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Steppes Big 5: Australian Swagging Experiences

Join Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain on BBC2’s Stargazing Live, to marvel at the star-studded southern skies of Australia. One of the most magical ways to experience Australia’s wilderness is to spend a night sleeping in the open, under a twinkling starry sky, in a luxury swag (a deluxe reinvention of a bushman’s bedroll!). Swagging literally means to Travel with one’s personal belongings in a bundle. There are a number of places where it is possible to experience luxury swag camping and with such a lot of sky and relatively few people Australia has some of the most stunning star studded heavens.

Bamurru Plains, Kakadu

Stay at this wonderful remote bush lodge on the edge of Kakadu National Park and after your chef prepared 3 course evening meal head out to The Hide, a 6 metre high platform with 360 degree views of the surrounding landscapes. Spend the night snuggled up in a deluxe swag listening to the nocturnal sounds of the nearby floodplains.

Bamurru Plains, The Hide, Kakadu National Park, Mary River, Northern Territories, Australia

Longitude 131˚, Uluru

Facing the iconic monolith of Uluru, Longitude 131 is a magical retreat hidden amidst the vast outback of central Australia. Having recently added a balcony to each of the fifteen luxury guest tents, it is now possible to spend the night beneath the stars. Port, cognac and other digestifs are served by firelight before settled down in your bespoke luxury swag for two for the night.

Longitude 131, Guestroom with terrace and views of Uluru

Sal Salis, Ningaloo Reef

When shown a photo of Sal Salis the general response is a sharp intake of breath followed by an “oooooooohhh, where is that??” A remote safari camp nestled in the sand dunes just feet from the sandy beaches and turquoise, coral filled waters of the Ningaloo Reef on the west coast of Australia. This is the place to come to spend your days swinging in a hammock, snorkelling with turtles or swimming with Whale Sharks! Abandon your tent for the night and instead sleep on the beach under the stars.

Sal Salis tented accommodation

Pepperbush Adventures, Tasmania

Not something offered as standard but we can arrange for a night under the stars with Craig ‘Bushie’ Williams – owner of Pepper Bush Adventures, a real life Tasmanian bushman and one of the countries most respected wildlife guides. Indulge in a bush tucker meal cooked over the fire in the middle of nowhere while spotting the local wildlife as the sunsets, before settled down for the night in your swag.

On tour with Craig Williams - Pepperbush Adventures

Arkaba Walk, Flinders Ranges

Experience outback walking in style on a 4 day walk through the ancient and ever changing landscapes of the Flinders Ranges and camp out under the stars. Camps are set up in spectacular locations so this is an amazing chance to experience the true scale and beauty of the outback but with a few creature comforts to make it an extra special experience. Covering 45 km’s over four days a support vehicle takes luggage between camps and a guide and all meals and drinks are included.

Arkaba Walk, Swag Camp

Start planning your Australian adventure now. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5: Latin America Carnivals

Carnival Season, Brazil

It is carnival season in Latin America and with the residents of Rio preparing to drum, mambo and shimmy their way through the streets of the city this coming weekend, we thought we would share our favourite carnivals with you. Joyful processions, music and masquerade are not just the reserve of Brazil…

1. Brazil

Aside from the world-famous Rio Carnival, here are two others that we feel are well worth considering:

Olinda is a beautifully preserved colonial town and its annual festivities are known as the ‘carnival of participation’ during which people of all ages are encouraged to make their own costumes and join in with the street celebrations. Notable for the huge papier mache puppets, known as ‘bonecos’ which are carried aloft amidst the colourful parades and rousing music.

Probably best known as the first carnival to feature an electric parade float the colourful carnival of Salvador de Bahia is the second largest after Rio and nowadays features a huge truck decked out in some serious lighting and topped by a live band which forms the centrepiece of the celebrations.

2. Argentina

A carnival with the devil at its centre, the festivities at Quebrada de Humahuaca begin with the unearthing of Satan – a large devil shaped doll, buried at the end of the previous year’s festivities.  Mixing traditional indigenous and catholic celebrations, Satan is let out to play during 9 days of partying before being buried for another year.

3. Bolivia

Located amidst the Andean highlands at 3,710 metres above sea level, Oruru Carnival is the highest located carnival in the world and celebrates the traditional dress, cultures and dance from all corners of Bolivia. Recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the centrepiece of this 10-day festival is the ‘Dance of the Devils’ featuring hundreds of devils dressed in suitably scary costumes. The aim is to appease the devil through offerings, dance, music and costume. The festivities end with a huge water bomb fight.

 4. Mexico

Nicknamed the most joyful carnival in the world, the 9 day Veracruz carnival is the largest in Mexico. Opening with a huge bonfire to burn away bad moods the festivities feature numerous competitions for the best group based on anything from their costumes to their dancing and even their joyfulness.
The carnival ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, a mock funeral and an amusing reading of his will.

Traditional Mexican Bunting

5. Colombia

Set in the colonial town of Barranquilla, this 4-day carnival has strong European, African and Indian traditions and is the largest carnival outside of Brazil. Another carnival that has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the festivities stem from a mix of catholic and pagan celebrations. Beginning with a six-hour parade of flowers the festivities feature much drum and wind based music and many dances with strong African links having originated from the Congo.

If you would like to plan a holiday to Latin America to coincide with any of the above carnivals. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5: Film Locations in China

The Great Wall, released today, is the most expensive shoot set entirely in China. Directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, the story may not be historically accurate (there were no monsters attacking China), but it reveals stunning panoramas of the man-made marvel that is the Great Wall of China.

The wall is made up of many sections built over time by the different ruling dynasties. The best preserved are just outside of Beijing, with many Steppes clients visiting the Mutianyu or Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall.

