest hip-hop and R&B hits.


Kite surfing in Port Elizabeth.
The busiest port in all of Africa is also a tourism centre due to the city's warm subtropical climate and gorgeous beaches.

Durban is famous for its Golden Mile - the wide stretch of golden sands, separated by various piers - which provides excellent opportunities for sun-worshippers and swimmers to enjoy the sunny climes and warm waters of the Indian Ocean year-round.

A key attraction on the Golden Mile is the uShaka Marine World - the fifth largest aquarium in the world boasting 32 tanks. The sea creatures found in the aquarium range from small sea horses to sharks and dolphins.

A highlight here is to dine at the Cargo Hold restaurant which contains the largest shark tank in the world. Yes, the experience of dining on succulent, fresh seafood while hammerhead and ragged-tooth sharks swim menacingly in front of you is unforgettable.

Port Elizabeth

Sun City resort near the city of Rustenburg.
Located at the end of the picturesque Garden Route along the Cape coast, Port Elizabeth is another of South Africa's major destinations for tourists.

It has many historical attractions, one of the most interesting being the Historic Donkin Heritage Trail, which allows visitors to follow in the footsteps of the 1820 British settlers on their journey of discovery and settlement. This 5km trail takes in 47 historical sites in the Old Hill area of the city centre.

The city is also known as the water sports capital of South Africa. Calm waters and fair breezes make good conditions for sailing, and the safe beaches allow swimming, surfing and body boarding. Scuba diving enthusiasts can see ship wrecks, coral reefs and multi-coloured fish in the warm waters with up to 30m visibility.


TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY JOSHUA HOWAT BERGERThis picture taken on May 27, 2010 shows horses at Likatola horse riding and adventures in Teko Village, Maseru, Lesotho. Many in Lesotho, a small mountain kingdom surrounded entirely by South Africa, hoped the 2010 football World Cup would bring tourists, strengthen the economy and help develop football in the impoverished country. AFPPHOTO / PABALLO THEKISO
The gem of this North West Province venue is undoubtedly the fabulously surreal Sun City, which lies in the centre of an ancient volcanic valley like a shimmering mirage under the African sun.

One of Africa's premier resort destinations, Sun City caters to all whims and fancies. Football punters will likely make a beeline for the vast entertainment centre which offers countless gaming tables, slot machines and floor shows.

Once the sun sets, the resort comes alive with shows and performances at its various entertainment and F&B outlets, including the 6,000-seat Super Bowl arena - which has hosted concerts by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Queen, Elton John and Rod Stewart, among others.


Bloemfontein - birthplace of J R R Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings - is the capital of the Free State Province.

This is a sleepy, quiet city, so you might want to visit Lesotho - a small country completely surrounded by South Africa and about two hours' drive from Bloemfontein.

Africa's highest pub can be found at Sani Top Chalet, located at the top of the Sani pass and popular with South African day-trippers. An overnight stay is a good idea if you're driving and have had a pint too many of the superb local Maluti beer, which costs a mere 15 rand a mug.


An impala grazing at Kruger National Park.
It's animals, animals, animals here as this is the gateway to Kruger National Park - one of South Africa's top tourist attractions.

The park covers 20,000 sq km and borders Zimbabwe in the north and Mozambique in the east. Here you can see the best of African flora and fauna such as lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo - the "big five" of any safari park.

First time visitors may want to consider booking a guided bush drive. The tour costs around 170 rand with experienced rangers taking you in a 4x4 vehicle through the park and explaining the finer details of game spotting.

If you have the time, sign up for a guided night drive where park rangers take you to see nocturnal creatures such as lions, leopards and hyenas.


Women extracting juice from the Marula fruit to make traditional beer during the annual Marula festival in Polokwane.
Considered the premier hunting destination in South Africa, this city provides access to nature and wildlife viewing opportunities for ecotourists.

There is something to satisfy every nature and wildlife fan. Birdwatchers will be flocking to the Polokwane Bird and Reptile Park, which is home to over 280 species of birds. The Polokwane Game Reserve contains wildlife, birdlife, and plants in an unspoiled bushveld environment.


