2011 Guardian Travel Issue

    Hong Kong

    East meets west in the onetime British colony of Hong Kong — a blooming metropolitan jungle

    set against the backdrop of traditional Chinese customs.
    With a population of 7 million crammed between boundaries more compact than New York City’s, there’s no shortage of tourist attractions in this eastern megalopolis. The city even has its own Hollywood Walk of Fame: Called the Avenue of Stars, the boulevard pays tribute to local actors and Cantopop singers along the waterfront of Tsim Sha Tsui, which offers breathtaking panoramas of Hong Kong Island.
    There’s also plenty of coastline. Dip your toes in the waters of Repulse Bay, which provides a view of high-rises on the hillsides — or, for a scenic escape from the city, visit Shek O, located some 20 kilometers from Central District and watch the surf roll in.
    Hong Kong has more than 600 Chinese temples, some of which date back over 700 years. Visit a Tin Hau temple to see traditional Chinese architecture, or climb 268 steps and gaze at the gargantuan, 280-ton Tian Tan Buddha. The spectacular sight is more than worth a little exercise.
    Don’t forget to drop in at the local Disneyland — the smallest park of the Magical Kingdom franchise — that was built with Feng Shui in mind.
    If you’re in the mood to shop, you’re in luck. Venture the many malls and markets around Tsim Sha Tsui. Wander in Western Market, an Edwardian-themed shopping complex specializing in local arts and crafts. For a more authentic taste of local retail, browse the Temple Street Night Market, where brightly lit stalls pawn off bargain-priced clothes and electronics.
    When it comes to the cuisine, nothing beats a sunny afternoon of dim sum and red bean vanilla milkshakes. Visit a wonton noodle shop or munch on some hotpot to save a few bucks, but splurge on roasted duck; both are easy finds, as are bakeries offering criminally good egg tart pastries, pineapple buns and glutinous rice dumplings.
    Hong Kong calls itself “Asia’s World City,” attracting hoards of tourists and businessmen alike. But be wary: that worldliness also makes it home to pickpockets and cabdrivers who won’t think twice of gypping a wide-eyed visitor.

    — Regina Ip, Senior Staff Writer

    Guatemala

    If you’re looking for shopping that’s a little more exciting than your local Westfield Shopping Center, head to Guatemala for handcrafted scarves that would put Hermes to shame. Textiles aside, Guatemala is also famous for its leatherwork and wood and ivory carvings.
    The markets at Puerto Quetzal are just as colorful as its namesake, the national bird. The streets are filled with vendors hawking hand-woven treasures from scarves to ornaments to tapestries. The exchange rate also doesn’t hurt: at press time, one dollar buys $7.78 GTQ, or Guatemalan Quetzal.
    At street markets, your best friend is haggling. After asking how much an item is, counter with half the quoted price. A camera strap around your neck won’t help your cause in bargaining, so try your best to assimilate.
    Guatemala is also home to marimba music and an active nightlife. After the sun has set and your arms have tired of carrying overstuffed bags of souvenirs, free concerts and nightclubs offer a taste of how the locals like to party.
    Just as you would anywhere else, be smart about exploring, particularly after dark. Central, well-lit areas are mostly good bets, though Guatemala may certainly be less safe overall than American visitors are used to.
    But don’t let the crime stop you from enjoying the beautiful country. The country is rich in culture and food. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of avocado, you won’t want to miss out on the twist on a Mexican favorite: Thick, creamy and with an extra spicy kick, Guatemalan guac’ unlike anything you’ll find at the local Chipotle. Just don’t forget to save room for Flan de naranja — an orange-flavored flan that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere stateside.

