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Set In Scotland: From Harry Potter to Outlander

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The Hogwarts Express, aka the Jacobite train, runs from Fort William to Mallaig daily, choc full of Harry Potter fans.

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald travel pages about “set-jetting” – a then relatively new trend where travellers would seek out the locations where their favourite movies, TV shows and, in that case, crime novels were set.

Since then it has become even bigger business with fans travelling thousands of kilometres to the places where their favourite films and TV shows were shot.

One example that we recently covered here on Mild Rover features Hobbiton in New Zealand. Meanwhile Visit Scotland has taken that cue and made the most of the many movies and TV shows – from Harry Potter to Outlander – set or filmed there.

If it’s movies that take your fancy, a brand new 52-page downloadable book called Set in Scotland, features more than 150 films that have been shot entirely or partially in Scotland – such as (bits of) Braveheart (1995), Skyfall (2012), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and The Batman (2022) – and details more than 100 film locations.

And there’s plenty of TV shows too with the latest, the new Lord of the Rings TV series, Rings of Power also being shot in Scotland.

There’s a lot to cherry pick from the locations, if you happen to be passing close by. But a day-by-day self-drive tour guide to Outlander locations gives a glamorous structure to visits for those who want to venture off the typical tourist trails and meander around the country’s villages, small towns and big cities.

You’ll find all that and much more in a brand new website : TV & Filming Locations in Scotland | VisitScotland.

This handy guide has all the location information you’ll ever need to plot out a blockbuster, screen-themed trip to Scotland for 2023.

And if you are interested in revisiting my years-old trip around the pages of crime novels and their locations, you will find Scenes of the Crimes here.

Hear, hear, the pipes are calling

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Portrait of actor Alan Cummings in the V&A Dundee Tartan exhibition

Scotland’s Tourism spruikers are ramping up their efforts to get more people over there in 2023 – and you have to admit there’s a lot on offer.

From January through to December there are plenty of reasons why Scotland should be at the top of any travel plans.

Start the year with Burns Night Celebrations across the country, watch the blooming of bluebells, snowdrops, and fresh fauna, welcoming new wildlife in spring, before gearing up for a festival extravaganza in the summer months.

Then comes the turning of the leaves casting a golden blanket over the landscapes before winter rolls round again and the year closes with the sound of fireworks and revelry at Hogmanay celebrations far and wide.

For a more peaceful sojourn, there are cabins aplenty with views that are out of this world, lush green forests and spectacular waterfalls spraying mists that are reinvigoratingly cool, and intimate gigs where revellers can dance the night away.

So, whether seeking adventure or tranquillity, shopping or feasting – or a taste of it all – trvellers to Scotland will find a world of choices and can expect a warm welcome awaiting them!  

There are many reasons to make Scotland the place to be in 2023! The list below is just a selection of some of the major openings, news updates and events to look forward to in the year ahead.

 Celtic Connections 30th Anniversary, January 2023

Over its 30-year history, the Glasgow -based music festival Celtic Connections has gained a global reputations for brining together Scottish, Irish (and other Celtic sounds) with World music from a surprising range of global musical influences.

Its 30th anniversary in January 2023 is a huge moment for the festival as it recognises and celebrates its advancements and achievements of the last thirty years with an ambitious and eclectic programme of music showcased from Thursday 19th January to Sunday 5th February 2023. The full programme can be viewed here: www.celticconnections.com

V&A Dundee – Tartan, April 2023

In its fifth anniversary year, V&A Dundee will offer a radical new look at one of the world’s best-known fabrics through its flagship exhibition: Tartan.

The first major exhibition curated entirely by V&A Dundee, with consultant curator ​​Jonathan Faiers of the University of Southampton, will celebrate the global story of a unique pattern which has connected communities worldwide, expressed tradition, revolt and diversity, and inspired playful and provocative design.

It is a complex, rich, and sometimes painful history unequalled by any other cloth or pattern. Tartan is a textile which is adored and derided, inspiring great works of art and design, and representative of unity and dissent, tradition and rebellion.

Moreover, V&A Dundee, the first V&A museum in the world outside London, will celebrate its fifth anniversary in September 2023. Fans of the TV series Succession will have seen inside the V&A Dundee in the scene where patriarch Logan Roy has his 70th birthday party and one of his sons tells him he has bought him a “Scottish kickball team”.

For more information about the real going on in V&A Dundee and to book, visit: www.vam.ac.uk/dundee

Scottish Crannog Centre, Spring 2023

Scotland’s dwellings aren’t all ruined castles and picturesque whitewashed cottages. A couple of thousand years ago, some Scots lived in crannogs – thatch-roofed circular houses built on timber piles over lakes.

The Scottish Crannog Centre is currently building a new museum located at the site of Dalerb on the North side of Loch Tay in Perthshire which is set to open in (northern) spring 2023.

its aim is to be the most sustainable museum in Scotland. The new visitor centre will showcase internationally significant archaeological collections, an Iron Age-inspired village of craft and technology demonstrations, and the first of three expert-led, but community-built, crannogs. For more information, visit www.crannog.co.uk.

Tall Ships Races, July 2023

Fans of the TV detective series Shetland and sail enthusiast alike will be excited to learn that the islands will once again host the Tall Ships Races from Wednesday 26th July to Friday 29th July in Lerwick.

The Tall Ships Races is an annual race series that has been arranged by Sail Training International since 1956 and in summer 2023 the town of Lerwick will welcome the fleet for four days of celebrations, sharing culture and international friendships.

The full event programme is currently under development and is set to be published in March 2023. For more information and to keep up to date, visit www.tallshipslerwick.com

 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships, August 2023

The biggest cycling event in the world comes to Scotland in 2023! The world’s greatest riders will come together in Glasgow and across Scotland to compete at the highest level, make history and show the world the power of the bike.

