Rediscovering Benidorm

When you get to Benidorm, the aforementioned clichés are alive and well, keeping this sun-drenched Costa Blanca resort ticking along beneath its soaring skyline. But there is more to the city than the Benidorm of British legend. After all, this place is a favourite weekend escape for Madrid residents seeking the beach and sunshine – and, let’s be honest, madrileños aren’t here to tuck into fish and chips or play for a full house. They’re drawn by Benidorm’s charming old town, wide, sandy beaches, fine cuisine and stunning scenery that are all too often overlooked outside Spain.

For almost any visitor, Benidorm’s standout attraction is its two vast city beaches, Levante and Poniente. Levante is always busy, but if you go to Benidorm early or late in season (when the weather is still a knockout) and head as far west as you can be bothered along Poniente, you’ll be rewarded with far fewer crowds. The view is all gold sand and impossibly blue sea with Benidorm Island a shadowy triangle on the horizon; there’s a relaxed vibe, bags of space, and a delicious breeze. The seafront is lined with simple restaurants where you can while lunchtime away over tasty Spanish fare – try Ulia (facebook.com/Restaurante-Ulia) for a sizzling paella in which chicken, chickpeas, cauliflower, pepper and fat wedges of lime all vie for attention.

Old town stroll

The loveliest part of Benidorm is its old town, occupying an enviable spot on a hill between the two beaches. It’s particularly pleasant in the evening – take in the sunset from the Mirador where the castle once stood, while street vendors and musicians get ready for another night’s activity in the squares nearby. The old town’s narrow streets and charming buildings make for a pleasant meander, the flagship sight being the white walls and blue domes of the 18th-century Iglesia de San Jaime.

If you don’t want to stay in a resort or a high-rise hotel, this is the best place in Benidorm to sleep. Treat yourself to a room at five-star boutique hotel Villa Venecia (hotelvillavenecia.com) if you’re feeling flush; otherwise, try one of several welcoming little hotels like Hostal Irati (booking.com/hostal-irati), or investigate the range of decent Airbnb options.

As you’d expect, the old town is also home to some of Benidorm’s best eating and drinking. Calle Santo Domingo and the area around is packed with first-rate tapas joints like La Cava Aragonesa, making for a perfect gastronomic bar crawl. If your budget didn’t stretch to staying at Villa Venecia, then consider dinner there instead: the food’s as good as you’d imagine, with a menu that might include winners like turbot with Romesco sauce or Iberian pork cheek with pumpkin cream.

Natural attractions

Love or loathe Benidorm’s lofty architecture, few could disagree that the city is surrounded by gorgeous scenery on all sides. Benidorm is a compact city that was designed to sprawl upwards rather than outwards, making it quick and easy to escape the high-rises and immerse yourself in the natural beauty that characterises this part of Spain. Walk up to the Sierra Helada Natural Park to the east of the city – the rewards are fabulous views, plus the chance to nip down to the lovely, secluded coves at Cala Almadrada and Cala Tio Ximo for a peaceful dip. A fun alternative is to rent an electric bike from cute little shop Tao Bike (taobike.es) near Playa de Levante and let your wheels do the work for you. Even further up (though still walkable), the Cross of Benidorm stands guard over the city and provides hypnotic views over coast, mountains and skyline. At sunset in particular the vista feels more like Rio than Benidorm.

To the north of the city unfolds the rugged scenery of the Sierra Cortina mountains, and the Spanish money-shot image of towns like Polop, perched dramatically on hilltops. Get bikes or a car and explore at your leisure, or make the journey even more thrilling on a jeep safari with a local operator like Marco Polo Expediciones (marcopolo-exp.es). They’ll drive you right up to the Leon Dormido mountain (so called because it’s said to resemble a sleeping lion) that once captivated Gabriel Miró. If you’re lucky, you might get the view to yourself, affording a sense of solitude just a few kilometres from the Benidorm buzz.

Curacao should be your next Caribbean

Curaçao harbors one of the most multifaceted cultures in the Caribbean, thanks to its long, varied history and its close proximity to South America. Originally settled by the Arawaks nearly 6,000 years ago, the island came under Spanish rule in the early 16th century, but was abandoned due to its perceived lack of riches. The Dutch West India Company picked up where the Spanish left off, and Curaçao became a major hub for the slave trade.