    — Cheryl Hori, Senior Staff Writer

    Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park is the ideal destination for the traveler with a lot of time — and a lot of gas money. As the first national park in the world, the preserve’s 3,472 square miles span three states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) and the vast terrain operates like a choose-your-own adventure novel, offering everything from geysers and mudpots to sheep, wolves, rodeos and the chance to eat waffles on a mountaintop.
    The best way to see the best of nature is with a $12-per-night camping pass, but there are plenty of cheap motels around; ignore the on-site accommodations, whose prices are double what you’ll find at lodgings just a mile away. And while nobody comes to Yellowstone for the fine dining, visitors can experience an “Old West cookout” or take the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram to enjoy freshly cooked waffles more than 4,000 vertical feet from the ground, at the top of the Teton mountains.
    Apart from the cookout, Yellowstone’s food is nothing to write home about: the Old Faithful restaurant and Grant Village and Roosevelt Dining Lodges serve typical, overpriced American cuisine, so your best bet is to try the off-site restaurants that serve Midwestern delicacies such as bison burgers — or, better yet, pack your own food for a picnic.
    Yellowstone’s claim to fame is its beautiful scenery, which can be seen by car, bus, in tour groups, on trails or by bike. The Upper Geyser Basin beholds Old Faithful — the most famous hot spring in the world, whose eruptions aren’t as prompt as its name suggests — while the Mud Volcano is a squishy, sulfur-filled delight filled with sights such as the Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The spring is so named because its location on a side of a hill causes the gases that rise to the surface to make the water splash across the walls, so it looks like a tongue.

    In the northwest section, Mammoth Hot Springs is a garden of limestone terraces and waterfalls, and all across the park roam herds of buffalo, as well as elk, grizzlies and antelope. The more adventurous can go fly-fishing in Yosemite Lake or horseback ride through Montana. Those who don’t want to get their hands dirty can visit nearby paleontological sights, dinosaur and fossil museums and view old pictographs on rock walls. Entrance to Yellowstone costs $25 for seven days, but a week won’t likely be enough to explore all the wonders of America’s biggest nature reserve.

    — Angela Chen, Senior Staff Writer

    Europe

    Even with $10-a-night hostels, unlimited EuroRail passes and cheap prix-fixe menus, spending an extended amount of time in Europe can seem dauntingly expensive. But fear not: while some parts of the continent fit the stereotype, you can have a lot of fun without dropping too much cash.
    Overcrowded and overpriced though it may be, Paris is an essential stop. Beyond the conventional guidebook stops (most of which are wonderful nonetheless, the Musée d’Orsay in particular), Paris is home to a lot of young people (especially deep within the Left Bank) and still an epicurean’s dream.
    If you get off the train in time for dinner, an excellent (and little known) destination is L’Encrier, a small café in the crowded fourth arrondissement. There are only a few tables, so the wait might be long, but the food is an outstanding update of traditional French bistro cuisine, and €19 for a three-course menu is an excellent deal.
    If you’re looking for someplace to stay, you’re unlikely to find anywhere more French than the one-star Hôtel Baudan, where for €20 you can stay in a charming, somewhat run-down early twentieth-century apartment building. It’s not exceptionally clean, but the atmosphere is quaint, and the café downstairs serves great coffee.
    No major European city, however, provides as much value as Berlin —particularly the city’s eastern Friedrichshain district, the beer is cheap and the Turkish-German döner kebab stands cheaper. If you don’t mind a little kitsch, the Soviet era-esque hostel-boat Eastern Comforts (docked on the Spree river) has beds for €16.
    Perhaps the most essential sightseeing in Berlin is the majestic Museumsinsel, an island on the river Spree where all of Berlin’s major arts and antiquities museums are located. But the real fun in Berlin occurs after dark in the city’s vibrant club scene, a large part of which can be found in Friedrichshain.
    Another essential pocket-friendly city is Prague. If you can overlook the terrifying food and baffling language, Prague is one of the coolest, most fascinating cities in Europe. Hostels are absurdly cheap, and cleaner than you’d expect for the price. Prague is also home to the incredible Franz Kafka Museum, a beautiful, labyrinthine tribute to the city’s most famous writer. Also exceptional is the view from Prague Castle, the ancient city-center that rests on top of a large hill. And be sure to stock up on plenty of absinthe before you leave.

