Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness

Citizens of one of the happiest countries on Earth are surprisingly comfortable contemplating a topic many prefer to avoid. Is that the key to joy?

On a visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I found myself sitting across from a man named Karma Ura, spilling my guts. Maybe it was the fact that he was named Karma, or the thin air, or the way travel melts my defences, but I decided to confess something very personal. Not that long before, seemingly out of the blue, I had experienced some disturbing symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in my hands and feet. At first, I feared I was having a heart attack, or going crazy. Maybe both. So I went to the doctor, who ran a series of tests and found…

“Nothing,” said Ura. Even before I could complete my sentence, he knew that my fears were unfounded. I was not dying, at least not as quickly as I feared. I was having a panic attack.

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan (Credit: Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan. (Credit: Thomas Halle/Getty)

What I wanted to know was: why now – my life was going uncharacteristically well – and what could I do about it?

“You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.”

“How?” I said, dumbfounded.

“It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

“But why would I want to think about something so depressing?”

“Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

Places, like people, have a way of surprising us, provided we are open to the possibility of surprise and not weighed down with preconceived notions. The Himalayan kingdom is best known for its innovative policy of Gross National Happiness; it’s a land where contentment supposedly reigns and sorrow is denied entry. Bhutan is indeed a special place (and Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a special person) but that specialness is more nuanced and, frankly, less sunny than the dreamy Shangri-La image we project onto it.

Memorial Chorten Monastery in Thimphu (Credit: Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Memorial Chorten Monastery in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Actually, by suggesting I think about death once a day, Ura was going easy on me. In Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan. Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair?

Not necessarily. Some recent research suggests that, by thinking about death so often, the Bhutanese may be on to something. In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as “jo_”. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as “joy”. This led the researchers to conclude that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”.

None of this, I’m sure, would surprise Ura, or any other Bhutanese. They know that death is a part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a heavy psychological cost.

Linda Leaming, author of the wonderful book A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸ knows this too.“I realised thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see,” she wrote. “My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”

A devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu (Credit: Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty)

A devotee before the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu. (Credit: Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty)

Unlike many of us in the West, the Bhutanese don’t sequester death. Death – and images of death – are everywhere, especially in Buddhist iconography where you’ll find colourful, gruesome illustrations. No one, not even children, is sheltered from these images, or from ritual dances re-enacting death.

Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals. “It is better than any antidepressant,” Tshewang Dendup, a Bhutanese actor, told me. The Bhutanese might appear detached during this time. They are not. They are grieving through ritual.

Why such a different attitude toward death? One reason the Bhutanese think about death so often is that it is all around them. For a small nation, it offers many ways to die. You can meet your demise on the winding, treacherous roads. You can be mauled by a bear; eat poisonous mushrooms; or die of exposure.

Another explanation is the country’s deeply felt Buddhist beliefs, especially that of reincarnation. If you know you’ll get another shot at life, you’re less likely to fear the end of this particular one. As Buddhists say, you shouldn’t fear dying any more than you fear discarding old clothes.

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses (Credit: Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

Schoolgirls in traditional Bhutanese dresses. (Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the Bhutanese don’t experience fear, or sadness. Of course they do. But, as Leaming told me, they don’t flee from these emotions. “We in the West want to fix it if we’re sad,” she said. “We fear sadness. It’s something to get over, medicate. In Bhutan there’s an acceptance. It’s a part of life.”

Ura’s lesson, meanwhile, stuck with me. I make it a point to think about death once a day. Unless I find myself especially stressed, or engulfed in an unexplained funk. Then I think about it twice a day.

Why ‘squinting’ leads to better sight

Florence is a boot camp in the power of seeing properly, by narrowing our field of view in order to expand it.

My favourite travel quote comes via the Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Musing about why he travelled so much, Tagore concluded that he did so “in order to see properly”.

The traveller experiences a place with all five senses, but none is more dominant, more all-embracing, than sight. Or, as another observant traveller, American writer Henry Miller, once said: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

An aerial view of Florence

An aerial view of Florence (Credit: Tetra Images/Alamy)

Tagore and Miller were on my mind during a recent visit to Florence. The Italian city –the birthplace of the Renaissance and arguably home to more beauty per square metre than any place in the world – taught me how to see “properly”. I had spent years looking at the world, but looking and seeing are not the same thing.

I had spent years looking at the world, but looking and seeing are not the same thing.

Over the centuries, Florentines have honed the art of seeing. A city of merchants, its residents had to gauge the size of a shipping container or the quality of dye used to make the city’s renowned cloth. Later, the artists of Renaissance Florence, from Botticelli to Ghiberti, would use similar skills to gauge proportion and depth in their artwork.

The Florentines were (and are) notoriously discriminating, if you’re feeling generous; picky, if you’re not. They possess a finely tuned sensitivity for the distinctive and the exquisite, and a visceral disdain for the shoddy and the ordinary. Nothing offends their sensibilities more than something that is a little bit off. A Florentine would rather miss by a mile than an inch.

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure restoration laboratories at Fortezza da Basso in Florence

A restorer works on a painting in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure restoration laboratories at Fortezza da Basso in Florence (Credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty)

Florence reveals itself in layers. Literally. The artwork we admire today wasn’t always the first draft. Using X-ray and other technologies, researchers have found layers of previously undetected detail hidden beneath the city’s canvas and wood. And so it is with the city itself. Sure, theUffizi is the best-known museum, but the Bargello and many other “lesser” museums offer their own beauty.

My favourite is the Specola, the museum of zoology and natural history. It took some work to find. I hit a few dead ends – Italian dead ends, so they were stylish and interesting – before discovering the museum hiding between a cafe and a tobacco shop. Forsaken and sad looking, the Specola gets few visitors.

The Specola, the museum of zoology and natural history

The Specola, the museum of zoology and natural history (Credit: National Geographic Creative/Alamy)

That’s a shame, for it has its own charms. In fact, I didn’t know they made museums like this anymore. Stuffed animals were displayed behind grimy glass cases: cheetahs, hyenas, walruses and zebras, all with the same frozen expression, a combination of shock and repose, as if they had no idea how they ended up here but were resigned to their fate nonetheless. It was all very 19th Century. I half expected Charles Darwin to pop up at any moment.

The past, it’s been said, is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The Florence of today is, of course, very different from the Florence of Michelangelo and Leonardo’s day. The Florence of today has pizza and pasta and espresso and wi-fi and tour buses. What to do?

A visitor looks at two paintings by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

A visitor looks at two paintings by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (Credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty)


That was the advice of a friend back home when I’d mentioned my plans to visit Florence. I’d laughed it off, but I now realized it’s actually a smart tactic. As the great psychologist William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Sometimes we can see more by narrowing our field of view than by expanding it. The zoom lens reveals as much as the wide angle, and sometimes more. And so I zoomed, blocking out the tour buses and the pizza joints and the street vendors hawking velvet paintings of Bob Marley.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

If you want to “see properly”, it helps to have a sharp-eyed guide. Mine was Eugene Martinez. I liked the name of his tour company, Ars Opulenta, which is Latin for “abundantly luxuriant art”. It sounded unapologetically decadent and overflowing with goodness.

