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COLOMBO, Aug 2 (Xinhua) — Laos will provide visa-on-arrival to travelers from Sri Lanka from Aug. 1, the foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday.

“Sri Lankan citizens holding valid travel documents could apply for visa-on-arrival at the international border check points of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic,” the foreign ministry said.

Currently, Sri Lankans can travel without pre-approved visas to Singapore, Indonesia and Maldives.

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Sri Lanka offers one of the biggest wildlife spectacles, adored by tourists and environmentalists. The Minneriya Elephant Gathering is the largest coming together of Asian elephants at any one time in the world. What’s more, the gathering takes place annually during the months of August and September, when herds of elephants and other wildlife from across the island make their way to the Minneriya Tank – a man-made lake that holds water even in the dry season – to drink from the sweet water that is always in abundance there, even in the driest of weather.

This spectacular coming together of herds of elephant, deer, buffalo and other animals in search of water and fodder, gives tourists a grandstand view of the wonders of nature, as the animals drink, frolic and play in the evening sunlight before heading onward. So, there is no better time to visit Sri Lanka than now.

Minneriya National Park is situated in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, close to Habarana, the Cultural Triangle and the Sigiriya Rock, all of which are top attractions for tourists, and have a range of accommodation and dining options.

The Kingsbury Hotel, Colombo comes as one of the top recommendations. One of the finest five-star Colombo hotels situated by the Indian Ocean in the heart of Colombo city, The Kingsbury is an elegant oasis of 229 rooms and suits suited to both business and leisure travellers. With easy access for shopping, entertainment and your business needs, the hotel gives an experience reminiscent of the golden age, where every guest is treated like royalty.

Amaya Resorts and Spas have seven properties throughout Sri Lanka. Choose between lakeside living for your clients in the Amaya Lake property, the sandy shores of Amaya Beach, Amaya Hills in Kandy’s countryside, amid greenery at Amaya Bungalow, or for a quintessential Sri Lankan experience, book at Amaya Langdale, immersed in the world of the famous Ceylon tea.

Whether visiting Colombo on business or spending a few days here before your tour of Sri Lanka, the Hilton Hotel Colombo is also a fantastic choice. It is located in the centre of the city’s commercial district, being the only hotel with a bridge connecting directly to the World Trade Centre. Even if you are visiting for pleasure, it is located in walking distance to various tourist attractions and suites have fantastic views of the Indian Ocean or Harbour.

SriLankan Airlines has daily flights to Colombo from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat, Bahrain and Kuwait, totalling 68 flights a week. Recent figures indicate that Sri Lanka received 107, 635 tourists from the GCC countries in 2017, a growth of 6.5 per cent, with the UAE figuring as the major source market in the region. The airline is also looking at increasing connectivity to other parts of the Gulf depending on demand.

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Iron cannons installed by the Dutch to ward off colonial rivals still line Galle Face Green, a grassy, mile-long promenade along the Colombo seafront. Further out to sea, within range of the guns, a new world power is leaving its mark on Sri Lanka’s capital.Currently, Port City is just a flat expanse of blank land jutting out into the ocean, growing a fraction larger each day, as dredging ships pour what will eventually amount to 65 million cubic metres of sand.

Within a few years, however, Port City will be the site of glass skyscrapers, a busy financial district, hospitals, hotels and even a theme park. Across the world, Chinese companies are developing President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative by building new roads, ports and bridges – but in Sri Lanka they are building a whole new metropolis.

Q&A Cities of the New Silk Road: what is China’s Belt and Road project?


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China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a huge, $1tn infrastructure project to better connect China – and Chinese goods – with the rest of the world. It is meant to be a 21st-century “silk road”, made up of a “belt” of overland corridors (including roads, bridges and railways) and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes.Its wider ambitions are harder to pin down. Is it a bid by China for world domination, or simply a move to prop up Chinese companies at home? Is there a grand strategy, or is it just a rebranding of existing projects?