Across 11 days of events, competitors will compete for over 200 rainbow jerseys and World Champions will be crowned in events covering everything from BMX to Mountain Biking, Indoor Cycling to Road Cycling, Para-Cycling and much, much more.

With Scotland’s beautiful bike-ready landscapes, legendary cycling centres and epic arenas ready to welcome competitors and visitors from all over the world, there’s never been a better time to plan a cycling trip to Scotland. This event isn’t just for elite riders, it’s an opportunity for everyone to ride their bike! For more information, please visit www.cyclingworldchamps.com

The Scottish National Gallery, Summer 2023

The transformative project to deliver an inspiring new space for Scotland’s renowned collection of Scottish art is set be completed in 2023. From summer next year, visitors can enjoy and appreciate a brand-new suite of world-class galleries at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

The Scottish National Gallery Project will create a beautiful space for Scotland’s art right in the heart of Edinburgh, with striking displays drawn from the National Galleries of Scotland’s broad-ranging collection alongside special loans from other leading arts institutions.

Large windows will offer spectacular light-filled views across Princes Street Gardens, inviting visitors to come in and discover the work of pioneering Scottish artists such as Phoebe Anna TraquairWilliam McTaggartAnne RedpathSir Henry Raeburn and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For more information, visit www.nationalgalleries.org

Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, March 2023

Opening in 2023, Dundreggan Rewilding Centre will be Trees for Life’s flagship rewilding estate, a unique place rich in natural and cultural heritage where real change is happening, restoring Scotland’s landscape. The new wild landscape and its ancient connections to Gaelic culture will encourage people to ‘rewild’ themselves by connecting with nature and exploring the heritage of the Highlands. Dundreggan Rewilding Centre will become a gateway for people to experience rewilding in ways that are best suited to them; from a casual visit while passing through, to immersive experiences, encouraging the idea that we can work with nature rather than against it.

Second City knows the score

Scotland is awash with top-class golf courses, most of which aren’t owned by Donald Trump, but if you can’t get to them, a Topgolf facility has opened in Glasgow.

Borrow clubs for free – or bring your own _ and take aim at the giant outfield targets using high-tech balls which automatically keep score. Enjoy climate-controlled hitting bays for year-round practice, relax in the sports bar or refuel in the onsite restaurant. One question – do they count air swings?

For even more golfing fun in the city, Golf It! the Royal and Ancient’s brand-new golf concept will open in Glasgow in summer 2023. The vast new indoor and outdoor attraction is a new innovation and marks a significant financial investment by The R&A aimed at making golf more accessible and inclusive.

The facility will feature a range of new golf formats including a twist on pitch and putt, adventure golf and community putting greens plus a double decker floodlit driving range and a new look nine-hole course for all the family to play.

Soak in the sights of onsen central, Kinosaki

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The Japanese town of Kinosaki, 160km north of Osaka, is renowned for having numerous unique and charming onsens (hot baths).

But there’s a lot more to the town than lying around, pruning in Kinosaki Onsen, however delightful that may sound. Here are 10 ways you can enjoy the town like a local.

1. Walk the backroads of Kinosaki: All visitors are familiar with the main willow-lined canal street, but some of Kinosaki’s less-travelled roads provide beautiful views as well. Visitors can stroll down Kiyamachi Street and see gorgeous cherry blossom trees in the beginning of April. Be sure to trek up to the hidden views at Yu no Yama Park and the red torii gates at Benten Shrine in Benten Park as well.

2. Relax at a cosy café: Kinosaki Onsen is full of modern, stylish cafés that can help you relax even more during your stay. One of these cafés is OFF. Kinosaki, which first opened in 2018 and became an instant hit with locals and tourists alike. Stop here for a lunch plate with all local and organic ingredients or a scrumptious dessert.

3. Pray at Shisho Shrine: Visit Shisho Shrine, the guardian shrine of Kinosaki Onsen that is said to house the deity that protects the hot spring town and its people. During the warmer months, worshippers have the opportunity to cleanse themselves in a flower-filled chozuya (water pavilion) before paying their respects to the enshrined gods while appreciating the colourful blooms floating alongside their hands.

4. Collect hot spring stamps: Guests participate in a “stamp rally,” as it’s known in Japanese, by purchasing a pamphlet with a map and hopping to stamp collection sections at various accommodations in town. You will find a special stamp for the pamphlet at each bathhouse. Some inns offer prizes for completing this hot spring pilgrimage.

5. Enjoy some local sweets and snacks: Kinosaki’s streets offer many different types of sweets and snacks. For sweets, some local favourites include creamy cheese tarts from Yuagari, limited edition strawberry daifuku from Minatoya, and ice cream from Itaya. At Tajimagyu Delica Chaya, try a Tajima gyuman, a bun filled with Tajima beef, or a kaniman, a bun filled with crab.

6. Soak in the town’s footbaths: Within Kinosaki Onsen, there are 5 footbaths located throughout town: outside of Satono-yu, outside of Yanagi-yu, near Ichino-yu, near the Ropeway, and outside of the Kinosaki Literature Museum. Free to use, these footbaths are perfect for refreshing tired feet.

7. See the fish markets: As Kinosaki Onsen is close to the Sea of Japan, fishermen sell their catches to the fish markets and eateries in town. The area is especially known for winter snow crab. One shop named Okesho Fish Market was established in 1925 when the grandmother of the current owner began selling fish to support her family. Choose from any one of the fresh fish on sale on the first floor and Okesho will prepare and serve it to you upstairs.

8. Hike up Mt. Daishi: Mt. Daishi presents a hiking course through the lush forest in the back of town with a dense tree canopy and little stone guardians. Visitors can hike 15 minutes up halfway to Onsenji Temple, or 45 minutes all the way to the top of the mountain. The hot springs in town below provide a great place to rest afterwards.