What really sold me on Martinez, though, was his dog. While the other websites featured sombre men and women striking serious art-is-no-laughing-matter poses in front of some sober Florentine landmark, the Ars Opulenta page greeted me with a photo of Martinez and a hound of indeterminate breed. Both were smiling, with the red-tiled roof and shiny gold spire of the Duomo barely visible in the distance. The dog was no accident. He’s good for business. Dogs are comforting, reassuring, while all this art, this genius, is intimidating. What if we don’t “get” it? What if we say something silly that exposes our ignorance? What if we are not worthy? A smiling canine presence puts people at ease.

The Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

A view of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Adam Eastland/Alamy)

In the days I spent with Martinez, walking the cobblestoned streets of Florence, visiting the Bargello and one of the city’s still-functioning tile workshops, he taught me how to see the artwork for its own sake, on its own terms, and not burdened with expectations of what I should be seeing.

I liked the way Martinez said crazy, blasphemous things, such as “I don’t care for the Renaissance.”

“What?” I replied, dumbstruck. “You don’t like the Renaissance?”

“I don’t. It’s too pretty for me.” I was pondering what he meant by that when he said,

“Give it a few days. You’ll see what I mean.”

Inside the Palazzo Pitti

Inside the Palazzo Pitti (Credit: John Kellerman/Alamy)

A week later, at the Pitti Palace, I did. While most buildings in Florence are the epitome of sophisticated understatement, the Pitti Palace is huge and garish. It’s an architectural emoticon, a monument to excess. Walking down one of the oversized corridors, ogling the David knockoffs, past the inlaid tiles and the ornate tapestries, I realized, finally, what Martinez meant when he said that the Renaissance was too pretty for him.

He meant too “pretty” in the sense of too flowery, overwrought. Some art simply tries too hard to please. This doesn’t apply to all Renaissance art, of course. Some of it is absolutely worthy of our affection – but that’s a judgment we need to make ourselves rather than blindly following the lead of an art historian, or anyone else for that matter. By pretending that allRenaissance art is equally good, we undeservedly elevate the bad art and do a disservice to the abundance of great art that the Renaissance did produce.

And, more importantly, we betray our own eyes ­– our own hard-earned ability to see properly.

Seeing art, it turns out, is less important than the art of seeing.

Florence's Palazzo Corsini

Florence’s Palazzo Corsini (Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Peuterey)

The freest beach in the US

Over the years, Oregonians have fought hard to preserve the natural beauty and monuments of their coast. Today, the 363-mile shoreline remains as wild as ever.

Gabriel Cruz swept down the dune, hit the jump and somersaulted. The moment stretched – Matrix-style – as the two-time sandboarding world champion rotated, feet over samurai topknot. He then spanked his board on the slope and glided to a stop.

Shredding the dunes at the world's first sandboarding park (Credit: Credit: Amanda Castleman)

Shredding the dunes at the world’s first sandboarding park (Credit: Amanda Castleman)

Sand Master, the world’s first sandboarding park, is one of several places along Oregon’s shoreline that suits the free-wheeling, nature-loving vibe of what locals call the “People’s Coast”. Across 40 acres of privately owned, sculpted sand, riders can tackle dunes – some up to 500ft high – any way they want. It’s an adventurous way to play along the coast, just 30 miles north of the preserved Oregon Dunes Recreation Area– the country’s largest expanse of coastal sand hills. “With snow, you need an expensive lift ticket and then you have to follow runs,” explained the US junior champion, 13-year-old Diego Chaves. “Here you just go out in nature and create your own paths and jumps.”

This idea – of heading into nature and enjoying the wild spirit of Oregon’s shoreline – continues to ring true along the “People’s Coast”: a 363-mile stretch of sand that’s been designated public land since the early 20th Century, when governor Oswald West established the shoreline as a public highway. In the 1960s, when the land again came under threat, governor Tom McCall passed the Beach Bill, which declared that all land within 16ft of the low tide line belonged to the people.

Strolling along Oregon's 'People's Coast' (Credit: Credit: Amanda Castleman)

Strolling along Oregon’s ‘People’s Coast’ (Credit: Amanda Castleman)

To this day, Oregonians fiercely support this proud tradition of keeping their beaches public. And even more than that, they continue to find ways to preserve the natural beauty and monuments of their shore – ensuring that the coast stays as wild as they found it. A few months ago, I drove north along Highway 101, from the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area in the south to Oswald West State Park in the north, to experience the fruits of Oregon’s efforts first-hand.

Two of the most photogenic stops on Oregon’s wild coast sit 49 miles north of the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area. Thor’s Wellis a blowhole where high tides spout water 20ft in the air andCape Perpetua is the coast’s highest viewpoint accessible by car. The 800ft headland, fletched with Sitka spruce, plunges down to tide pools blazing bright with lime anemones, violet sea urchins and ochre sea stars.

Thor's Well spouts water 20ft in the air (Credit: Credit: John Fowler/ Thor’s Well/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Thor’s Well spouts water 20ft in the air (Credit: John Fowler/ Thor’s Well/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

“It’s cool to walk around [Thor’s Well], but you have to be very thoughtful,” said Greg Vaughn, author of Photographing Oregon. “It can be treacherous place for people unfamiliar withsneaker waves.” These fast and furious swells rake the beach, carrying large amounts of sand that bog down clothing. Visitors should also watch out for logs in the surf – even a tiny one could be waterlogged enough to weigh tons.

Nearby is a less dramatic monument to Oregon’s determination to keep the coast wild. Just three miles north, residents of the charming hippie town of Yachats fought to preserve the historic oceanfront Trail 804, a low-impact trek that passes tide pools, pebbled coves and expansive ocean views. “Not only are Oregon’s beaches open, but people are very avid about maintaining access sites,” said Bonnie Henderson, the author of Day Hiking: Oregon Coast. “They have to be. There’s no going backward once we lose the right of way.”

Dusk settled as I travelled north towards Cape Foulweather, a popular whale-watching spot that overlooks the white-water cauldron of Devil’s Punchbowl. Here, stormy seas slam into a hollow rock created from the collapse of two sea caves. The wind howled and buoys moaned.

The white-water cauldron Devil's Punchbowl (Credit: Credit: wplynn/Devil’s Punchbowl/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

The white-water cauldron Devil’s Punchbowl (Credit: wplynn/Devil’s Punchbowl/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Creeped out, I scuttled through Depoe Bay, the world’s smallest navigable harbour, and didn’t pull over until I saw the turn off for the Cape Kiwanda Natural Area, which offered a perfect view of the 235ft-tall Haystack Rock: a solitary fang that’s commonly mistaken for the more famous Cannon-Beach show-stopper. Each day, fishermen battle through the surf here in flat-bottomed dories, which they draw safely onshore at night. During the day, strollers and swimmers take over the broad sweep of beach.