This is not the first movie to display China’s stunning beauty. Here are Steppes Big 5:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – The highest grossing foreign-language film in the USA was filmed in several magnificent locations in China such as the UNESCO-listed Hongcun Ancient Village near Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).

Hero (2002) – The highest grossing film in China on release and won several awards for its cinematography. It also alerted many to the spectacular scenery of Jiuzhaigou National Park, a short flight from Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

Avatar (2009) – The highest grossing film of all time and credited for the use of impressive 3D visual effects. The floating Hallelujah Mountains in the imaginary universe of Pandora were inspired by the sandstone karst formations of Zhangjiajie National Park within the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.

The Last Emperor (1987) – A true story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Chinese Ching Dynasty. Told in flashback, the film covers the years 1908 to 1967. Shot on location in China, the film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Visit the filming locations including the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Museums of the Imperial Palace, Changchun. This epic movie is still a feast for the eyes.

Kung Fu Panda (2006) – A computer animated action movie, revolving around a panda who aspires to be a Kung Fu Master in ancient China. Winning numerous Annie awards  for Best Animated Feature and Best Music in an animated feature the musical score alone is worthy of a watch, produced by Hans Zimmer collaborating with John Powell.

To absorb the culture of China, Zimmer spent time in the company of the China National Symphony Orchestra as part of his preparation. Why not time your travel to China to coincide with a performance at the Beijing Concert Hall.

Travel with Steppes and experience the best that China has to offer. From private access at some of the most important sights to lesser visited areas. Spend a day with pandas or hike along the Great Wall. If you are interested in visiting one or all these film locations, please contact our China experts.

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Steppes Big 5: Reasons to Travel to Western Australia

Kangaroo, Australia

The west coast of Australia is often overlooked for the more famous east coast but why not choose Perth instead of Sydney or the Ningaloo Reef instead of the Great Barrier Reef. Far less visited and no less spectacular here are our top five reasons why Western Australia gets our vote:

1. Perth

‚€‚Perth, AustraliaFollowing a recent mining boom, Perth and the surrounding areas are enjoying investment and restoration leading to the tagline ‘the re-birth of Perth’. International hotels are taking up residence in the city and historical buildings getting a new lease of life in the form of boutique hotels like COMO The Treasury. Elizabeth Quay will re-connect the city from the Swan River to the harbour and become home to gourmet restaurants and a buzzing atmosphere akin to that of Sydney Harbour. Annual festivals, huge city parks and the trendy port of Fremantle all combine to make Perth a destination in its own right.

 

2. Whale Sharks & Humpbacks

Humpback WhaleFar less visited than the Great Barrier reef and located just metres off the shore, this pristine reef stretches for 260km and is home to Manta ray, Green & Loggerhead turtles, dugongs and dolphin as well as being on the migratory route for Whale Sharks and Humpback Whales.

When to visit the Ningaloo Reef: To swim with Whale sharks visit from April to July and Humpbacks from August until October.

 

 

3. World-Class Food, Wine & Beaches

Beach, Margaret River, Western Australia, AustraliaLocated south of Perth, Margaret River is a hidden corner of Australia, home to world-class vineyards and wonderful beaches, equally great for surfing on as well as sunning oneself. A gastronomic destination the region is renowned for its artisan food produce. Hunt for rare black truffles with highly trained truffle dogs before sampling your treasure.

When to visit Margaret River: October through to March is a great time to visit Margaret River and the surrounding beaches.

 

4. Pristine Wilderness

Mitchell Falls and Mitchell Plateau, Kimberley, Western Australia, AustraliaThe Kimberley’s are a vast wilderness of mangroves, rivers, ancient aboriginal rock art and tumbling waterfalls. This should definitely be on the radar for anyone who dreams of escaping the rat race and truly getting off the beaten track.

When to visit The Kimberley: It is hot and humid with monsoon rains from January to March so the best time of year to visit is from June to September.

 

5. open spaces, aboriginal culture & wild flowers

Wild Flowers, Hickman Crater, Western AustraliaCovering 2.5 million square kilometres with 12,500km of coastline and encompassing one third of Australia’s land mass, there is no shortage of wide open spaces and far reaching scenery in Western Australia. Rich in Aboriginal history, the Bradshaw cave paintings can be found here, dating back some 60,000 years they are believed to be among the earliest figurative paintings ever made. Glorious wildflowers carpet the parts of the region from June through until November.

 

 

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Western Australia. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5: Thailand and Indonesian Five Star Getaways

In conjunction with Malaysian Airlines, Steppes Travel are offering truly incredible prices to five of our favourite resorts in Thailand and Indonesia. These limited offers are genuine and we keep pinching ourselves daily as they seem too good to be true. Stretch the body and not the budget with upgrades to business class from as little as £375 one way. Travel in style.

Thailand

Choose from a hammock hangout on idyllic 15 km wide Koh Samui, located in the Gulf of Thailand. Or go west to the Andaman coast, and buzzing Phuket,Thailand’s largest island. Fringed by natural rain forests and internationally acclaimed marine parks, diving and trekking adventures are on the doorstep if you can extract yourself away from serious luxury.

Belmond Napasai – Koh Samui

thailand Belmond

A seven night stay at Belmond Napasai starts from only £1465 per person including flights. Save up to an incredible £1000 per person. The offer includes one free night and an early booking discount if booked 90 days prior to stay. Complimentary one way business class upgrade is included with Malaysian airlines, subject to availability. Price based on two sharing a sea view Hill Villa on bed and breakfast basis. Children under the age of 12 may stay for free with complimentary breakfast. Please enquire for further details.

Why we like it : We love the peaceful location and traditional sense of Thai service

 

Banyan Tree Samui- Koh Samui

Banyan Tree

A seven night stay starts from £1815 per person for one week in a Deluxe Pool Villa. Receive two nights free on any seven night stay, and enjoy a complimentary 60 minute massage in resort. Children travelling may qualify for a free stay when sharing a room. Stay at Banyan Tree between now and the 15th June 2017.

