Footage of a death-defying ride

adventure, Danny Macaskill, Scotland, Cuillin Range, extreme sports, mountain biking

Danny Macaskill takes on Scotland’s Cuillin Range – with a twist. He tackles the 13km-long range on two wheels.

Don’t look down.

These were probably the words running through extreme cyclist Danny Macaskill’s head when he biked the Isle of Skye’s notorious Cuillin Range. The above video – streamed more than 12 million times since its debut on 2 October – showcases the professional athlete’s death-defying ride along the jagged mountain ridge.

It’s a feat that – for obvious reasons – not many people attempt. Scotland’s Cuillin Range is a dramatic and challenging ascent for most mountain climbers, let alone an adventurer navigating on two wheels. The 13km-long range is home to some 20 peaks, with the highest point reaching an intimidating 992m. The few winding trails that pepper the range are slippery and narrow. And as winter nears, some trails require the use of ice-axes and crampons – not to mention a hefty dose of courage.

But these challenging conditions did nothing to deter Macaskill, who hails from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most famous stunt rider on the internet, Macaskill is good at what he does. His 12 years of practise are evident at the two-minute mark as he navigates the Cuillin’s steep, rocky ridges in a deceptively casual fashion. Then at 4:51, he vaults off the edge of a cliff and nails the landing. Watching as Macaskill hurdles, jumps and finishes the film with a trick flip, you just might feel as though the rider and the bike are one.

We don’t recommend that you follow exactly in Macaskill’s bike tracks, but well-qualified mountaineers can hike the Cuillin Range. Because of the mental and physical exertion required, climbing the ridge alone is suggested as a two-day trip, with one day used as a training day.

Why I’ll always love Paris

Few cities inspire connection like the French capital. In light of recent events, we wanted to share a serendipitous encounter that inspired a life-long love for Paris.

The night I met Canadian American writer Adam Gopnik, his train from New York to Delaware was delayed. A soft breeze moved across the parking lot as I leaned into my car’s headrest; I was sweating even though the door was open.

As of that spring 2011 evening, Gopnik had written for The New Yorker for 25 years. He was an intellectual, a man of letters so brilliantly capable of casual erudition combined with self-deprecating humour and just a dash of name-dropping that I could only hope I would bask in his genius for just one evening without saying anything silly. I discreetly checked my armpits.

I rehearsed what I might say when I met him.

Gopnik would be speaking the next day at a University of Delaware memorial for the poet WD Snodgrass. My darling husband, Matt, knowing of my starry-eyed crush on Gopnik’s work – and perhaps the man himself – had finagled his way into being the faculty member designated to pick the writer up and take him out to dinner. I had no official role on this welcoming committee or particular reason to be there, other than a persistent admiration that had endured since I first encountered Gopnik’s essay about John James Audubon in The Best American Essays 1992.

My copy of Paris to the Moon – Gopnik’s book about the five years he spent in the French capital with his family in the late 1990s – sat on the seat next to me, and I rehearsed what I might say when I met him. I wanted so much to connect, to show him that that I understood his love for Paris, about which he wrote beautifully, longingly.

An aerial view of Paris (Credit: Credit: Image Source/Alamy)

An aerial view of Paris (Credit: Image Source/Alamy)

“Your writing is important to me. I’ve read every word you’ve written for The New Yorker.” Ugh.

“I love Paris too, just the same way you do. I wrote about it on my blog – I even mentioned your book!” Double ugh.

“He’s here,” Matt’s text read. At the last minute, I decided to lean up against the car instead of sitting in it.

To my relief, I didn’t do anything foolish.

As they walked toward me, I saw Gopnik tilt his head as if to ask a question. He approached, smiling, looking a bit rumpled, shorter than I expected, but much like the photo on his book jacket. To my relief, I didn’t do anything foolish. I simply stuck out my hand, said my name and “Nice to meet you.” But he was looking intently at my face.

“Have we met before?” he asked, and I laughed spontaneously. Oh no, I was sure we hadn’t, for I would without question remember such a meeting. No, we had never connected – unless you counted the fact that it was his words that kept Paris alive for me.

Restaurants along the Champs-Élysées (Credit: Credit: Peter Phipp/Travelshots.com/Alamy)

Restaurants along the Champs-Élysées (Credit: Peter Phipp/Travelshots.com/Alamy)

*****

Loving Paris is not the most original thing I’ve ever done. But like so many people – like Gopnik himself – I came to this love independent of experience, and then had it confirmed by reality. He wrote of falling in love with Paris by means of a cardboard French policeman: an Air France advertisement that his mother procured somewhere and placed in his room for decoration when he was eight years old. “My head was filled with pictures of Paris,” he wrote, “and I wanted to be in them.”

“My head was filled with pictures of Paris.”

Paris became a dream for me in the fifth grade, when once a week for 30 minutes I revelled in the gorgeousness of ordinary words –fille for girl, papillon for butterfly,lundi for Monday – as my teacher wrote them in spidery print on a sheet of poster paper. Somehow learning French became almost instantly about going to Paris, home of Madeline and of the boy with the red balloon. Like Gopnik, I wanted to be in those pictures.

The Palace of Fontainebleau (Credit: Credit: Peter Schneiter/Alamy)

The Palace of Fontainebleau (Credit: Peter Schneiter/Alamy)

No one else in my family had any particular interest in visiting France, and so it became a personal mission. How carefully I studied my favourite subject even when I was bedevilled by the subjunctive or when the summer reading for my advanced high school course was a Beaumarchais play I could barely understand. I chose my college based on its study-abroad programme and even lived for a semester in a campus building called Le Chateau, whose design was inspired by a pavilion at the Palace of Fontainebleau.

And then, finally, in August 1990, at the end of the summer I turned 20, I arrived in Paris for the school year. Riding the bus from Orly Airport to the Gare Montparnasse, I gazed at the haughty lion sitting in the middle of the Denfert-Rochereau traffic circle and thought – as I often would riding past – that he waited just for me.