In the mid-1600s, large numbers of Jewish refugees settled in Curaçao to escape the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. The island was later shuffled back and forth between the Dutch and the British Empire before the Netherlands finally claimed ownership in 1815. Today, Curaçao exists as an independent state, but citizens carry Dutch passports.

It’s not uncommon to hear Curaçaoans ping pong between languages, as most people speak multiple: Dutch, Spanish, Papiamentu, the local creole, and English. These diverse cultural influences also manifest in the country’s music – radios blast bachata, reggaetón, American pop, tumba and ritmo kombina, the island’s own genre of tunes – as well as in its food scene. Iguana stew with a side of bitterballen, anyone?

Historic downtown Willemstad

First established in 1634 with the construction of Fort Amsterdam, Willemstad is the feather in Curaçao’s historical cap. Its downtown, an Unesco World Heritage site filled with candy-colored Dutch colonial buildings, simultaneously exudes European and tropical vibes, and is a port favorite for cruise goers. Just as fascinating as the well-preserved buildings are the not-so-preserved ones, perfect in their crumbling grandeur.

While the town’s Handelskade (Merchant’s Wharf) is an iconic spot to hang out, take the time to wander the winding streets of the city, where you’ll find inviting bars, authentic dining spots such as Plaza Bieu, and the technicolor floating market, where fruit vendors from Venezuela dock to sell their wares. Disclaimer: the market itself doesn’t actually float, but the sellers’ boats bob behind their brightly hued stalls full of mangoes, plantains and papayas.

Willemstad’s floating market, located off of St Anna Bay © Bailey Johnson / Lonely Planet

Downtown Willemstad is also home to Museum Kura Hulanda; housed in 19th century slave quarters, the museum’s exhibits extensively cover the history of slavery in the Caribbean, a story in which Curaçao played a central role.

Interesting fact: Curaçao’s colorful buildings weren’t always that way. In 1918, Governor Albert Kickert complained of constant headaches that he attributed to the then-whitewashed city. He ordered all the buildings to be repainted in different colors to combat the reflective nature of the white walls and end his suffering. It turns out, though, that Gov. Kickert actually owned a paint company that profited immensely off the new law, thus prompting Curaçao to prohibit their politicians from having private economic interests.

The island’s artsy side

When you think of street art, Curaçao is probably not on your radar, but that’s where you would be mistaken. Colorful murals sprawl across Willemstad’s buildings, particularly in the Otrobanda and Pietermaai neighborhoods, the latter of which is the city’s coolest new avenue for food and night life. Designs range from geometric shapes to realistic portraits to political commentary.

Curaçao’s art scene also thrives in a number of museums and galleries. Learn about the Chichi figurine at Serena’s Art Factory (chichi-curacao.com) or pick up a colorful print at Nena Sanchez’s downtown gallery (nenasanchez.com). Bonus: Nena has painted murals of her famous blue women across the city – see if you can spot them. To see Willemstad’s largest collection of works by Curaçaoan artists, head over to Gallery Alma Blou (galleryalmablou.com).

This mural in Otrobanda is a collaboration by local artistsGarrick MarchenaandValerie Parisius© Bailey Johnson / Lonely Planet

Curaçao’s 35 beaches

While it only takes about an hour and forty-five minutes to drive Curaçao from tip to tip, it’s home to over 35 beaches, each with their own individual personalities. Playa Knip, the island’s most famous beach, offers up crystal-clear waters and good amenities, while Playa Lagun is a more intimate and quirky spot, with weathered rowboats strewn across its golden sand. If you’re looking for a little more space to move around, head over to Porto Mari, a wide expanse of beach with breathtaking waters – sit on the pier for a jealousy-inducing photo opp, or grab a cold Amstel Bright at the conveniently located beach bar. Porto Mari is also a great stop for divers looks to explore the undersea treasures of Curaçao’s coast.