Peering at Haystack Rock through Cape Kiwanda (Credit: Credit: Thomas Shahan/Cape Kiwanda/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Peering at Haystack Rock through Cape Kiwanda (Credit: Thomas Shahan/Cape Kiwanda/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The clouds lowered, draining the landscape to pale watercolour brushstrokes. As the first raindrops fell, I turned north towardCape Meares, where a massive Sitka spruce has been nicknamed the Octopus Tree. Legend has it that the Tillamook tribe trained the tree’s branches to cup outward from its now 50ft base, creating a U-shape that would have been ideal for holding cedar canoes and other ritual objects.

The terrain flattened as I swung inland to pick up Highway 101 again. But soon I was climbing steadily, amid the ferns and moss of a cool, coastal rainforest. Stark, sheer cliffs began to the flank the sinuous road… and then the sky’s lid dropped down, fog and clouds together reducing the world to black and white. I had reached Oswald West, the state park honouring the man who saved Oregon’s beaches. I pulled over to watch the waves crashing below and marvelled at how this beauty would remain forever wild, thanks to the foresight and determination of Oregon’s people.

Overlooking Cape Foulweather on Highway 101 (Credit: Credit: Edmund Garman/Cape Foulweather View/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Overlooking Cape Foulweather on Highway 101 (Credit: Edmund Garman/Cape Foulweather View/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Scotland’s wee but wild road

A 516-mile route that passes through spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention distilleries.

Locals call it the “wee mad road”: a looping ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline between the fishing hamlets of Inverkirkaig, Coigach and Achiltibuie in the northwestern Scottish Highlands. “These single-track roads can take you to some wild places,” said Lesley Crosfield, the proprietor of nearby boutique hotel and restaurant The Albannach. “That’s why it’s always worth taking the slower road: there’s so much to learn around here.”

Crosfield runs Britain’s northernmost Michelin-starred restaurant, 85 miles northwest of Inverness. It’s exactly where she wanted to be. She first fell in love with Scotland’s northwest coast in the 1980s – and is now gearing up for more changes in the next year than she has seen in the past 25.

Achnahaid Bay (Credit: Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The view from Achiltibuie of Achnahaid Bay on Scotland’s northwest coast (Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The road that runs right past her front door now forms part of the North Coast 500, launched last summer by the North Highland Initiative. Taking its cue from one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems, (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles by The Proclaimers, the 516-mile itinerary climbs north from Inverness into the wild counties of Caithness and Sutherland, skirts the northern edge of the country, then drops south along the mountainous western coast. It runs past a sort of greatest hits of Scottish icons: spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention whisky distilleries.

At first, the road winds through lands of corn, sheep farms and grain distilleries: quiet places where puffy sheep and cattle grids bring traffic to a standstill.

Beach near Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Sham/Alamy)

The North Coast 500 cuts past wild sand beaches, like this one near Cromarty on the northwest coast (Credit: Sham/Alamy)

But when turning west at the village of John O’Groats in Scotland’s northeast corner, zigzagging across the largest rolling expanse of peatland and blanket bog in Europe, the circuit turns up the Highland drama, looping past ancient lochs and the denuded glens of Ross and Cromarty. Here, it veers into remoter parts of the Highlands that only those with more fertile imaginations care to call home.

Ross and Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

At the glens of Ross and Cromarty, shown here, the route turns up the Highland drama (Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

Such risk-takers include people like Danish sculptor and ceramic artist Lotte Glob, who – between hiking trips into the wilderness – attracts buyers from across Europe to her studio. Or Paul Maden and James Findlay, who left Glasgow for Durness to found Cocoa Mountain, the UK’s northernmost chocolatier – now located in a Cold War station built in the mid-1950s to warn in the event of a nuclear attack.

“The traditional crofting life doesn’t tend to match up with espresso and artisan chocolates,” Maden said while boiling cream for a batch of single malt whisky caramel cappuccinos. “But business is booming.”

These are the kinds of success stories that the North Highland Initiative, which was inaugurated by Prince Charles to stoke interest in the area’s off-grid attractions, is aiming for.

Loch Eriboll (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

A stop along the North Coast 500 at Loch Eriboll in northwest Scotland (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

Already reaping the benefits are Martin and Claire Murray, who began distilling Rock Rose gin in a copper still at the Dunnet Bay Distillers, eight miles northeast of the town of Thurso. Thurso is the improbable tip of another new Scottish touring route, the Scottish Gin Trail, launched in January by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

The botanicals used by the Murrays – 80 different kinds, at last count – have all been foraged and stocked from the surrounding wetlands with the help of local herbalist Brian Lamb. They include sea buckthorn, juniper, mint, hawthorn, bog myrtle and the Murrays’ signature ingredient, the flowering herb rhodiola rosea, which flourishes on brackish cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

To some extent, all of the historical romance of Scotland can be tied to this coast. At its halfway point sits the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, poised on the barren north-westerly corner of mainland Britain. Then there is Ardvreck Castle, a rectangular keep on Loch Assynt supposedly plagued by devilish mermaids. Pictish sculptures at the town of Portmahomack represent some of the great puzzles of medieval archaeology, while the holly-topped islands of Loch Maree shelter the remains of a forgotten graveyard and ancient druid hermitage.

The town of Thurso (Credit: Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

The town of Thurso is now a stop on both the North Coast 500 and the Scottish Gin Trail (Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

Even Loch Maree, like Loch Ness, has its own fable as a refuge for the Muc-sheilch: a cross between an eel and a muckle-headed sea monster.

Given that the road could scarcely be more isolated, it’s surprising to find so much life off of it. Beyond the road is the territory of the majestic red deer, where stalkers’ paths weave through swathes of Scots pine and forest oak. Muscular stags can often be seen surveying the roadside from a rocky outcrop.

The mountain pass to Applecross (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

The mountain pass to Applecross, the end of the North Coast 500, in the Scottish Highlands (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

Near journey’s end, toward the town of Torridon on Scotland’s west coast, the mountains create a shoulder of castellated tiers in red and chocolate sandstone. The highest and most imposing is Liathach, its great terraced wall dwarfing Upper Loch Torridon and the crenelated towers of theTorridon Hotel. Starkly beautiful, when wrapped in mist, it sends out a beautiful, welcoming impression. If only the mountain could speak, it would tell even better stories.

A paradise protected by butterflies

Turkey’s 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, creating a protected oasis where time seems to stand still.

Our boat pulled in about two hours before sunset, when the disappearing light was turning the Mediterranean Sea from sapphire to aquamarine and the descending shadows were creeping up the imposing rock walls that isolate Butterfly Valley. The beach was nearly empty and the water was calm enough to skip stones across. As the sun finally lowered itself into the sea, I dove in with it, floating on what looked like liquid sunshine.