Why we like it : Large villas scattered along the hillside with stunning views of the white sand beach

The Sarojin – Phuket

The Sarojin

A seven night stay starts from £1370 per person in a Garden Residence on a bed and breakfast basis. This price is based on two people sharing a room and flying Malaysian Airlines with a one way upgrade to Business Class. This price is valid for stays during September and October 2016. Prices from £1995 in November and December.

Why we like it : Genuine warmth of the staff and one of the best beaches in Phuket.

Indonesia – Bali

The island of Bali is a perfect summer getaway with weather at its driest during May – October. A destination for boutique hotels and stylish retreats, Bali offers fashionable night scenes in Seminyak; the coolest corner of the island with chic galleries and dining options. Or the flip side of stress easing jungle tranquillity in Ubud, Bali’s thriving cultural heart.

Alila – Seminyak

Seminyak Alila

A seven night stay starts from £1785 per person, based on a Pool Suite on a bed and breakfast basis. Malaysian Airlines one way upgrade to Business Class included.  Stay at the Alila between now and the 31st October 2016.

Why we like it : Style, and bags of it. One of Bali’s more contemporary beachside properties

Como Uma – Ubud

Como Ubud

A seven night stay starts from £1995 per person including a one way upgrade with Malaysian airlines to Business Class. Stay at Como Uma Ubud between now and the 31st March 2017.

Why we like it : A haven of peace but easy walking distance from Ubud’s bustling centre 

All these offers are subject to availability and need to be booked with Steppes Travel by the 19th August. Travel to be completed by the 15th June 2017.

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Steppes Big 5: Last Minute European Getaways

Cape of Trafalgar, Costa de la Luz, Andalucia, Spain

Escape the unpredictable British summer weather and book a short haul adventure in search of some summer sun. Either for a romantic break or a family holiday, here are our pick of European destinations for travel over the coming months, all of which have some amazing savings on offer.

1. France

Charter your own barge for the ultimate holiday with family and friends or join like-minded travellers for a wonderfully relaxing break. France has it all, from beautiful rolling countryside to pretty medieval villages, charming local markets and some of the best food and wine in the world. Experience all of this whilst gently cruising the French waterways on board your luxury hotel barge.

Amazing savings on offer for selected dates in August, September & October.

Anjodi Hotel Barge, Cruising, France

2. Andalucia, Spain

Stay at the Hacienda de San Rafael, once an olive farm, now a boutique hotel. Relax around one of the three pools or sip a glass of wine and read a book under the shady bougainvillea covered courtyard. This peaceful retreat is also a short drive away from the fabulous city of Seville, the beaches of the Costa de la Luz or the charming white villages of Arcos and Vejer de la Frontera.

Save 20% on all bookings in August.

Pool, Hacienda de San Rafael, Seville, Spain

3. Losinj Island, Croatia

Just 20 miles long by 2 miles wide with crystal clear waters and uncrowded beaches, Losinj is a little known island that historically could only be reached by ferry. The recent introduction of the sea plane arriving from Split will soon put this hidden gem on the tourist map. Small in size, but home to a handful of lovely boutique hotels, there are savings to be made with stays at both Hotel Alhambra and Bellvue.

Alhambra Hotel, Losinj Island, Croatia

4. Tuscany, Italy

Stay at Castel Porrona Relais, a boutique hotel in a medieval village amidst the Tuscan hills or Castello del Nero, a converted 12th Century castle in the heart of the Chianti wine region. Tuscany is a beautiful part of the world with some excellent special offers for travel over the next two months.

 

5. St. Petersburg, Russia

Take a short break to the magical city of St Petersburg to explore some of the worlds grandest palaces and largest art collections. The fountains at Peterhof are at their most spectacular in the summer months and the parks, gardens and museums are at their peaceful best in September.

Travel before October 24th and save £300 on a short break to St Petersburg.

Peterhof Palace and gardens, St Petersburg, Russia

Get in touch to learn more about any of the above last minute getaways. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5 reasons to visit the Sacred Valley before heading to Machu Picchu

Inca Women Peru

The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is a place that draws people from all over the world. It is a truly spectacular sight deep within the Andes Mountains that has fascinated many since its discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Although photographs have daubed many international travel magazines and much has been written, nothing can fully prepare you for just how spectacular, awe inspiring and mythical this place really is. It is not surprising that when presented with the opportunity to return I was delighted and eager to marvel this great wonder once again. On this trip I spent some days within the Sacred Valley before reaching Machu Picchu. What I discovered in doing so was an absolute treat and highlighted just how much a visit to the area can offer.

1.Inca Sites

Although Machu Picchu remained undiscovered for centuries after the fall of the Incan Empire, many sites were discovered much earlier. Since Spanish colonisation many of these sites have been damaged but nonetheless remain sites of huge historical interest.

Travelling through the Sacred Valley it soon became apparent that there are Inca sites everywhere. With the benefit of a good guide I realised that the valley is in fact one massive outdoor museum, covered with archaeological places that each help to form an understanding of the workings of this intriguing empire.

One such place I visited was Moray, an Incan agricultural laboratory that was likely used to cultivate resistant and hearty varieties of plants high in the Andes. It straddles the mountainside and has been restored to reveal a fascinating side to Incan farming. Another extraordinary place I discovered is the small village of Maras. High in the Andes where natural sources of salt seem impossible, the area was cultivated by the Incas to form salt ponds from a natural spring. Using skilled techniques farmers continue to cultivate the area to extract salt to this day. Other fascinating sites include Qoricancha, Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Chinchero and many more, all in their own way providing an important insight into the life and culture of the Incas.