In Cities of the New Silk Road we have endeavoured to find out, by exploring the project’s tangible results so far – from the newly built city of Khorgos on the Kazakhstan border to Duisburg, dubbed “Germany’s China city”. Our correspondents have reported from the “next Dubai” rising out of the sea in Sri Lanka, the nascent port of Gwadar in a restive province of Pakistan, the sleepy Tanzanian village that could be transformed into Africa’s largest port, and more.
Nick Van Mead

Read more: Cities of the New Silk Road

“It is a completely new city that will nearly double the size of Colombo right now,” says Janaka Wijesundara, a former director at Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority. “It is going to drastically change the entire landmass.”

Built on 665 acres (2.6 sq km) of land being reclaimed from the Indian Ocean, the city is designed to be a smaller Singapore, with its own business-friendly tax regime and regulations – and possibly a different legal system to the rest of Sri Lanka.

About 80,000 people are expected to live in the city, with another quarter of a million commuting in every day.

 
How will the burgeoning city affect the rest of Colombo? Photograph: Alamy

It is the largest single foreign direct investment in Sri Lankan history – a $1.4bn (£1.1bn) project by the state-owned Chinese engineering firm China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).

Artistic impressions of the future Port City show a brightly lit cityscape comparable to Dubai or London’s Canary Wharf. Developers say 1.5 million sq metres of office space will be available and private investment could reach $13bn. Dense high-rises give way to lower-slung residential areas, crisscrossed by parks and canals. A marina and beach line the city’s edges.

Colombo Port City

It is a world away from the fading bungalows, modest temples and low-slung towers of present-day Colombo. But designers say they have striven to have the new city reflect its roots, according to Daniel Ringelstein, a director at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the firm that created the masterplan for the city’s central business district.

“We took inspiration from the colonial era,” he says, highlighting Colombo’s whitewashed colours, elegant arcades and “individually expressed, vertically proportioned buildings” as key influences.

The mega-blocks initially favoured by the developers were subdivided by the firm, he says, to create more walkable public space, mimicking the vivid street life of Sri Lankan cities and including an emphasis on natural shade.

The idea to expand Colombo’s business district outward on to land reclaimed from the sea was first proposed in 2004. The city, located along key shipping routes across the Indian Ocean, had been a hub for trade for more than 2,000 years.

But a bloody, 25-year civil war was killing thousands of people each year. Around the time authorities were mulling an early version of Port City, Colombo was struck by its first suicide bombing since 2001. The plans were shelved for five years.

 
When complete, planners expect the city to have a population of 80,000, with another quarter of a million commuting in each day. Photograph: © 2018 All Rights Reserved. CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd.

By 2009, the war had been brought to a close, thanks to ruthless offensives by the Sri Lankan army. Then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared Sri Lanka open for business – but the spectre of what the UN calls “horrific” human rights abuses committed by both the army and the Tamil Tigers continued to ward off most investors.

One major country, however, was happy to fund Sri Lanka’s reconstruction. “China offered political cover for Sri Lanka towards the end of the war and had already started to play more of a prominent role on the economic front,” says Dushni Weerakoon, the executive director at the Institute of Policy Studies in Colombo. “After the war ended, it all just accelerated.”

In total, Rajapaksa borrowed about $8bn from China, much of which was spent on big-ticket infrastructure in his ancestral home district of Hambantota – which has since become a byword for the risks associated with Chinese loans. A major new airport in Hambantota receives just one flight each day. A new hospital serves as accommodation for Chinese guest workers. Attracting most scrutiny is a port that was upgraded using money borrowed from China. Earlier this year, unable to afford the repayments, Sri Lanka handed control of the port to a subsidiary of CCCC for at least 99 years.

The loans are part of a wave of Chinese investment in south Asia that has been described as “the biggest game changer in 100 years”, posing a serious challenge to India, the traditional power in the region.

In 2014, concerns over Chinese loans and corruption played a key part in Rajapaksa’s shock election defeat. The new government promised to rebalance Sri Lanka’s relationship with India, Japan and the west. Though Port City was being funded by foreign investment, rather than a loan, it became a victim of the backlash: the new prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, shelved the project, claiming the dredging would destroy Colombo’s coast.

