Travel

Travel

Laos town known for drunkenness and tourist deaths cleans up its act

The town of Vang Vieng in Laos was once synonymous with backpacker excess, but now offers adventure activities that make the most of its stunning location

“I want us to preserve the mountains of Vang Vieng, the river and the culture for the future,” Thanongsi Solangkoun told me as I sipped mulberry wine at his organic restaurant on the Nam Song river in Laos.

Thanongsi, affectionately known as Mr T, produces some three tonnes of mulberries every year, 80 litres of goat’s milk a week, plus avocados, papayas and mangoes at his organic Lao Farm (dorm beds from £3, private rooms and mud huts from £13), 2½ miles north of Vang Vieng town. He also runs a restaurant, a guesthouse, a cooking school, a volunteer programme, and a local education project on the farm.

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Travel

Beyond the beach: Bulgaria’s hidden treasures

Mountains, monasteries and markets… there’s much more to Bulgaria than a cheap beach break, says Kate Eshelby

I’m laden with juicy fat cherries, freshly plucked from the tree. The sun shines and we’re picnicking among spangles of wild flowers and long grasses. A track steers back to the wood-beamed house where we are staying, past mud-and-timber houses tilting back into the earth.

I’m with my husband Mark and two children in a tiny hillside hamlet called Baba Stana, close to the village of Oreshak, in the heart of central Bulgaria’s Balkan mountains. It’s peaceful and bucolic, and far from the cheap-and-cheerful skiing or beach packages Bulgaria is most known for.

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Travel

A classic cycle ride in Italy’s Chianti country

Tuscany’s exquisite fare is a superb support system for tackling the challenging Chianti stage of the Giro d’Italia
Plus three retro cycling events around Europe

‘The Giro is a wonderful physical tonic, an extraordinary outing in the country, a pilgrimage from one trattoria to another through gastronomic Italy…”

This tantalising glimpse of the 19 stages of the 1949 Giro d’Italia as “a series of restful heavens” was how one reporter related the experience of following the race to Dino Buzzati, the renowned Italian journalist, dramatist and author, who was about to cover his first cycling event for the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

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Travel

Called to the bars: a negroni tour of London

A new London drinks tour focusing on the gin-vermouth-Campari magic that is the negroni takes in clubs, hotels and speakeasies across the city

“I don’t really know what a negroni is,” confessed my companion who I’d roped in to accompanying me on London’s first negroni-themed tour. Our collective hipster point total plummeted. We were sitting in an upstairs room in 68 & Boston, a wine-and-cocktail bar in Soho, which has a gentleman’s club feel with its panelled walls, corniced ceiling and stained-glass windows. “Gin, vermouth, Campari,” I whispered to my friend who had unwittingly stumbled into this baptism of firewater.

This was the first stop out of five, as our guides, Leon and Max, took us on a quest to find the best negroni in town. While my friend had no idea what to expect, I had some prior experience. I had attended Leon’s inaugural tour, a London “gin journey” in 2013. The format was similar: a minibus drives a small group around an eclectic selection of bars, with a cocktail and some good-humoured education at each stop. Since then, Leon has launched the tours in Liverpool, Manchester and, from June, Edinburgh. There are even plans to expand internationally, to Singapore, Sydney, New York and Amsterdam.

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Travel

Top 10 Soviet-era experiences in St Petersburg

It’s 25 years since the USSR imploded but in St Petersburg there are still plenty of places to experience the highs and lows of the communist era, some of which are looked upon nostalgically by Russians

St Petersburg’s architecture is one of its biggest attractions. The centre’s original baroque and classicism styles have been preserved, so it’s almost as if the USSR never happened here. However, if you travel to the Moskovskiy district you’ll see the full scale of the Stalinist neoclassical architecture. It has been said that the tall grey buildings with giant columns and Soviet insignia were meant to oppress the citizens into obeying the communist party. See for yourself by starting a walk at the end of Moskovsky Prospekt at the Moskovskaya metro station, and then walk back towards its beginning at Sadovaya station. Look out for the two largest, classic examples of the style: the House of Soviets at 212 Moskovsky Prospekt, and the Spire Building at 190 Moskovsky Prospekt.

