5 MUST-SEE destinations

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The planet is a bit of a boggle at the moment, isn’t it? Wars, bombings, innocent lives being lost – it’s easy to forget all the positives our world has to offer. But the truth is, the planet is far too extraordinary to succumb to mankind’s selfish battles. There’s beauty out there enough to melt even the most hardened heart.

Recently, I read a beautiful piece written by travel writer Helen Wright, who says, ‘Tourism isn’t just about suntans and souvenirs… It brings countries and cultures together’. And this is what we need now, more than anything – for our world to come together. The best way to do that is to share our planet and experience as much of it as we can.

Here are six wonderful destinations that have recently captured my heart; where the scenery is breath-taking, the weather raw and the wildlife unafraid.

See these places and you’ll fall in love with the planet again in no time.

TOP PICK

Sub-Antarctic island, South Georgia

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I’m seated on the black sand of Gold Harbour beach, South Georgia – watching in absolute awe as colonies of King penguins waddle around me. They approach cautiously as I sit very still, then slowly crowd in front of me, curious of this unusual being in their midst.

To my left, a large bull Elephant seal lets off a mighty belch and yawn as he crawls out of the water. Nearby, another bull flicks open a bulging eye in order to work out if the intruder’s arrival means he needs to fight for his territory. He does.

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The first belching bull has just dragged his three-ton form onto the beach and is now looking for a female to mate with. But bull number two, the beach-master, isn’t having his harem approached by another bull. So they both rise from their flabby, flat-out positions on the sand; their necks blubbery and thick against the freezing South Georgia air, their eyes red and bloodshot with anger. The stranger goes in with one swoop, using his mighty neck muscles to deliver a wincing blow. The beach-master roars in pain but has not been defeated, instead he fights back by opening his huge jaw and planting his rotting incisors into the intruder’s neck. Blood begins to poor.

It’s quiet. The beach-master has won yet another battle and rules the roost for yet another season. The intruder sluggishly drags himself away and collapses on the sand, blood trickling from his neck. The slender females remain unaware of any commotion, their young pups suckling as they sleep. It’s just another day with the wildlife of South Georgia.

GET THERE: Silversea’s Silver Explorer departs on a 22-day voyage from Ushuaia, Argentina to Cape Town, South Africa on 8 March 2017. Fares start at £7,750 based on double occupancy. Call 0844 251 0837 or visit Silversea.com for information.

 

The Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

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You know the Australia you imagine when you first think about taking a Gap Year? Those endless white sandy beaches, rolling barrels of surf and sizzling sunshine that tans you in seconds? Well, this is the place.

At around 400kms from the Western Australian border and 650kms from Adelaide, the good news is the Eyre Peninsula isn’t easily accessible – so tourists rarely make it here. It is, however, understandably loved very much by locals.

Peak time is the summer, when South Australians head to the cosy beach shacks along the coast – but plan a trip for February or March (when the new school term has started) and you could well have every beach to yourself.

We arrive on the peninsula in early February, with a warm swag (sleeping bag and mattress combo’ – the nights can get a little cool in the wind) and a Toyota Hilux 4WD – perfect for taking on the off-road sand dunes (it’s not all about the highway). It’s easy to hire a 4WD from Adelaide – from there the drive is about six to nine hours, depending on your stops. Our first port of call off the Lincoln Highway is the rugged Port Gibbon, where we secure the hubcaps for a gravel road and set up camp. As the sun sets, a blanket of stars sparkle above us and we spot Orion’s Belt and a spinning satellite.

The next day, the real fun starts. After a ‘shower’ in the ocean at Red Banks at 8am, we free-camp our way through powdery white sand of Poverty Beach, Arno Bay and Lipson Cove – before reaching our pre-arranged shack at Coffin Bay, a famous fishing town famous for its impressively large, fresh oysters. If free-camping isn’t your style, you’ll find rooms available at the local pub or roadhouse, which are comfrotable and friendly to rest your head. If you are keen on fishing, bring rods, a hook and pick up some bait in town – you can fish off the jetty in almost every town. And if you’re into the scenery – simply sit back, relax and enjoy some of Australia’s most beautiful beaches.

GET THERE: Qantas currently offers return flights from London Heathrow to Adelaide from £743 per person. To book, visit: qantas.com

 

Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates

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An easy stopover if you’re on a long-haul journey from Europe to Asia, Ras Al Khaimah is one of the seven Emirati states that isn’t overrun by the tourism that Dubai and Abu Dhabi receive. The local expat community has ensured the expected glitz and glamour of the UAE are in place – with hotels like the stunning palace-inspired Waldorf Astoria lining the beaches. My trip in RAK begins with a taxi tour around the shopping malls – and I’m pleasantly surprised to see home comforts such as Marks & Spencer, H&M and more dotting the highways – but it’s the Al Quatye souk, showcasing some of the most beautifully traditional dress embroidery, which really light up the day – this is the old, traditional side to Ras Al Khaimah, and it’s mesmerising walking by the shop fronts, taking in the colour and gold stitching.