2. Location

The Sacred Valley stretches for approximately 60 kilometres and encompasses areas of fertile farmland and colonial villages scattered alongside the Urubamba River. It is this expanse of land between Cusco and Machu Picchu that formed the heart of the once magnificent Incan Empire.

Machu Picchu actually sits at a relatively modest altitude of 2430 meters above sea level, by contrast Cusco sits at 3400. Thus the huge appeal of a stay within the Sacred Valley immediately becomes both obvious and appealing; the chance to acclimatise. Many visitors will arrive into Cusco and head to a city hotel, whereas a relatively short drive into the Sacred Valley enables you to rest at a more modest altitude and unwind in beautiful surroundings.

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3.Superb hotels & Spas

Within the valley I discovered several delightful properties dotted across this vast mountainous floor. Owing to the idyllic surroundings nearly every room of each hotel can boast spectacular uninterrupted views. Anyone in search of total rest and relaxation will instantly feel rewarded by a stay here, an excellent area to unwind and switch off.  A vast range of treatments are on offer at many resorts providing the perfect opportunity to spoil yourself. Additionally I found the quality of the hotel restaurants to be of a high standard, so many taking huge pride in offering the very best in Peruvian and international cuisine.

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4.Adventure

For those who would prefer a more adventurous stay there are a wide range of activities to enjoy here. I had the opportunity to whitewater raft, horse ride, trek along the many Inca trails and zip wire. I opted this time for a biking tour. Quite simply a fantastic experience, the trips are great for all levels of fitness and can be organised with minimal uphill cycling. Cycle across the many pathways, meandering through the valley taking in the stunning scenery.

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5.Markets

One of the biggest draws to Peru and to the Sacred Valley in particular is the wonderful display of handcrafted clothing, jewellery and ceramics on offer at several of the village markets. The most renowned of these is the market within the village of Pisac. Here I found the cobbled streets are lined with artisan creations that are often extremely colourful and superbly made. Well worth leaving some space in your luggage for.

Pisac Market

Inca Women Peru

The big draw to this beautiful part of Peru will always remain Machu Picchu but to spend a day or two in the valley itself is fun, relaxing and incredibly rewarding.

Get in touch to learn more about our Peru holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5: Reasons to visit Georgia in all seasons

This relatively small country encompasses beautiful mountains, wetlands, semi desert landscapes and open steppes. Peppered with ancient cities, monasteries, castles and churches, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Not quite Europe and not quite Asia but a wonderfully exotic mixture of both, this accessible destination is rewarding in all seasons.

1. Georgia in Spring

Spring in Georgia offers lovely warm temperatures and is a wonderful destination for lovers of wildlife. Few people know that Georgia is home to one of the most important migratory corridors for birds, in particular raptors. As such it is a superb place for keen ornithologists or for those who just enjoy the sight of some wonderful bird life. Spring flowers carpet the hillsides below snow-capped peaks.

P.GE007.Stone Faces of Sno Village, Kazbegi, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia(0000046345)

2. Georgia in Summer

The mountains of Georgia are snow covered for most of the year but during the summer months from June to September the snow melts and often impassable routes become accessible. Trek through alpine meadows beneath towering mountains passing Glacier Rivers and ancient churches.

P.GE011.Enroute to Ushguli, Upper Svaneti, Georgia(0000023453)

3. Georgia in Autumn

Georgia produces some superb wines, much of which is still made using traditional techniques and today over 175,000 acres of the country are planted with vines. Wine is significant to the psyche of the Georgian people and the vine symbolises regeneration and wealth. During the months of September and October the harvest or rtveli takes place and is an important time of the year with much celebrating, singing, music and wine tasting!

September is also the month our small, expert led group tour departs for Georgia. Led by Ian Colvin this trip includes the highlights of this culturally rich country.

Grape Harvesting, Kakheti, Georgia

4. Georgia in Winter

Fast gaining a reputation as the Switzerland of the Caucasus, Georgia is a great destination for winter sports with some excellent skiing available amidst some of the country’s 16,000 ft pristine mountain peaks. Alternatively the cobbled streets of Tbilisi makes a wonderful long weekend with the chance to visit sulphur baths and museums, take in a puppet theatre performance and drink a glass of wine or two in the XVIII – XIX century’s cellars. Winter is not a sleepy season. Winter is a season of fun and relaxation!

P.GE901.Sulphur Baths and Metechi Church, Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia(0000017008)

5. The People & cuisine of Georgia

The people of Georgia are known for their hospitality and whatever time of year you visit the country, expect a warm welcome and some of the most delicious food and drink in Europe.

C.GE.Traditional food & wine, Georgia(0000037773)

Get in touch to start planning your holiday to Georgia. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Big 5 iconic highlights of China

I have just returned from a trip taking in some of the most popular places to be visited by the first time traveller to China; Beijing, Xian, Guilin (Yangshuo) and Shanghai, plus Chengdu, home of the Giant Panda. With such iconic sites come the inevitable crowds but I have found a few ways to view some of these amazing sites without the masses. As such here are my suggestions of how to avoid the masses and experience China a little differently.

1. Giant Pandas and Six Senses Luxury

Six Senses Qing Cheng, China

It is hard to find havens of peace and quiet in China but at the Six Senses you are in a very quiet location with the opportunity to walk and cycle and see Giant Pandas at the new Panda reserve at Dujiangyan. This reserve is only accessible via a tour operator so offers the chance to view these gentle giants with few others around.
Beautiful rooms, a pool, gym and a pleasant garden in which to sit make the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain an ideal place to unwind after the direct flight on British Airways from London to Chengdu.

2. Wonders of Beijing

temple-of-heaven-beijing-china

In the Forbidden City view the private living quarters in the Chonghua Palace, a truly exclusive behind the scenes opportunity. Spend a day being carried (not compulsory) in a sedan chair at the Great Wall and decadently dine in one of the watchtowers on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

Follow in the footsteps of emperors and stay at Aman at Summer Palace using their “secret” door to access the Summer Palace itself when the crowds have gone.