The lion in the Denfert-Rochereau circle (Credit: Credit: Gilles Targat/Photos 12/Alamy)

The lion in the Denfert-Rochereau circle (Credit: Gilles Targat/Photos 12/Alamy)

Although Gopnik served as The New Yorker’s French cultural critic and correspondent when he lived in Paris, covering everything from elections to strikes to fashion shows, he wrote in the first chapter of Paris to the Moon that his life in the French capital was primarily domestic. He described visiting the park, playing pinball in a cafe with his son, Luke, watching an old couple in one of his favourite bistros eat dinner in the company of their blind dog.

The fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Credit: Credit: Andre Lebrun/Age Fotostock/Alamy)

The fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Credit: Andre Lebrun/Age Fotostock/Alamy)

My most beloved things about the city were similarly quotidian. Even now I see my younger self, almost but not quite an adult, purchasing a ham-and-cheese crêpeseasoned with a generous amount of black pepper and wrapped in wax paper. I would have made this purchase from the storefront window near the Alliance Française where some of my classes were held. Clutching my warm treat, I’d make a right turn on the Rue du Fleurus past the stone façade of Gertrude Stein’s house, with its black wrought-iron window ornaments. Angled and narrow, the street showed no sign of what lay at the end, but I walked confidently, a stray string of melted gruyere sticking to my glove, until I reached the gold-tipped fence and slipped into the Jardin du Luxembourg where I would pass by the carousel and puppet theatre without stopping, gravel crunching beneath my feet, headed for the fountain at the garden’s centre to wile away hours on a small folding chair as if it were my own private realm.

Sunset at the Jardin du Luxembourg (Credit: Credit: Sonnet Sylvain/hemis.fr/Alamy)

Sunset at the Jardin du Luxembourg (Credit: Sonnet Sylvain/hemis.fr/Alamy)

Before I left Paris in May 1991, it was in the Jardin that I took my last stroll, snapping photos of the statues, including an angel with large swooping wings, her podium surrounded by electric orange flowers. This picture would later hang on my dorm room bulletin board, representing Paris, where I was convinced in the easy optimism of youth and inexperience, that I would simply will myself back to work and live once I graduated.

When this fantasy proved to be just that – no trip to Paris was forthcoming for almost 20 years – it was often Gopnik’s writing, first in The New Yorker and later in his book, which took me back. As I got older and eventually had babies, my favourite tales were those where Gopnik roamed the city with Luke.

A father and son play in Place des Vosges (Credit: Credit: Jochem Wijnands/Horizons WWP/TRVL/Alamy)

A father and son play in Place des Vosges (Credit: Jochem Wijnands/Horizons WWP/TRVL/Alamy)

I especially enjoyed the stories of how toddler Luke was fascinated with the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg, including the old-fashioned game where riders capture rings on a stick as they ride. As Gopnik pointed out, this game is the origin of the American expression “going for the brass ring”, but the French rings are small and made of tin, making the game quite challenging.

Gopnik and Luke returned to the carousel routinely until, in the book’s last pages, Luke, now a brave six-year-old, rode the carousel and grabbed the rings under the eyes of his both proud and melancholy father, who was mourning his family’s imminent departure for New York. For Gopnik, this game, this ride – whose only purpose and prize was the experience itself – represented all that he loved about the beauty and charm of Paris as seen through the eyes of his child.

Carousel in Paris (Credit: Credit: Jonathan Gibbons)

(Credit: Jonathan Gibbons)

When I finally returned to Paris in 2008 with my sons Tommy and Teddy – six and three, respectively – in tow, I didn’t even wait 24 hours to introduce them to the Jardin, which has a large playground next to the carousel where the boys played for hours. It was the end of June, sunlight dappled the ground, and rarely had the world ever felt so good and right as it did while my children climbed and ran near the place where my own younger feet had strolled.

Rarely had the world ever felt so good and right.

I eventually lured them to the merry-go-round and its slightly seedy charm. Tommy chose a worn wooden elephant for his ride. A leather belt encircled his waist to hold him safely on the animal, and in his right hand he clutched a thick and worn wooden stick to grab the small metal rings. With intent focus, Tommy managed to fill his stick with the rings, one at a time, with each circumnavigation of the ride. This was no small feat for a first-timer, and like Gopnik, I delighted in my son’s success. “I was unreasonably pleased,” he wrote, “and then felt a little guilty about my own pleasure. It seemed so American, so competitive.”

Carousel in Paris (Credit: Credit: Jodie Wallis/Getty)

(Credit: Jodie Wallis/Getty)

Tommy was so triumphant to have captured almost all of the rings that he lost his head and as the carousel slowed to a stop, turned his stick to face the ground, where they all slid into the dirt. For a suspended moment we all sighed, but then the breeze in the trees, the sound of children calling to each other from the nearby playground, the scent of coffee and age, the essential perfection of the moment took over. It was perfection borne of layers of experience: my own long sojourns in the Jardin, the pleasure of experiencing something I had read about and loved; and the very real happiness of the day, of Paris, of sharing a place so dear with my family.

*****

And so of course, on that spring evening nearly three years later with only a few hours over dinner to convey it, I wanted Gopnik to know how much his book meant to me, how it had brought me to many places I wanted to go. I wanted him to know that I too understood the revivifying effect of bringing children to a city that’s sometimes accused of being a museum, a dusty relic.

Playing in front of the Eiffel Tower (Credit: Credit: Look Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH/Alamy)

Playing in front of the Eiffel Tower (Credit: Look Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH/Alamy)

And I had no idea how to tell him.

So instead I listened in the car on the way to the restaurant as he talked about eating at Ina’s house (Ina Garten!) and mentioned his friend and colleague Malcom (Malcom Gladwell!). He was charming, comfortable in his own skin, well aware that he was the most interesting person in the vehicle. He insisted that we choose the wine at the restaurant but then gave in to our protestations and selected a handsome bottle of Bordeaux.