The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town Harbour. Devil's Peak and part of Table Mountain are pictured in the background.
Getting there:

Johannesburg and Cape Town are the two main entry points into South Africa for international flights. Singapore Airlines offers the only direct flights to South Africa with a thrice-weekly service to Johannesburg and Cape Town. It currently has a two-to-go promotion to either city at around $1,400 (including taxes) per person.

Stay: In South Africa, there are plenty of atmospheric and decently-priced B&Bs and guesthouses run by friendly owners. They are knowledgeable and are happy to recommend restaurants for local cuisine and give directions to those who drive. A list of these boutique establishments can be found at www.southafrica.bnbbreaks.com.

From TODAY, Travel; source article below:
Beautiful game, colourful nation

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

One, single flight: SG to Melbourne or Auckland

This is one news that I would say I'm looking forward to. I missed it back then, 2 weeks ago, so I'm posting it now. This is good. No need to do connecting flights. Never mind the longer flight - it wouldn't hurt much. And, there's no danger of getting tempted to shop while walking to your next flight. Huh!

Read on...

Budget business to Melbourne, Auckland

Jetstar yesterday announced that it will fly direct to Melbourne and Auckland (photo) from Singapore, making it the first low-cost carrier to fly long haul from Changi Airport.

The cities are about seven hours and 10 hours from Singapore, respectively, but passengers on the A330-200 aircrafts have a choice of flying either Economy or StarClass - Jetstar's international business class cabin. The latter has leather seats with a seat pitch of 38 inches - the equivalent of premium economy seats in full-service airlines British Airways and ANA - and full inflight service including meals and entertainment. Economy seats, meanwhile, have a pitch of 31 inches compared to 31 to 34 inches of those in full-service airlines. Food and amenities are still pay as you go.

Flights to Melbourne will start on Dec 16. Book a flight before 3pm today to buy a one-way JetSaver Light ticket starting from $248 for travel between Jan 18 to March 23 next year. The Auckland route starts on March 17 next year. Both are subject to regulatory approval. Details at jetstar.com.

From TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 10-June-2010
Budget business to Melbourne, Auckland

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A taxi ride on a holiday

HMAS Sydney Memorial - Geraldton - WAImage via Wikipedia
This is a very simple story, but enough to make you realize that even for a ride on a holiday, it can be enjoyable with things at their simplest.

Read on!

Taxi ride most memorable

One cabbie, two passengers, six days in Western Australia

GOING on a road trip doesn't make one a celebrity, but the Singaporean winners of Tourism Western Australia's Extraordinary Taxi Ride contest, 33-year-old Ong Jing Yi and her brother Jason, 35, got a taste of stardom when a film crew followed them around during their road trip in Western Australia. They even got to meet the mayor and attend a radio interview at Geraldton town.

The Ongs with the film crew."No matter where we went, people waved and talked to us. I was really happy. I felt like a VIP," said Jing Yi.

In April, the siblings embarked on an all-expense paid road trip in a taxi driven by gregarious Australian taxi driver Doug Slater, a mini-celebrity himself after he was selected via a nationwide voting contest.

During the six-day tour, they visited destinations including Lancelin, Geraldton, Kalbarri, Monkey Mia and Shark Bay. At the end of each day, they blogged about their experiences and uploaded photos. A highlights video was also posted on the Extraordinary Taxi Ride website, www.extraordinarytaxiride.com.au, at the end of the trip. The siblings talk to Today about their experiences. Terence Lee

What were some of the most interesting places you visited?

Jing Ai with the world's largest 4WD coach at Lancelin, Western Australia.
Jing Yi: The town of Geraldton is actually the lobster capital of Western Australia. There, I got a chance to go down to the dinghy to collect lobsters.

Jason: The Pinnacles is a very special place. The vast landscape consists of piles of limestone, and over time, the wind will change the surface. A couple of years from now, it might not look the same.

Jing Yi: We even took out a Singapore flag and took a photo with it. The landscape is like the moon!

Was the taxi driver helpful?

Jing Yi: He's like a walking encyclopedia! He knows the country well, having travelled all around Western Australia for more than 20 years. He's wary of kangaroos jumping onto the road because knocking into one could destroy the car's engine. He told us to keep our eyes on the side of the road and look out for places where bushes are sparse, since kangaroos are more likely to jump out of those.

