Thursday, January 29, 2015

Contours Travel’s Top 10 Places to Visit in South America in 2015

Australia's longest operating Latin America specialist, Contours Travel, has released their top South American picks for 2015.

Based on travellers' interest in exploring raw and lesser-known destinations around the continent, these 10 places is a mix of untouched nature reserves, historical sites and quirky picturesque towns. While these places may be well known among locals and special interest groups, MD Ted Dziadkiewicz noticed that they have not really been on the radar of Australian travellers; and according to him and his team of experts, "Aussies are missing out on the good stuff, the real beauty of South America!"

"Most travellers who go to South America, especially those who visit for the first time, would join group tours where they are only shown the usual hot spots," says Ted. "However, not far from each hot-spot is a collection of relatively lesser-known, and often, more beautiful places that are just waiting to be explored and experienced." 

1. El Chaltén, Argentina

Translated to 'Smoking Mountain', El Chaltén is a quirky riverside mountain village set on the base of the majestic granite Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains within the Glaciares National Park. Popular among climbers, this village is also known as Argentina's trekking capital. However, non-climbers are equally welcomed to enjoy the many secluded walks to take in marvel at the breathtaking surrounds. Occasionally, the mountains briefly light up in a fiery bright red during sunrise, a phenomenon known as the 'sunrise of fire'. El Chaltén is also one of the very few places where travellers can see the huemel (South Andean deer). The only way to reach El Chaltén is via a bus or car from El Calafate.

2. Marbles Caves, Chile

While Patagonia is one of the most popular destinations in South America, the Marble Caves is a lesser-known spot for Aussie travellers, mainly because it is not easily accessible. This 6,000 year old chamber is a stunning geological formation featuring tunnels and pillars formed by crashing waves. One of its extraordinary feature is its unique capacity to change colours and appearance throughout the year. The only way to explore this marble wonder is with a paddle and a kayak, weather and water conditions permitting.

3. Cuenca, Ecuador

The third largest city in Ecuador, Cuenca provides the intimacy of a small town. Founded in 1557, the city features a sea red tiled roofs, traditional plazas, more than 50 churches and colonial architecture. Apart from being pretty to look at, Cuenca also known for its pretty products including jewellery, textiles antiques, ceramics as well as the famous Panama hat, which is made from locally grown straw. With its city centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site, National Geographic even listed Cuenca's flower market as the No.1 outdoor flower market in the world.

4. Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Set on one of the most beautiful and untouched coastlines on the Caribbean Sea, the Tayrona National Park is home not only to white sandy beaches and lush jungle foliage, but also to well preserved ruins of ancient Indian villages. Suitable for nature lovers and adventurous souls, visitors would also enjoy the stunning views of the snow capped Sierra Navada.

5. Cafayate, Argentina

Often a place where visitors pass through to connect to other locations in Argentina, Cafayate's beauty can sometimes be overlooked. Surrounded by vineyards and rivers and home to many impressive colonial buildings, an extended stay here will expose travellers to a myriad of characters including the traditionally dressed gauchos (Argentine cowboys) riding through town on horsebacks. The town also features old-style stores offering locally made cheeses, preserves and cured meats.

6. Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

At 228 meters, Guyana's Kaieteur Falls is the world's highest waterfall (about four times higher than Niagara Falls). Rich in history involving the Dutch and the British, Guyana is even richer in natural assets, with rugged mountains and unspoilt forests that are bursting with wildlife including tapirs, ocelots, monkeys, armadillos, anteaters and a wide rage of birds. Also the only English-speaking country on the continent, Guyana is truly one of the last frontiers of South America.

7. Coffee Triangle (Armenia, Pereira, Manizales), Colombia

Colombia is an emerging destination for coffee lovers. With its high elevation, steady warmth and volcanic soil of the Colombian Andes, the environment is perfect for growing Arabica plants. The Coffee Triangle consists of the major cities of Manizales, Armenia and Pereira. While Armenia, capital of Quindío, has gained popularity due to its coffee-themed theme park (Parque Nacional Del Café), the triangle itself often remains in its shadow. Travellers in the region are encouraged to visit not only to learn about coffee beans, but enjoy the spectacular surrounds and jaw-dropping views of the Andean Range.