 
Environmentalists have raised serious concerns about the impact of the extensive dredging required by the project. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

It was a win for environmentalists such as Hemantha Withanage, who heads the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental Justice (CJE). “The project is totally harmful to tourism and totally harmful to fishermen,” he says.

W Jude Namal Fernando, a fisherman and trade unionist in Negombo, north of Colombo, says the excavation of sand along the coast is destroying aquatic life and affecting the livelihoods of approximately 8,000 people who make a living from fishing. “The habitat belonging to various species has been demolished,” he says. “Corals have been removed, disturbing the ecological balance. And the fisheries industry consists of many others apart from fishermen – the livelihood of those who are on the shore and those who transport the catch to the market are also affected.”

The CJE argues that building the new city will require more natural resources than Sri Lanka can sustainably provide. The necessary sand alone would quickly exceed 100 million cubic metres, it says, threatening a fragile marine habitat and the livelihoods of 15,000 fishermen who work in the mining area. The CJE prices the value of the sand at $3.2bn, which it says outweighs the $1.4bn invested by CCCC subsidiary China Harbour in building the city.

The environmental group also warns commutes into the new financial district will add 300,000 daily car journeys, increasing airborne pollution in a city already exceeding World Health Organisation guidelines.

Port City Colombo, Sri Lanka - A World Class City for South Asia - YouTube

Yet about a year after suspending Port City, in March 2016 the new government announced work would soon resume. CCCC had been claiming to be losing $380,000 each day the project was on hold, and was threatening to sue for compensation. The government says its amended contract with the Chinese firm includes new environmental protections. In an attempt to ease Indian concerns, 20 hectares of Port City originally slated to be given to CCCC in perpetuity was instead granted on a freehold basis. The trucks and dredgers returned. Within two years, Port City was back on schedule, with land reclamation expected to finish by the end of 2018 and the first buildings expected to appear within four years.

As the project takes shape, key questions about how Port City will operate remain unanswered. The new contract has not been released to the public. Sri Lanka has promised its Chinese investors favourable tax rates and business-friendly regulations, but it may be limited in what it can provide, thanks to an IMF loan the country took in 2016 to help pay its debts. Sri Lankan ministers have also said Port City will operate under a separate “British-style” legal system – but what that will entail is unclear. Several requests were made to the government to clarify, with no response.

Sri Lankan activists have also raised questions about the power China Harbour will wield in the territory it leases in Port City, where it will effectively act as the landlord – a majority state-owned Chinese corporation deciding who can populate parts of a Sri Lankan city, and under what circumstances.

 
Port City is being constructed on land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean. The new city will nearly double the current size of Colombo. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Urban planners say another issue is unresolved: how the burgeoning city will affect the rest of Colombo. “That was the missing piece to the brief,” says Ringelstein. “How is this city connected to the historic city centre back to the east?”

SOM’s masterplan tried to resolve the problem by creating patches of green space in Port City that will provide views of Colombo. They also encouraged the government to regenerate the western edge of the old city, creating a frontage that looks out on the new one.

“The idea is to use green space as a way to mediate between the old and the new,” Ringelstein says. “You would hate for this new project to suck the life out of the existing city today.”

Wijesundara, the former Urban Development Authority director, says developers may not even want to establish links between the old and new cities. “I will say that Port City will be a separate entity where only a certain class of people will live,” he says. “Services may be provided by the local people, but the money coming to them is questionable.”

Additional reporting by Arthur Wamanan.