A bridge over the Seine (Credit: Credit: D Degnan/ClassicStock/Alamy)

A bridge over the Seine (Credit: D Degnan/ClassicStock/Alamy)

There was no way I was going to call myself a writer in front of a man who referred to The New Yorker in conversation as “The Magazine”, but I hoped somehow to figure out a way to mention my modest travel blog and to share that one of the very posts was of our visit to the carousel.

As soon as we had ordered our wine, he looked at me again with that same curious expression, and said, “Mara, I hate to be a bore, but I’m sure I’ve seen you before.  Have you ever been in Paris?”

Well, yes.

“You have two blond little boys, right?”

Yes again (I was feeling very odd at this point).

“That’s it!  I saw you at the carousel at the Jardin du Luxembourg a few years ago.”

“Mara, I hate to be a bore, but have you ever been in Paris?”

And so the moment I had been seeking arrived unbidden. He and I looked at each other in utter recognition. Of course, he had seen me before, as I in turn had seen him in the pages of his book.

“I was there with my family – it’s an annual tradition for us when we visit Paris in the summer. I remember that year especially because it was the last time Luke would ride – his legs were getting too long. I remember watching you and your family. I could tell you were American.”

When he finished describing our chance encounter, he looked almost bashful, “I remember wondering if you had read my book. I almost came over and asked if that was why you were there, but you and your family looked so happy I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Later, I asked him to sign my book and he wrote on the title page, For Mara – A friend from Paris unknown!

An aerial view of Paris (Credit: Credit:John Kellerman/Alamy)

An aerial view of Paris (Credit:John Kellerman/Alamy)

I wrote about our two-week trip to Paris on my website. I talked about Teddy’s infatuation with the Eiffel Tower, his wonder that it appeared so often in the landscape. I shared the perfect days we spent exploring Marie Antoinette’s folly in Versailles and Monet’s garden in Giverny, where Tommy made his own sketch of the famous Japanese bridge. It was the naissance of my online travel writing life, begun with such joy and optimism and meaning and a shared love of one of my favourite places in the world. And without question, the most significant moment was the one when Tommy triumphantly filled his stick with all the rings. A moment I had unwittingly shared with the man who inspired it.

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)

“Squint.”

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 lake at the end of the world

Barely one hour from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, Lake Bohinj is in the middle of nowhere – out of season and time – and it’s wonderful.

“We have a saying here in Slovenia,” said Grega Silc, a Hike & Bike Slovenia tour guide, as we cycled around the riotous green of the ridge. “In Bohinj, we’re a day or two behind the rest of the world.”

Silc grinned; a day or two is manageable. The lag used to be worse. For centuries, the sheep- and goat-herding villages around the glacial Lake Bohinj were cut off from the rest of Slovenia by poor roads and vertiginous terrain, clustered in the shadow of the Julian Alps. Transport to Ukanc – a hamlet on the far side of the lake whose name loosely translates to “the end of the world” – could take weeks.

Wooden houses make Bohinj feel timeless (Credit: Credit: zkbld/Thinkstock)

Wooden houses make Bohinj feel timeless (Credit: zkbld/Thinkstock)

However in 1906, during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tunnels were blasted through the mountainside and a railway was added along the water, connecting the northern mining town of Jesenice to the empire’s Adriatic port of Trieste in the south. While the Bohinj region became slightly less remote geographically, it later spent decades as part of communist Yugoslavia, becoming isolated from the rest of Europe politically. And despite Slovenia’s independence in 1991 and admission into the Eurozone in 2007, a deep connection to the past and a slower-paced life remains.

Here, among the wooden houses and open haylofts of Bohinj’s sparse and scattered villages, it’s easy to pretend the Austro-Hungarian Empire has never fallen. Alpine shepherds and cowherds still head to the top of Mount Vogel to graze their livestock on wildflowers. Every September, villagers still celebrate their return on the banks of the lake with folk singing and dancing at the “Cow Ball”.

Cows graze in mountain pastures in the Julian Alps (Credit: Credit: Jezer Mojca Odar)

Cows graze in mountain pastures in the Julian Alps (Credit: Jezer Mojca Odar)

On the spring day that Silc and I went cycling through the region, we saw at most a hiker or two on the footpaths or cycle roads. The lake was so still it was impossible to tell where the pine-streaked ridges ended and the waters began. The silence was overwhelming.

In the hamlet of Ribčev Laz, we took a break from peddling and stood at the edge of the lake by the milk-coloured Church of St. John the Baptist. “A mystery”, Silc said. Nobody knows exactly how old it is – it was built sometime before the 15th Century – and no one knows the meaning of the interior fresco: a white devil sits on Cain’s shoulder and the angels have vampire fangs. But, as Silc explained, it was common for Christian dogma to meld with folk traditions in a place as historically isolated as Bohinj.

Across the bank from the church stands the slender, dark bronze statue of the Zlatorog, or Golden Horn – the magical stag believed to guard the ridges around the lake. In the glint of the afternoon light, it almost looks real. A 20-minute cycle ride from the church, “Devil’s Bridge” spans over a furious gorge. According to legend, the devil built it in exchange for the soul of the first one to cross; however, clever villagers tricked a dog into making the trip. This is a land of stories. It’s the sort of place where one’s imagination might run wild.

We continued to cycle through villages, alpine fields dotted with wildflowers and forests where the branches trellised above our heads. The white of the clouds, soft against the blue of the sky, faded into the snow on the mountaintops. It was the sort of place, I thought, where you can forget any other places exist.

The quiet stillness of Lake Bohinj can feel overwhelming (Credit: Credit: Slovenian Tourist Board)

The quiet stillness of Lake Bohinj can feel overwhelming (Credit: Slovenian Tourist Board)

“Agatha Christie used to come here,” Silc told me proudly. “But she never set any of her works here. She said it was too beautiful a place to set any murders.”