9. Bike to the Genbudo Caves: Rent a bicycle from the SOZORO Kinosaki Information Center, located right across the street from Kinosaki Onsen Station. Ride across and then along the Maruyama River to reach the Genbudo Caves in about 20 minutes. Genbudo is a sight to behold, with 5 caves made of columnar joints that formed over 1.6 million years ago.

10. Explore one of the nearby towns: Kinosaki Onsen has much to offer, but you can also visit one of the nearby towns. The area is home to Izushi, the historic castle town; Takeno, the retro beach town; Toyooka, a downtown hub home to bag-making and the Oriental White Stork; Kannabe, the green highlands; and Tanto, the quiet countryside.

When in Rome … roam by scooter

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There are so many places and activities in Italy and especially Rome that have the word “iconic” attached to them that the word is almost rendered redundant.

And there are few modes of transport that are so quintessentially Italian than motor scooters – whether it’s Vespas or Lambrettas.

So at this point we’ll let the PRs for the Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome Hotel take the handlebars to steer us through their “Eat, Pray Love” experience.

Zip through Rome’s labyrinth of passages and alleyways in an iconic Vespa sidecar as part of the hotel’s “Eat, Pray & Love” Signature Experience where discerning travellers can traverse Rome’s colourful districts and explore the city’s artistic charm and tantalising flavours.

From the vibrant Trastevere to the elegant Trevi, every district in Rome has its own appeal and the Eat, Pray & Love Signature Experience provides three hours of active and meaningful immersion into the city’s community, culture and local experiences.

Guests can indulge in the best artisanal pastries at Biscotteria Innocenti, savour award-winning vegan chocolate at Grezzo Raw Chocolate, marvel at the iconic Moses sculpture by Michelangelo at San Pietro in Vincoli, witness the rare craftsmanship of handmade globes and hourglasses at Polvere del Tempo and observe the original crypt of the virgin martyr Saint Cecilia at Santa Cecilia Church.

All tours are guided by the hotel’s knowledgeable Streetwise Guru to ensure that guests truly experience the sights, sounds and spirituality of a city that changes continuously.

Located in the city centre in one of the most enviable locations, Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome is the perfect base for a day of exploration. Fronting the Piazza della Repubblica, the hotel is within walking distance of iconic sites such as the Fori Imperiali, Via Veneto, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. After a day of immersion, guests can return to an evening of rooftop relaxation overlooking the Eternal City.

With 238 rooms and suites spread across two wings and four floors, guests can choose from a variety of accommodations each with its own unique characteristics, whether an open-plan design with a mezzanine, a stunning balcony overlooking the piazza, or a serene rooftop terrace.

The Eat, Pray & Love Signature Experience is €300 for two passengers by golf cart, €140 per person for a Vespa sidecar, €148 per person (for up to three passengers) for a private Mercedes E Class and €300 for two people on foot. The experience must be booked at least 48 hours in advance to ensure availability and includes private transfers.

For more information please visit https://www.anantara.com/en/palazzo-naiadi-rome/experiences/eat-pray-love

Fantasy becomes reality in NZ’s Hobbiton

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It’s so lush and lovely, for a moment my fellow tourists are stunned into silence. But then Middle Earth Madness descends once again and the chatter erupts.

“They say the series is the most expensive ever made,” one says. “That’s right!” someone else replies. “One billion US dollars! But geez, it’s worth every cent. Look at this landscape … It’s just as gorgeous as it is on the screen.”

For while the new TV series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is attracting massive audiences around the world – a record-smashing 25 million viewers gorged on it in the first 24 hours of its launch – this is where it all began: on a humble sheep and cattle farm pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Even by the standards of the North Island of New Zealand, it feels very much like a lost kingdom. A two-hour drive south from Auckland, with the last 20 minutes on country roads so narrow and winding you’re sure you’ve gone wrong somewhere, Hobbiton, just outside Matamata, finally reveals itself in a display of otherworldly beauty that’s absolutely breathtaking.       

The Kaimai Range Mountains stand stern guard in the distance, while the rolling green hills, dales and ponds of the 560ha Alexander farm, studded with the cutest of Hobbit holes, slowly comes into view. 

It was this idyllic site, 24 years ago, that Kiwi director Peter Jackson glimpsed from the air and decided it would make the perfect setting for his The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Thirteen years and 17 Oscars later, the set was rebuilt for The Hobbit Trilogy and this time, thanks to farmer Ian Alexander, who’d become tired of people constantly knocking on his door to visit where the films had been made, it was built out of permanent materials.

On its opening 20 years ago, it instantly became one of the country’s top tourist attractions, attracting more than 3.5 million visitors. And now it’s undergoing a fresh wave of popularity thanks to Amazon’s prequel The Rings of Power, now airing on Prime Video and the latest adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkein novel (and its appendices).  

“It’s been pretty crazy here since that started on TV,” says our guide Stevie, a nerdy Lord of the Rings tragic. “The crowds were just beginning to thin but now it’s started all over again. We’re deluged.”

She certainly is. This fairy-tale site of bucolic countryside and 44 magical Hobbit holes dug into the hills, complete with tiny clothes hanging on lines outside, miniature fruit and vegetables on tables and fishing lines by the ponds, is now firmly back on everyone’s New Zealand itinerary.

Cars drive up constantly to disgorge their occupants and, every 20 minutes, queues form to climb aboard the buses taking them on the two-hour tour. The guides in charge of every 40-strong group impresses on us the importance, when we’re back out and wandering around, of not straying too far in case groups merge and worlds collide.

But it’s so well organised, it just doesn’t matter that we’re all – just 15 per cent Kiwis and the rest of us from around the world – smitten by the passion part III.  

Stevie asks for a volunteer to recreate the scene at the start of the first Oscar-winning Hobbit movie where Bilbo Baggins charges down a narrow path in The Shire, yelling, “I’m going on an adventure!” and a visiting Frenchman fits the bill nicely.