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Winning tip: Cassis, near Marseilles

Cassis, around an hour’s drive from Marseille, is a tiny port town famous for its salty rosé (not to be confused with blackcurrant liqueur crème de cassis, from Burgundy) and herb-scented whites. We had the delight of a vineyard tour at Clos Saint Magdeleine, where the family greeted us like long-lost friends and took us on a journey through the vines, allowing us to sample their beautiful pale rosés made with grenache and cinsault grapes. The town has a great little beach under a towering cliff, Cap Canaille, one of France’s highest. Taking a boat or hiking three or four kilometres you can visit the many calanques (steep-sided limestone inlets) along the coast, which offer deserted bays for swimming. In May, just before the high season begins, accommodation should be that little bit easier to find.
Alice Pedroza

Alpine meadows, Mercantour national park

 
Lac d’Allos, in the Mercantour national park. Photograph: Alamy

June is heavenly in the Mercantour, in the Alpes-Maritimes near the Italian border. It is the peak month for wild flowers, which carpet the meadows, where clear streams run down from forested slopes. Against a backdrop of craggy summits, visitors can see animals such as marmots, chamois and mouflon. Hiking and biking routes crisscross the highland meadows and converge on the Lac d’Allos at 2,226 metres, Europe’s largest high-altitude lake. You can bivouac overnight in the park but the outdoorsy town of Barcelonnette makes a great base, with a good range of campsites (€27 for two people with car, tent or caravan at rioclar.fr) and hotels, plus a brilliant market every Wednesday and Saturday.
marthah

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Every week we ask our readers for recommendations from their travels. A selection of tips will be featured online and may appear in print, and the best entry each week (as chosen by Tom Hall of Lonely Planet) wins a £200 voucher from hotels.com. To enter the latest competition visit the readers’ tips homepage

Fun on the water, Vendée

 
The wide, sandy beach at La Tranche sur Mer. Photograph: Alamy

We spend our May half-terms in La Tranche-sur-Mer, a beach resort in the Vendée, an easy drive from the ferry ports. There are miles of sandy beaches, which are deserted in late May and June. They are shielded from the strong Atlantic currents by the Île de Ré, so are ideal for children and for water sports. We’ve hired sea kayaks from WaterFun before, and it’s easy to rent surf boards. There are cycle paths through the town and all along the coast so we cycle everywhere as a family. Fresh mussels and oysters are widely available in the local restaurants and markets. Our favourite places to eat are Michelin-listed Le Pousse Pied for a treat (€35 menu) and steak and pizza specialist La Cabane for a good family meal. And, as it’s a popular resort with the French, there’s also a plentiful supply of self-catering accommodation. We use Vendee Vacations.
GregorL

Île de Ré cycling

 
Photograph: Getty Images

Early summer brings briny Atlantic breezes to the Île de Ré to blow away the cobwebs as you cycle from one idyllic, low-slung village to another along tidy cycle paths scented with pine. Plot your route to include some of the simple pleasures this island does so well: rock pooling, pottering down green-shuttered lanes, basking on the sand or investigating the salt pans. Aim to be cycling past Cabanajam oyster shack (Chemin du Chaffaud, Saint Martin) when your belly is empty and the tide is out, so you can watch the tractors squelch out to harvest the oyster-beds while enjoying a dozen direct from the producteur on his rustic, sea-bleached benches.
Matt Thurstan

Hiking in the Vallée de la Loue, Jura mountains

 
The source of the Loue river in France’s Jura region.Photograph: Alamy

The dramatically beautiful valley of the River Loue lies in the largely tourist-free northern Jura and the lovely riverside town of Ornans is right at its heart. Birthplace of artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77), it is a quiet town (now through traffic is diverted away from the narrow main street) with rustic buildings, some backing directly on to the river, and a museum devoted to the artist. It’s a great base to spend a relaxing few days hiking to splendid waterfalls, caves and canyons (many hidden by lush forest). I spent a happy day in the Gorges de Nouailles exploring the sheer limestone cliffs and caves along the Loue and its short tributary, the Pontet. The next day we hiked the unspoilt Ravin du Puits Noir (Ravine of the Black Well) just outside Ornans, where a print of one of Courbet’s masterpieces has even been installed for comparison with the real thing.
arby60

Cerbère, Pyrénées-Orientales

 
The cinema at Hotel Belvédère, Cerbere.