Want a beach experience with a dose of of luxury? Head down to the man-made coast at Jan Thiel Bay and Papagayo Beach (papagayo.com), or, if you have a little cash to burn, buy yourself a day pass to Baoase Luxury Resort – $50 will snag you a towel, cabana, snorkeling gear, kayaks, snacks and floaties, as well as access to one of the most beautiful resort coves on the island (baoase.com).

The pier at Playa Porto Mari © Oliver Hoffman / Getty Images

Shete Boka and Christoffel National Parks

Looking for something to get the heart pumping? The island’s largest national park, Christoffelpark, is a perfect place to burn off some energy – hike its namesake mountain and get a taste of the Curaçaoan outdoors. Eight trails varying in difficulty are available for exploration, and all can be completed without a guide. Should you want a little guidance, the park office can book a number of different informational tours – take a pickup safari, or catch a bird watching excursion or history tour.

To really get a sense of nature’s power, make the drive up to the northernmost point of the island to visit Shete Boka National Park. It’s one of those scenes that you hear before you see – as you walk the path through the sparse volcanic landscape, a roar bounces off the rocks from a source eclipsed by the grey horizon. Walk a bit further and the land gives way to a spectacular coastline where massive azure waves pummel the cliffs with unsettling force.

Aperitif bars in Marseille

When famed architect Le Corbusier dotted the isometrics and crossed the tees on his brutalist masterpiece La Cité Radieuse in 1952, little could he imagine that it would become a Unesco World Heritage Site. Three floors up, suave restaurant Le Ventre de l’Architect (hotellecorbusier.com) is a treat for architecture and interior buffs alike, mixing the elegance of the 1950s with tables designed by Charlotte Perriand. Naturally, a terrace aperitif will lead into a main meal with views across the Mediterranean for company.

Marvel at the panoramic views from the R2 Rooftop

Perched above Marseille’s new shopping mecca Les Terrasses du Port, the R2 Rooftop (airdemarseille.com) offers startling panoramas and a diverse DJ line-up in a single, unique outdoor event space. Open from Wednesday to Sunday, its six shipping containers dole out international street food and feisty cocktails alongside countless Mediterranean jaw-falling opportunities.

Travel back in time at La Caravelle

Located on the first floor of the Hotel Bellevue on Quai du Port, the legendary La Caravelle brims with vintage nautical decor and cosy, lacquered wood seating. If you can beat the crowds, snag one of the coveted tables on the small terrace which has views across Vieux Port. If the organic wine doesn’t take your fancy, get the talented barman to shake you up something special. Small nibbles are free and there’s live jazz from time to time.

Enjoy sweeping views from Restaurant Rowing Club

Hidden at the end of boulevard Charles Livon, the 5th floor of Restaurant Rowing Club (rowing-clubrestaurant.com) serves up Mediterranean and Provençal tapas alongside some great local wines. Once you see the stellar views of the MuCEM museum, the curves of the 17th-century Fort St-Jean and the glimmering sailing boats in the Vieux Port, you’ll be glad you stuck your oar in here. Reservations recommended.

20,000 leagues from the city centre

Located in Les Goudes, known for its quaint fishermen’s cabanons (cabins) and lunar-like landscape, the Jules Verne-inspired pub 20,000 Lieues (20000lieues.fr) is like nothing else you’ll seen in Marseille. The decor is sports-bar-meets-diving kitsch (complete with vintage diving suit), but it’s the spectacular terrace view of the wide open sea at sunset that makes the trek to the city’s southern tip worth it.

Squeeze in at Café de L’Abbaye

Don’t worry if you can’t get a seat on the triangular-shaped terrace at petite Café de L’Abbaye (facebook.com/CafédeL’Abbaye), simply follow the lead of the locals and place your drink on the nearby wall, where the view of Fort Saint-Nicolas is even better. To complete the scene, order a classic aperitif drink pastis (an anise-flavoured spirit mixed with water and ice) and a bag of fried panisse (chickpea chips) – it doesn’t get more Marseillais than that.