At every point, she explains how so many of the special effects worked, with places and perspectives fiddled with to make Hobbits look smaller and Gandalf, played by the venerable Ian McKellen, look taller. At other times, they used dwarves and an extra, ‘Tall Paul’, a seven-foot-one-inch-tall New Zealand policeman, to keep the illusion going, while some of the Hobbit holes were carved out at 60 per cent human size to make Gandalf grow.

That stunning oak tree overlooking Bag End is actually made out of steel and silicon, with its 376,000 fake leaves imported from Taiwan and individually wired onto the tree, and moss made from glue, paint, yoghurt and sawdust. But the watermill is pretty real, as is The Green Dragon Inn, the setting of so much Middle Earth merriment, where we’re all given a glass of The Hobbit Southfarthing beer or ginger ale from the barrels.

Yet there’s a tinge of sadness in Stevie’s voice when talking of The Rings of Power. While the first series was made in New Zealand, with its locations kept a strict secret until each episode airs, COVID shattered Kiwis’ dreams of keeping on the kingdom, with filming shifted to Scotland. 

“But we’re hopeful that the third series will come back here to be filmed,” she says. “It wouldn’t be right not to.”

Ends/mf

Five other great Middle Earth Sites in New Zealand

  • The Weta Cave and Weta Workshop, Wellington, home to the Oscar-winning company that produced the special effects, costumes and creatures from the movies. tours.wetaworkshop.com.
  • The Jens Hansen Contemporary Gold and Silversmith, Nelson, where the world’s most famous ring was made. You can even buy a replica, with your own Elvish engraving. jenshansen.co.nz.
  • The Fiordland National Park, South Island, which provided so many of the stunning aerial shots for the films. Now there are flights available with the same helicopter company used for the movies. glaciersouthernlakes.co.nz/scenic-helicopter-flights/middle-earth-heli-flights.
  • Queenstown, South Island, where there are also tours to the sites of epic scenes, also with the chance to dress in costume and recreate those scenes yourself.  pureglenorchy.com.
  • The Pelorus River, Havelock, South Island, made famous by the barrel scene in The Hobbit. Now you can also float like a hobbit in The Desolation of Smaug, with Pelorus Eco Adventures providing a kayak or canoe to enjoy the river and native forests. kayak-newzealand.com/hobbit-kayak-tour-new-zealand.

Travel Facts

DRIVE

Hobbiton is at 501 Buckland Road, Hinuera, Matamata, New Zealand, a two-hour drive from Auckland

TOUR

Tours are $89 an adult, $44 a child aged nine to 16. Bookings advised. Phone (64) 7 888 105, see hobbitontours.com.

An edited version ohis feature first appeared in the Traveller section of the SMH/Sun-Herald newspapers. All pictures by Jimmy Thomson.

Traveller.com.au/new-zealand

Save $800 on whirlwind tour of Europe

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Amsterdam, where your tour kicks off

See the world while it’s still there, is our philosophy on MildRover. And we’ve come across this tour that will take you across most of Central Europe in an action-packed 15-day escorted jaunt for just under $5000, including return flights.

That’s $800 per person off the list price, by booking early, and you will travel from Amsterdam to Paris through 11 countries, guided by experts all the way, in this hassle-free journey of European discovery .

Explore the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and France!

Cruise the canals of Amsterdam and Venice, as well as the Rhine. Discover the beauty of Prague and Paris, the art, culture and food of Florence.

Try authentic Czech cuisine and have your breath taken away by the Swiss Alps and marvel at Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Europe is waiting for you – don’t keep your travel dreams on hold!

NB: This tour has nothing to do with MildRover and we haven’t taken any payment or inducements to run this. It just seems like a good package for people who want to see a lot in a limited time.

24 Experiences!

  • Marvel at the stunning scenery in Zaanse Schans
  • Visit the lakeside town of Volendam
  • Cruise the canals of Amsterdam
  • See how Dutch cheese and clogs are crafted
  • Enjoy a photo stop at a Dutch Windmill
  • Cruise down the Rhine River
  • Wine tasting in Germany’s Rhine Valley
  • Visit the historic Bavarian city, Nuremberg 
  • See the best of Prague on a guided walking tour
  • Taste authentic Czech cuisine
  • Visit Bratislava, capital of Slovakia
  • Walking tour of Austria’s capital, Vienna.
  • Drive along and see the best-loved sights in Budapest
  • Visit Lake Balaton
  • Lunch stop in Maribor
  • Walking tour of Ljubljana with a local guide
  • Explore the heart of Venice
  • Walking tour of Florence
  • Dinner in Florence
  • See the Leaning Tower of Pisa 
  • Enjoy a scenic mountain drive to Switzerland
  • Enjoy a driving tour of Paris
  • Visit the port city of Ghent

Day 1: Start of tour in Amsterdam

Welcome to Amsterdam and the start of your tour! Meet up with your tour leader this morning and start the adventure with a visit to a cheese farm where they show you the traditional ways of making cheese and clogs.

Next, enjoy some free time for lunch in the lakeside town of Volendam. Then it’s time to head to Zaanse Schans, known for its historic windmills and wooden houses. After arriving back in Amsterdam later, we’ll enjoy a complimentary Amsterdam canal cruise. This is one of the best ways to be introduced to Amsterdam! We’ll end the first day with a delicious dinner together.

Day 2: Amsterdam – Rhine Valley

Continuing on to the Rhine Valley, we board a riverboat and sail from St Goar to Boppard. With the highest concentration of medieval castles in all of Europe, this is a memorable trip!

Later, we will visit a local wine merchant for an included wine tasting. If the weather during the harvest allows, you may even get to try eiswein (ice wine)! It is a very sweet dessert wine that can only be harvested when the temperature drops below freezing.

Day 3: Nuremberg – Prague

Today we’re off to Prague! But first, we make a quick lunch stop in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. Heavily bombed during WW2, Nuremberg was rebuilt, and today has been returned to some of its former glory.