In the foothills of the Pyrenees the last village before Spain, on the Mediterranean side, has a Jacques Tati atmosphere. People tend to miss this little gem in its sheltered creek overlooked by vineyards producing the well-known (in France) Banyuls natural sweet wine and the excellent Collioure table wines. The village has an amazing art-deco hotel, the Belvédère, with its own cinema. Opened on the eve of the Spanish civil war, it suffered a loss of demand as travel in the region declined. In 2002 it was given protected historic status and has now reopened with rooms (doubles from €95). There’s also the Dorade hotel (doubles from €55 B&B) on the seafront, run by Anne and Yves, who speak excellent English. The town hall runs the Central Hotel (doubles from €59) as well, which is open all year. There’s a good diving club north of the village; offshore is one of France’s few maritime reserves so there are plenty of fish. There’s plenty of walking and mountain biking available and with the train services on both sides of the border it’s easy to do one-way trips in France or Spain. The nearest airports are Girona about 45 minutes south, or Perpignan about an hour to the north. The Spanish village across the border, Port Bou, has a great selection of places to eat and pick up cheap booze.
cerbere-tourisme.com
Masmingou

Toulouse

 
Photograph: Alamy

This southern town could be France’s most underrated and doesn’t seem to have too much tourism. However, Toulouse’s excellent cuisine and pink brick buildings make it a gem for any Francophile. Be sure to try the macarons (pictured) at Au Poussin Bleu and the crêpes at Pastel et Sarrasin, while historians will be fascinated by the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, one of the largest remaining Romanesque buildings in Europe and a Unesco world heritage site.
dhealy36

Bargemon, Provence

 
Photograph: Alamy

A 75-minute drive from Nice takes you to Bargemon, a sleepy, medieval Var village with cobbled streets, beautiful views over the valley, a central square complete with restaurants, bakery and butchers … oh and a typewriter museum. Explore the backstreets and enjoy the leisurely pace of life with a crisp glass of the local rosé. Incidentally, Bargemon is where David and Victoria Beckham used to have a chateau.
ID9068535

Lourdes, Hautes-Pyrénées

 
Lac de Gaube, near Lourdes.Photograph: Alamy

An assortment of tourists and polyglot locals, a sprinkling of merry priests and nuns and the site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared 18 times: Lourdes is surprising because of its many faces – the devout, the medieval, the kitsch, the mountains, even the modern. It’s breathtakingly beautiful yet run-down in parts. Snow-covered peaks in the distance, the fast-flowing Gave de Pau and ragged rock peeking out from under the houses. A destination for pilgrims and the gateway to the spectacle, nature and outdoor activities of the Pyrenees national park. A profusion of hotels means there are always affordable rooms. I suggest Appart’hôtel La Closeraie (doubles from about €50 B&B), near the station and The Majestic (doubles from about €50 B&B), in the centre. In Boulevard de la Grotte there are many good-value restaurants, notably Café Le Genève. I am the bearer of good news: you don’t need to be religious to love Lourdes.
Maria Paul

Beaches of Biarritz

 
Photograph: Robert Harding

If you can get down to Biarritz in June, you will beat the crowds and have your pick of sandy beaches for surfing, hilltop bars to watch the sunsets and great places to fill yourselves with pintxos and seafood. The weather is usually great in May and June and you are 50 minutes away from San Sebastián if a foray into the culinary capital of Spain tempts you.
TomFowler

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Winning tip: Morecambe to Scalestones Point, Lancashire

This ride takes you past Happy Mount Park with its great adventure playground and Splashpark (open in summer months); there’s an outdoor sculpture trail on the prom and plenty of refreshment stops. On the return leg you have one of the greatest views in the UK: across Morecambe Bay to the Lake District fells. Close to the start is the impressive Venus and Cupid sculpture (it’s designed so that children can clamber over it). From Scalestones Point to the Stone Jetty Cafe is just over two miles. It’s three miles to Beach Cafe at Battery – or you could extend the ride by a mile and a half to take in the Heysham historic ruins (though the final stretch into Heysham village isn’t as cycle-friendly). The route is part of the 81-mile Bay Cycle Way. Free on-road parking on Coastal Road (A5105) at Scalestones Point or pay and display at Happy Mount Park.
• Route map and hire details visitlancashire.com
gdeanouk