And Christie wasn’t the only writer to fall for Bohinj’s charms. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was a regular visitor to Ukanc. “An existentialist going to the town of the end of the world,” Silc acknowledged. “Makes sense.”

We stopped at the bottom of Mount Vogel, a seasonal ski resort, where a cable car took us to the top. A sign compared the current wait time – 15 minutes – to the six hours or more it took during the days of communist Yugoslavia, when facilities were limited and people queued up at dawn in the hope of a single trip up and down the slope.

A cable car pulls up to the snow-covered top of Mount Vogel (Credit: Credit: Turizem Bohinj)

A cable car pulls up to the snow-covered top of Mount Vogel (Credit: Turizem Bohinj)

As the car pulled us upward, forests gave way to bare cliffs. Silc pointed out a goat-like chamoix leaping across the snowdrifts. Spring – or summer – does not exist at the top of Mount Vogel. While people are swimming in the lake, up here, snow shrouds the horizon. Without even the changing seasons to mark the passage of months, time felt slower still.

We sat in the chalet at the top of the cable car, huddled over cabbage stew that had been sharpened with sausage and thickened with beans. Silc ran into two friends – also tour guides – napping against the wood-slat walls while their guests wandered the mountainside.

“A hard life”, one of them winked at me. “I quit. I am going back to the factory – first thing tomorrow.”

The Bohinj region is barely one hour from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, but we hardly noticed. We were in the middle of nowhere, out of season and time – and it was wonderful.

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.

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.

A painting that predates modern man

Walk – and crawl – through El Castillo cave to see the 40,000-year-old painting that has scientists questioning the origins of human creativity.

I gasped at my first glimpse of a cave painting: a crude red outline of a deer with one wild circle for an eye. Its iron pigments blazed under the lamplight. The illusion of a breastbone emerged, ingeniously, out of a hump in the limestone wall. After a while, a cave becomes a long black tunnel of sensory deprivation; the sight of this tender image jolted my breath back to life.

“Can you tell you’re in a sacred place?” asked Marcos Garcia Diez, the archaeologist who had agreed to show me some of the most breathtaking rock art ever created. “This cave is like a church and that’s why ancient people returned, returned, returned here for thousands of years.”

Jutting from the base of a mountain about 85km west of Bilbao,El Castillo is one of the world’s most celebrated rock art temples. When Homo sapiens first began their northward migration from Africa to Europe around 40,000 years ago, some joined the Neanderthals here in Cantabria, a region that is home to at least 40 painted caves, including El Castillo. So magnificent are the province’s primordial masterpieces that when Picasso visited, he reportedly declared, “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”

The entrance to El Castillo cave (Credit: S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

The entrance to El Castillo cave. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Unlike France, which has barred the public from entering its greatest cave art sites, Lascaux and Chauvet, Spain’s culture ministry has kept El Castillo open to the public, allowing up to 260 visitors per day. Officials even recently opened the nearby Altamira cave, the so-called “Sistine Chapel of rock art”, to five visitors per week through February 2015.

Incredibly, El Castillo’s deer painting, along with renderings of archetypal bison, horned ibex and extinct cows, were merely a prelude to my ultimate goal: to see, deep within the cave, an extraordinary smudge of calcite-encrusted red paint – by all accounts, a treasure found nowhere else on the globe.

Two years ago, Diez and a team of archaeologists discovered that the smudge – a red disc painted in a corridor known as the “Panel of Hands” – was much older than previously realised. In a 2012 study published in the journal Science, they revealed that the painting was at least 40,800 years old – making it the earliest-known cave painting on Earth.

Gallery of the Discs in El Castillo (Credit: S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Gallery of the Discs in El Castillo. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Diez and his colleagues argued that the painting was so old, in fact, that it might predate modern man’s arrival in this part of the world, and thus may actually be the work of a Neanderthal. With more research, Diez thinks they will soon discover even older paintings.

The revelations did not come without controversy, but it wasn’t the methodology that experts quarrelled with. Many agree that the standard practice of radiocarbon dating is limited at best; it applies only to charcoal works and loses reliability after about 35,000 years. To go back further, into the age of Neanderthals, Diez and his colleagues borrowed a technique from military science for dating the radioactive uranium that appears in calcite. They tested formations of the mineral that had grown atop paintings in 11 caves, assuming that whatever its age, the underlying paint had to be at least as old, and possibly much older. (The method proved so successful that other researchers used it to make another major discovery in October 2014: a 39,900-year-old handprint in Indonesia that is now considered the world’s second-oldest painting.)

What did cause contention was the suggestion that Neanderthals may have been responsible for the art – a divisive theory that threatens to disrupt decades of scholarship on the origins of human creativity. Scientists have long claimed that our thicker-skulled ancestors were not intelligent enough to make art. But today, a growing number of scholars argues that the characterization of Neanderthals as boneheaded beasts is an outdated, sapian-centric construction – even a kind of bigotry. As Gregory Curtis described in his book The Cave Painters, some view Neanderthals as “the very first victims of imperialism”.

None of this seemed of particular interest to Diez, however, as he led me deeper into the cave, guiding me through narrow verges and up muddy inclines. He thinks of himself as a “dirt archaeologist” – more interested in exploration than debate.

Yet Diez still enjoys asking impossible questions about the meaning of cave art. “Why do you think they painted so many of these?” he said, squatting beneath a rough but unmistakable sketch of a bison. Before I could answer, he explained how some ethnographers theorize that ancient hunters painted these prized sources of meat with the shamanistic belief that pictures could summon the animals. This “hunting magic” theory works a little like voodoo: representation as actualisation.