8. Paraty, Brazil

Home to about 36,000 people, Paraty is a quaint colonial town filled with cobbled streets and centuries' old historical houses. Set on a beautiful stretch of coastline and surrounded by mountain ranges, this little gem offers a very different side to Brazil than the likes of São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, where hustle and bustle is the constant theme. Paraty is a four-hour bus ride from Rio de Janeiro or three hours from São Paolo.

9. Ibera Wetlands, Argentina

When it comes to waterways and wildlife in South America, most people are familiar with the Amazon or the Pantanal wetland in Brazil. Very few know about the Ibera Wetlands, the second largest wetlands on the planet (after Pantanal) and the most important freshwater reservoir on the continent. Only a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires, Ibera's protected 13,000 km2 of swampland, lakes and lagoons sees that the unique wildlife in the region including the caimans, capybaras, pampas deer, howler monkeys, giant otters and anaconda, thrive.

10. Salvador Dali Desert, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, or better known as "Salvador Dali" Desert because of landscapes that resemble the paintings of the great surrealist painter, is the world's largest salt flat. Once almost forgotten due to its unrivalled isolation in southwest Bolivia, the moon-like surface and colourful wind-swept plains that make up the vast and vivid desert regained popularity in recent years with travellers exploring the unique landscapes that only South America can offer.

To find out more about these places of interest, contact Contours Travel on 1300 135 391.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

World fastest plane to fly Sydney to London in four hours

Source: KarryOn

The European Space Agency is working a new plane that will travel so fast it makes the Concorde look like the Belphegor – the world’s slowest aircraft.

The jet project called LAPCAT or Long Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies is to develop a high-speed aircraft that can fly up to five times the speed of sound.

At that speed, it will be able to take travellers anywhere in the world in just four hours. So just to be clear from Sydney to London – four hours; Perth to Argentina – four hours; and the Northern Territory to Dubai – four hours.

Expected to be up in the air for testing by 2019, the team behind the new engine – Reaction Engines – say the aircraft will be fuelled by hydrogen fuel – making it one of the greenest planes in the sky.

Additionally, it will use new precooler technology that allow the engine to be cooled by 1,000 degrees Celsius in 0.01 seconds. This allows it to travel faster.

The aircraft itself will only be 267 feet long and carry around 300 passengers.

She will go by the name of Skylon [does the name sound familiar to any Battlestar Galactica fans?].

Unlike other planes, Skylon won’t have any windows.

Last year, a similar high-speed aircraft concept named Space Aerospace s-512 was unveiled. She too had giant displays instead of windows.

According to the S-512′s creators going windowless cuts down the weight of the jet, which makes it travel twice as fast as a regular commercial aircraft.

Earlier this month, a British Airways plane flew at almost the speed of sound and broke the record for flying from New York to London in just over five hours.

Winds of more than 200mph pushed the Boeing 777-200 to a ground speed of 745 mph, which is just 16mph below supersonic speed.

Airbus A350s in formation - amazing video

Okay, aircraft nerds. feast your eyes on this.

“Family flight” – Five A350 XWBs together in flight.

The five test and development A350-900s took to the skies for a formation flight in September 2014, bringing together all of the aircraft used for Airbus’ successful campaign leading to certification of this latest Airbus widebody jetliner

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur - and all that jazz

David Ellis

AFTER fellow travel writer Roderick Eime left us more than a tad envious about some pampering that included an old-fashioned barber shop wet shave in Kuala Lumpur's lovingly-restored Majestic Hotel, we asked him if he'd share with readers his delightful experiences in this hotel from an era past.

Here's his story.

I dare not move. My head rests reassuringly against the comfortable leather while, out of the corner of my eye, I can see the blade being sharpened to a samurai keenness. Then, with a deft hand it's applied to my throat and drawn upward in a slick motion that removes only the offending follicles.

But Aras, my expert swordsman who learned his craft in Iran, worked in London and then came to Asia, is no Sweeney Todd. There's no blood, no serenades to homicide. The 30 minute Traditional Hot Towel Wet Shave is an entirely urbane experience and I'm revelling in it for just 75 ringgit (about AU$26.)