Profile Readers’ tips competition: send a tip for a chance to win a £200 voucher


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Every week we ask our readers for recommendations from their travels. A selection of tips will be featured online and in print, and the best entry each week (as chosen by Tom Hall of Lonely Planet) wins a £200 voucher from hotels.com. To enter the latest competition visit the readers’ tips homepage

Peak District trails

 
The Tissington Trail. Photograph: Alamy

We cycled the Monsal and Tissington trails in the Peak District last weekend. Both are ideal for family cycle trips as they are both on disused railway tracks. You can bring your own bikes, although the trails offer cycle hire, and there are stops for drinks/refreshments, usually in disused station buildings, along the routes. Small detours also offer the option of a pub lunch. Tissington is longer and links to the High Peaks trail, giving good views across the Peak District. Monsal follows a valley with tunnels and viaducts.
peakdistrict.gov.uk
callens17

East London canals

 
The Regent’s Canal in Hackney. Photograph: Alamy

Transport for London’s bike hire allows everyone to have a great, hassle-free family day out cycling along the canals in east London. The towpaths of London open up a whole new world of chilled-out musicians, pop-up cafes and the eclectic mix of wildlife that co-exists happily alongside the narrowboats. Try the largely traffic-free cycle ride from Westferry DLR station, skirting the edges of beautiful Victoria Park – the oldest public park in London. Stop off at south Hackney’s Broadway Market, established in the 1890s, and pick up some special treats to nibble on the five-mile cycle ride back.
• Route map at sustrans.org.uk
florencenightingale

The Strawberry Line, Somerset

 
A view over the Somerset Levels from the Strawberry Line.

Taking its name from the fruit it used to transport through the Mendip Hills, the Strawberry Line is a delightful 10-mile path starting in Yatton that takes in wildlife-rich wetlands, apple orchards (this is Somerset), wooded valleys and, ultimately, the magnificent Cheddar Gorge – what’s more, it’s almost all traffic-free, with well-managed gravel tracks and few gradients of note – ideal for children. There are plenty of pitstops along the way, though none better than the Lion Rock Tea Rooms, where you can tuck into a well-deserved cream tea, with strawberries, naturally.
Bike hire available at Yatton; route details at thestrawberryline.org.uk. There are plans afoot to extend the Strawberry Line and combine it with trails such as the Bristol to Bath route (see below) to create a traffic-free, 85-mile Somerset Circle
Norm70

Bristol to Bath

 
A couple cycling on the Bristol and Bath Railway Path in spring. Photograph: Alamy

Beginning at Temple Meads station, it’s a 13-mile traffic-free stretch to Bath, where you’ll have the option to catch the train back. But you may not make it all the way as there is so much of interest en route. Stop at disused Mangotsfield station, which apparently gave (Dad’s Army star) Arnold Ridley the inspiration to write his well-known play The Ghost Train. There are numerous artworks, historic and industrial archaeological sites to investigate along the trail, if these float your boat. Pick a day when the Avon Valley railway is operating and you can watch steam engines. You can hire bikes at Bitton station (Webb’s of Warmley). There are plenty of cafes close to the cycle path.
• Route at sustrans.org.uk, bike hire from £16 at webbsofwarmley.com
Janis Fletcher

Belfast to Lisburn

 
Shaw’s Bridge over the river Lagan. Photograph: Alamy

The Lagan Towpath is an 11-mile long traffic-free canal route connecting Belfast and Lisburn. It starts at Shaw’s Bridge, built in 1709, and ends at the Lisburn Civic Centre, a stone’s throw from the town centre. Along the way you can explore a restored canal barge for free, or grab a well-earned bite to eat in what used to be the lock-keeper’s cottage. Best of all, the cycling charity Sustrans arranges regular family cycles along the towpath, and provides the bikes free of charge. A great family day out.
• Bike hire with mountainbikeni.com half a mile from Shaw’s Bridge; route at sustrans.org.uk and walkni.com
BelfastSchoolgirl