Located on Turkey’s famous, 500km Lycian Way and only accessible by water, the 86,000sqm Butterfly Valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, including the endemic orange, black and white Jersey Tiger. A waterfall that cascades from the 350m-high back canyon wall eventually becomes a gentle river, watering the lavender-flowered native chaste trees: the butterflies’ natural habitat. The Turkish government named the valley a preservation area in 1987 to protect the butterflies and local flora ­– a distinction that has protected the valley from the fate of its better-know neighbour, Oludeniz, a beach resort 5km north, where hordes of tourists are far more prevalent than swarms of fluttering creatures.

An aerial view of Turkey’s Butterfly Valley (Credit: Scpist/Getty)

An aerial view of Turkey’s Butterfly Valley. (Scpist/Getty)

Oludeniz, which translates to Blue Lagoon, remained virtually unknown until travellers began camping there in the 1980s. Today, it’s a particularly depressing example of paradise lost. The town is filled with neon lights and English-themed restaurants. The sea is dotted with faux-pirate ships and booze cruises. The beach is marred with drunken, sunburned tourists, and the clear skies are polluted with seemingly infinite paragliders launching from the surrounding green mountains.

In contrast, the Anatolia Tourism Development Cooperative bought Butterfly Valley from the villagers of Faralya in 1981 and opened it for tourism in 1984. Three years later, when the government deemed the valley a national preservation area, the cooperative outlawed the construction of permanent buildings. Today, they allow only tents and ramshackle bungalows, and they’ve focused on natural growth as opposed to commercial. Olives, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, grapes, walnuts, peaches, apricots, palm, oleander and laurel all thrive here.

For eight months a year – between April and November – a small and diverse group of hippies and backpackers descends on the valley, where days are marked by sunrise and sunset yoga practices and evenings by unplugged music sessions. Once mid-afternoon hits, after the few tour boats are gone for the day, Butterfly Valley belongs to those who are willing to spend the night under the stars, living gloriously free of the more luxurious conveniences of Oludeniz.

Liquid sunshine (Credit: Brad Cohen)

A sunset turns into liquid sunshine. (Brad Cohen)

In my four days there, I didn’t see one laptop or cell phone, probably because the only electricity in Butterfly Valley is reserved for powering the area’s multiple dining areas. Twice a day, fresh and abundant family meals, often including home-grown produce, were served at community tables under a canopy of grape vines. Mediterranean-style breakfasts were composed of white cheese, olives, cucumbers and tomatoes, and dinners were largely vegetarian Turkish feasts.

At one end of the beach, the temporary residents often sat at a bar built into the rocks, sipping beers and, late in the day, watching the sun set. At the other end, under the canopy of the Fish Restaurant’s thatched roof, travellers took a break from the heat while enjoying grilled seafood fresh from the water. Next door, a booth with air tanks and wetsuits served as an improbable dive shop.

Nearly empty beaches (Credit: Brad Cohen)

The beaches were nearly empty. (Brad Cohen)

Beyond the shoreline, those daring enough to hoist themselves up tenuous, nearly vertical ropes could climb the gushing waterfall at the canyon’s back wall, or ascend even steeper ropes to the village of Faralya, which offers sweeping views of the valley below. At the base of Faralya, a wooden stand served as a makeshift bar for both day hikers from Butterfly Valley and more intrepid souls in the middle of the 500km Lycian Way trek. The beers were best enjoyed in the hammocks at the edge of the cliff.

For some, Butterfly Valley is a yearly retreat, a place to escape their busy city lives for a few weeks or months. For others, it’s just a one-time visit to a spot that seems to operate outside of time. Minutes turn into hours and hours turn into days. You could be anywhere in the world, but in this age, it’s hard to believe Butterfly Valley exists anywhere at all.

Gulet boats moor in the Mediterranean (Credit: Paul Biris/Getty)

Gulet boats moor in the Mediterranean. (Paul Biris/Getty)

The town that gave The Goonies life

Thirty years after the cult classic hit theatres, the Oregon coastal town where it was shot still celebrates the local Goonies heritage.

To those who grew up in the 1980s, the phrases “Goonies never say die!”, “Boodie traps!” and “Down here is our time. It’s our time, down here!” are all stirring rallying cries of youthful adventure. And now that the original fans of Richard Donner’s 1985 cult kid classic have their own children approaching Goonie-age, this is your time – your time to relive the journey along the rain-soused Oregon coast where much of the movie took place

Scene from The Goonies at the Goondocks house (Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty)

Scene from The Goonies at the Goondocks house. (Warner Brothers/Getty)

The cast of The Goonies featured a group of misfit, pint-sized Indiana Joneses – played by Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman, among others – but with more swearing and bigger laughs. Instead of fighting Nazis, the kids are battling greedy land developers trying to gobble up their parents’ houses.

The town they’re going to lose when their cash-strapped folks sign away the real estate is perhaps the film’s best casting: hilly, green, wet Astoria, Oregon. The foggy coastal hamlet with colourful Victorian homes is dripping with cloudy discontent but also rife with verdant possibility. It may not look like much at first glance – an ungilded, micro-San Francisco, perhaps – but treasures await if you explore.

“Donner had decided that the tone at the opening of his movie would be gloomy in order to reflect the sombre mood of the kids,” writes Mick Alderman in Three Weeks With the Goonies, a short book of naïve recollections from Alderman’s stint as an unpaid member of the film crew. In fact, Donner chose to shoot in the fall for the abundance of wet weather.

Astoria’s town centre is a walkable grid of streets along the Columbia River, dwarfed by a massive bridge spanning the waterway. The downtown area features heavily in the opening car-chase sequence, in which the other bad guys – the comically dysfunctional Fratelli crime family – escape from jail. John Warren Field on Exchange Street, used by the local high school, is the film’s football field. The Flavel House Museum, the county’s historical society, is the movie’s history museum where one of the Goonies’ dads works. The docks where you’re introduced to the character Data are the East Mooring Basin on the edge of town. Lower Columbia Bowl bowling alley where you meet Chunk is still there.

The opening scene’s jail break takes place in the cells of what was, from 1914 to 1976, the Clatsop County Jail. Since 2010 – The Goonies’ 25th anniversary – the building has been theOregon Film Museum. Parked outside is the actual Jeep Cherokee driven by the Fratellis in the film.

Former county jail where the opening scene was shot (Credit: Credit: David G Allan)

Former county jail where the opening scene was shot. (Credit: David G Allan)

The museum may claim to be devoted to the entire state – marquee posters tout movies such as The Black Stallion, which was shot at a nearby beach – but half of the museum is focused on The Goonies. Data’s gadget-packed trench coat is in a cell. There are photo stills, random ‘80s merchandise and life-size cut outs of the characters, including the deformed but ultimately loveable Sloth. On a large visitor bulletin board, one earnest visitor wrote, “I’m a Goonie because I love the thrill of an adventure.”

But the biggest fan is probably the young man who was selling tickets at the museum door. Micah Dugan used to work at the town’s video store, which is about as good a training as you can get for his current gig. He was dubious about the recent news of a Goonies sequel but conceded that it’ll be good for local business.