The Truefitt & Hill salon and barber shop in the newly restored and re-opened Majestic Hotel is just a part of the total renaissance experience offered at this delightfully retro hotel. Butlers, barbers, barmen and chauffeurs, all make up the team at guest's beck-and-call when staying in one of the 47 classic colonial-style suites in the aptly-named 'Majestic Wing'.

But it's not just all about nostalgia and pre-war throwbacks to empire. This hotel is a clever mix of old and new, with 300 modern rooms in a totally new-build section, The Tower Wing that looms above the whitewashed walls of the original that opened its doors in August 1932.

The neo-classical/art deco Majestic has been through several incarnations in its 80 year life. During its '30s heyday it catered to European guests and the local well-to-do with traditions like the 'Tea Dance' and 'Dinner Dance,' with even the rooftop garden having a dance floor for 350 guests. And its inclusions such as hot and cold water, showers and flush toilets were firsts for the fledgling Malayan hospitality industry.

But like so much of SE Asia, World War II changed everything. As with other grand hotels The Majestic was taken over by the Japanese Imperial Army, its Room 48 said to be still haunted today by the ghost of a Japanese officer who committed suicide there when Japan surrendered…

The hotel resumed duties as normal in 1945, but struggled to reclaim its place as KL's pinnacle of style and grandeur. And by 1957, when the newly independent Malaysia came into being, The Majestic was falling into disrepair and in 1977 it was almost lost for all time when a 22-storey high rise was planned for the site. The new government, however, stepped in and eventually acquired the building in 1983, giving it heritage listing and turning it into Malaysia's National Art Gallery.

YTL Hotels meanwhile was also negotiating with the government and finally received approval to redevelop the hotel under strict observance to heritage conditions, reopening it in December 2012.

The painstakingly revived and exquisitely neoclassical Majestic Wing is the pièce de résistance of the hotel and a tribute to the lifestyle of the 1930s and jazz era. A quartet entertains daily in The Bar, its strains also being heard in the Tea Lounge, the Orchid Conservatory and the Colonial Café where sumptuous high teas are served.

Adjacent to the original hilltop entrance is the Majestic Spa, while in The Smokehouse you'll find Johnny, a barman's barman who knows every cocktail ever devised. And here gentlemen may partake in cigars while playing billiards and sipping fine single malts – the only concession to contemporary values being they may now do so in the company of ladies.

Before I turn in for the night, I put my shoes out for a polish, hang a shirt to be pressed and send my English breakfast order down to Lynn, the impeccably stylish Assistant Manager who supervises all aspects of the Majestic Wing. I could have my butler, Jay run a bath or turn my quilt should I desire it, but I'm content with a wake-up call to enjoy that English breakfast in my adjoining parlour before tackling the rigours of KL's retail domain.

And that reminds me, I'll need a chauffeur for that.

(Details and reservations:



[] KUALA LUMPUR's Hotel Majestic is all spic 'n span again now after a massive
   redevelopment program. (Roderick Eime)
[] IT was a sadder sight in the 1970s. (YTL Hotels)
[] ARAS is a deft – and popular – swordsman with the cut-throat razor in the hotel's
   salon and barber shop. (Roderick Eime)
[] A TOUCH of class with Afternoon Tea in the Hotel Majestic's Orchid Observatory.
   (YTL Hotels)
[] GUESTS in the Majestic Wing suites enjoy their own individual Drawing Rooms.
   (YTL Hotels)
[] BARMAN John 'Johnny' Yap "knows every cocktail ever devised." (Roderick Eime)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Ethical Traveler listsTop 10 Destinations for a Positive Impact When You Vacation

Travelers: put your money where your beliefs are. Nonprofit encourages tourism to countries known for treating their people & environment well.

Most of us love to travel, and most of us want to have a positive impact on the world. If you do it right, one non-profit asserts, you can do both at the same time. By spending your travel dollars in forward-thinking countries, you can reward the good guys—and encourage good practices worldwide.