    — Andrew Whitworth, Senior Staff Writer

    Australia

    Brian Yip/Guardian

    If you’re a shopaholic pussy, book your trip to Europe now — Australians have no sympathy for the faint of heart. It’s with good reason — Aussies live and thrive in the some of the toughest environments in the world. Their island is predominantly made up of a blistering, dry desert, where everything with a pulse can kill you (or will try it’s hardest to) and the legal drinking age is 18 (but really, 16). In retrospect, it’s not so surprising that only 20 million (slightly more than half the population of California) have the swagger to survive the Aussie heat.
    Admittedly, the land down under doesn’t have a sufficient number of museums to rival New York or enough boutiques to compete with Paris (and frankly, you should skip the malls entirely — everything is imported and marked up). But Sydney, arguably the cultural epicenter of Australia, boasts some of the most picturesque beaches and jaw-dropping architecture in the world (the Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable man made icons.) Sydney is home to over 30 beaches, the most famous of which are Bondi and Coogee — where sparkling white sands match the crystal blue of ocean tide. If you feel like splurging, world-renown restaurant Tetsuya’s fresh, eleven-course Japanese degustation menu is a hefty $210 AUD.  But times are hard (and the Australian dollar is strong — about 1.01 US dollars) so opt for some Thai or Vietnamese instead (available anywhere down under).
    Even in Australia’s biggest city, wildlife is abundant — though it’s mostly contained in one place.  Located across Darling Harbor from Sydney proper, the massive Taronga Zoo is home to every kind of furry (and scaly) pal there is — including the native koala.
    For the brave traveler, Australia’s desert, or the Red Center, is covered in rusty, blood-colored sand, speckled with prickly cacti and restless wildlife — a great departure from the bustle of a city metropolis. Throw down for a cheap hostel in Alice Springs  (you shouldn’t pay more than $20 a night) and take a three day guided tour of an expanse of the arid land — circle the circumference of Ayer’s Rock, snap photos alongside camels and emus and listen to aboriginals talk about their cultural heritage — just watch out for poisonous snakes and dingos.
    If you prefer your deadly animals by the sea, head towards the Gold Coast to a town called Cairns (pronounced Cannes), located a short boat ride away from the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system. Dive in — you’ll see electric blues, eye-popping yellows and crimson — and that’s just in one fish.
    In Cairns, the old axiom “eat or be eaten” has never been truer. In beachside restaurants, you can find alligator (a flaky white meat), emu (akin to a gamier chicken) and kangaroo (best served medium rare).  But if you’ve had enough adventure, swing by a local grocery store (a Coles will do) armed with rainbow-colored AUD and pick up a box of original Tim Tams (around $3 AUD a box).  The smooth chocolate mousse sandwiched in between two cookies, coated in a hardened shell of chocolate pairs well with a mug of warm milk.  You’ll be hoarding them in your suitcase on the flight home.

    — Neda Salamat, Leisure Editor

    Japan

    There’s no time like spring break to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. Summers are muggy and there’s no snow on the ground into the beginning of March, but early spring — with its cherry blossoms and festivals nationwide — hits a sweet spot.
    The best start is Tokyo, the nation’s capital. Landmarks like Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge, out-of-the-box architecture (look for the giant golden radish on the city skyline) and areas like the Harajuku fashion district lend a distinct character to what might otherwise be just another modern metropolis.
    When you’ve tired of the hustle and bustle, Tokyo is conveniently close to a number of nature-friendly day trips. A definite must-see are the famed hot springs of Hakone, only two hours outside the city by bus. Staying covered up in the onsen is offensive to locals, so only resort to a bathing suit if you’re absolutely too shy to bare it all.
    Don’t be afraid to think outside the bento box. Japanese cuisine has a lot more to offer than sushi — be sure to try shabu-shabu (a hotpot) or okonomiyaki (a savory pancake). If you’re on the run, grab a 100-yen (roughly $1.20) onigiri for the road (satisfyingly filling balls of rice and fish wrapped in seaweed).
    In the end, no matter how much hype Akihabara and districts like it get, most of Japan’s big cities have the same mix of electronic stores, dimly lit porn shops and anime vendors. If you’re not on the hunt for a body pillow, the scene can get old fast.
    Fortunately, the country is littered with evidence of Japan’s rich religious history, and the centuries-old coexistence of Shinto and Buddhist worship has created a stunning number of temples and shrines that warrant a visit. Take your Japanese phrasebook, hop on the Odakyu railway, and head to places like the coastal town of Kamakura, home to the Five Great Zen Temples.
    Japan’s medieval history also left its mark in the form of fortresses. Though many were destroyed, and the most worthwhile stops (Himeji or Matsumoto Castle) are a fair trek from Tokyo, these beautiful restorations are worth coughing up the dough for a rail pass. As at every other Japanese monument, you’ll have to ditch your shoes when you get inside the door, but enduring the steep wooden stairs in bare feet makes the view at the top that much more spectacular.
    — Hayley Martin, Senior Staff Writer