3. The Terracotta Warriors
Ancient-city-pingyao-china

Xian is home to the amazing life size terracotta warriors that guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Jump the queue using our fast track knowledge and electric cars and stand face to face with the warriors themselves while other visitors look down from above. See the miniature warriors of the Han dynasty, equally impressive, a great favourite with clients, but seldom included by most programmes, except us of course.

4. The Li River

Banyan Tee Yangshuo, CHina

Yangshuo, near Guilin, is well known for its stunning lime stone scenery, the Li River and cormorant fishing. In 1983 when I first visited, Yangshuo was a sleepy riverside town that awoke for two hours each day when the few tourist boats arrived and then resumed its slumbers. Now Yangshuo is a small town with literally hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists. Leave this behind and take a gentle raft trip along one of the tributary rivers, a far more peaceful and tranquil experience. Take a bicycle (the terrain here is great for cycling as it’s flat) and explore the winding tracks that pass through the farming community. Stop to speak with local people and gain an insight into rural life.

View Banyan Tree Yangshuo

5. Shanghai

Ahn Luh Zhujiajiao, China

Shanghai is changing all the time. A city that was once a thriving far Eastern port under the British and the French has again reinvented itself and is now the country’s leading financial centre. Bright lights and amazing food make it an exciting place to experience. It is also home to the world famous acrobats who perform death defying acts, ancient arts with a modern twist. Get the best of both worlds and stay in the picturesque water town of Zhujiajiao, located just one hour from Shanghai. Experience the buzz and energy of Shanghai before returning to the calm of your luxury hotel.

LUXURY HOSTED HOLIDAYS TO CHINA

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps suggests staying in the top hotel and dining in the finest of restaurants – however for us, service and expert guiding is key. Incredible attention to personal detail and immersion into a culture makes your experience.

We have fantastic guiding options. Opt for a local guide, someone chosen for their care, attention and knowledge. Or be guided by a western host who speaks fluent Chinese, lives in China and has studied this country’s culture and history. I was sceptical at first about the latter, but having experienced being guided by a western host on my trip I firmly believe that they are able to bridge the link effectively between the local community and the visitor for a fully immersive experience.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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The Gardens of India – Steppes Top 5

Mehtab Bagh Garden on the bank opposite the Taj Mahal

If there was ever an opportunity to experience India’s aesthetic richness it is to explore one of its historic and gardens. Emperors and dynasties have created some extraordinarily beautiful gardens from grand Mughal style terrace lawns to botanical gardens with diverse and rare flora. Step into one these gardens for a moment of contemplation and tranquillity to take a break from India’s exhilarating pace of life.

1.Delhi – Mughal Gardens

The Mughal Gardens are a group of beautiful gardens built by the Mughals in the Islamic architectural style. Located in the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises, the official residence of the Indian President. These gardens are utterly unique, divided into a grid of squares with handsome lotus shaped fountains. They have over 250 varieties of roses, 60 varieties of Bougainvillea as well as other flora with 250 varieties of bonsai plants and 33 varieties of medicinal and aromatic plants in the Herbal Garden. (The Mughal gardens are open to the public in February-March every year from 9.30pm till 2.30pm).

Rashtrapati Bhavan, Delhi home of the President of India

2. Agra – Mehtab Bagh

This Mughal style garden is located on the opposite bank of the river from the Taj Mahal, offering picturesque views of the ‘monument to love’, particularly at the sunset. It is believed that the great emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for his queen, wanted an identical structure for himself at Mehtab Bagh. Though no structure exists here, archaeological findings have proved the existence of a garden complex. Mehtab Bagh is worth a visit as it provides bewitching views of the Taj Mahal. The garden has been renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India and planted with more than 40 species of flora. (Open daily from 6am to 7pm).

India White herons in the Mehtab Bagh garden with Taj Mahal view in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

3. Jaipur – Sisodia Rani Ka Bagh

This royal garden was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in 1728 for his second queen Sisodia. Sisodia Rani Garden is adorned with beautiful wall paintings of the Radha-Krishna love story. The paintings on the wall and the narrative details truly represent eternal love and befits the essence of this garden which itself is a symbol of love. This lush green royal garden is replete with flowerbeds, foliage, beautiful water fountains, pavilions, galleries, iridescent water channels and murals. (Daily opening from 8am to 4.30pm).

India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, Sisodia Rani Ka Bagh Palace, built in 1710 A.D. by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, view of the garden

4. Srinagar – Nishat Bagh or the ‘Garden of PleasurE’

Designed in 1633 by Asaf Khan, brother of Nur Jehan, Nishat Bagh is the largest of the Mughal Gardens in India. Rising from the Dal Lake in a series of manicured terraces and avenues of fountains playing against the blue mountain background, the gardens offer a beautiful view across the lake to the Pir Panjal mountain range to the west. The 12 terraces represent the signs of the zodiac and are planted with cypresses and cedars. The gardens also have the remains of some Mughal buildings including a double storey pavilion with latticed windows. (Daily opening from 9.30am to 7pm).

Nishat Bagh, terraced Mughal garden on Dal Lake, Srinagar, India

5. Kolkata – Indian Botanical Gardens

The world famous gardens, now known as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, is a treasure trove of exotic flora amidst beautiful grounds. The highlight of the garden is the world’s largest Banyan Tree, over 250 years old, with as many as 2,880 aerial roots supporting a canopy covering 1.5 hectares. It is an awesome sight and well worth visiting during a stay in Kolkata. (Opening times 5.30am to 5pm Tues – Sun).