Sutton Park, Birmingham

 
Cyclists near the ford at the Wyndley Gate entrance to Sutton Park. Photograph: Alamy

Access is great, being completely surrounded by the suburbs of Birmingham. The park is on two National Cycle routes but is a fun day on its own (you can cycle along canals and in Plantsbrook nature park from Brum city centre). The park was used and given to the locals by Henry VIII – not sure he cycled much! The routes take you through open grassland, ancient forests, along Roman roads, past pools and bronze age mounds, splashing through a ford (Wyndley Gate) and over a lovely set of 20-plus narrow bridges around Bracebridge Pool. If you prefer tarmac there is the road that climbs to Four Oaks Gate along the park’s eastern perimeter. Nice snacks and drinks are available on the patio of the Renato Lounge in Mere Green and also in the park at Town Gate cafe and Blackroot Bistro.
birmingham.gov.uk
catchytitled

Loch Katrine, Stirlingshire

 
Cycling by Loch Katrine. Photograph: Alamy

This picturesque loch-side cycle can be combined with a cruise on the historic steamship Sir Walter Scott for a great family day out in the heart of the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs national park. Begin the day at the Trossachs pier and visitor centre at Loch Katrine, where ample metered parking is available. A wide range of bikes can be hired on site, with prices for a four-hour rental period starting at £8 for children and £15 for adults (katrinewheelz.co.uk). Board the steamship with your bikes in tow on a one-way ticket to Stronachlachar at the loch’s opposite end. The journey time is around one hour, and sailings depart daily at 10.30am in the summer months. Advanced booking is recommended, which can be done online (adult £17, child £9). On disembarking, it is a 13-mile cycle back to the visitor centre, including a small number of short but moderately steep climbs near the start. The largely traffic-free route is on a tarmac track and has beautiful views over the water and surrounding hills. There is a tearoom at the pier car-park.
FGlasgow

Aviemore, Cairngorms

 
A teenager cycles to the edge of Loch an Eilein. Photograph: Alamy

This is a 20-plus mile route from Inverdruie near Aviemore for the more adventurous and experienced. Start by following the tracks to Loch an Eilein. Skirt the loch edge in the Caledonian forest before breaking into the open and heading towards the stunning Lairig Ghru pass via the iron bridge. From here, well-laid tracks lead on to Loch Morlich where there are plenty of picnic spots and loch-side cafes for a lunch stop. Extend your trip by visiting the magical and aptly named Green Lochan in the Ryvoan Pass. Rest awhile in the beautiful scenery and watch out for the elusive red squirrels. Back on the main route, it’s an exciting downhill ride on tracks alongside the ski road to return your bikes. You’ll be a little saddle-sore but it’s a great day’s cycling that the family will always remember.
• Day’s bike hire from £21 day at In Your Element
bridgetking

Wadebridge to Padstow, Cornwall

 
The Camel Trail segment between Wadebridge and Padstow is particularly popular. Photograph: Alamy

Without a doubt my favourite family cycle ride is one that encompasses flat, safe paths, amazing costal scenery and a decent reward at the end – in this case, stunning views and a hearty pasty. Start at Wadebridge where you can rent bikes from Bridge Bike Hire (adult bike from £13 a day) and cycle along the pathway right next to the Camel estuary. After reaching Padstow (5.5 miles) and enjoying a pasty and beautiful harbour views, hop back on your bikes for the ride back to Wadebridge and enjoy a drink in one of the many pubs. If you’ve still got plenty of energy you can carry on to Bodmin (5 miles) and Wenfordbridge (6 miles).
Route details at cornwall.gov.uk
becki212