Each year, California-based nonprofit Ethical Traveler researches and publishes a list of the 10 most ethical destinations in the developing world. Each country is reviewed for its performance in the areas of human rights, social welfare, animal welfare and protection of the environment. That’s not all; a winning country also must have plenty of appeal as a travel destination. Ethical Traveler congratulates the countries that earned a spot on our 2015 Ethical Destinations Awards.

Samoa - Puila Cave Pools (Laura Beasley)

The 2015 winners, in alphabetical order (NOT in order of merit) are:
  • Cabo Verde
  • Chile
  • Dominica
  • Lithuania
  • Mauritius
  • Palau
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Uruguay
  • Vanuatu
New for 2015:

Tonga is taking bold steps to reduce diesel importation, substituting solar home energy instead. Tonga’s new development plan attempts to balance environmental and economic concerns. In 2015, Ha’aapai will become Tonga’s first island dedicated to organic farming. The new government has also improved in terms of social welfare & human rights. Vanuatu has made great progress in recent years in terms of indigenous rights, democratic reforms and protecting victims of domestic violence. It also has been named the “Happiest Country in the World” by the Happy Planet Index.

Though Samoa lost its spot in 2014 due to a number of serious issues, we’re pleased to return the nation to the winners circle in 2015. Samoa has set new environmental protection goals for itself, and is now working with the United Nations on biodiversity, desertification and climate change. In addition, rape within marriage was outlawed by the recent Crimes Act. Domestic violence measures have improved, as have LGBT rights. The Fa’afafine, traditionally thought of as a “third sex” in Samoa, are now legally allowed to dress as women.

OFF the list in 2015:

Latvia is no longer eligible for our list, as it became the second Baltic state to achieve status as a “developed country.” Latvia now uses the Euro, and is one of the fastest growing economies in the EU.

The otherwise beautiful Bahamas insists on building new captive dolphin facilities. This is a regression in terms of environmentalism and in terms of animal rights. Ethical Traveler opposes all captive cetacean facilities, but is particularly offended to see governments still supporting the construction of new “dolphin prisons.”

Barbados made some strides in terms of environmental protection in 2014. However, our researchers could find no significant evidence of efforts to stop police brutality, curtail human trafficking or protect LGBT rights. We’ll be watching developments in 2015.

Costa Rica, which won in 2013 but was knocked off the list in 2014, continues to be a major Western Hemisphere hub for child sex trafficking. The government also allowed persecution, intimidation and murder of activists working against the illegal shark finning and the sea turtle trades. Rather than take steps to resolve these issues, Costa Rican officials called Ethical Traveler “outrageous” for pointing out the problems.

Our goal at Ethical Traveler is to encourage developing nations to do the right thing, and to reward destinations where policies and actions protect human rights and the environment. While we acknowledge that no country is perfect, we honor those which strive to build a better, more sustainable society. To read the full 10-page report, with more detail than this press release, please visit

Sourced from Ethical Traveler -

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Australia's top walking, trekking and hiking hotspots - Where to go in 2015

With the rise of numerous award-winning adventure films over the last 12 months – think Tracks and Wild – a leading travel experience provider has reported a 35% increase in walking and hiking tour bookings.

With hundreds of epic hiking trails to choose from, Experience Oz has released a shortlist of Australia's must-experience walking and hiking hotspots for 2015.

From coastal scenery dotted with pristine lakes to red deserts scattered with rugged gorges and canyons, it's no surprise that hiking and day walks are increasing in popularity around the country.

Experience Oz Digital Marketing Manager Matt Hobbs said hikes and walks are not only for the professionals, but for any outdoor enthusiast who was keen to experience the stunning natural beauty Australia has to offer.

"As the saying goes, 'Everywhere is walking distance if you make the time', and Australia is renowned for having some truly incredible walking and hiking tracks, so we encourage all outdoor enthusiasts to discover the hidden treasures that are just waiting to be enjoyed," Mr Hobbs said.

"The geographical diversity of Australia ensures there's something for everyone. Enthusiasts can really get out there and conquer the more challenging hikes, while there are great options for beginners too."