The colossal Multiplying, sacred fig tree, Botanical Garden of Calcutta, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1869

 

Get in touch to learn more about our Indian holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Steppes Big 5 activities to do on holiday in the Yukon

The Yukon is one of the most quirky whilst scenically spectacular destinations in Canada. A northern territory of Canada (not to be confused with the Northwest Territories) it has big competition with Alaska bordering to the west and British Columbia to the south. This is a vast open wilderness boasting towering mountains, vast ice-fields, thick coniferous forests and vast meandering rivers. A magnificent deserted landscape to explore, it is twice the size of the UK, but with just a minute fraction of the population. Making it the perfect remote getaway.

Top 5 highlights of the Yukon:

 Dog Sledding

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Two of the most prestigious and gruelling dog sledding races in the world are set in Yukon and neighbouring Alaska. Dog sledding is a prestigious sport here and has a deep history with some of the best Alaskan huskies and race dogs you can find. This is the place to try your hand at dog sledding. Travel with your own team and explore the hundreds of miles of mapped trails with incredible scenery at every turn.

Follow the Klondike trail

Yukon is bursting with history, the majority of which surrounds the mass gold rush of the late 1800’s. The Klondike Gold Rush saw mass migration into the Yukon soon after the discovery of gold with treacherous journeys for prospectors. Today, this history is still apparent in the quirky communities. Dawson City was at the heart of this and you can still gold pan today – definitely a must do for any tour of the Yukon.

Cross the Arctic Circle

yukon

The infamous Dempster Highway is widely known as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Stretching 460 miles, this vast gravel road leads through the northern Yukon all the way to the Arctic Circle passing through small offbeat towns along the way. The scenery is unmissable, displaying some of the most magnificent wilderness in the world. Passing through three mountain ranges there is not only impressive peaks but a wide variety of wildlife to see along the way.

Ice bear viewing in the Yukon

HT.CA019.Ice Bear, Bear Cave Mountain, Yukon, Canada

Nowhere else in the world can you view the phenomenon of the ‘ice bears’. Set within a stone’s throw of the Arctic Circle, Bear Cave Mountain is an extremely remote lodge visited by just a handful of people per year. With just a 6 week window, this is the place for the true wildlife lover and for photographers seeking something new and extraordinary. Due to a seasonal phenomenon, when snow is thick on the ground and winter sets in hard, watch as grizzlies fishing for salmon, dive into icy waters emerging with great icicles hanging off their thick furs.

The Northern Lights of the Yukon

Whilst auroras can be seen closer to home, the Yukon cannot be forgotten for its impressive winter light displays. Experience the total silence and solitude of the winter here whilst watching for the bright multi-coloured light displays seen each year. Tied in with dog sledding adventures or ski escapes, the Yukon should not be missed for a winter escape.

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Steppes Big 5: Palaces of St Petersburg

St Petersburg boasts some of Europe’s grandest palaces and residences. Full of fascinating history and some of the world’s richest treasures. Below are our top five palaces to include in a visit to St Petersburg.

1. Catherine’s Palace (Pushkin)

Pushkin is one of the former summer residences of the Russian tsars. Situated in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg it comprises of several pavilions, beautiful lakes and gardens and the wonderful Catherine Palace. The summer palace was originally given by Peter the Great to his wife Catherine, and was rebuilt by Italian architect Rastrelli in 1756. The palace is a huge, elegant building with white and gold Baroque mouldings set against a blue background and located in a beautiful park with elaborate gardens, canals and pavilions.

2. Peterhof

Peterhof is a must in the summer. Peterhof, or “Peter’s Court”, dates back to 1715 and is a former summer residence of the Russian Tsars. Most famous for its stunning golden fountains, the palace grounds house several buildings and parks.

3. Winter Palace (Hermitage)

The Hermitage is made up of the Winter Palace, Large and Small Hermitage plus the Theatre and New Hermitage. The Winter Palace, the official residence of Russian emperors, designed by architect Rastrelli in 1754-1762, occupies the leading place in the whole ensemble. The State Hermitage features one of the largest art collections in the world. It numbers about 3 million items, including masterpieces by outstanding artists.

4. Yusupov Palace

The Yusupov Palace is arguably one of the most interesting and beautifully preserved palace in the city. Built in the 1740s and then bought by Catherine the Great for one of her ladies in waiting, it was eventually purchased by Prince Nikolai Yusupov in 1830. Subsequently it was here that Prince Felix Yusupov planned and carried out the murder of Rasputin. All the rooms are beautifully restored and full of art, while the highlight is the exquisite private theatre, built for Zineida Yusupov, where renowned artists have performed.

5. Pavlovsk

Situated about 26 km from St Petersburg and only 5 km from Pushkin. The Palace of Pavlovsk was a present from Catherine the Great to her son Paul. Originally designed by Charles Cameron, it was partially redesigned at Paul’s request by several famous European architects including Quarenghi and Rossi. Severely damaged in World War II, it has been meticulously and lavishly restored and is set amidst extensive parkland which, when created, was the largest landscaped area in the world.

Start your Russia holiday with Steppes Travel. Call us now on 01285 880980 or email us inspire@steppestravel.com for more info.

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Steppes Big 5: Antarctica Activities

The journey to the Great White Continent is certainly no mean feat. However, to really enhance your experience whilst you are there we recommend you take part in the following activities.

1. Kayaking

Paddling a kayak in polar waters gives a completely different perspective. Curious penguins often porpoise alongside, occasionally seals or even whales dive close to the kayak. The freedom of carving your own path through the chinking and crackling brash ice is amazing. All the expedition ships offer this during a cruise, for extended kayaking options try an Antarctic Peninsula Basecamp or Sailing in Antarctica.