Two ancient hands (Credit: S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Detail of two hands. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

While Diez forged ahead, I stopped at the Panel of Hands, the site of dozens of handprints stencilled in ochre. I held my palm up a few inches from one of the outlines. I wanted to press down upon it, as if to gain access to some ancestor who, 1,600 generations ago, also laid a hand against this stone.

When Diez turned back, he flashed his light on my hand, still mid-air. “That. What you’re doing right now,” he said. “That, I think, is the reason for the paintings.” As I looked at my palm still hovering over the handprint, I realised he was right.

It was the innate human impulse to connect to something bigger than oneself. The wall was more than a canvas, it was a threshold – “a being”, Diez said. In this view, the cave is a kind of Palaeolithic church, where paintings are scriptures and creativity is the measure of divinity.

“We’re close,” Diez said as we continued down the rocky chute. By now, it had taken us nearly three hours to walk – and often crawl – through the 1km-long labyrinth, and I sensed that we were circling back near the entrance.

Sure enough, a minute later, the hollow widened and Diez flashed his light onto a low, shadowy wall. There it was: the oldest-known painting in the world. Nothing more than a fist-sized red splotch.

“Is it everything you expected?” he asked.

I fumbled for an answer, but only more questions came to mind: Was this the work of history’s first artist? Did it represent the moment mankind transcended the animals?

The marking struck me as a kind of vanishing point: the furthest visible moment on the plane of human history. Yet as I stood before it, all of time seemed to melt into illusion, and I began to understand why we so often describe the ineffable with inadequacies like “spiritual” or “transcendent”. Sometimes we must simply surrender to the unfamiliar, to the limitations of our knowledge, perception and language.

Seven places that hardly seem real

These seven dreamy destinations make you feel like you’ve stepped straight into a magical fairy tale world.

Where to go to escape the stresses of life, the bustle of the workweek and the noise of traffic? To find out, we turned to question-and-answer site Quora, where users have been sharing their opinions on real places that look plucked from a fairy tale.

From an enchanting Alpine palace in Germany that rivals Cinderella’s castle to a postcard-perfect English landscape that inspired Beatrix Potter and JRR Tolkien – these seven dreamy destinations are so magical, it’s hard to believe they’re real.

A giant patchwork quilt of kaleidoscopic colour
Holland’s stunning tulip fields, with their broad stripes of vibrant blues, reds, pinks and yellows, “look like the artwork in a children’s book”, wrote Quora user Rahul Shankar. He added that this coastal region of the Netherlands “strangely reminded [him] of the Wizard of Oz”.

Holland's tulip fields are reminiscent of the Yellow Brick Road (Credit: Credit: JacobH/istock)

Holland’s tulip fields are reminiscent of the Yellow Brick Road (Credit: JacobH/istock)

It’s a modern pastime to circle the flower farms on foot, bike or via caravan, and the tulips have a rich, storied history. The flowers were imported into Holland in the 16th Century and peaked in popularity in the 17th Century – during the Dutch Golden Age – when they grew so coveted they created the world’s first economic bubble: “Tulip Mania”.

The most popular fields are located in western Holland between the cities of Leiden and Den Helder. Others are situated near the city of Enkhuizen and in the nearby province of Flevoland.

The Holland tulip fields turn into a patchwork quilt from above (Credit: Credit: Hollandluchtfoto/Getty)

The Holland tulip fields turn into a patchwork quilt from above (Credit: Hollandluchtfoto/Getty)

More than three billion tulips are grown in Holland each year, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. Tulip season spans from March until August, giving travellers plenty of time to view the vibrant display.

A fantastical figment of Gaudi’s otherworldly imagination
With its intricate symbolic sculptures, monumental medallion-capped spires and wildly imaginative carved facades, theSagrada Familia rises from Barcelona’s urban setting like an elaborate Gothic castle ripe with stories, spirits and secrets.

The Gothic masterpiece is still under construction in Barcelona (Credit: Credit: Gustavo's Photos/Getty)

The Gothic masterpiece is still under construction in Barcelona (Credit: Gustavo’s Photos/Getty)

Designed by one of Spain’s most famed architects, Antoni Gaudi, the history of this Roman Catholic church and Unesco World Heritage Site is a legend in itself. Construction began in 1882, but less than a quarter of the project was complete when Gaudi died in 1926. Since then, work has progressed slowly, disrupted by the Spanish Civil War, a fire and a series of contentious controversies. The happy ending? Architects plan to complete the project in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

Barcelona’s most popular tourist site attracts three million visitors annually, and for good reason: it’s a dizzyingly elaborate masterpiece unlike anything else in the world. Which is why, according to Aditya Pandya, it has put Barcelona on the map.

Elaborate carvings adorn the massive Sagrada Familia (Credit: Credit: Cristinatrif/iStock)

Elaborate carvings adorn the massive Sagrada Familia (Credit: Cristinatrif/iStock)

“Anyone who is familiar with Gaudí’s work would appreciate his brazen and imaginative designs that left a lasting impression on Barcelona as a city,” Pandya wrote. “Gaudí’s phenomenal work between the late 1880s and 1920s is largely responsible for the city’s vibrant personality and in being recognised as the cultural capital of Spain.”

A setting that could steal the spotlight from any storybook hero
With its postcard-perfect valleys surrounded by glittering lakes, burbling brooks, rolling hills and craggy peaks, the Lake District in England’s northwest is quite literally taken out of fairy tales.

Sweeping views over England's lush Lake District (Credit: Credit: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy)

Sweeping views over England’s lush Lake District (Credit: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy)

“This place was JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for the Shire, Beatrix Potter’s inspiration for Peter Rabbit and eponymous residence of the Lake Poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey,” Jeff Chau wrote.

Each year, 16 million visitors come to the 2,292sqkm Cumbrian national park for its lake cruises, mountain hikes and awe-inspiring sightseeing. For city-dwellers especially, it can seem like stepping into a storybook realm of undulating fells, whitewashed cottages and stonewalled fields where ponies roam.