What did you learn about Australia on this trip?

Jason: We try not to drive around at night, especially in the rural areas. Many wild animals come out to roam then, so it's dangerous.

From TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 10-June-2010
Taxi ride most memorable

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Japan: Sun, sea and sushi

Here is one article that may help you decide, if you haven't, to go to japan. If you have been there, you may want to go again.

Bon jour!

Sun, sea and sushi
It's the classic Club Med experience with an Okinawan twist - sushi, shrines and cool Pacific waters

by Fairoza Mansor

The Okinawa archipelago lies like a string of pearls dangling from Japan's southern island of Kyushu. It's an apt image for this stretch of about 150 islands that counts pearl cultivation as one of its major industries.

Sailing in from the Pacific though, you would be forgiven if you didn't know you had reached the southern tip of Japan.

The beaches that fringe the islands are startlingly white, the water aquarium clear and lined with soft and hard corals that attract myriad fish. Over 1,000 species - including barracudas, butterfly fish and manta rays - glide through these waters.

The setting is reminiscent of a South-east Asian diving destination until you splash out into cool Pacific waters and step ashore to sushi and shrines.

This Japanese element means that if you're looking for a beach locale with a difference this summer, Okinawa's islands are good spots to explore. Check out the outer reaches, where the absence of American naval bases makes for better preservation of traditional Japanese culture.

The travelling time from Singapore to Ishigaki, part of the outer Yaeyama stretch of nine inhabited islands, usually takes from 10 to 14 hours with a stopover in Tokyo or Osaka. Until Sept 29, though, Club Med has 50-minute charters from Taipei to Ishigaki that cut the journey to Okinawa to about six hours.

Four- and five-day all-inclusive packages include one night in Taipei and cost $2,068 and $2,268, respectively, for adults, excluding airport taxes and fees. For children's rates or more information, contact 1800 Club Med (258 2633) or your preferred travel agent.

Sun, sea and Club Med Kabira

Club Med Kabira
Dive into it: The four-trident Club Med Kabira makes a good base for a family holiday. Situated on one of Ishigaki's best beaches, the resort was ranked the world's fourth Best Diving Resort Hotel at Dive and Travel Awards 2009.

The island has easily accessible reefs, including a patch of rare Ao and Hama corals for enthusiastic divers to ogle. Visitors who don't know their way around an oxygen tank can sign up for lessons at the Scuba Diving School; or go snorkelling or windsurfing in the cool Pacific waters. Lessons and equipment rental are covered in Club Med's all-inclusive package.

Club Med Kabira
To get what is considered Ishigaki's most scenic view, take a glass-bottom boat out to Kabira Bay to see the teeming sea life. While you're there, learn the art of black-pearl cultivation, which Kabira Bay is famous for, and go home with some bling.

On land: Take advantage of Club Med's free lessons to learn how to swing on a trapeze or hit a tennis ball. Or explore Ishigaki's mountainous terrain on a mountain bike.

Sightseers can sign up for a variety of excursions, including a tour of tranquil Taketomi Island, a 10-minute ferry ride away, which has more cows than humans. Immerse in Okinawan culture by riding a water-buffalo cart around the island to traditional songs and music from a sanshin, an Okinawan guitar.

Kabira Bay, pearl cultivation
Parents, take a break from babysitting - drop your kids off at Petit Club Med. Themed "Under the Sea", the centre will immerse the little ones in an underwater world with its fish-laden magnetic wall and stingray seats. The Mini Club Med, meanwhile, encourages four- to 11-year-olds to terrorise someone else for a change in a newly constructed pirate ship playground.

The digs: The 183 rooms here marry sleek French and Japanese decor. The Japanese elements come in the form of fabric artworks and paintings of Okinawan women in traditional garb. Yukatas, or cotton robes, are provided for casual lounging.

Taketomi Island
True flavours of Okinawa can be found in the Habushu, a local pit viper liqueur that is as fascinating as it is macabre. The liqueur is served before you step into the dining hall. The bottle shows a coiled snake with its fangs bared, so if you want to enjoy the buffet spread, you might want to suppress your curiosity until after the meal.

