Being an island, Ireland is naturally full of beaches… It’s just that no one thinks about Ireland as a “beach destination” (or even a “destination with beaches”) because of its lack of palm trees and piña coladas! Ventry Beach is probably one of the Dingle Peninsula’s most well-known beaches (after Inch Beach & Slea Head), most likely because of its proximity to the much-loved artist’s haven of Dingle town. The Dingle Peninsula in general is one of the most beloved tourist spots because it’s in Kerry. That said, it still has quieter spots! The Dingle Way is a way-marked trail that circles the peninsula. While parts of it are on roads, other sections are on farmer’s tracks and even beaches – such as Ventry Beach. Ventry Beach also happens to be the start to the Saints’ Road, a pilgrimage trail that travels to Mt Brandon, one of Ireland’s holy mountains. (It is said that Mt Brandon is where St Brendon fasted and saw a vision of the Promised Land, inspiring his 7 year Voyage of St Brandon the Navigator). Whatever the reason – Dingle Way hike, pilgrimage walk or a simple stroll on the beach and a splash in the waves when it’s warm enough – Ventry Beach is a lovely place to simply relax and enjoy being outdoors.
Pro tip: Hike this section of the Dingle Way (from Ventry to Slea Head) where you’ll pass dozens of ancient clohans or beehive huts. Not far away, visit Louis Mulcahy’s pottery studio to try your hand at pottery or just browse. Even try a seaweed bath – said to be great for the skin!
Overlooking Puy de Dôme from Puy de Sancy in Auvergne, France
Everyone knows about the Alps and the Pyrénées, but the greatest French mountains you’ve never heard of are the Massif Central mountains. Located in the centre of France, the Massif Central occupies several départements (including the Ardèche and Rhône-Alps) but most notably, the beautiful lush central region of Auvergne. These mountains are old. Formed over 500 million years ago, the Massif Central mountains are of volcanic origin – only becoming dormant some 10,000 years ago. The largest puy or volcanic peak is the Puy de Sancy (1,885m – from which this photo was taken) but by far the most famous is the Puy de Dôme (1,465m), featured in the photo. Auvergne is famous for its volcanoes – forming the base pride for the local residents. A good bit of Auvergne is taken up by the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne (Auvergne Volcano regional nature park) – and oh do the locals love to explore the many trails that snake across these ancient lands. Of course some of the most famous are Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy, and Puy de Côme, but there are many gorgeous mountains and hills in Auvergne worth exploring! Riddled with caves and draped in legends, Auvergne is a magical place that sees few international tourists and has managed to remain relatively unspoilt. The rich dark soil (enriched with minerals brought by volcanic ash) makes the region one of the best in France for agriculture – in season, spot alternating fields of beets, corn, wheat and best of all, sunflowers, sprawling across the sun-kissed hills of Auvergne’s lowlands, while thick forests and vibrant wildflowers take advantage of the rich soil to grow on the mountain slopes. Further down the hills, untouched medieval villages lounge in the lush valleys and ancient castles and towers cling to the inclines. It is a wild and magical place – perfect for both hiking the wild outdoors as well as discovering the France of past eras.
Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional hub (though its airport is tiny! Use it for flights to London, Paris and occasionally Portugal) and though it’s worth poking around its black cathedral and modest old town, its better to use a village like Montpeyroux, Billom, Pont-du-Chateau or Ambert as a base to explore this beautiful region. Try local potato and cheese dish l’aligot while there!
Andalucia is a region full of adorable white villages, chocolate-coloured fields and rugged landscapes. There are dramatic castles and sun-kissed farmlands basking under the brilliant Spanish light. Around each bend, there is something beautiful and heart-throbbing. One such place is the little hilltop village of Zahara de la Sierra. Tiny alleyways wind their way around the natural rock face. Quaint houses are painted white and framed with wrought iron lamps and pots bursting with colourful flowers. Intricate doorways frame picturesque steps that lead the wayward traveller up the hill towards the castle. And yet, what we think as quintessentially Spanish was actually brought here by the Moors. Though the Al-Andalus tribes left some 500 years ago, the mark they left is ever-present and has embedded itself literally into the fabric of Spain – or at least its architecture. Moorish architecture – married with Spanish creativity – is what inspired this doorway – just as it was that constructed the beautiful Teruel Cathedral or Cervantes’ birthplace (Alcalá de Heneres). Even more famously, Moorish design is what makes Andalucia’s most famous sites so unique in the world – Sevilla, Grenada, Cordoba. From big cities to tiny villages, Andalucia – and Spain in general – is full of hidden gems like this little doorway and alley, if only you set out to explore them.