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Travel

Top 10 back-to-nature cottages and campsites in Wales

Step out of these Welsh holiday homes and campsites into the great outdoors –with walking, cycling, kayaking or surfing all on the doorstep or nearby

The perfect mix of rustic escapism and urban comfort, this pretty stone cottage sits between the Wye valley and the Forest of Dean, with access to great walking straight from the door, as well as kayaking and mountain biking. Inside the two-bedroom retreat, stone floors, stripped wooden beams and a 19th-century range are brought up to date by underfloor heating, designer bathrooms and an uncluttered aesthetic. Despite the clean lines, it’s dog-friendly and great for families with young children, with a cot, high-chair and stair-gate provided, a fenced garden for running around in (or barbecuing) and a boot room with washing machine, tumble dryer and space for storing bikes.
From £503 for three nights, sleeps 4/5, sugarandloaf.com

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Travel

Top 10 US mid-Atlantic national and state parks

The eastern states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland offer green spaces with stunning peaks and waterfalls, as well as wonderful wildlife

The Delaware river forms part of the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a dam along the flood-prone section of river between the New York state line and the coal mining town of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. This would have created a 37-mile lake between Pennsylvania and New Jersey to be called Tocks Island national recreation area. In preparation for flooding the valley, more than 15,000 people were displaced from their homes. Then a geologic study revealed that the proposed dam was on top of several active fault lines and the project was scrapped. In 1978, the property was transferred to the National Park Service and renamed the Delaware Water Gap national recreation area. Today, the park protects 70,000 acres of forest and farmland, 40 miles of the Delaware river and 28 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Top tip Many picturesque hamlets and villages that stood along the Delaware river were lost to the dam project but some historic buildings remain. The quaint village of Bevans now stands as the Peters Valley School of Craft, where blacksmithing, woodworking and weaving are taught and practised. Take a tour of the historic grounds on summer weekends or sign up for a two- to five-day workshop between May and September.
nps.gov/dewa

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Photography

Readers’ travel photography competition: April winners – in pictures

April’s images feature some gorgeous exotic locations, but the winning shot (judged by Mick Ryan of fotovue.com) is an everyday scene at a bus stop – beautifully executed. The winner gets their photo displayed at the year-end exhibition at the Guardian’s London HQ and stands a chance of winning a fantastic Secret Fjords’ self-drive holiday to Iceland for two people with Discover the World

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Travel

Sailing in Cornwall: learn the ropes – in a weekend

Despite a battering by a spring storm, this novice sailor gets stuck right in
with the crewing of a century-old, two-masted wooden ketch on a two-day trip off the Cornish coast

Our first few hours aboard Bessie Ellen were hands-on. As storm Katie tightened her grip on the Cornish coast, the 112-year-old sailing ship was ploughing through high winds, and minutes after casting off we were pulling up sails, tacking and steering. Owner and skipper Nikki Alford commanded respect while instilling a sense of fun, and within half an hour had turned us eight strangers into a crew capable of steering a two-masted wooden ship through a storm. In a couple of hours I’d hauled ropes with Anton, who’s in his late 70s, and hoisted sails with a father and son from Exeter. We learned how to tack and could soon just about name all the sails.

I had joined the tall ship at Fowey for a two-night taster weekend. Apart from taking the Seacat from Liverpool to Dublin when I was eight, I had never sailed before. We were a mixed bunch, ranging from competent sailors to, well, me. Either way, everyone had a role. “I like to get everyone involved,” said Nikki. “I want people to feel they’re part of a crew – and learn a thing or two.”

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Travel

Havana rising: meeting the millenials pushing Cuba forward

Forget trying to see Cuba before it changes: the change is going on right now. From designers to tattooists, musicians to app designers, meet the young Habaneros changing the face of their city. Plus cool places to stay in the city

It’s difficult to figure out what is going to happen in this country,” Cuban designer Idania del Río tells me. We’re chatting in her first-floor studio in Old Havana, above the design shop she opened just over a year ago. Sporting a Superman T-shirt on which Lois Lane is pictured rescuing the superhero, del Río propels herself across the room on her office chair every time the phone rings. “Some people have had a mental switch. Young people are very energetic: they’re seeing what the future can be and are really enthusiastic about it, but they are focused on the present.”

Del Río is too modest to admit it, but her description of the energy building up in Havana also applies to her shop – it’s the first independent design outlet in Cuba – and to the growing number of independent, outward-looking people and projects springing up in the city.

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Travel

‘Birmingham is beautiful if you look at it in a certain way’

For Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, Brum is undersold aesthetically and historically – something he wants to to help rectify

The story that made me want to write Peaky Blinders came from my dad. When he was about eight he had to deliver a note to the Sheldons, the real Peaky Blinders. He was terrified of them and had to run barefoot through the streets. When the door opened, smoke wafted out and there were nine men round a table, immaculately dressed – ties, shoes polished, hats, guns – and the table piled with money, but they were drinking beer out of jam jars, because they wouldn’t spend money on glasses or cups. The image of a little kid looking on made me want to write about that whole era.

My mum and dad grew up in Small Heath in Birmingham in the 1920s. Mum was a runner for illegal bookmakers when she was nine or 10; they often used children, who aroused less suspicion. She used to walk down the street with a washing basket and people would wrap their bet – sixpence or whatever – in a piece of paper with the horse’s name and their code name on it, and drop it in the basket when she walked past, because there would be policemen watching.

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