Star attractions: The resort stages nightly performances. Guests who catch the Asian-themed night will get an Okinawan aural and visual treat along with the usual shows put up by the resort's Gentle Organisers (GOs), or staff. A professional Okinawa Taiko drumming troupe will pound out beats that, when combined with vivacious choreography, will leave the audience clapping to the catchy rhythms.

Okinawa Taiko drumming.
But the resort's real stars? Its friendly GOs, who elevate a stay here from great to unforgettable. I asked Emilie Chiang, a sassy 28-year-old Taiwanese GO, how long she sees herself working for Club Med. "Forever" was her reply.

And how does Guy Cohen, 21, an Australian windsurfing coach report to the beach shack at dawn after a late night? "You got to love your job," he said.

Their cheer was contagious. Or maybe it was just the perpetual Okinawan breeze on my face.

From TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 10-June-2010
Sun, sea and sushi

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Salt of the earth

Salt of the earth
Getting to the Bolivian salt flat is an adventure on its own

by Nellie Huang

Aguas Calientes
Deep in the Bolivian Andes lies the Salar de Uyuni, a sparkling desert of crystalline salt. Legend tells of its hallucinogenic landscape: When submerged in rain, the salt creates a perfect - almost dreamlike - reflection of the skies.

What used to be a giant prehistoric lake is now blanketed by 12,000 sq km of pure whiteness. Far-flung and cut off from the world, the salt flat is hard to reach. But a true explorer wouldn't let a little thing like convenience get in the way.

Fighting altitude sickness

Arbol de Piedra
Leaving a trail of dust behind us, the 4x4 Toyota heaved our considerable weight - including our food and blankets for the next four days - onto an unpaved road. The silhouette of dusty Tupiza town slowly faded behind us. Ahead lay the towering mountains we had to conquer to get to the land-locked terrains of Reserve Eduardo Avaroa National Park.

My partner and I, along with a British couple, sat tight with our belts buckled, ready for an adventure.

"Sorry about the bumps, but there are no paved roads in this area until we get to the national park - be prepared," warned our guide Lanzaro, with a slightly embarrassed smile.

Flags at Salt Museum
As the jeep snaked higher through the craggy valley, my vision started to blur. Motion sickness was kicking in. Herman, our chef, handed me some coca leaves, the Andean cure for both motion and altitude sickness. We were now around 4,000m up the mountain - and would reach a peak of 5,865m during our four-day safari. That called for a reason to be paranoid.

Hours later, after having zigzagged through rock cliffs, we pulled up at the desolate town of San Antonio de Lipez. A wild llama sauntered casually past us, clad in black, furry wool and a pink tag in her ear, as if she were sashaying down her private runway. This was our stop for the night.

As the sun set, temperatures dropped to a shocking low of -10°C. We had expected basic facilities - simple stone beds and lack of electricity and showers - but not the extreme temperature. Huddling close to our Bunsen-burner heater, we shivered in our sleeping bags as the night crawled by.

Hot springs and pristine lagoons

Llama at the lagoon
I awoke to the smell of coffee and a throbbing headache. Several travellers from the other group were also dealing with a mild dose of altitude sickness.

Over the next two days, we climbed further towards 4,825m, throttling past landscapes that triggered a sensory overload: Colossal volcanic peaks poking out of the clouds, stretches of terrain pimpled with grazing llamas and haunting deserts.

Bolivia might be the poorest country in South America, but its trademark flora and fauna have long drawn off-the-beaten-path adventurers to its untouched territories.

At Aguas Calientes (which translates to "hot water"), the thermal springs beckoned despite the cold winds. Braving the temperatures, we plunged in and were immediately comforted by a wave of warmth.

Across the Salvador Dali desert, Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) sparkled a glorious shade of emerald green. Depending on the time of the day, the sun's interaction with the plankton in the water causes the lagoon to change colour.

Our salt hotel
"Be careful, you don't want to fall into the volcanic water," said Lanzaro, pointing to the fumaroles in the bubbling lagoon waters.

Back on the jeep, we weaved past Laguna Colorada, the red lagoon, stained scarlet by the presence of microalgae, watching a flock of pink flamingos gliding above the water while more llamas grazed leisurely on the lagoon banks.

