Chances are you didn’t wake up thinking: “I want to visit Wales and spend my birthday in Laugharne.” Well, not unless you’ve been investigating how to get free beer. But I love off-beat places and odd experiences. A travel writer who finds the right hook always has a good reason to go—whether it’s Wales, a Rasta village, the Australian outback or anywhere else that takes your fancy. Even prison…
2014 is the centenary of the birth of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. A legendary drinker, too, he spent much of his life “mouldering” at the bar in Brown’s Hotel in Laugharne, a seaside town in Carmarthenshire. Described by Thomas as “the strangest town in Wales,” and now the place he is buried, Laugharne plans all kinds of festivities and commemorations to celebrate this year. And you can celebrate, too, if you go on your birthday.
Use a passport or driving licence to prove it’s own birthday, and you can claim an assortment of gifts from local businesses. These include free coffee, cakes, pizza, discounted accommodation, and a complimentary birthday pint at Brown’s Hotel. The only other requirement to get hold of the goodies is that you need to recite the line “Oh may my heart’s truth still be sung.”
Lightning Ridge, Australia
If opals are your favorite gemstones, Lightning Ridge is where to try your luck at fossicking. In the outback of New South Wales, the town has the world’s largest known deposits of black opals. You don’t have to visit gem stores to find one of your own—
they can be picked up from mine spoils. A magnet for would-be miners, artists, and what the town’s own website describes as “crazies,” Lightning Ridge is a fun place. As well as opals, attractions include spectacular sunsets, sculptures, birdlife, fireside stories, and free artesian thermal bore baths where you can soak under the starry night sky after a hard day’s fossicking.
Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
Sherry, horses, and flamenco. I spent part of December in the lovely city of Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain. Touched with Moorish exoticism, it’s the queen of Andalusia’s “Sherry Triangle,” and I’d return in a heartbeat. There are sherry bodegas to visit, you can see a ballet-like performance of the famous “dancing horses” at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, and enjoy authentic flamenco for free in social clubs called penas. The Flamenco Festival is a highlight of the Jerez year. In 2014, it runs from 21 February until 8 March, and formal and informal performances are held all over the city
Knysna, South Africa
On the Western Cape’s Garden Route, Knysna was recently voted South Africa’s “Best Small Town.” And that seems a good reason for travel writers to check it out. An arty and sophisticated coastal town, it has wonderful vistas of a lagoon, the Indian Ocean, and a forest that shelters elusive elephants. But research Knysna’s charms further, and you’ll find it’s also home to South Africa’s largest Rastafarian community, the Judah Square village. You can experience the Rasta vibe by staying within the community, and even go on forest walks with a Rasta guide. In July, the Rasta Earth Festival showcases Rastafarian music, food, and philosophy.
Belgrade and Novi Sad, Serbia
A European capital isn’t exactly off-beat, but how many American travelers go to Serbia? Belgrade is no architectural charmer, but it’s on the radar of European night owls as a city that never sleeps. Unlikely though it seems, this is a party town where every night is like Friday night. Known as splavovi, or splavs for short, moored rafts and floating river clubs are a special feature of Belgrade nightlife. Splavs vary in size, there may or may not be food, and the musical genre can be anything from soul to electronic to gypsy violins to turbo-folk—a weird fusion of Balkan folk and Europop. As the splavs are far away from residential areas, things often rock on until dawn in summer. And if you need another excuse to come and see why Serbia rocks, July’s EXIT festival at Novi Sad (just over an hour from Belgrade by bus) is one of Europe’s most prestigious music festivals. The setting is an 18th-century fortress beside the river Danube.
Flores and the Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Indonesia is still a blank on my personal Southeast Asia map. And although I’m not really a close-encounters-with-wildlife type, I’m fascinated by Komodo Dragons—the world’s largest lizards. A UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning the islands of Komodo, Rinca and western Flores, the Komodo National Park is the only place on the planet where these fearsome “dragons” are found in the wild. With smoking volcanoes, colored crater lakes, coconut-white beaches, and world-class snorkeling and dive sites, Flores looks like the island to base yourself for dragon-spotting boat trips. It’s an island of mystery, too. In 2003, researchers excavating a limestone cave discovered the bones of the Flores Hobbit—a prehistoric woman with a tiny skull.
Think witches. Not Halloween witches, but Walpurgis witches. Walpurgisnacht is the name Germans give to May Eve, the premier night of magic and devilish happenings in central Europe. In the foothills of the Harz Mountains, Wernigerode could be straight from the pages of a Teutonic fairytale and it’s a wonderful place to experience the revelry. Topped by a 12th-century castle, the town is a gem of cobbled squares and medieval half-timbered houses. A narrow gauge steam train trundles from here through gloomy forests to Brocken mountain where witches are rumored to dance away the winter snow. On Walpurgisnacht, it’s transformed into a HexenExpress—Hexen is the German word for witches.
Suchitoto, El Salvador
Volcanoes, Mayan ruins, Pacific beaches, coffee plantations, colonial towns, indigenous crafts, and incredible birdlife—the rewards are huge, so you’d think the Central American country of El Salvador would be on every travel writer’s wish list. Due to its brutal 1979-92 civil war, however, tourism is still a fledgling industry. But whether it’s experiencing an eco tour or a civil war excursion on horseback, that means you’ve got the chance to be there at the beginning. Suchitoto looks like an excellent base. Billing itself as “the City of Birds and Flowers” and home to a number of artists, it’s a beautifully preserved colonial town overlooking Lago Suchitlan, the largest lake in El Salvador.
If you’re like me and have a passion for attar of roses, haggling for cashmere shawls in souks, and walled cities and forts that are straight from the Arabian Nights, consider a trip to the Sultanate of Oman. Unlike other Gulf States which have embraced glitz and shopping malls, Oman has modernized but also preserved much of its exotic heritage. Until 1970, Muscat, the coastal capital, even locked its gates at night and citizens weren’t allowed out. Relatively few foreign visitors venture beyond Muscat’s luxury hotels and private beaches, but although you’ll need to hire a 4 x 4 jeep, a new road network makes it feasible to explore the interior. Accommodation options range from soaking up history in the country’s well-preserved forts to spending the night Bedouin-style in the Wahiba Sands desert.
Being half Latvian myself, I’ve already visited this little country that was once part of the Soviet Union. But as I never got to Liepaja, a port city on the Baltic, I missed out on Karosta Prison. Built in the early 1900s as a jail for naval miscreants, it was later taken over by the KGB. Although it’s not the world’s only prison hotel, it may be its grimmest. To ensure that you won’t complain later, you’re required to sign an agreement acknowledging that you will be treated like a Soviet era prisoner. This includes sleeping in an iron-barred cell on an old mattress, eating prison food, getting verbally abused by guards, using ghastly latrines and following orders. Failure to comply with the rules gets punished through physical exercise and cleaning work. Sounds tough, but at least the “guards” no longer execute prisoners.
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