Bright skies reflect off of Buttermere Lake in Cumbria (Credit: Credit: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy)

Bright skies reflect off of Buttermere Lake in Cumbria (Credit: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy)

One of nature’s most magical optical illusions
Once upon a time in the faraway land of the Faroe Islands, glittering Lake Sørvágsvatn (also known as Lake Leitisvatn) became known as the most striking of all of the islands’ lakes.

At more than 6km long, it is the biggest in the Faroe Islands. And as the star of a clever optical illusion, the lake appears as if it’s resting hundreds of metres above the sea, with the ocean churning beneath its placid waters.

The Faroe Islands' Lake Sørvágsvatn, or Leitisvatn, tricks the eye (Credit: Credit: Jan Egil Kristiansen)

The Faroe Islands’ Lake Sørvágsvatn, or Leitisvatn, tricks the eye (Credit: Jan Egil Kristiansen)

But nature can be deceiving, explained Aneesh Wairagade. In reality, Lake Sørvágsvatn is actually no more than about 30m above sea level. A steep cliff in front of the lake and a clever camera angle make the lake appear to be much higher than it really is.

Visit the 18 rocky, volcanic islands connected by tunnels, ferries, causeways and bridges, and view Mother Nature’s oddest optical illusion on the island of Vagar. The islands are also home to other natural attractions, such as rare birds, dramatic coastal cliffs and grassy meadows dotted with sheep.

Vagar Island is full of dramatic lakes, waterfalls and cliffs (Credit: Credit: Adam Burtn/Alamy)

Vagar Island is full of dramatic lakes, waterfalls and cliffs (Credit: Adam Burtn/Alamy)

The ultimate cliff hanger
Jutting out dramatically above the reflective waters of Lysefjord, the spectacular precipice of Preikestolen in Ryfylke, Norway, could be the setting for any mythic Hollywood epic.

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, towers over Lysefjorden (Credit: Credit: David Robertson/Alamy)

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, towers over Lysefjorden (Credit: David Robertson/Alamy)

Also known as Preacher’s Pulpit or Pulpit Rock because it resembles a lectern, Preikestolen is a rocky 25m by 25m rocky plateau that towers 604m above the crystal-clear waters below. According to Derek Harkness, it looks “like something from the Roadrunner cartoons”.

The steep cliff was formed during the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, when the edges of a glacier bumped up against the surrounding mountains. Water from the glacier penetrated the crevices of the mountain and froze, eventually breaking off colossal portions. Left behind was the dramatic precipice of Preikestolen.

A hiker revels on top of Preikestolen in Norway (Credit: Credit: Anton Sokolov/iStock)

A hiker revels on top of Preikestolen in Norway (Credit: Anton Sokolov/iStock)

Ice Age-era cracks in the plateau will eventually expand and fragment Pulpit Rock into a pile of rubble – but, according to geological investigations, not in the foreseeable future.

‘If I were a princess, I would want my castle to look like this’
If you don’t believe in fairy tales, you will after you set eyes onNeuschwanstein Castle. An enchanting Romanesque Revival fortress that rises majestically from the Alpine foothills of southwest Bavaria, this picture-perfect palace is rumoured to be the inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland and Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyworld.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is rumoured to have inspired Disney (Credit: Credit: Rudy Balasko/iStock)

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria is rumoured to have inspired Disney (Credit: Rudy Balasko/iStock)

Straight from the dreams of little princesses across the globe, this magical palace has everything a fairy tale castle should: a romantic setting, a glowing limestone facade, fanciful turrets and an elaborate interior featuring shining suits of armour.

“It seriously looks like Prince Charming and his lovely wife are going to step right out of the front door to greet you,” wroteDanielle Maurer. “If I were a princess, I would want my castle to look like this.”

The halls of Neuschwanstein Castle are fit for a princess (Credit: Credit: Konstantin Mironov/Alamy)

The halls of Neuschwanstein Castle are fit for a princess (Credit: Konstantin Mironov/Alamy)

In reality, the castle was originally commissioned as a personal retreat in 1869 by King Ludwig II, the reclusive ruler of Bavaria. Immediately after his death in 1886, it was opened to the public and today more than 1.3 million tourists visit each year.

A zany Alice in Wonderland creation, reflected in a fun-house mirror
“This isn’t an illustration in a fairy tale book; this is a real house,” wrote Bruce Feldman, describing Poland’s fantastically topsy-turvy Krzywy Domek, or Crooked House.

The wacky, warped Krzywy Domek (Credit: Credit: James Freeman/Alamy)

The wacky, warped Krzywy Domek (Credit: James Freeman/Alamy)

With its undulating roofline and warped windows and doors, this 4,000sqm building “was inspired by the fairy tale illustrations of [prolific children’s book illustrator] Jan Marcin Szancer and the work of artist Per Dahlberg,” Feldman explained. The vertigo-inducing building in the seaside resort town of Sopot houses a shopping centre, restaurants and a radio station, and draws thousands of tourists each year to see the modern architectural marvel for themselves.

The demise of a ‘mini-Amazon’?

The controversial Nicaragua canal, dubbed the largest engineering project in history, is forcing a small, sleepy community into the spotlight.

A sleepy, isolated island community in Nicaragua, nestled at the foot of one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, faces an uncertain future. But the danger doesn’t come from the perpetual risk of geological disaster. The threat is manmade.

A view of the volcano Conception (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

A view of the volcano Conception. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Over the past decade, tourism to Isla Ometepe has grown as word of its Eden-like natural beauty has spread. But this dual volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, often dubbed a “mini-Amazon”, recently found itself at the centre of a controversial mega-engineering project: a Chinese-run, interoceanic canal that will be deeper and longer than Panama’s, ideal for giant cargo ships.

The proposed 278km route, connecting the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, will carve through Lake Nicaragua, potentially displacing the surrounding rainforest and threatening indigenous communities. The route will also bring the supertankers right past Ometepe’s Eden.