Prague is a beautiful city and we’re so excited to be here! Known for its art and architecture, this destination will keep your camera clicking. The quirky bars and cobbled lanes add to the European charm.

Prague is also known for its brilliant beer and abundance of art. We take you on a walking tour of the city with a local guide and you can taste some authentic Czech cuisine for dinner. “Na zdraví” as they say in Czech!

Day 4: Prague: Free Day

Your time is your own today, so explore Prague the way you want to. Prague is often described as the jewel in the crown of Central Europe. You’ll find that the city is just as engaging as Barcelona, London or Amsterdam, and is at least as beautiful as Paris.

Join the Prague+ optional and hear all about the history and intriguing stories about this magnificent city!

You can stand in awe of Prague’s dramatic history and how it is reflected in the beauty of its churches, opera houses, concert halls and Prague castle.

Day 5: Bratislava – Vienna

Today we head for the grandeur of Vienna, visiting Bratislava, Capital of Slovakia, for a quick comfort stop. Surrounded by mountains, vineyards, ski runs and unbridled wilderness. Bratislava is a charming city. Spot the medieval castle overlooking the old town and marvel at recent Socialist-era architecture.

Next stop, the beautiful Austrian city of Vienna. A guided walking tour of the UNESCO-credited city centre. See sights like the Hofburg Palace and St Stephen’s Cathedral. Dinner is included tonight and afterwards and you could enjoy an orchestra performance. What could be better than experiencing music in one of the city’s concert halls?

Day 6: Vienna – Budapest

Wave Vienna goodbye as we make our way to the striking Hungarian capital of Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube River, this scenic city is known for its singular mix of Baroque, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture.

On arrival in Budapest, get an overview of this historic city with our driving tour, guided by our local guide. The trip will start on the Buda side of the river and include excursions to Fisherman’s Bastion, glimpses of the Houses of Parliament & more.

This afternoon you have the freedom to explore the city and all of its delights however you please. Enjoy an optional dinner cruise along the Danube this evening.

Day 7: Lake Balaton – Maribor – Ljubljana

Leaving Budapest, to an iconic holiday destination in Hungary – the beautiful Lake Balaton. With nearly 200km of shoreline, it is the largest lake in central Europe. It’s a great place to take a dip on a hot summer day. Next, we’ll stop in Maribor in Slovenia. While here, enjoy lunch and visit the fascinating City Museum.

Then on to our final stop of the day, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. It’s filled to the brim with fairytale castles, beautiful architecture and plenty of natural beauty. An expert local guide will accompany us on a walking tour to point out all the must-see attractions.

Afterwards, explore the city on your own or join an optional Slovenia Evening excursion before heading back to your hotel for the night.

Day 8: Ljubljana – Venice

Venice is our next stop, a city immortalised in literature, film and art for centuries. Its timeless waterways and artistic masterpieces (more per square kilometre than anywhere else on earth) make it truly unique – this is a city that will capture your heart and imagination.

Being Italian, there’s no shortage of incredible food and culture either! Your tour leader will introduce you to the city with an orientation walk, during which you’ll see sights like the world-famous St Marks Square, Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge.

The rest of the afternoon is yours to explore this unforgettable city on your own – don’t miss the opportunity to take a gondola and water taxi to explore Venice from the water.

Day 9: Florence – Tuscany

Leaving Venice is never easy, but luckily the hills of Tuscany are ahead of us! Marvel at the countryside as we head for Florence.

On arrival, we’ll get a panoramic view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo – gorgeous! Then we take a fascinating walking tour of the city with a local guide.

Learn about the history of the city and see historical landmarks. Some of these landmarks date back to Roman times! Enjoy a traditional Italian meal at a local restaurant in Florence. After exploring, we make our way to the Tuscan countryside, where we spend the night.

Day 10: Pisa – Swiss Alps

Departing Tuscany, we make for one of Europe’s most famous buildings. Make sure your camera is charged as we head to Pisa!

Learn the true story behind the leaning tower, and be sure to take some photos! It’s time for a change of scenery as we cross over to the Alps.

We’re just as excited as you are to breathe some fresh mountain air! Is there a better way to enjoy the magic of Switzerland than staying in a typical Swiss village? Take in the beauty of the snow-capped mountains and the greenery around you.

Day 11: Swiss Alps: Free Day

The Alps are yours today! You can make the most of your time by taking a leisurely stroll through the local villages or along crystal-clear lakes or hitting the slopes for a spot of skiing.

Why not take a train or cable car to higher altitudes and surround yourself with snow-capped peaks and white winter snow? If you decide to go to a local village your options are limitless!

Walk through the market stalls, indulge in the local refreshments or sip on some warm gluhwein. You could even shop for chocolates and cuckoo clocks, or have a fondue!

Day 12: Swiss Alps – Paris

It’s an early start today as we make our way out of the mountains. It’s time for the city of lights and love: Paris! Arriving in the afternoon, we’ll take you on a driving tour of the French capital.

Get your cameras ready – you’ll be seeing some of the city’s most treasured landmarks! The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe.

Take note of places to visit on your free day tomorrow.

After the driving tour we’ll enjoy dinner at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter. We’ll then travel back to the hotel on Paris’ world-famous metro system.

Day 13: Paris: Free Day

Today is all yours to explore as you wish. You can visit the famous Louvre museum – a must-see! Get a glimpse of that most famous avenue, the Champs Elysees. This stretch of road is overlooked by the famous Arc de Triomphe.

If you want to explore the darker side, you can descend to the infamous catacombs! Alternatively, stay above ground, explore the museums and tick off all the must-sees. People-watch from a roadside café, or simply stroll the city. Whatever you do, you will be following in the footsteps of great painters, musicians and writers.