Tourism is now Astoria’s chief source of revenue, he told me while standing near replicas of the Goonies’ treasure map, $50 Sloth masks and Baby Ruth candy bars (Sloth’s favourite). “It used to be salmon and timber and now it’s Goonies,” he said. It makes sense then, that the town’s annual Goonies celebration, which takes place every June, will be super-sized this year for the film’s 30th anniversary.

The Goondocks house used in filming (Credit: Credit: David G Allan)

The Goondocks house used in filming. (Credit: David G Allan)

Goondocks, the name of the house where the brothers played by Brolin and Astin live, might be fans’ most significant stop. The white Queen Anne-style home (368 38th St) is on a tiny, one-way road at the edge of a cliff overlooking the East Mooring Basin; from the house you can hear seals barking.

Even if your memory of the house is hazy, you can’t miss it; signs on the street below will guide you there. But the signs also ask you to respect that the house is privately owned, and to walk (not drive) up the hill for a closer (but not too close) look.

Sign near the Goondocks house (Credit: Credit: David G Allan)

Sign near the Goondocks house. (Credit: David G Allan)

I parked next to the nearby elementary school (the same one in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop) and walked up to snap a picture, like everyone else. The owner emerged just then, smiled hello and beat a quick exit to his car. Next door to the Goondocks is, fans know, Data’s house.

There are a few other stops worth making in town. If you drive up near the top of the town’s hill, on windy Skyline Avenue where it intersects with Valley Street, you’ll see the house where Mouth, Corey Feldman’s character, lived. Just the view of the river and ocean is worth the detour.

But my favourite find in town was a lark. Along with the video rental store, another ‘80s throwback is Arc Arcade (1084 Commercial St; 503-468-0576), a bona fide, quarter-fuelled video game arcade. A tsunami of nostalgia hit as I played games (some free!) that I hadn’t seen, much less played, in 30 years. Among them, Nintendo’s 1986 Goonies adventure. I found it too difficult to play and moved on to other areas of former childhood expertise.

You may recall that the opening scene’s car chase ends on the beach, the Fratelli’s Jeep Cherokee slipping away in a race of similar vehicles. Well, you can’t drive it, but you’ll enjoy walking the wide, wild sands of Cannon Beach, where the scene was filmed, 25 miles south of Astoria.

Haystack Rock off Cannon Beach (Credit: Credit: David G Allan)

Haystack Rock off Cannon Beach. (Credit: David G Allan)

The lovely little resort town is known best for the huge rocks that litter its beach, most prominently, the 23-storey-high Haystack Rock. You see the rock formations that were featured in the film’s road race and, later, that aided the Goonies in triangulating the location of the pirate treasure they seek.

The only disappointment in following the Goonies trail is that the most exciting parts of the film take place in a warren of underground caves, full of “boodie traps”, a waterfall and ultimately a pirate ship full of One-Eyed Willie’s treasure – none of which exist outside of a Hollywood sound stage. But this just means you need to find your own Goonies-esque settings.

Exploring the caves at Hug Point park (Credit: Credit: David G Allan)

Exploring the caves at Hug Point park. (Credit: David G Allan)

With all the craggy cliffs that abut the beach, it isn’t hard. Just south of Cannon Beach is Hug Point park. My friend Jesse and our young daughters explored rocks at low tide, peering into tide pools of clams and sea anemones. We climbed to the top of a medium-sized waterfall where someone had made a bonfire the night before. As waves came in, we jumped on rocks and made our way around a bend to find empty caves. The little ones were thrilled, and as the tide threatened to trap us, Jesse and I soaked ourselves carrying the kids back to high ground.

The next day my wife and I took our daughters to Ecola, a state park two miles north of Cannon Beach on Highway 101. Near the main entrance is Ecola Point, a big parking lot with a sweeping view over islands, beach and Pacific Ocean. Goonies fans will recognize the view as the one where the kids use the rock key to line up the outcroppings and find the cave entrance: an abandoned bar being used as a hideout by the Fratellis.

For the movie, a temporary building was constructed by the film crew in the middle of Ecola Point’s field. According to Alderman’s book, the grassy mounds you see in the film are covered picnic tables that they couldn’t remove from concrete anchors.

Rugged Hug Point (Credit: Credit: David G Allan)

Rugged Hug Point. (Credit: David G Allan)

More Ecola fun is found at Indian Point, located at the end of a winding road flanked by moss-covered trees. It’s along this route that Brolin’s bike accident prank unfolds. And at the end of it you find a dramatic beach sandwiched between ocean waves and high cliffs with wood paths. This was the intended location for the end of The Goonies, according to Alderman, but the bad weather that Donner sought scuttled those plans. The beautiful, sunny beach that actually appears at the end of the film, as the family embraces in the celebratory glow of found pirate treasure, thwarted land developers and arrested convicts, is sunny Goat Rock Beach in northern California.

The world’s best place to see stars

La Palma in the Canary Islands is perhaps the best place in the world to see stars – and other amazing natural phenomena.

As the sun dipped lower and lower over the lush, volcanic Canary Islands, travelling steadily onward on its inexorable collision course with the sea, ripples of anticipation resonated across our small group of stargazers. Clad in warm coats (nights on the craggy flanks of the Spanish island’s giant volcano can be blustery), we listened as astrophysicist Agustin Nunez explained why La Palma is – no exaggeration – the best place on Earth to see the stars.

A view of the Milky Way (Credit: Credit: Enrique Mesa Photography/Getty)

A view of the Milky Way (Credit: Enrique Mesa Photography/Getty)

First, he said, its position 100km off the coast of northern Africa means it is close to the equator, so you can see stars from both the northern and southern hemispheres – but in a temperate climate with placid weather patterns uncommon in the tropics.

Second, it’s very dark here, something that’s aided by an island-wide agreement to keep it that way, meaning all night-time lighting is either an orange hue (which doesn’t interfere with telescopes) or pointed down, at the ground.

But thirdly, and most importantly, is the wind. “Our trade winds are created by a high pressure system in the Azores, and travel more than 2,000km over the sea. When it hits our north shore, it’s crystal clear,” he said, noting that these smooth and slow winds creates an atmosphere where the stars are especially clear from the ground, both through a telescope and to the naked eye. “Here, we have the lowest turbulence on the planet.”

Where land and clouds collide (Credit: Credit: Tim Johnson)

Where land and clouds collide (Credit: Tim Johnson)

And all this is justly recognised: in 2012, La Palma became the world’s first Unesco recognised Starlight Reserve. The island is also home to one of the most important observatories on the planet: a place that houses 16 massive telescopes – including the largest one in the world.

It’s only recently that visitors have been able to partake in these excellent stargazing opportunities. For years, the observatory was a closed research facility, except for a handful of open days that attracted thousands of curious people. But with the observatory normalizing regular visits in 2013, the infrastructure – including a recent increase in guided starlight tours – is now in place for earthbound visitors to touch distant galaxies.