    Barcelona

    There’s a reason Barcelona is a top study abroad choice, and it’s not Cambridge caliber academics.
    Best known for the unorthodoxy of Gaudí’s gothic architecture and a buzzing club scene that soldiers on past dawn, Barcelona offers up the best of modern indulgence. Mom-and-pop bakeries bump shoulders with spirited bars and hole-in-the-wall shops on most every calle, many of which cater to the city’s booming tourist population.
    That’s the one downside to this Mediterranean port town: its secret’s out. Don’t be shocked to run into friends of friends during a weeknight FC Barcelona game at Camp Nou.
    Still, don’t let the crowds hold you back. Shy away from the city center’s most boisterous of tourist traps (Plaza Catalunya, the Ramblas) and a more authentic Catalan experience isn’t hard to behold. Artsy types take best to Gracia, an up-and-coming district heavy on hipster boutiques. Gracia hosts scores of college-age natives, most of whom seek a lower-key alternative to the city’s brassy, house-dominated club scene.
    Gracia’s also home to the city’s greatest public attraction: the Gaudí-designed Park Güell. Situated atop one of the city’s most scenic summits, the park offers unparalleled vistas of the city below, from the ubiquitous fruit adorning the peaks of the Sagrada Familia church to the congested slice of coastline at Barceloneta beach.
    The city’s also a foodie’s paradise. Tapas — bite-sized servings of Spanish favorites — are king, though after one too many pitchers of Estrella, the tab adds up with surprising ease.
    Locals bearing the 9 to 5 grind will try to tell you that Barcelona isn’t the round-the-clock testament to hedonism that everyone cracks it up to be. Don’t listen: a few rounds of sangria and a mid-morning stagger home from the club will provide a mighty authentic experience indeed.

    — Trevor Cox, Senior Staff Writer

    California Camping

    John Hanacek/Guardian

    After long hours spent memorizing bio terms under Geisel’s fluorescent lights during finals week, the call of the wild is strong in us all.  But since it is against school policy to pitch tents on campus property, your best bet for unleashing your inner mountain man is to hit up the camping grounds scattered across California, from woodsy Lake Tahoe to the wild Channel Islands and Malibu’s classic beach.
    Although tent camping doesn’t have the typical spring break party appeal as, say, Cabo, it’s easier on the pocket — as long as someone can dig a tent and a few sleeping bags out of their parents’ garage, your group’s main expenses will be gas and food. Thinking of it as the discovery channel version of MTV’s Spring Break doesn’t hurt either.
    Here are the best places to camp in the Golden State, whether you’re looking for Walden-esque seclusion in Nor Cal’s dense forests or world-class surfing on the sunny southern coast.