Day 14: Paris – Ghent – Amsterdam

It’s our last day already! It’s an early start as we depart Paris, sit back and relax as we drive to our lunch stop – the Belgian city of Ghent. Enjoy some free time to explore the medieval city centre and grab a bite to eat. While we’re driving back to Amsterdam why not use the time to exchange contact details with your fellow travellers.  We hope you enjoyed your Europe coach Tour.

Dates and Deals

On sale from $4999 per person – normally $5799 per person!

2023 Departs Monthly 04 May, 01, 15 June, 27 July, 10 Aug, 07 Sept, 05, 19 Oct. Deposit $2500 per person.  Balance 60 days prior to departure.

2024 Departs Monthly 28 March, 25 April, 09, 23 May, 06 June, 18 July, 01, 15, 29 Aug, 12 Sept. Deposit $500 per person.

Package Includes:

Flights: Return economy airfares from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth

Accommodation:  13 nights in twin share hotel rooms with private en-suite facilities (Solo travellers have the option to pay a single supplement for a private room)

Meals: 13 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 6 dinners. Vegetarian options available for all meals on request

Transport: Modern air-conditioned coach with reclining seats and toilet onboard. Any public transport used as part of the tour days (excludes free days)

Escorted tour: English-speaking tour leader, who will be on hand with advice and tips to ensure that you get the most from your trip.

All taxes and fees included

Want to enhance or extend your holiday?

Add extra nights – ask about extending your stay in Amsterdam or Paris, Combine this coach tour with our Travelzoo European River Cruise deal.
Fly Business class – request a quote for the best Business class airfares.

Phone 1300 168910 (+61 400 226 494 outside Australia)

Email   leanne@mytravelxp.com

Website www.mytravelxp.com

Passenger Booking Form: https://mytravelxp.com/booking-form/

Cambodia’s unique floating, glamping eco-resort

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Sometimes when we are looking around for stories, we come across resorts or destinations that simply make us go “wow!’.

This week we chanced upon a very different form of glamping – glamour camping – in the Canvas & Orchids Retreat in Cambodia, which also seems to go under the name of Four Rivers Eco Lodge.

Whatever it’s called, this a unique resort where the tents are floating on pontoons on the river,  it’s a fully-fledged, self-sustaining eco-lodge – and such a relief from the bipolar Cambodian tourism of Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields.

You can read more about this very different destination right HERE, including how its original iteration was washed away in floods just four years ago.

At time of writing, a land-based tent will cost about $320 a night and a floating billet about $390 (the prices are in US dollars so they vary).  You can find out more and book HERE.

Meanwhile, we’ll let the owners describe the resort in their own words.  Warning, this passage contains purple prose:

Canvas & Orchids Retreat is a unique luxury Cambodian eco-lodge located in the Kingdom of Wonder. Our collection of floating and on-land tented villas will provide you with a once in a lifetime experience in the beauty and splendour of the Cardamom Rainforest.

We were the first in the world to place luxury tents on floating pontoons and each tented villa has been designed to provide you with the highest levels of comfort, quality and luxury. Much of the furniture has been crafted from durable water hyacinth plant that grows abundantly in the area and there are private sundecks on each of the floating tent structures. Our Island Tents are specifically designed for young families to enjoy.

You will experience the highest standard of service, care and accommodation on the bank of the Tatai River, surrounded by the magnificent Cardamom Mountains. Our dedicated, professional team is here to welcome you and ensure your time with us filled with relaxation, wonder and incredible memories.

Within minutes of arrival, you’ll feel the calmness and tranquillity wash over you. Listen to the gentle sound of the river and the orchestral soundtrack of the wildlife – birds, insects, monkeys and perhaps even an elephant if you listen closely enough.

You will spend your days relaxing on your private sundeck, jumping into the refreshing water, kayaking, venturing into the rainforest for tours and activities, and enjoying local and Western-style cuisine. Our chefs at the Canvas & Orchids Restaurant are eager to share some of their local recipes with you and take great pride in serving dishes that have been handed down through the generations.

Culture and tradition are very important to us in the Koh Kong region of Cambodia. We are eager to show you all that the area has to offer, from the magnificent waterfalls to the fascinating nature trails. We are always excited to show you animals and plants you may never have seen before, or taste herbs and spices that you have never even heard of. Learning about our country through food and facts is an exciting experience for all our visitors. The first time they try a local Khmer sauce or hear the sound of a wild monkey always brings a smile to our faces.

Whether you want a romantic break or wish to bring a group of friends and family for a celebration, we can cater for all your needs. Come and enjoy the peace and quiet of the water, jungle and forest that surrounds us.

Enjoy a trip downstream in one of our kayaks, or spend your time sunbathing on your private sundeck. Perhaps you would like to join a nature trip with one of our expert guides? For the adventurous, there are treks through the jungle or up the impressive Ta Kiev Mountain.

One of our most popular relaxing activities is the sunset cruise. This is a magical excursion as you watch the colours of both the sky and the river change before your eyes as the sun slowly disappears. Fireflies start to appear as the final red glow fades on the water, and their energetic, illuminating dance is sure to mesmerise you.

Georgia on my mind… by motorbike

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“How did you know it was me?” I laughed when the man-mountain approached me at the airport in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. “Your helmet,” he said in a heavy accent without a trace of a smile.

I’d just got off a long series of flights, coupled with long layovers, from Sydney to Tbilisi via Singapore and Istanbul. I was expecting to be met by someone from the motorcycle tour company, but obviously missed the paper sign with my name on it amongst hundreds of other greeters. No worry, I thought, there won’t be too many people carrying a crash helmet off an international flight. And I was right.

He took me to his car, a plush Lexus saloon, and started driving me to my hotel. “Do you work for Mototraveltbilisi?” I asked.. “No,” he replied.  “I work for the American embassy.” “Oh! You’re a spy, then,” I joked. He looked levelly back. “No,” he said. ‘I’m a driver”, and  gave me a look that said, don’t say anything else…ever again. I shut up.