Down on terra firma, I was shown around the island by Sheila Crosby, an affable Englishwoman with a touch of the mad scientist, who worked at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos for years as a software engineer. She’s also a certified starlight guide, and as she drove us somewhat erratically up and down La Palma’s winding roads, she started to explain the connections between land and sky, geology and astronomy – and how the island’s unique structure has created a number of Earth-bound wonders: for one, a cloud waterfall.

Above the clouds (Credit: Credit: Tim Johnson)

Above the clouds (Credit: Tim Johnson)

Screeching to a halt, I slowly relinquished my white-knuckle grip on the door handle as she pointed to a high, green ridge. Climbing out of the car, I saw it: a flowing mane of white clouds, slowly but surely cresting the top and tumbling toward us like a huge and fluffy waterfall. Crosby explained that clouds build up on the east side of the ridge until they burst over the edge, creating this strange and beautiful sight.

The cloud waterfall is caused by those same, star-perfect Atlantic trade winds hitting the tall, steep island. If this island was located anywhere else, and if it wasn’t a massive volcano, the cloud waterfall, the microclimates, the clear sky – none of it would exist.

Crosby added that La Palma’s volcanic soil is preternaturally rich, which, when paired with the island’s long growing season and abundance of microclimates, makes it an excellent place to eat and drink.

“We create about 40 different wines, and there’s nothing that won’t grow somewhere on this island,” Crosby said. “I often go to the farmer’s market and get a stalk of broccoli or some avocadoes, and the dew’s still on them. It’s that fresh.”

We toured around the island, visiting a banana plantation, strolling around the blackened remains of the San Antonio Volcano, and hiking to the edge of the Taburiente Caldera(the site of the blast that created this island), before heading to our final destination: the observatory. We drove higher and higher, my hand again braced against the door, as the lush coastal vegetation gave way to spindly trees. As we emerged above the tree line, on the high side of the Taburiente Caldera, near the volcano’s 2,396m summit, an otherworldly place revealed itself. All around us, strung along the highest reaches of the mountain, robotic, gamma-ray and reflecting telescopes sat ready to photograph the furthest reaches of the universe, a surreal, almost eerie sight in this treeless place.

Entering the observatory’s main base – a low-slung building that provides unglamorous but necessary facilities to researchers, including bunk beds and a cafeteria – Crosby introduced me to the site administrator, Juan Carlos Perez Arencibia, who quickly and eloquently expounded on what makes the observatory so special.

“Here, you can touch what the astronomers do,” he said, noting that researchers and anyone involved – or even interested – in star science uses the work produced here. “It’s not like reading it in a book. You go inside the telescopes that provide images for the whole world.”

Roque de los Muchachos (Credit: Credit: Kai Stockrahm Photography/Getty)

Roque de los Muchachos (Credit: Kai Stockrahm Photography/Getty)

And that’s exactly what we did. Donning hard hats, we walked up, under the 500-ton dome that houses the massive Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. I learned that the GTC is essentially one giant mirror with 36 separate panes, and felt a small spike of adrenaline as the telescope was readied to scan vast swathes of the night sky. The silvery dome – which looked like something out of Star Wars – spun slowly, a pane opening to let starlight in. Then, I felt a small rumble as the 385-ton platform that holds the scope – itself suspended on a ring of oil – swung into place.

Knowing he would soon be too busy to talk to me, I headed downstairs to chat with the chief astronomer, Gianluca Lombardi, who directs the operation as the telescope photographs the night sky. I asked him his favourite thing about the GTC, and sitting here, on this mountaintop in the middle of the ocean.

“Here, when you see the Milky Way above you, that kind of happiness, it reminds me of why I became an astronomer,” he said.

The next night, I operated my own small, simple telescope while stargazing with Nunez on the flanks of that grand volcano. But while mine didn’t have 36 panes or weigh hundreds of tons, it nonetheless revealed a stunning sky, bursting with light and revealing mysteries. I saw Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, complete with its icy rings. I saw the dark side of the world, as well as the crab nebula and the horsehead nebula, interstellar clouds of dust and gas often created by the explosion of short-lived stars. And – as Lombardi had told me – I felt amazingly, inexplicably, wonderfully happy.

The world’s most visited cities

What is it like to live in a place known for its sights… and crowds? Residents of 2014’s most visited cities spill how they find solitude – and why they love living there anyway.

The same attractions that prompt people to love visiting a city – top-ranked restaurants, vibrant nightlife, diverse neighbourhoods, iconic sights – can entice them into staying longer term. In fact, many of the world’s most visited cities, as ranked by 2014’s Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index released in July, are also popular destinations for expats.

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But being a resident of one of the world’s most visited cities is not without its unique set of challenges. “Coming from a smaller city in Canada, I was overwhelmed at first by how crowded certain areas of Paris were,” said Erika Belavy, who moved to the City of Light from Calgary, Alberta, seven years ago. “When I first moved to the city, I made the mistake of choosing an apartment right beside the Arc de Triomphe. No matter what time of day, or which month of the year, there were so many tourists it was a nightmare getting on the nearby metro.”

Still, it does not take residents long to learn how to navigate the crowds and find secluded spots. We talked to expats and natives to learn what it’s like living in some of the world’s most visited cities – and the secrets to steering clear of the constant crowds.

Great Britain’s capital came in as this year’s number one most visited city, with 18.7 million international tourists estimated to arrive in 2014. (Mastercard combines tourism board statistics, flight schedules and expected passenger loads to project the year’s arrivals.) London native Sophie Loveday said she hardly notices the influx. “You just get used to so many people being around,” she said. “It’s what gives the city such a buzz!”

Trafalgar Square (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Many of London’s visitors find themselves at some point here, at the city’s iconic Trafalgar Square. (Amanda Ruggeri)

Even so, she said she always tries to avoid the West End’s Leicester Square because the pedestrian plaza is too commercial – with or without tourists. However, she will brave the crowds of Covent Garden, a shopping district in the West End, thanks to its quirky shops and hip vibe. East London’s Brick Lane is also a must-visit, despite being “heaving full of people”; the neighbourhood’s Indian curries are considered among the best in the UK, and the restaurants and food stalls make finding a good meal easy.

Shopping in Covent Garden (Credit: Stuart C Wilson/Getty)

Shopping in Covent Garden, shown here decorated for Christmas, can be crowded — but rewarding. (Stuart C Wilson/Getty)

To escape the city, Loveday travels to the southwest suburb of Richmond. “You can see deer running through the park or take a boat down the Thames river,” she said, then finish the day off with a meal at a waterfront pub like the Bavarian beerhouseSteins or the popular restaurant Gaucho, which serves Argentinian food and wine amid cowhide-fabric furniture.

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There are no shortages of neighbourhoods (called districts) to fit any vibe. Loveday lives in the southwest district of Tooting, which she loves for its multicultural vibe and influx of young professionals who keep the area lively. She also recommended Angel, in northern London, due to its “cool and friendly” vibe.