Pro tip: Malaga might be Andalucia’s most convenient airport to arrive in the region, but spend as little time in Malaga and as much time in the rest Andalucia as you can. The beaches are meant to be nice (and are where most visitors want to go) but unless you love overcrowded sandy places that look the same as overcrowded sandy places anywhere else in the world, leave the coast behind and head inland for off the beaten path wonders like this one. Ronda is a great jumping-off point to explore the region.
Puy de Sancy in the Massif Central, Auvergne, France
Typically evoking ideas of fire and brimstone, volcanoes are not generally the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions ‘France.’ And yet, volcanoes – or at least extinct ones – are the dominating natural feature of the French province of Auvergne, located in central France. Rated the 6th top destination to visit in 2015 by Lonely Planet, the unique volcanoes of Auvergne are at least in part responsible for Auvergne’s intrigue. As part of the Massif Central, a mountain range that covers most of Auvergne and plays a significant role in the region’s natural and cultural landscape, some of the volcanoes are as old as 65 million years, while others are as young as 7,000 years (mere toddlers in mountain live spans). Being elevated and surrounded by mountains makes Auvergne’s climate chillier (and foggier) than the rest of central France, perhaps attributing to the region’s hearty mountain dishes such as aligot and truffade (both made with potatoes, types of pork, and hearty cheeses). The locals also seem to have a higher appreciation of nature than people from other regions, and can be found enjoying the outdoors during weekends – whether that be a backyard picnic, a leisurely stroll in the park, or climbing the rugged volcanic landscape. When it comes to hiking, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and other outdoor activities, Auvergne’s mountains are certainly the place to go. Exhilarating, rugged, beautiful, lush, scenic, challenging – the mountains and volcanoes of the Massif Central become whatever you make them out to be. So get your coat and boots on and go out for a walk in the wild!
To me, beaches are all the same. Show me a photo of a beach and I’d have trouble deciding whether it was in Florida or Thailand. You go to the beach and everyone always seems to be doing the exact same thing: lying on a towel facing the same way and reading the same books, the children building a half-collapsed sandcastle nearby. Everyone goes into the water for a few minutes then spends the rest of the time sunning and trying to get a tan without getting a burn. Everything about the beach cries stagnant normalcy. Therefore, when I go to the beach, I don’t go for the beach, I go for the towns by the beach. At the beach, I enjoy watching the waves for a bit, I dip my toes in the water, and I’m finished. Time to move on. I’d rather be somewhere else. Revolutionary I know, but I don’t like the beach! That said, I love coastal towns. They have fantastic food, attractive views, and generally nice people. This village here is Howth, Ireland, just outside of Dublin. To me, this photo signifies perfectly what I like about the sea: chaotic, energetic, adventurous. This isn’t a beach. Howth doesn’t have one in the conventional sense. Instead, there is a pier and a harbour and a collection of rocks. The combination of these make for huge, crashing waves that reach icy fingers out to attack passersby. Here, you better watch out because these Irish waters attack all of the beach stereotypes – nothing about these waves are calm or relaxing or boring; instead, they are exciting and adventurous.
Szlak Papieski (Papel Trail), Beskid Mountains, Poland
These szlaks, or trails, are named so in honour of the most famous man to traverse them: Karol Wojtyla, later to become Jan Paweł II, more commonly known as John Paul II. The main trail is 230km long, but similar trails meander all over the beautiful Beskids, marking the places where Jana Paweła trekked, first as a priest, then bishop, cardinal, and finally, pope. This rustic building, at the Bacówka PTTK na Rycerzowej, is a mountain chalet, a place of convergence for hikers all through the Beskids, from Poland, Slovakia and abroad. In places such as this, locals hold mountain concerts–jolly old men playing on banjos, reminiscent of Laura Ingalls-esque prairie life on what was the American frontier. And when mountain concerts do happen, the chalet is flooded with visitors–propping up colourful mounds of tents if they brought them, and if not, swarming the tiny chalet, paying $5 for a bed, and, when those fill up, $3 for a spot on the floor. Rough as that may sound, the chance to experience a Polish mountain concert deep within the Beskids, one of Poland’s best-kept secrets (Poland has many), with an entirely Polish (speaking) group of companions is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Not far from Valencia is this freshwater lagoon and estuary. The Albufera is 52,000 acres of preserved wetlands. It is a bird sanctuary, marked as a Ramsar Site since 1990 and also includes larges sections that are Special Protection Areas. Because of its proximity to Valencia, the Albufera is a place to go to escape the city. Fishing is traditionally the most important human use of the lagoon though numbers are dropping today. Therefore, pescadors will give you a relaxing ride through the lagoon in these tiny, wooden boats. Sit back, relax, and have a good boat-ride through the duck and bird filled estuary!