Work on the canal officially began in December 2014, sparking a wave of protests from those who are worried about losing their homes, and the damage the canal might cause to the environment. Doubts have also been raised over whether there will be enough funding to complete the canal within the allotted five-year plan.

The 267sqkm island, home to a population of just under 30,000, receives about 40,000 visitors a year. Between the rough ferry ride over and the island’s bone-shaking roads, it’s understandable that visitor numbers are still relatively low, even with the island’s incredible beauty.

Birds fly over Rio Istiam (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Birds fly over Rio Istiam. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

On the day that I crossed Lake Nicaragua – Central America’s largest body of freshwater, so vast that Spanish Conquistadors believed it was open sea – Isla Ometepe’s volcanoes were engulfed in a heavy cloud clover that burst as soon as I stepped onto the port. The lush vegetation beamed Day-Glo green against the remaining grey in the sky. Birds and butterflies scattered while villagers carried on with their days. Turns out, the only thing that moved fast here was the weather.

I was staying at Hacienda Mérida, a former farm/coffee-processing plant-turned-ecolodge located in Volcan Maderas National Park. Its owner, Alvaro Molina, was one of the first to bring tourism to the island when he opened the lodge in 2001.

A jetty from the lodge offered uninterrupted views of Conceptión, the 1,610m-tall, very active volcano that towered over Lake Nicaragua. Ometepe’s extinct volcano, Maderas, with its jagged rainforest-covered peak, formed the lodge’s backdrop. Instead of trekking, swimming, kayaking, cycling and horse riding – all popular activities here – I chose a hammock with a view, and flopped.

Conception engulfed in heavy cloud clover (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Conception engulfed in heavy cloud clover. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

The next morning, I set off early to kayak on Río Istiam, a river and swamp that cuts inland through the middle of the hourglass-shaped island. On the 3km paddle towards the river mouth, I passed villagers swimming and fishing in the lake. My guide, Maykel Carillo, said locals used to stay out of the water because it was once infested with bull sharks. By the 1980s, overfishing and a shark fin trade wiped-out the population, but some say a few still lurk under the surface. I dipped in my paddle with extra caution.

Lake Nicaragua will need to be dredged in order to build a canal that’s deep enough for giant cargo ships. “It will kill this lake,” Carillo said. “Many flora and fauna will die.” The local people, most of who are subsistence farmers and rely on fishing, do not have the skills required for the type of jobs the canal will create, Carillo added. “Some have never been to school, so there is no opportunity for them,” he said.

On the other hand, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world. Officials expect the canal to bring in an investment of more than one trillion cordoba, which would more than triple the size of the current economy.

As we entered the lagoon, the volume of birdsong dialled up a few notches. The wetland is home to an abundance of birdlife, and we spotted egrets, herons, jacanas and blue jays . A committee of vultures perched on gnarled tree branches jutting out of the tranquil water. Conceptión, and the cloud surrounding its peak, created a perfect reflection on the lake’s glass-like surface.

After an hour of paddling – we see a caiman! Or a log! No… it’s a log – we headed back, spotting a turtle, or maybe a rock, on the way.

Many travellers climb Ometepe’s volcanoes, but weather conditions often turn the hike into a walk in the clouds. This was a convenient excuse for me to try a lighter 3km hike to the island’s 50m-high waterfall, San Ramón. As I set out on the rainforest path that runs up the side of Maderas, I spotted a group of howler monkeys, chattering among themselves as they swung through the branches. After an hour’s scramble, I reached the thundering waterfall, its cold mist wonderfully refreshing after the drenching humidity of the jungle.

Hiking to the San Ramon waterfall (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Hiking to the San Ramon waterfall. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

At sunset, the guests at Hacienda Mérida gathered on its jetty. Some paddled out in kayaks towards the sinking sun, which cast a soft, purple hue over the scorched earth of Conceptión’s facade.

Molina traced the horizon with his arm. “In about five years, huge ships could pass by here,” he told me.

There is a still a huge amount of community uncertainty around the proposals, Molina said. The canal could attract more tourists to see the spectacle, like in Panama, he added – especially now that Ometepe has a new airstrip.

Coupled with an influx of workers who will move to the island for canal jobs, Molina said he’s concerned about the sustainability of this population growth, especially since the island already struggles with waste disposal from the minimal tourism it currently gets. For the time being, he has devised his own solution; he’s collected disused plastic and turned it into building material, using it to construct a school next to the lodge where guests are able to volunteer.

Flora and fauna on the island (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Flora and fauna on the island. (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Environmental groups such as Forests of the World have warned about the damage that the canal could wreak over this biosphere, leading to the destruction of habitat, pollution, introduction of invasive species and deterioration of drinking and irrigation water reserves. Molino said a potential upside could be the range of ecological studies carried out for the first time, bringing top biologists and entomologists to Ometepe to conduct research. “Huge amounts of data will be collected and hundreds of new species will be identified – a lot of biological information that was not known now will be.” The canal could also help prevent deforestation – a major problem in Nicaragua – if it succeeds in lifting people out of poverty. “But if the government doesn’t improve education in a dramatic way, then really, the canal will serve no purpose because most of those jobs will be set out for foreigners,” Molino said.

By my last day on the island, the cloud that had been enveloping Conceptión’s peak lifted, unveiling the volcano in its full magnitude. It had been five years since it last erupted, and against the clear blue sky it was possible to see the dents and scars on the almost-red facade.

On the way to the ferry port, I stopped off at a spit that juts out into lake. The black sand, just visible, looked like the back of a whale emerging from the water. I walked to the end, ankles just below the water, and was able to see the famous image of the island, described by Mark Twain in his book Travels with Mr Brown: “Two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds.”

But 149 years after Twain visited, with such uncertainty over the future of the island, I wondered if the author’s observation about Ometepe – “so isolated from the world and its turmoil” – would remain as enduring as the image before me did now.