    Northern California
    Tahoe
    With over fifteen different campgrounds and hundreds of sites to pitch a tent, not including the expansive wilderness around the lake for daring backpackers to traverse (with reservations), Tahoe is quintessential backcountry. Because of its high elevation, there may still be some snow on the ground in early spring, so be sure to pack accordingly.
    The lake itself is on the border of California and Nevada, 200 miles east of San Francisco. A good place to set up camp is Camp Richardson located just off Hwy 89. It has 220 tent sites nestled under pine trees and clear starry skies, with the convenience of full amenities like running water and flush toilets, a marina with boat rentals and a general store. This site has a no pets policy, but chances are you’ll be too busy with the squirrels, ducks, raccoons, rabbits and bears in your back yard to miss Fido too much.
    * A side note on bears: wild animals are usually more afraid of you than you are of them, but in some areas animals are more aggressive due to frequent interactions with humans. Be sure to follow your site’s guidelines on food storage and restricted areas carefully, as every campground may have different rules for keeping campers (and animals) safe.
    Redwood National Park
    Starting at the California-Oregon border and stretching for about 50 miles south, Redwood has both developed and backcountry campgrounds, all on a first come first served basis. In this home of the world’s tallest trees and breathtaking primeval forests, spring is the rainy season and waterproof gear is strongly recommended.
    For $35 a night, Elk Prairie Campground offers ancient coast redwoods, over 70 miles of hiking and biking trails, and up-close views of grazing Roosevelt elk and black-tailed deer, all with the convenience of hot showers, restrooms, fire pits, food lockers, and picnic tables. Prairie Creek Redwoods State park is off the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, six miles north of the city of Orick, and is open all year. Horseback riding and kayaking are other popular activities here.

    Central California

    Mammoth Mountain/June Lake
    For a taste of tall trees and forest streams a little closer to San Diego, take the 15 N to Hwy 395 N to Hwy 203 W to get to Mammoth Mountain from San Diego. Better known for skiing and snowboarding than for camping, this Sierra Nevadan gem of wilderness has dozens of campsites, hiking and mountain biking trails, geological wonders like craters and volcanic rock formations, horseback riding, fishing and general wildlife opportunities.
    Stay at Upper Rock Creek Campground (turn left at Tom’s Place off Hwy 395) about half an hour south of the mountain if you can’t make reservations for the mountain itself the necessary six months in advance. Drive into Mammoth Lakes or June Mountain for day hikes and other activities, or visit the nearby mining ghost town of Bodie for a thrill. And the gourmet restaurant in the Chevron Station overlooking adjacent Crowley Lake serves the best clam chowder you will ever have.
    Anywhere north of Bishop gets heavy snow, so check weather alerts before going camping here in springtime.

    Death Valley
    Desert wildflowers peak in late March, making spring an ideal time to visit this notoriously hot locale. Furnace Creek Campground is $18 per night for water, tables, fireplaces, and flush toilets, and although there are 136 sites reservations are strongly recommended.
    This national park has over 3 million acres of designated wilderness and perhaps the toughest terrain California has to offer for hiking, backpacking, biking and camping die-hards. Even in the cooler months, water is scarce. Additionally, there are ranger-guided tours and a few museums at the park to offer something a break from battling the elements.

    Southern California

    The Channel Islands
    A National Park off the California coast 14 miles to the west of Ventura, the Channel Islands are an adventure recommended for experienced campers. Public boats provide access to the island year round from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors, but it is harder to find a spot on a boat than it is a campsite — and both require reservations. All five islands are open to camping, but Anacapa Island is the most popular and offers campsites for tents for $10 a night. No fires are allowed and trashcans, water and restrooms are not provided, so visitors are expected to come prepared.
    Offsetting the inconveniences of primitive camping, high winds and wet weather, the islands are ideal for hiking, kayaking, diving, fishing, tide pooling, whale watching, surfing and wildflower viewing. And often a group of dolphins are there to escort your boat on the way over.

    Malibu
    Leo Carillo State Beach is about 30 miles North of Santa Monica off the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1). The park itself has only about a mile and a half of coastline, but the main camping area extends across the freeway into a giant sycamore grove, where 133 sites are available for up to seven consecutive days (call for pricing). This campground fills up almost a year in advance, so make reservations accordingly.
    The beach offers some of the best swimming, surfing, windsurfing, and tide pools in the state, along with coastal caves and reefs for exploring. And for campers who don’t want to disappear off the grid altogether, wireless Internet is available within 200 feet of the camp store.