Mr Hobbs said a growing number of Australians are taking up hiking or walking, and tourists are also keen to check out Australia's stunning world-renowned landscapes, whether it's to feel the sand between their toes on a deserted beach or enjoy uninterrupted views of rugged terrain.

"From families experiencing the great outdoors on easy bush walking trails to the more serious adventurer, walking and hiking appears to be an ever-growing trend – evident in the increased number of bookings we have been receiving for our guided tours," he said.

"To make it easier for those who share a passion for exploring our great country, we've identified where to go and the best time to visit, so that people can easily make the time to walk and explore this magnificent land from a different perspective."

Experience Oz offers a range of walking experiences, including multi-day and single-day tours, guided or non-guided, and some with food, beverage and accommodation options or inclusions. For more information, please visit

Experience Oz + NZ is one of Australia's leading travel experience providers, offering thousands of adventures throughout Australia and New Zealand including day tours, theme park tickets, attraction tickets and activities. Visit for more information.

Hong Kong's art scene takes off this March

January, February, "Arts" – Hong Kong's revolutionizing the calendar with an avalanche of cultural events this March. The Hong Kong Arts Festival – now in its 43rd edition – and Art Basel Hong Kong will be joined by a new expo dubbed Art Central, turning Asia's most exciting city into a thriving arts mecca.

Artists, dealers, curators, and aficionados, as well as, interested visitors are set to pour into Hong Kong from all around the globe to get a first-hand idea of what's hot in the arts world.

Ground-breaking Art Central will debut in a specially built pavilion in the heart of the city on Hong Kong Island's waterfront, close to the Star Ferry and the newly opened Observation Wheel.  The expo will feature more than 70 galleries from around the region and further afield, and will present contemporary work from established artists and a range of young talent. Art Central has also devised a special section entitled Rise which will celebrate both solo and dual artist presentations from spaces opened in the last five years.

"We are thrilled to be launching the 'Next Big Thing' in the Hong Kong art calendar," says Art Central's Managing Director, Charles Ross. "Timed to coincide with Art Basel which annually attracts thousands of fairgoers, Art Central positions the city firmly within the first rank of global art destinations".

Fair Co-Director Maree Di Pasquale adds: "Art Central invites the art-loving public to engage with museum-quality works. We will be showcasing the next generation of talent alongside the most established contemporary galleries and art spaces from around the world in the most prominent satellite fair Hong Kong has ever seen."

Art Central will run from March 14-16, syncing with Art Basel (March 15 – 17), which started in Switzerland in 1970, later expanded to include Miami, and then launched in Hong Kong in 2013. One of the globe's must-view arts events, the fair attracts top players such as Air de Paris from France, Buchmann Galerie from Germany, Switzerland's Galerie Gmurzynska, and Gagosian Gallery, which has branches in the United States and Europe as well as Hong Kong. Numerous exhibitors – and collectors – also fly in from Mainland China.

"As well as featuring leading galleries from around the world, Art Basel's singular exhibition sectors spotlight the latest developments in the visual arts," says the fair newly appointed Director Asia, Adeline Ooi. "This provides visitors with new ideas, new inspiration and new contacts in the art world."

The month-long Hong Kong Arts Festival, which first saw the light of day in 1973, is one of the highlights of the city's cultural calendar, and kicks off on February 27 until March 29.  This year's highly varied programme boasts more than 130 performances showcasing music, theatre, and dance.

The festival truly reinforces the saying that "all the world's a stage": headliners include the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe from China, Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, flamenco dancers from Spain, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and Ireland's Gate Theatre and their adaption of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. There's a chance for locals to shine too, with musical extravaganzas such as the Hong Kong Story Concert.

"Great performances have a wonderfully humanising influence," says Tisa Ho, the festival's executive director and one of Hong Kong's most passionate arts advocates. "They release us from everyday life to reconnect with a self that is more vibrantly aware, more centred and at peace; allowing us to be more in tune with fundamental human values shared across different convictions and beliefs.  "The state of civilisations and societies is captured and reflected in the arts, and participating in the arts is one way of taking an active part in the history of the community as it continues to unfold."

Photo credit to Art Basel: Encounters_GuWenda_15May2014

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