Due to political protests and the Thai government shutdown in 2013, Bangkok slipped to number two in this year’s global rankings, yet is still expected to draw 16.4 million international visitors in 2014. Thankfully, residents say, the influx is seasonal, with most visitors coming November to February. Ketsara Chocksmai, a Bangkok native and tour director for Thailand’s smarTours, said she especially finds the city pleasant from June to September. “It’s our rainy season, so not many tourists come to visit this time of year,” she said. But since it usually does not rain all day, locals can still enjoy being outside.

Tourists in Bangkok (Credit: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty)

Tourists pose with sculptures at Bangkok’s Grand Palace. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty)

Despite its reputation for wild nightlife, Bangkok also has its fair share of quiet spaces for people to get away. Locals often seek peacefulness in one of the city’s many Buddhist temples, such as the old town’s Wat Phra Kaew, considered the most sacred in the country due to its 6.6m-tall “Emerald Buddha”, carved from a single piece of jade. Lumpini Park and Benjakitti Park, downtown, can also be peaceful escapes – aside from early morning and late afternoon, when they tend to be popular with joggers and yogis.

The French capital is expected to attract 15.6 million of visitors in 2014, many of whom are drawn to its iconic landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Louvre. But those same icons are exactly the areas that locals generally avoid. “There is no amount of money you can pay me to go to the Champs Élysées in the middle of August,” said Christina Tubb, vice president of a French technology firm who moved from the US in 2009.

The Louvre line (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Visitors wait outside the Louvre’s main entrance on a summer day. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Still, when she does visit the tourist destinations, she knows the local secrets – like getting a friend’s season pass to hop the line at the Musee d’Orsay or using the “secret entrance” at the Louvre (at Porte des Lions). “I’ll still bite the bullet and do a lot of touristy things because it’s half the reason I live here,” she said.

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While crowded in the summer months, the Latin Quarter also has its fair share of restaurant refuges if you know where to go. “There are certain streets that can be very touristy, but right around the corner there will be a restaurant or café that is considered an institution of the neighbourhood and hasn’t changed its menu since the ‘20s,” said Belavy. Both Tubb and Belavy also frequent the Marais for its specialty shops, where, Belavy said, “the charm outweighs the stress of the crowds.”

The Marais (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Visitors and locals relax outside a cafe in Paris’ Marais. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Despite its size, each of Paris’ 20 arrondissements (municipal districts) have a neighbourhood feel. Once run-down, the 10th arrondissement in the city’s northeast is now undergoing a revival, attracting a young crowd with its hip bars, art galleries and tree-lined Canal St Martin; the 3rd and 9th also attract bohemian residents. Those looking for something quieter can explore the 15th, a residential area just south of the Seine which is home to upper middle-class families, or the 16th or 5th, which are known for having particularly good schools.

An island, nation and a city, Singapore attracts residents and tourists from around the world, and also benefits from being the hub for many visitors travelling onto other Southeast Asia destinations. Both international traffic and local crowds can contribute to congestion in the city. “Even Singaporeans are crazy about shopping and eating out,” said long-term resident Jayant Bhandari, who grew up in India. “I prefer not to go to [the shopping district Orchard Road] much, not so much because of tourists, but because they are too busy.”

A selfie in Singapore (Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

A visitor snaps a selfie with Singapore’s skyline from the Marina Bay Sands resort rooftop pool. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

The clean and efficient Changi Airport makes it easy for residents to escape to more than 200 international destinations at a moment’s notice. Singapore is truly the best airport I have ever been to, and I have been to more than 60 countries,” Bhandari said. “It is cheap and easy to fly in and out.”

The Singapore Botanic Gardens also provide a pleasant escape for locals and tourists said Amy Greenburg, an editor ofExpat Living Singapore who moved from Los Angeles two and a half years ago. “It’s like Singapore’s own Central Park,” she said.

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The city has 28 districts, and an expansive mass transit system makes living in any of the districts a viable option. Greenburg lives on the Singapore River in Robertson Quay. “It has a lovely, relaxed vibe and a great variety of restaurants, bars and coffee shops, many of which are dog-friendly,” she said. Other popular expat neighbourhoods include River Valley, Holland District and Tanglin, which are central and have lots of shops and businesses, and the more residential East Coast.

National Day (Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

Fireworks burst over Singapore on the city’s birthday, called National Day, on 9 August 2014. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

Robert Shen, a VP of business development for luxury design firm Wilson Associates, who moved here from Los Angeles seven years ago, lives in the newly gentrified Geylang area, located in the northeast. “It’s considered ‘city-fringe’, so it’s close enough to town, the beach, public transit and lots of great local food,” he said. “The Geylang enclave is slowly becoming more and more hip for both locals and expats.”

The biggest city in the UAE saw the largest year-over-year increase in visitors of the top five cities, attracting 12 million visitors in 2014 – 7.5% more than the year before. At that rate, the city will overtake Paris and Singapore, potentially becoming the world’s third most visited city in less than five years. As for the crowds, residents simply build their schedules around them. “We have our routines at the weekend that ensures that we are out of the malls by early afternoon, but this is to avoid residents as well as tourists,” said Emily Christensen, director of recruitment service at H30 International, who moved to Dubai from the UK 14 years ago.

Burj Khalifa (Credit: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty)

A sunset silhouettes Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower and one of the city’s main attractions. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty)

Downtown Dubai, with attractions like the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) and the Dubai Mall, gets congested in the afternoons and evenings, so locals avoid it unless they’re going out for a meal. To get away within the city, Christensen heads to Safa Park, just 6km southwest of downtown Dubai. “There are playgrounds, a cafe, pedal-karts, a boating lake and just acres of space – and rarely tourists, unless they are visiting a resident,” she said. Locals also go to throw barbeques, play cricket or practice yoga. Andrea Anastasiou, who has lived in Dubai for seven years and writes the Scribble, Snap, Travel blog, also said those looking for “authentic Dubai” should explore the historic Bastakiya district, 12m north of downtown Dubai. “Its labyrinth of narrow streets hail to a Dubai of humbler times,” she said. “This area is full of character; the buildings are from a bygone era before electricity and air conditioning, and used to be cooled by wind towers.” The bohemian area also has restored homes and charming cafes.

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Christensen and many other expats live in Arabian Ranches, 24km south of downtown. As one of the first places where expats were able to buy property, it tends to be populated with families and kids. Those looking for an area with more singles and young couples should seek out the Dubai Marina, which has plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants. That said, “parts of the Marina can still be filled with the sounds of construction, so you need to be careful when looking for a place to live,” said Carrie Brummer, an American artist who lived in Dubai from 2007 until 2013.

Many of those living in Dubai have limited work visas and it is nearly impossible to become a citizen. This can make it hard to feel an enduring sense of belonging in the city, but locals said it is easy to find friendly people looking to connect.

When cities rise from the depths

“There are hundreds of submerged cities around the world. We are only just beginning to discover what they have to tell us about the prehistoric human past.”

Seven of the world’s riskiest roads

In many cases, these routes are less travelled for a reason: they feature terrifying drop-offs, unpredictable mudslides and a complete lack of concrete paving. Yet people still go.