Sunset beers at CafŽe de l’Abbaye in Marseille, France © Katie Carayol / Lonely Planet

Wine and dine Corsican-style at Viaghji di Fonfon

Nestled in the quaint port of Vallon des Auffes, Viaghji di Fonfon (viaghjidifonfon.com) is the place to come if you want to gaze out at fishing boats and arched stone bridges. As this tiny enclave radiates at dusk, it’s all picture postcard stuff, enhanced further by simple Corsican, Sardinian and Provençal dishes. Wash the food down with a crisp white wine as the stars begin to twinkle above the sea.

Make a splash at Bistrot Plage

For sublime views of the Mediterranean without the need for inflatable armbands, peel south from the city centre along Corniche J.F. Kennedy until you reach Bistrot Plage (bistrot-plage.fr), a terraced restaurant which clings gallantly to the coastal wall. For nibbles, the tapas and pizza are the mainstays, but you’re really here to soak in the warm glow of a sunset aperitif.

Soak up the city’s history from Bistrot L’Horloge

Not all great views require a body of water. Case in point: lively Bistrot Horloge, a modern industrial bar in historic Cours d’Estienne d’Orves. Mere steps away from the Vieux Port, the scent of the sea’s salt still catches the air from the tables outside as lingering customers take in the pastel-shades of the historic local architecture. The bar even serves the best mojito in town, making this an unexpected delight in an otherwise touristy enclave.

Madagascar slow train

The train travels between the towns of Fianarantsoa in the highlands (elevation 1100m) and Manakara on the coast. The gradient of the line partly explains its slow going – the constant breakdowns and heavy cargo are the real issue. The train crosses areas not accessible by road, so it is a lifeline for local communities who use it to trade and travel. It is this amazing spectacle – the road-less landscapes and the loading/unloading theatrics at every station, 18 in total – that make the journey so special.

This kind of slow (and unpredictable) travel isn’t for everyone. It’s either your idea of an authentic experience, or your worst nightmare in your carefully planned two-week holiday. We won’t judge; all we’ll say is that being prepared for inevitable delays and factoring them in in your itinerary is probably the best way to approach this trip.

A little history

The FCE railway was built by the French colonial administration between 1926 and 1936 to open up the east coast and facilitate the export of agricultural products from this fertile region. The tracks were imported from Germany, the carriages from Switzerland.

In its heyday the railway had two locomotives, with five services a week carrying 150,00 passengers and 20,000 tonnes of freight a year. Unfortunately, with Madagascar bumping from one political and economic crisis to the next since the 1960s, little money has been invested in the railway’s upkeep, which explains the record-breaking delays and the serial derailings and breakdowns. There is now one locomotive only and just two passenger services a week (and one freight only), which results in overcrowding and overloading.

The carriages too have seen better days: you may like the idea of travelling second class, but one look at the stationmaster’s appalled face upon your request, and a quick look at the carriage, will likely put paid to your plan in quick order. First class it is then, and not a bad choice at that: the seats are relatively comfortable, the glass is clear and the windows open and shut.

The highlands’ stretch of the journey is arguably the most scenic: the train snakes through steep mountainsides dotted with forest, waterfalls, terraced fields and fruit plantations. With so many mountains to link and rivers to cross, there are no less than 48 tunnels, 67 bridges and four viaducts, including the spectacular one at Ankeba, which towers 40m above a sea of rice paddies.

Travelling through such majestic landscapes is rail travel at its best: the speed is slow (20km/h on average), the windows are usually left open so that the air fills with the scent of the branches the train brushes past. You quickly get to chat to your neighbours, be they fellow tourists or Malagasies. It feels as if for just a few hours, you’ve taken a break from the 21st century’s frenetic pace.

The environment starts changing around Fenomby, about 100km into the journey – the landscape is flatter, the air is warmer, and rice paddies and palm trees replace the forested slopes.

Wildlife renaissance

African Parks was set up in 2000 by conservationists looking for a new way to restore the continent’s poorest wildlife regions. Working with local governments, it takes full management control of reserves for 25 years, aiming to make them ecologically, socially and financially sustainable.

Today, through donations from philanthropists, governments and NGOs, the South African non-profit organisation manages ten parks in seven countries: Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. In total, African Parks protects a massive 60,000 sq km of land and its wildlife. And the organisation has had some astounding results.