Adventure isn’t too far away either. Book in a dune-bashing session with Travco Travel and you’ll be flying through the desert (in an air-conditioned 4WD) in no time. Make sure to stop at the peak and look over the endless waves of sand – it’s a breath-taking sight. But my favourite experience of all is simply sitting back at the Waldorf’s private beach and looking over the turquoise sea. With the sun beaming down and the pool bar serving cocktails – what more could a girl want?

GET THERE: Spend three nights at the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah, between 01 May to 21 June 2016, from £539pp. Rate includes breakfast, return Economy flights with Royal Brunei from London Heathrow to Dubai and a private transfer to RAK. Book by 25th Feb 2016 with travelbag.co.uk.

TOP PICK

Everywhere, Chile

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One thing to note about Chile – it’s one of the most naturally stunning places to visit. Frozen lakes, deserts, Andean villages, wine valleys, glaciers, wildlife – you name it, this country has it all. We start by hiring a 4×4 in the capital, Santiago, and driving north through the Atacama Desert. We are in luck, for the first time in years the Atacama – one of the driest places on the planet – is in bloom. El Nino had brought enough rain in early 2015 to support vegetation, and now the dunes are alive with magenta blossom. Stunning.

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We road trip through the Elqui Valley (home of the Pisco Sour), through parched mining villages and towns, through the big-name surf hotspots of Iquique and Arica and finally reach the small Andean town of Putre, the only gateway to Le Parque Nacionale Lauca. Picture snow-capped volcanic peaks reflected perfectly in glistening icy lakes. Picture scores of plump, pink perched on their one stilt leg in the glassy water. Picture the delicate, silhouetted form of the vicuna and big wooly alpaca grazing against the sunset along the winding valley roads.

The village of Codpa provides a well-needed stop for a steaming plate of home-cooked Chilean casserole, before we sleep under the stars along the sand dunes. Then we wind our way to the small town of San Pedro de Atacama – where we visit the famous El Tatio geysers at sunrise. With the northern region covered, we dip in and out of historic Valparaiso, the wineries of Colchagua (the wonderfully antique setting of Los Ranchos Allegros being the most homely accommodation we found); the quaint village on the coast of Chiloe island, and then the pristine blue fjords and glaciers of Patagonia.

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The Torres Del Paine National Park will make your eyes water with its beauty. Enjoy a fresh shoulder of lamb, crunchy, buttery carrots and potatoes and vino tinto from the area, while watching ranch horses teach their foals to walk for the first time – and all against a glacier backdrop. Yes, Chile truly is, everything.

GET THERE: British Airways and Iberia fly from London to Santiago de Chile via Madrid from £635 return in March. Book at britishairways.com

 

Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia

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You’re under the luke-warm sea (the surface is 28 degrees Celsius), the visibility is bright and clear and the wall you’re about to dive along glistens at you like a shelf of treasures.

Suddenly, you see a quick roll of an eyeball coming from a small enclave. You approach slowly from above and turn your entire body upside down, so as not to scare whatever’s there with your flailing arms and legs. Then, you see it. A Green Sea turtle. His flippers softly paddling, he glides right by you without a sound; his mustard-brown shell sparkling under the sun’s hazy rays. And he’s gone into the open blue. You can’t imagine anything more graceful.

Incredibly, we experience a moment like this several times during our visit to Bunaken National Marine Park, where we are diving with the brilliant team from Eco-Divers Resort. Our dive master, Markus, knows these waters like they were his own – and takes us for two or three hour-long dives a day through Bunaken’s stunning underwater world.

But it’s not all about the diving (although – that is the reason to come here). Situated at Minhasa Lagoon, Eco-Divers is a 30km drive from Manado airport. Once here, you can relax in one of the plush wooden garden or beachfront cottages, with cocktails in the infinity pool or enjoy the local cuisine in the in-house restaurant.

The resort is PADI certified and wall and drift diving is the most common practice here. It’s not hard to see why this is one of Indonesia’s most raved about sites. Each dive will take you among the colourful soft coral and huge sea fans; there are plenty of black-tip reef sharks, pigmy sea horses, nudi branches, sea snakes and, of course, Green Sea turtles.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

GET THERE: A three-day dive package at Eco Divers Resort starts at EUR 650pp (approx. £510), including four nights in a Garden View room with full board, three guided day-dives with cylinders and weights, airport transfers and free Internet access. Return flights from London to Manado via Jakarta with Garuda Indonesia start from £524. To book, visit garuda-indonesia.com

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