More lagoons and deserts before we stopped for a view of an oddly-shaped volcanic rock. The arbol de piedra (tree rock), made up of distinct rock compositions, had rather strangely taken the form of a tree after years of erosion.

Frolicking in salt

Shadows cast on the salt flats
By dusk, we found our abode for the night glowing under a red sky: A hotel made entirely out of salt. The walls, ceiling, beds and tables - everything was built from giant blocks of salt.

Before the crack of dawn on our final day of the tour, we were up early to catch the first rays of sunlight on the salt flat. There was not a noise around us except for the howling of strong winds and the occasional bird in the sky. The expanse of salt was so immense, we could even see the curvature of Earth at an angle.

In a desert of such magnitude, the last thing I had expected to find was an island. The Isla del Pescado (or Isla de Incahuasi) stands precariously in the middle of the vast whiteness, with giant cacti blanketing its hilltops. The view from the peak of the islet: Priceless.

There is a museum in the middle of the Salar - a converted salt hotel, displaying salt figures and salt beds - but the authorities no longer allow any form of construction on the Salar so as to protect and conserve the environment.

And it should be protected. As Lanzaro pointed out, there's magic to be found in the Salar.

Trip tips

Shopkeeper in Salt Museum
Getting there

The nearest airport is in Bolivia's capital, La Paz. United, American and TACA Airlines fly there, with two stop-overs, for $4,000.

How to get to Tupiza

Catch a bus to Oruro (3 hours, $5, leaves hourly) and then a night train to Tupiza (11 hours, $12, Saturday to Tuesday). Check www.bolivia.freehosting.net for detailed schedule. Most locals speak only Spanish so try to pick up a few words before you go.

When to go

The best time to visit is in dry season (April to October) when road conditions are safer. The roads are muddy and dangerous during the rainy season. Weather conditions in Uyuni can be harsh so bring plenty of warm clothes and water.

Tour operators

United Airlines
- We went on a tour organised by La Torre Tours (www.latorretours-tupiza.com). Tour prices depend on the season and number of people in the group. For a 4-pax group, the cost is approximately $240 per person, with food, basic accommodation and driver included.

- Valle Hermoso Tours (www.vallehermosotours.com) offers a variety of options. You can include an extra day of volcano-climbing, an extension into Chile or choose to depart from Uyuni.

- Oasis Tours (www.oasistours-bo.com) arranges the same itinerary and has offices all over Bolivia.

- Ruta Verde Bolivia (www.rutaverdebolivia.com) organises private, up-market tours with comfortable accommodation options, suitable for older travellers.

From TODAY, Travel - Saturday, 22-May-2010
Salt of the earth

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The Land of Oz: All out Down Under

Sydney Opera House, The Macquarie Visions, SydneyImage by Dushan and Miae via Flickr
I'd not be adding to the text, lest I subtract from it.

Read on...

All out Down Under

Vivid Sydney comes to life

by He Peiwen

IF YOU'RE the kind of traveller who wants to go beyond simply scratching the surface of a city and really get to know its heart and soul, Vivid Sydney might just be the festival for you.

Taking place from May 27 to June 21, Vivid Sydney is a large-scale annual festival - the largest of its kind in Australia - that showcases the city's arts, cultural and creative scene.

Taking place at Hyde Park, Macquarie Street, Darling Harbour, Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House, the programme includes massive light installation and projection shows, as well as performances, exhibitions, discussions and presentations by those in the music, arts and creative industries.

The highlight of this second instalment of the festival is Vivid LIVE, which takes place over two weeks from May 28 to June 11, and brings together music, dance, film, theatre and comedy under one famous roof.

Part of Vivid LIVE is the highly popular illumination of the Opera House's iconic sails. Images of the spectacular sight were broadcasted to more than 200 countries and seen by over 60 million people last year.

This time, the curators of Vivid LIVE are legendary Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed and performance artist Laurie Anderson. Drawing together their different backgrounds in music and performance and visual arts, the couple has been working towards a selection of works that promise to capture the imagination.

Said Anderson: "The point is to present a lot of things that you wouldn't normally go to but gives people the chance to jump off their street. It will be kind of like a big crazy menu - it will have the things we like in it but it will definitely be really eclectic." He Peiwen

From TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 27-May-2010
All out Down Under

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