In Zambia, African Parks has restored the remote Liuwa Plain National Park, which hosts Africa’s little-known, but second largest, wildebeest migration; in the process the park’s population of wildebeest has trebled from a mere 15,000 to 45,000. In eastern Zambia’s beguiling Bangweulu Wetlands, it is protecting the weirdly prehistoric-looking shoebill, one of the continent’s rarest birds. In Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where animal populations had dwindled following the country’s horrific genocide, African Parks has reintroduced thousands of animals. The rhino is next on the list, and its return will once again make the park a Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) destination.

A guide on the lookout for wildlife in Liwonde National Park, Malawi  © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet

There have, however, been challenges and tragedies along the way. In the volatile DRC, African Parks fights organised criminal gangs in military-style operations to protect elephants, with some rangers losing their lives. In Chad, six scouts were brutally murdered by poachers during morning prayers.

In 2003 African Parks’ first project was Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi. Today, it’s deservedly their flagship reserve – its regeneration has been phenomenal.

Majete Wildlife Reserve: an example in conservation

Poaching used to be rife across Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, and by 1992 Majete was an empty, ghostly shell. Every elephant had been killed and barely any wildlife survived, save for crocodiles, hippos and a few resilient antelope. African Parks has since transformed this reserve into a wildlife wonderland. Costing US$3 million, it relocated some 2500 animals here, including the famous Big Five.

Lions were recently reintroduced to Majete Wildlife Reserve by African Parks © Morgan Trimble / Getty Images

A modern-day Noah’s Ark, Majete is now home to around 9000 animals and myriad bird species. The diverse populations live among gentle rolling hills, riverine landscapes, lush woodlands and the majestic Shire River forging its way to the Zambezi. On wildlife drives you can see grumpy buffaloes wallowing in mud, elegant eland lying in sandy riverbeds and nyala (striking antelopes with devilish faces) ducking behind bushes. On boat trips, you’re more likely to see countless elephants mooching along the riverbanks. Indeed, Majete’s elephants have been so happily breeding that 250 of them will soon be relocated to Nkhotakota.

African Parks works with people as well as wildlife, helping locals benefit from conservation through education, healthcare and income-generating projects like the community-run campsite and visitor centre. Nearby, Thawale is a laid-back lodge run by African Parks, or for a little luxury, Mukumaladzi (robinpopesafaris.net) has eight chic chalets overlooking the river. Costing €1.3 million, Mukumuladzi opened in 2011, and was a massive vote of confidence in Majete’s incredible revival.

Liwonde National Park: rhinos, elephants and the Shire River

Flowing from Majete’s success, African Parks took on the management of Liwonde National Park in August 2015. There’s a wondrous beauty about Liwonde, with dappled miombo woodlands, fever-tree forests, baobab and palm trees, and huge candelabra euphorbia scattered across the landscape. But the Shire River is the star of the show here, cutting a swathe through golden floodplains.

An elephant herd slating their thirst at the Shire River, Liwonde National Park © Christophe Cerisier / Getty Images

On boat safaris, you’ll see what this park is all about. Expect to pass scores of hippos and crocs lingering just a couple of metres from elephants drinking on the riverbank, with the only sound breaking the silence being the big beasts’ slurping and gurgling. On the plains, hundreds of waterbucks and impala graze quietly and warthogs trot around. And the birdlife is mesmerising too, from tiny multi-coloured malachite kingfishers and gigantic goliath herons to elegant African skimmers flying in formation over the water.

Liwonde’s sanctuary, a fenced area within the park, is home to buffalo, zebra, sable and rare black rhino. Unusually, visitors can track rhino with researchers, learning all about their plight and conservation.

Living alongside wildlife isn’t easy – elephants kill and devour crops – and this small park spanning 548 sq km is surrounded by people. Until recently, poaching and human wildlife conflict were rife in Liwonde. Helping protect both people and wildlife, African Parks is fencing the entire park, and in the biggest translocation of elephants in Africa’s history, is moving 250 of the park’s 800 elephants to Nkhotakota. The charming Mvuu Lodge and nearby camp offer fascinating village and school visits that reveal glimpses of local life.

Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve: a time to shine

Exciting times lie ahead for Nkhotakota. After years of neglect that saw its wildlife populations plummet, this also became an African Parks reserve in August 2015. Since then, AP has worked closely with local communities (some 300,000 people live around this area) helping them to have a better life beyond poaching. Many have handed in their weapons in exchange for jobs in the park, and snares, traps and guns have been recovered.

Best Place In Emirati to eats

So what exactly is Emirati cuisine? Hearty meat dishes born in the desert and seafood from the Arabian Gulf, usually served with flatbread and rice. Bezar, a blend of roasted and ground spices including coriander, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon, is added to practically everything, while centuries-old trading partners such as Iran and India have also left their mark on the cuisine. Many of the newer restaurants aren’t just sticking to a traditional menu though: camel sliders and chicken tikka-stuffed breads are just a couple of the unexpected Emirati-fusion treats on offer. Here’s where to get your fill.

Contemporary cooking at Aseelah

With dishes like date-stuffed chicken roulade and juicy camel sliders, Aseelah at Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek serves up the city’s most adventurous and accomplished take on local cuisine. Old-school favourites are not forgotten; chef Uwe Micheel has spent years visiting Emirati families to master recipes like prawns marinated in bezar and aseeda bobar (pumpkin pudding). This stylish spot is the only Emirati restaurant that serves booze, with creative cocktails and a well-priced wine list.

A trio of camel sliders with different toppings including date and lime jam © NikAndTam

Authentic flavours at Al Fanar

Al Fanar is a kitsch, fun spot, with food and décor harking back to the pre-oil days. Don’t let the Festival City Mall location put you off; designed like an old courtyard house, the restaurant is hugely atmospheric (just ignore the dodgy waxworks). First-timers are encouraged to try chicken machboos (a bezar-spiced rice dish) and tender naghar mashwi (grilled squid). There’s a second branch at Town Centre Jumeriah.

Home-style cooking at Al Tawasol

Locals have been flocking to the family-run Al Tawasol in Deira for food-like-Grandma-used-to-make since 1999. Take a seat on a corner of carpet in the main dining area or in one of the private tented majlis, then scoop up succulent lamb machboos and spicy salona (curry) with your hands. Al Tawasol also does a mean mandi, a Yemeni dish that’s been adopted across the Arabian Peninsula: meat slow-cooked in a tandoor and served over aromatic rice.

A platter of lamb salona and chicken mandi at Al Tawasol © Glen Pearson

Camel milk treats at The Majlis

With intricate mashrabiya and a blue-tiled fountain, The Majlis (themajlisdubai.com) at Dubai Mall specialises in coffee, cakes, shakes and ice cream made from camel milk. A staple of the Bedouin diet until the mid-20th century, it’s lower in fat, and higher in vitamins and minerals, than the cow equivalent. Try a camelccino made with the café’s own blend of Ethiopian beans, paired with a pistachio-glazed éclair made with – you guessed it – camel milk.

Trendy-meets-traditional at Seven Sands

Spread over two floors at The Beach at JBR, Seven Sands (sevensandsrestaurant.com) features sleek Arabesque interiors and a breezy terrace overlooking the sea. Blending traditional with trendy, the menu is full of Emirati classics, but you’ll also see dishes from the wider region such as velvety hummus and crumbly kibbeh. Dishes to try? Sambousas – similar to Indian samosas but given a bezar spice twist – and prawn fouga flavoured with bezar, saffron and dry limes.

Prawn fouga (bezar spices cooked together with perfumed stock) at Seven Sands © Glen Pearson

Creative khameer at Logma

Located in trendy BoxPark, Logma (logma.ae) is a hip eatery with modern interiors – think funky camel motifs and hanging kerosene lamps – and casual, contemporary Emirati fare.  It’s a top spot for lunch with soft khameer flatbread stuffed with fillings such as chicken tikka, or smothered in more traditional cream cheese and dibs. Order with a side of Logma’s famous fries seasoned with Khaleeji spices.