After about 20 minutes of silence, he told me that he had picked up some of my friends who were doing the trip with me at 4am that morning. “I am so tired; I work for 24 hours without break,” he told me as he accelerated to 120kph into the oncoming traffic to overtake a car going marginally slower than he was. “Drivers here are very bad,” he said.  “And pedestrians are even worse.” Not really what I wanted to hear at the start of an 18-day motorcycle tour around Georgia.

Four years ago, I completed a tour of Kyrgyzstan with Melbourne-based motorcycle tour company Compass Expeditions. A stunning country, I had a great time and met some wonderful locals as well as fellow riders from US, Canada, UK and Australia.

One pair, a Canadian father and daughter, stayed in touch with the core of the group and every couple of years sent a message, “If I arrange a trip to xxx …. Who’s in?”

I missed out on a Colombia trip due to work commitments but, when the call came  for Georgia, I immediately agreed. I didn’t know much about the country but, then again,  I hadn’t heard of Kyrgyzstan either, but had a blast.

Georgia turned out to be an astounding country. It’s similar in size to Tasmania, yet has 12 distinct climate zones. The Greater Caucasus mountains to the north, forming the border with Russia, boasts three mountains over 5,000 metres tall and over 2,500 peaks.

To the south, the Lesser Caucasus mountains create borders with Turkey and Armenia. To the far east is Azerbaijan, also with a mountainous border. In between the mountains are fertile valleys, plains and even a semi-arid desert region.

The nation, which has endured periods under both Russian and Persian rule in its history, is also  an archaeological treasure, with a 6th Century monastery, many 12th Century fortifications and churches including the cave city of Vardzia, which looks like a set out of Star Wars.

Golden fleece

Recently, a student found a 1.8-million-year-old human tooth, the oldest human remains outside Africa, a discovery which has set the archaeological world alight, providing new insights into human evolution and migration patterns.

The Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts features heavily in Svaneti, a remote region in the north west of the country, where the Svans used to pan for alluvial gold using holed wooden troughs lined with a sheep’s fleece. That  trapped the pieces of gold but  let the water drain through – hence the Golden Fleece that Jason was searching for.

But while all that was interesting, I was here to ride an adventure bike, and I was raring to go.

I met up with my fellow travellers  at the Mototraveltbilisi garage, and we all made adjustments to our bikes before heading out into the Tbilisi traffic for the first time.

One of our guides led the group on a motorbike, and the other followed behind in a ute, providing support and also carrying our luggage. Our  18-day tour was the longest the company had ever done – the usual being 7-10 days, although they also accommodate 3- or 5-day tours.

Traffic calming,
Georgia-style

Chalodi Glacier – Mestia

Cave Monastery of Vardzia

Endless switchbacks
– motorcycle heaven

The Greater Caucasus mountains

Renewable energy donkey

Gravel and dirt roads on the Datvisjari Pass

14th Century Shatili fortress village

The road to the Azerbaijan border

Each day, we rode on a wide variety of roads and tracks, from the near perfect tarred mountain pass to Oni in the Greater Caucasus, to the dreadful gravel and mud goat tracks of the Truso valley. Ironically, some of the most challenging surfaces were the roadworks. Georgia has a very ambitious road building programme, which appears to entail tearing up 30-50kms of road, then resurfacing them 100 metres at a time.

Meantime, all road users drive through the roadworks, dodging excavators and road rollers who keep working irrespective of traffic. No work for traffic controllers in Georgia!

And I can’t forget the ‘Driveway to hell’. After probably the most arduous day of riding we finally reached our guest house, only to find it was at the top of a driveway that rose about a kilometre straight up a mountain, on wet and loose gravel and boulders with switchbacks every 50 metres.

We all slipped and slid our way up, with a few dropped bikes among us (although all at very low speed, if not stationary, trying to turn around the switchbacks) and finally made it, but then spent a restless  night thinking about how we were going to get down again in the morning.

Going up is comparatively easy; you simply back off on the throttle and you stop. But coming down is  usually much harder  as you have to manage your speed, and braking is fraught with danger on such a surface. But happily we all came down without problems.

Food and wine

In fact, Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with archaeological finds dating wine-making back 8000 years to 6000BC. They still use the traditional technique today of burying large earthenware pots (Qvevri) in the ground and filling them with grapes, along with leaves and small branches, sealing them and leaving them for between 30 days and 10 years to ferment.

Each night of our ride, we stayed in local guest houses, which were fairly basic but perfectly adequate and also gave us a great insight into local life. Every patch of garden was given over to growing fruit and vegetables, including grapes trained over any spare passageway or drive, as everyone produces their own wine.

Once opened,  the wine is siphoned out, and the detritus is  used to make chacha, a deadly clear form of grappa that can be up to 85% proof.

Meals were generally provided by our hosts also, using their own produce. Every region has its own unique versions of dishes, and most (but not all) are wonderful. We ate many variants of Khachapuri (a sort of cheese filled flatbread) and gorged on Khinkali, a meat and soup filled dumpling, that was addictive.

And the fruit! I’m not a fruit eater, as I rarely graze and don’t eat dessert so fruit just doesn’t fit in to my diet, but all the fruit was so tasty, I would gladly forgo dinner for more.

Every night, while we ate and drank, our tour guides diligently checked the bikes, adjusted cables and oiled chains. We started the tour with Willem and Evert as guides, two likeable Dutch nationals who have settled in Georgia and started the Moto Travel Tbilisi business.

As the tour was so long,  and Willem’s Georgian wife was due to have their baby any day, they switched halfway through with Nika and Tato, both proud Georgians. This gave us further insight into Georgian life and culture.

Avalanche Zone

As an added bonus, Tato was an experienced mountaineer and guide so, on a rare non-riding day, he took us on a hike to the Chalodi glacier, and actually showed us where the glacier face was in both 1975 and 2000, demonstrating  just how much global warming is affecting the natural environment.