As Robert Frost knew well, the road less travelled is often the more interesting choice – at least when it comes to talking about one’s travels. In order to find some routes both less-trodden and worth bragging about, we asked the users at question-and-answer site Quora “What are the world’s most interesting roads?”

While some readers described routes that traverse one of the world’s coldest regions, or tunnels that only measure 4m wide, other respondents took our question to its limit, recommending roads that were not only interesting, but dangerous as well. In those cases, the roads are less frequented for a reason: read on for terrifying drop-offs, unpredictable mudslides and a complete lack of concrete paving.

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National Road 5, Madagascar
For National Road 5, which runs north-south between the towns of Maroantsetra (pictured here) and Soanierana-Ivongo on the African country’s east coast, “you need to hire both a driver and a mechanic,” said Anders Alm, chief technology officer for WAU, a travel agency that provides regular trips to the area. If you’re “bored of concrete”, he added, this drive – which he called “the worst road in the world” – would be one way to change it up.

With sections of sand, solid rock and even worn-down bridges that drivers must inspect before crossing, the 200km road takes nearly 24 hours to drive. It turns especially treacherous during the rainy season (December to March), when the lack of asphalt or concrete paving leads the road to become impassable in many spots.

The upside? Most of National Road 5 runs along the white sand coastline, providing spectacular views of palm tree forests and the Indian Ocean.

National Road 5 in Madagascar (Credit: Olivier Cirendini/Getty)

Madagascar’s National Road 5. (Olivier Cirendini/Getty)

Rohtang Pass, India
Rohtang means literally, “pile of corpses” – a name that stems from the deadly mudslides that often cover the 4,000m-high road in the eastern Himalayas. Not to mention the area’s generally unpredictable weather, including snowstorms and sudden avalanches.

“Each season, road crews use GPS to find the road and dig it out again,” said Witold Chrab, a Washington DC-based engineer who drove a motorcycle across the pass in 2011. Once cleared, the pass generally remains open from May to November – though snow can make it impassable at any time; in 2010 it left 300 tourists stranded. An 8km tunnel is being constructed beneath the pass to provide a safer option, but the original route, which connects the Kulu, Lahual and Spiti valleys in northernmost India, lures visitors with views of rugged mountain ranges, sprawling valleys and even a mountain goat or two.

India's Rohtang Pass (Credit: Praphat Rattanayanon/Getty)

India’s Rohtang Pass. (Praphat Rattanayanon/Getty)

Transfăgărășan Road, Romania
While well-known in the world of auto enthusiasts – its 90km of hairpin turns and dramatic descents earned it the title of “best road in the world” by the BBC Top Gear crew – fewer casual drivers know of Romania’s second-highest road. Built as a military route in case of an invasion in the 1970s, the road connects the two tallest mountains in the Southern Carpathians, Moldoveanu and Negoiu, and ascends a total of 2,034m in altitude.

“If you like changing gears every three or four seconds, you know it’s fun,” said Romanian native Razvan Baba. Even more fun? Nobody tends to be around to enforce the 40km/h speed limit, Baba said – though the hairpins make it tough to go much faster.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania (Credit: Hutch Axilrod/Getty)

Romania’s Transfăgărășan Road. (Hutch Axilrod/Getty)

Eyre Highway, Australia
Carl Logan, a police officer from Perth, warned readers that this 684-mile stretch in southern Australia might seem “plain and boring” at first glance, but actually holds plenty of adventure – particularly with its animals. “You might see kangaroos, emus and sometimes even camels,” he said. The wildlife also makes the route riskier, as a wandering animal can seriously damage an oncoming car.

The most dangerous time to take on the highway – which runs between the towns of Norseman and Ceduna – is dawn or dusk, when most wildlife attempts to cross the road. But those who do drive at nightfall will be rewarded. “Because there is no civilisation, the night stars will be the brightest you’ve ever seen,” Logan said.

Eyre Highway, Australia (Credit: Ian Waldie/Getty)

Australia’s Eyre Highway. (Ian Waldie/Getty)

Prithvi Highway, Nepal
Running 174km from Kathmandu to Pokhara past sights such as Annapurna, the 10th-tallest peak in the world, and its conservation area (pictured here), this road’s dramatic views come at a potentially high cost. “In addition to beautiful views of the Himalayas, you will see vehicles that have ended up in the river chasms,” said Janet M Foley, a Las Vegas resident who drove the route. Prithvi Highway also passes some of the country’s most important religious sites, including the sacredManakamana Temple.

Foley said the “joy ride” was well worth it one way – but decided to catch a plane back to Kathmandu rather than pressing her luck twice.

Prithvi Highway, Nepal (Credit: Jochen Schlenker/Getty)

Annapurna’s conservation area. (Jochen Schlenker/Getty)

Kolyma Highway, Siberia
Locals know the Kolyma Highway, or M56, as “Trassa” – simply “The Route” – because in this desolate, frozen region of eastern Siberia, it is the only main road.

Another nickname for the highway, “the road of bones”, speaks to its tragic history: it was built by the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners who were exiled to the region’s gulags under the Stalin regime from the 1930s to the 1950s. Thousands were shot for not working hard enough, while others died from the gulags’ brutal conditions. The cold was another killer: with temperatures recorded as low as some -70C, the Kolyma is located in the world’s coldest inhabited area. Many of the dead simply were buried beneath the road’s foundations.

After the road fell into disrepair for decades, actor Ewan McGregor and TV presenter Charlie Boorman took a motorcycle journey on it in 2004 for the TV show Long Way Round. Kolyma Highway was designated a federal road in 2008 and began to attract a band of particularly adventurous – and cold-loving – motorcycle enthusiasts. Today, the 2,031km route is still known as the “world’s coldest road”, said world traveller Filipp Peresadilo, with snow falling even in July and August. It also remains one of the most desolate, with few travellers knowing of the world’s most frozen road – or its tragic history.

Kolyma Highway, Siberia (Credit: Amos Chapple/Getty)

Siberia’s Kolyma Highway. (Amos Chapple/Getty)

Guoliang Tunnel, China
For decades, the tiny cliff top village of Guoliang, located in the Taihang Mountains of eastern China, was reachable only by climbing the mountain on foot. After the government refused to build a road, effectively leaving the village to become a ghost town, the locals decided to take matters into their own hands. From 1972 to 1977, they used explosives and shovels to dig their own 1.2km tunnel; some lost their lives in the process.

Dangerous to build, the route is also dangerous to drive. Perched on the top of a cliff and measuring a narrow 4m wide, the Guoliang Tunnel is particularly treacherous after rains, when it can become very slippery. Thirty “windows” in the stone face, meanwhile, give spine-tingling glimpses of the valley far below. “China is the place to visit if you’re looking for extreme roads,” said Quora contributor Lewis Shaw. “Just don’t look down!”

Guoliang Tunnel, China (Credit: Zhen Miao/Getty)

China’s Guoliang Tunnel. (Zhen Miao/Getty)