Simon Sharpin Welcomes His Kayakers Into Iceberg Alley - Peterma Kayaking

 

2. Zodiac Cruising

Cruising in a small motor boat (zodiac) allows you to get near the shore and get close to the marine life and icebergs. All cruises include this activity.

Zodiac Zodiac (2)

5. OOE Akademik Ioffe 1 - please credit photographer Wally Chin

3. Diving and snorkelling

For passengers who find the polar plunge (quick dip) is not enough then snorkelling and diving is available on some departures towards the end of the season. The waters around Antarctica are generally crystal clear so ideal for underwater viewing. Just under the surface experience an array of underwater marine life such as crustaceans, isopods, starfish and nudibranchs. Viewing penguins underwater must be one of the most mesmerising experiences, their remarkable speed and mobility is like watching little torpedo’s.

Snorkelling (2) Snorkelling

9. crabeeater seal shutterstock_90216778

4. Trekking

On all the voyages there is the opportunity to go onshore and stretch your legs. On most excursions there is a range of walks from the gentle wander to the more strenuous longer treks where you can get some height and great views. Snow shoes are provided on a number of ships to aid walking in deeper snow.

5. Walking With Penguins, Antarctica (alex mudd)

trekking

Group of penguins - JW

5. Camping

During a visit to Antarctica camp out for the night on the snow, a special and unique experience with penguins and seals for company. Not many people can say they have slept out on the seventh continent. It may not be the best night’s sleep but probably the most memorable.

P.AN001.Camping, Basecamp OW, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica(0000047919)

Penguin view from tent

P.AN001.Camping, Basecamp OW, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica(0000047917)

 

Talk to our Antarctica Travel Experts to start your journey to the white continent, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Antarctica, South Georgia & Falklands Cruise with Monty Halls, Sue Flood and Telegraph Tours

wildlife group tour

Antarctica & FSG with Monty Halls, Sue Flood & Telegraph Tours

24 days from £10,950pp

View Group Tour

90o South, Camp at the South Pole

90o South, Camp at the South Pole

7 days from £35,135pp

View Holiday Idea

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Steppes Big 5 Reasons Why 2016 Is The Year To Visit The Galapagos

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Having recently returned from the Galapagos I was reminded of the pure beauty and unique nature of these islands, home to animals and plants found no where else on earth. Standing as one of the most significant wildlife destinations in the world, here are my top 5 reasons why the Galapagos Islands remains one of the most in demand destinations that should be on your travel wish list.

1) Curious creatures

I have been fortunate to have many close wildlife encounters throughout the world but the striking feature of the Galapagos Islands is undoubtedly the fearless nature of the animals. Wildlife that holds no fear of humans is a rare beauty and it does not take long to witness this truly unique aspect.
On my first arrival to the Galapagos, I was greeted by the surreal scene of tangled iguanas and sea lions basking in the sunshine whilst families and beach goers frolicked nearby. Moving occasionally to allow the sea lions to pass in and out of the waters I watched as the locals, clearly at ease, were just meters from these grand creatures. Lying on a quiet section of beach it was not long until I had my first up close encounter as a warm breath tickled my knee – a curious sea lion checking on the latest arrival. Although unnerving at first you soon realise that this is the Galapagos way. Landing on the Islands, you find yourself meandering through wildlife, within just meters of some of the most precious species in the world from the albatross to the giant tortoise and colourful blue footed boobies. This is undoubtedly a completely remarkable experience for any nature lover.

2) Life beneath the waves

My personal highlight of the Galapagos is the marine world. Teeming with wildlife a trip for me is not complete without exploring the hidden treasures beneath the water. Within the clear waters you find yourself surrounded by spectacular marine species from turtles to manta rays set against a vibrant backdrop of multicoloured coral feeders. Dipping into this natural aquarium I could swim within schools of fish, that were equally comfortable in my presence with turtles feeing on the coral. Swimming is completely tranquil with only the occasional distraction of a curious sea lion coming to play.
For those less confident in the water, do not be put off. Opting for a cruise with a glass bottom boat is a great way to explore this tropical underworld and even snorkelling in the shallows off one of the beaches there is more than plenty to see.

3) Landscape variety

The diversity of the Galapagos is nearly as striking as the wildlife with each island having its own personality and history. One day you will be walking on a sweeping white beach and the next exploring the black lava fields. With the young dramatic islands to the west boasting impressive volcanic craters through to the lush forest highlands and the shallow rocky eastern islands there is plenty to explore. Here you can see the full geological evolution of the islands and this wonderful diversity makes the longer cruise itineraries extremely rewarding.

4) Family fun

Exploring nature can be one of the most rewarding experiences for families and the Galapagos offers one of the best locations for your children’s first wildlife encounters. The variety of species will keep the young ones captivated and the close encounters are the experiences that your children will hold sacred for years to come. The variety of the tours makes sure that children are kept busy all day long and with the option to combine a boat based and land based programme, there is the flexibility to keep the young ones interested.

5) Galapagos by land

For those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there are a selection of wonderful land based options that offer a chance to explore the Galapagos Islands at your own pace. With a handful of inspired properties that are perfectly placed to fully maximise the spectacular surroundings, spend each day touring the nearby islands with the added flexibility offered from top diving locations to secret coves. With African inspired safari tents to modernist feature properties the level of service and accommodation is extremely high and the programmes are innovative to fit with the individual whether your passion is art, bird watching or you simply need to keep the children busy!

Talk to our Galapagos Holiday and Cruise Experts to start your privately guided tour, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Solar Eclipse of the Heart (of Africa)

The best places to see the solar eclipse in 2016.

On the morning of 1st September, 2016, an annular solar eclipse will cut its way across the heart of Africa. The last time that central and eastern Africa witnessed an event like this was almost thirty years ago – before I was born. This captivating continent abounds with great sights and fantastic wildlife; why not combine these with one of the greatest light shows that the heavens have to offer?