He also pointed out the avalanche zone and precarious boulders that a small group of hikers was walking under to get up close and personal with the glacier, further highlighting the benefits of travelling with knowledgeable guides.

So, in 16 days (with two rest days) we did around 3000 kilometres, on the most amazing roads, seeing incredible scenery and historical sites. We rode from Batumi in the far south-west and just 8kms from the Turkish border, to several spots a few kms from the Russian border in the far north, including our guest house in Ardoti (with the ‘Driveway to hell’).  

We waved at the border guards on the Azerbaijani side of the north east border and fortunately, they waved back and didn’t shoot, although they did initially raise their rifles as we approached. We were also taken on several wine tours of traditional wineries in the fertile Kakeheti region.

The only injury of significance was when one of the group, Chicago Steve, cracked a crown on an unexpected bone in his Chashushuli (Beef stew with tomatoes). Even then, despite being in a remote mountain village, Nika and Tato managed to track down a dentist on a public holiday (St Miriam’s day), who glued it together and reset it the following morning for the princely sum of $17!

Our group’s ages ranged from 30 to 72 and, while we are all competent riders, we are by no means off-road guns (except maybe one or two) and although the conditions were challenging, they were never really too scary.

In fact, the hairiest moment of the whole trip was climbing up ramshackle ladders in a 12th century watchtower in Mestia, a ski region overlooked by Mount Ushba in Svaneti, to see the conditions that the locals lived in whilst under siege by marauding neighbours desperate for their precious salt.

Independent travellers can get around in Georgia, but the language does make it a little tricky.  English is spoken in the cities and by the younger generation, but out in the regions, there’s little English spoken or understood.

Yet Georgia is an astounding country that’s just getting noticed internationally for tourism, and I strongly recommend considering visiting soon, before too many others discover it.  

  • If you wish to tour on motorcycles, contact Willem or Evert at https://mototraveltbilisi.com. They also have cars and land cruisers for rent, and can provide expert advice for itineraries.
  • Our trip cost around $5000 for 18 days, and included everything except flights. Bike hire, fuel, food and drink and accommodation was all covered within that cost – they even covered the cost of two traffic fines! The food provided was plentiful and the drink was free-flowing. In fact, we never took out our wallets once during the whole trip.

Here’s a promotional video from the Mototravelbilisi website, where you will find several more, if you’re interested.

Indochine by land, sea and the mighty Mekong

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The Hidden Treasures of Vietnam and Cambodia is a 20-day tour and cruise package available from July to November next year (2023) which includes highlights of Vietnam, the Mekong River and Cambodia.

Priced from $5,645 per person, twin share, this special offer could see you save up to $3000 per couple – but only until all slots are filled.

As for the tour, you begin your journey among the rolling hills of Sapa in northern Vietnam, then dive into the bustling and culturally rich city of Hanoi.

Then there’s a two-night Ha Long Bay cruise on a classic junk before you take to the mighty Mekong River, stopping by the quaint riverside villages as you make your way to historic Ho Chi Minh City.

Includes a Vietnamese cooking class, exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter on a rickshaw ride, and a guaranteed balcony room on the RV Apsara.

Trip details: https://www.travelmarvel.com.au/trips/asia/vtms20/jul2022-apr2023

For more Information call Travelmarvel on 1300 300 036 or visit www.travelmarvel.com.au

Sail round Australia like royalty and save a fortune

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In just over a month, Cunard line’s iconic Queen Elizabeth returns to Australian shores for the first time since early 2020. Fremantle in WA will host Queen Elizabeth’s first local call this homeport season.

For many, the arrival of a Cunard Queen marks the beginning of the local summer cruise season. Throughout her 121-day record Australian residence, starting on November 7, Queen Elizabeth invites guests to experience once-in-a-lifetime encounters and unique itineraries.

The inaugural Great Australian Culinary Voyage features Australian produce and bespoke menus created by leading chefs Matt Moran, Mark Olive and Darren Purchese. The 5-night roundtrip from Sydney departing on 28 January 2023, features calls in Melbourne and Burnie where the culinary experiences continue on shore with one-off excursions curated especially for the sailing.

Gardening royalty Graham Ross and Jamie Durie will share their knowledge onboard Cunard’s first Gardening Journey departing Melbourne on 4 February 2023. Throughout the 7-night-sailing, these and many more special guests will share their best tips and the top trends in gardening via informative talks, hands-on workshops and on-shore experiences.

Australian personalities Sir Peter Cosgrove, Dawn Fraser and Nova Peris will inspire guests with anecdotes from their lives.

For a special fare starting from AU$7,029 (instead of AU$10,349) per person twin share in a Balcony Stateroom guests can join the ship’s first ever circuit of Australia featuring calls to iconic cities and regional gems such as Port Douglas, Airlie Beach, Esperance, Eden and Kangaroo Island departing Fremantle on 7 November 2022.

The last time a Cunard Queen circled the continent was back in 2014, so this is a very rare opportunity for travellers to enjoy what the prestigious British cruise line is all about on an extended sailing: impeccable service, exemplary fine dining, grand Gala Nights, dynamic West End style entertainment and enough room to feel special, unwind and relax.

Cunard’s signature experiences which set the brand apart include daily Afternoon Tea, Gala Balls, art deco inspired public spaces, grand on-board libraries, dance classes and deck games.

A range of select Cunard sailings are currently available for a reduced fare with savings of up to 25% as part of the brand’s Annual Savings Event when booked until 30 November 2022.

For more information and to book, visit www.cunard.com.

For Circumnavigation ex Fremantle, visit https://www.cunard.com/en-au/find-a-cruise/Q231C/Q231C

For Circumnavigation ex Sydney, visit https://www.cunard.com/en-au/find-a-cruise/Q232A/Q232A