A one-way trip lasted seven years

As many of her friends settled down, Sabrina Iovino opted out of the rat race and began a life of full-time travel.

Surrounded by young, good-looking backpackers in Bangkok, Thailand, I made up my mind: once I got back home to Germany, I was going to quit my job and travel the world.

It was 2007, and I had taken a short trip to the humid nation to take a break from the rat race in Berlin. Almost everyone I met told me the same story: “I’m travelling around the world for a year, and you?” I was embarrassed to say I would go back home in a couple of weeks to my boring nine-to-five life as a graphic designer for a start-up company. My friends were getting married, buying cars and houses and looking down at me, wondering why I didn’t want to pursue the same goals. But rather than chasing material possessions, I craved freedom and adventure – and my new travelling friends seemed so happy and free. Suddenly I knew I had to change my life.

Rather than chasing material possessions, I craved freedom and adventure.

When I returned from South East Asia, I started to save as much money as I could. I worked more than ever and lived as frugally as possible. I rented out my room to tourists, cancelled all unnecessary insurance, ate at home and completely gave up shopping – instead, I sold most of my clothes and designer furniture. A year later I had saved up 20,000 euros and was ready to take the leap, so I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.

A vertigo-inducing view, found while couch-surfing in Hong Kong (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

A vertigo-inducing view, found while couch-surfing in Hong Kong (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Quitting my job = pure happiness
A day later I told my boss that I’d quit my job. I will never forget how I felt that day – it was pure happiness, knowing I wouldn’t have to work for a long time and I could instead just enjoy travelling. It was 2008, and the beginning of a new life – although I didn’t know it at the time.

I had enough money to travel for at least one or two years. In the beginning it was purely a holiday, and I knew I would have to return at some point. I travelled the first six months across South East Asia, then I headed to Japan and Australia before crossing the Pacific to Chile. From there I took a bus all the way up to Mexico. It was an insane trip – South and Central America were such colourful countries and Latin people are some of the most fun and friendly people on this planet. Afterwards I flew to New York and from there I returned back to Germany, after 14 months of travel. It was January 2010 and terribly cold.

Working in an office from nine to five seemed like a huge waste of time.

I got my old job back and started working again at the same company that I had left in 2008. It was then that I realised those 14 months away were not a holiday, they were what my life was supposed to be. My whole perspective had changed, and working in an office from nine to five seemed like a huge waste of time. I had better things to do with my time – like travelling.

Standing still at one of the world’s busiest crossings (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Standing still at one of the world’s busiest crossings (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

My return back to normal life didn’t last long. After exactly three months I quit again and was back on a plane, travelling to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece,  India and Japan. I have been travelling full-time ever since.

Nowadays, people always ask me how I am able to travel so much and if I will ever come home. Apart from a few short visits, I have never really returned to Berlin. But once I knew I wanted to travel full-time, eventually I would have to make money from it. I had no idea how I could do that, but I decided to figure it out on the way.

Making friends with turtles in the Philippines (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Making friends with turtles in the Philippines (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

A life of travel isn’t cheap
In 2012 I started writing down my travel experiences, and eventually set up a blog, JustOneWayTicket.com, to share my stories and photos with the world. My first blog post was called10 reasons why you should travel to the Philippines – a piece I wrote with all my heart. The post got picked up by the Philippine media and was shared thousands of times. Filipinos are very active on social media and they really helped me kick-start my blog by sharing my articles.

A month later I wrote a post showing my readers how they can live and travel full-time. The article was very popular, and from that point on my blog traffic went up, after one year my blog reached half a million page views and I was earning enough from it to travel full-time.

I did start the with the intention of making money with the blog, but I had no clue how. But I read as much as I could and studied other travel blogs, learning as I went. I learned how to optimise my site to get a better ranking for my blog posts, and that longer articles rank much higher than short ones. I try to provide value with every single post: I don’t write just for fun, I want my readers to learn something new with every article of mine.

The symmetric steps of Chand Baori, in Rajasthan, India (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

The symmetric steps of Chand Baori, in Rajasthan, India (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

One year after I started blogging, my life completely changed. Suddenly tourism boards were inviting me to explore their countries, luxury hotels were offering me free rooms in exchange for reviews, and airlines offered to sponsor flight tickets in exchange for some online exposure.

Today, I live completely off my blog. I make money through advertising and affiliate sales (where I recommend products, like the travel gear I use or the hotels I stay in). I also found some generous sponsors in the travel industry who are helping me to keep this lifestyle by featuring their branding on the site. I can’t ever imagine living my old life again – going to an office and working for someone else just seems a huge waste of time.

Soaking up the views in Cape Town, South Africa (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Soaking up the views in Cape Town, South Africa (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

The number of countries you visit isn’t as important as the experiences you have
So far, I have visited between 50 and 60 countries. I actually stopped counting after 50. It doesn’t matter, the number is not really important, the experiences are. India was probably the craziest place I’ve visited and the first country I really experienced culture shock – the sheer amount of people is hard to bear. India is another world, like a trip into a completely different time.

You won’t achieve freedom by making more money. You will find freedom by working less and spending less.

The funny thing is, after seven years of travelling, I sometimes miss having a home – I hate to pack my bags and move on to a new location. I now travel at a slower pace than I used to – I love staying longer at places and digging into the local culture. My goal is to have home bases in several countries and being able to work from anywhere in the world.

It took me years to understand that I don’t have to do what everybody else is doing and that nothing is impossible as long as you have passion. I have chosen to remove myself from an ordinary life and live like a nomad. The best things in life aren’t things you can buy – you won’t achieve freedom by making more money. You will find freedom by working less and spending less. I’m not saying you should stop working, but you should work on something that you truly love. Never, never, never give up on your dream.

Working hard from a hammock in Indonesia (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Working hard from a hammock in Indonesia (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)