    — Zoe Sophos, Associate Leisure Editor

    Honduras

    Almost all international flights to Honduras go through Tecontín International Airport in the capital of Tegucigalpa. Tecontín is unfortunately one of the world’s scariest airports, featuring a last-minute hairpin turn onto a short runway. But once you get past the landing scare, the capital — the country’s modern political and economic heart — is worth exploring
    While Tegucigalpa is known as the nation’s economic lifeline, and the second-largest city — San Pedro Sula — is known for industry, La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast is the entertainment center of Honduras. The city boasts a range of modern nightclubs and tiny bars, many of which produce their own alcohol from coconut and jungle roots. In early May, the La Ceiba Carnival honors the city’s patron saint, and as many as 500,000 tourists pour in for the celebration.
    La Ceiba is also renowned for its ecotourism, with Pico Bonito National Park just outside the city. The forested peak is only a few miles from the coastal city and towers nearly 8,000 feet in the air, with the pale blue of the Caribbean providing a stark backdrop. Rio Coronjal, which runs through the east side of town, offers class III-V river rafting and there are several companies that offer guides to explore the nearby rain forests.
    The city is also the place to catch the ferry to Honduras’s major islands, Roatán and Utila. Roatán is famous for being in the middle of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef —the world’s second largest, behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Many tourists travel to Roatán for quick, cheap scuba diving certification, and have one of the world’s best locations to try out their new hobby.
    The island’s also loaded with history and folklore, with everyone from Christopher Columbus to Captain Henry Morgan having a significant presence at some point. Unlike the rest of Honduras, English is commonly spoken on the islands, which has aided the area’s tourism boom over the past two decades.
    Near the Guatemalan border to the west, the Copán ruins bear the remnants of a major Mayan city. The city is believed to have been at its peak from 150-900 A.D., with as many as 20,000 people living there. The ruins are extensive, with step-pyramids, palaces and even a ballcourt.
    For sports fans, Honduras is witnessing a golden age in soccer: the national team made its second-ever World Cup in 2010. Major cities have multiple club teams, and cheap tickets make for a lively evening.
    While Honduras certainly doesn’t lack natural beauty, it is poor country by American standards and poverty is not uncommon. Security can also be an issue, and it can be difficult to adjust to seeing policemen walk the streets with assault rifles. But if you travel smart, an eye-opening and scenic introduction to Central America awaits.

    — Liam Rose, Senior Staff Writer

    San Juan Islands

    Whether you’re paddling your way around a sea of kelp or cruising down a country road with shoes hanging from telephone poles, there’s no place like the San Juan Islands. Located just off the coast of Seattle, the islands are tucked away from everyday hustle and bustle — no commercial planes allowed.
    The best-known of the islands are Friday Harbor and Orcas Islands — both of which feature a number of quaint bed-and-breakfasts, which can run anywhere from $150 to $400 a night. If you don’t feel compelled to wake up to a home-cooked breakfast or blow a full paycheck on a single night’s stay, check out the campgrounds on the islands, like Mitchell’s Landing, where a tent site goes for $25 a day.
    Friday Harbor is everyone’s favorite outdoor wonderland. Kayaking shops around the island boast competitive prices and an ever-widening variety of classes and tours, though stick to one that only takes a few guests out for more attention and a faster-moving group. There’s nothing like watching a seal swim just below your kayak to make you think, “Holy crap, I’m in nature.”
    Other land-bound adventures can be experienced on the many trails crisscrossing both islands, making this jewel of the Pacific Northwest accessible by bike or foot. Other attractions on Friday Harbor include Pelindaba Lavender Farms, a popular site with an ever-expanding gift shop, and a Krystal Acres alpaca farm.
    For a more affordable indulgence than a $200 alpaca blanket, check out the Crab House, a gazebo restaurant overlooking the ferry dock. Not only is all the food cheap, the restaurant owners have managed to fry every possible form of sea life for their menu.

    — Margaret Yau, Senior Staff Writer

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