What is an annular eclipse?

For the uninitiated, the term ‘annular eclipse’ might not mean very much. It certainly does not mean an eclipse that happens on a yearly basis, as many people might assume. In fact, ‘annular’ derives from the Latin word for ring – ‘anulus’. It is best not to ponder other words that might share this origin.

It is the ring-shaped nature of this eclipse that makes it such a unique phenomenon. Whilst a total solar eclipse leads to the sun being fully obscured by the moon, an annular eclipse occurs when the moon is too distant to fully obscure the sun. Perceived as too small, the moon crosses directly in front of the sun, but a ring of fire forms around it.

The sun’s fiery rays burst from around the edges of the moon’s blackened surface. An image that conjures apocalyptic thoughts, this mesmerising spectacle will visit the skies of Africa for a just few hours this year. To see the path it will take, visit NASA’s interactive webpage.

Where is best to see the eclipse?

This is hard to predict. It will depend on a number of conditions. These include your proximity to the exact path of the eclipse, the conditions overhead, the topography of the surrounding land and the angle of the sun above the horizon.

Furthermore, accommodation and logistical arrangements also play a part. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo plays host to this spectacle for the longest period of time. But the vast tranches of inaccessible jungle that it crosses are not ideal eclipse-viewing territory.

Similarly, whilst the Congo is slightly more accessible, accommodation options within a few hundred kilometres of the eclipse are limited, to say the least. With this in mind, and considering a number of factors, here are some of the places that are best for witnessing this magical astronomic occurrence.

Tanzania

Clear skies and stunning, wildlife-rich surroundings drive Tanzania to the top of my list. September is an excellent month to visit the country, whilst both Katavi and Mahale national parks are almost perfectly positioned for viewing the eclipse.

The eclipse will reach its zenith at around 11.30am, with the sun high in the sky to the northeast. This means that even the Mahale Mountains should prove no impediment to witnessing the sight. And, in spite of the remote locale, accommodation choices are not lacking. Stay at either Greystoke Mahale or Chada Katavi. Both beautiful camps offer an array of activities, with the former renowned for its chimp trekking and the latter offering excellent lion encounters.

The pick of these for eclipse viewing is probably Greystoke Mahale. Its beautiful beachside location sits bewilderingly close to the perfect point for witnessing the eclipse. Watch as the sky darkens above the Mahale Mountains and fiery sunbursts dance around the edges of the shadowed moon.

HT.TZ044.View from Lake, Greystoke Mahale, Mahale National Park, Tanzania(0000020881)

Mozambique

This offers a beachside alternative to Tanzania, with the country’s largest coastal park lying either side of the perfect point to view the eclipse. With the eclipse peaking at around 11.20am, the sky will darken over the idyllic Quirimbas Archipelago as the shimmering Indian Ocean grows briefly dull. And, just like Tanzania, the beautiful surroundings will undoubtedly be overlooked by clear skies at this time of year.

Two beautiful island properties steal the best spots for this late-morning show: Azura Benguerra Private Island sits just to the south of the perfect viewing location, whilst Ibo Island Lodge is just to the north. Watch in awe as the sun, high in the sky and almost due north, is obscured above this tropical paradise. After the show is over, spend time exploring the archipelago by land and sea.

HT.MZ002.Benguerra Island, Azura Benguerra Island, Benguerra Island, Mozambique(0000040299)

Reunion

This forgotten French overseas territory is located so that the entire island will witness a partial eclipse, at the very least. But those on the southern coast will have the best seats. With the eclipse occurring at around 2pm, whilst the sun is in the northwest, the seafront boulevard of Saint Paul is the place to be. Watch as the endless waters of the distant ocean grow dark, with the sun sitting above an unbroken, watery horizon.

Alternatively, take advantage of Réunion’s volcanic landscape and climb to the island’s highest point, the towering Piton des Neiges, for an excellent vantage point. Or ascend the only active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise, for a surreal, eerie experience. Marvel in the mesmerizingly apocalyptic landscape, as the ash-streaked rocks darken under the shadowy, fire-tinged sky.

2016-01-18 14_37_50-Eclipse Blog

Madagascar

Bisected by the path of the eclipse, Madagascar ought to be a great place to observe this event. However, although the skies will be clear, so will the land. For the eclipse’s path takes it through a region of largely uninhabited wilderness. This means that viewing options are limited by accommodation choices.

However, with the maximum eclipse not occurring until around 12.45pm, there will be plenty of time to get into position. Both Le Palmarium and Anjajavy offer excellent bases, within easy reach of the path of the eclipse. For unobscured, over-the-ocean viewing, the latter is by far the best choice. Located on an isolated stretch of Madagascan coast, this collection of villas sit in front of a wildlife-rich forest reserve.

2016-01-18 14_38_47-Eclipse Blog

Gabon

An easy choice for last place, Gabon only sneaks in by virtue of the beautiful Loango National Park’s perfect positioning. Almost as inaccessible and lacking in tourist infrastructure as the aforementioned D.R.C., this country is not for the faint hearted. However, there is little doubt that watching the eclipse from the magical coastal rainforests of Loango would be an experience to behold. Whilst nearby Omboue and Evengué Island offer even better vantage points, looking out across the vast Nkomi Lagoon.

P.GA006.Animated forest elephants, Loango, Gabon(0000045460)

Start your Journey

All of these destinations (with the possible exception of fickle Gabon) are fantastic choices for viewing this year’s annular eclipse. Whether it be exploring the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania or hiking across the volcanic landscape of Reunion, any trip that incorporates such a captivating, once-in-a-lifetime event will undoubtedly be memorable. And we can make it happen.

Enquire now if any of these destinations have captured your imagination.
Talk to our Africa Travel Experts to start your privately guided tour and see the annular eclipse in 2016, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.