Bishop’s Stortford to Braintree, Essex

 
The Flitch Way is 15 miles long. Photograph: Alamy

The relatively flat Flitch Way follows the route of a railway abandoned in the 1970s. You can cycle, walk or ride a horse along the 15-mile traffic-free path, skirting the Tudor hunting enclave of Hatfield Forest, passing fields of retired shire horses, free range turkeys gobbling in the woods, dragonflies hovering over wetlands, and several old stations and halts complete with original platforms, enamel signs and picket fences. There are two cafes en-route, one indoor at Rayne serving cakes and pastries, the other outdoor at Little Canfield offering pumpkin soup and bacon sandwiches. Be nice and slow down for pedestrians, though.
• Map at visitparks.co.uk
Rose Marwood

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‘Don’t worry, she’s lighter than a feather,” said the man as he tried to pass his aged mother to me – in the train – up from the tracks. She eyed me suspiciously, decided I wasn’t a safe pair of hands and vaulted up the last couple of steps, pushed past me and hobbled down the carriage.The son shrugged and gestured down the line where swarms of people, bored of waiting for the train to pull into a platform, were clambering across the tracks to reach it. A resourceful, determined character your average Indian pilgrim. And I was one of them, sort of.

Quick guide Journey highlights: at a glance


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Eight-day journey

Day 1: On train south

Day 2: Tiruchirapalli: Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, India’s biggest temple complex with 50 shrines and 21 towers, and the extraordinary Unesco-listed Brihadeeswarar temple built in the 11th century by the Chola dynasty.

Day 3: Morning in Rameswaram: Ramanathaswamy temple, where Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, came to worship Shiva and is now visited by millions of Hindus a year. Afternoon in Madurai: Meenakshi Amman temple dedicated to the triple-breasted goddess Meenakshi. Thousands of carvings of gods, goddesses and demons and a stunning array of colourful ceiling and wall paintings.

Day 4: Kanyakumari: Kumari Amman temple lies at the tip of the subcontinent where the waves of the Laccadive Sea crash outside this intimate, atmospheric temple dedicated to the virgin goddess.

Day 5: Thiruvananthapuram: a quick detour into Kerala state for a dip in the sea at beautiful Kovalam beach then back to the serious stuff at Padmanabhaswamy temple which is only open to Hindus.

Day 6: Kanchipuram: in a town famous for its many temples Kamakshi Amman stands out for its sheer size but much is off-limits to non-Hindus so I spent more time at Kailasanathar temple which was built in the 8th century and non-Hindus can get a glimpse into the inner sanctum.

Day 7: Tirupati: The temple of Venkateshwara in the hills above Tirupati attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a day at certain times and the wait for darshan can take a whole day. Many devotees donate their hair to the deity so Tirupati is full of shaved heads.

Day 8: Return north

Indian Railways’ tourism arm runs dozens of Bharat Darshan tours across India each year – lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks – aimed at the country’s hundreds of millions of devout Hindus, taking them to the most important religious sites.

Transport, accommodation on the train or in basic hostels, vegetarian food and endless cups of chai are all included. And the cost? About 1,000 rupees a day, around £11. A bargain for a westerner, just-about-affordable for a retired Indian teacher and a once-in-a-lifetime act of devotion for a farmer.

 
Writer Richard Eilers and fellow train travellers. Photograph: Richard Eilers

My seven-day trip started near Hyderabad and would take me south to Tamil Nadu and its famously colourful temples. Hopefully I would also get a glimpse of India and Hinduism through locals’ eyes.

But I was slightly nervous as I waited on the platform at midnight. I’ve done a few Indian overnight train journeys but in air-conditioned carriages and only for a night at a time. Here I would be in the most basic sleeper coach (something’s got to give for £11) for a week with more than 800 devotees with whom I might not be able to communicate. And I had no idea how I was going to wash. My girlfriend had given me two packs of wet wipes, only half in jest. In Hyderabad I had bought a small bucket (hopefully just for showering), plus a sheet, pillowcase and fleecy blanket.

I had expected a scrum when the train arrived but only a few people boarded. I had the carriage to myself, I think, because there was no power and I stumbled to my assigned berth in darkness. Half an hour later, with the train on its way and me cosy under my blanket, I was asleep.

I woke to shouts, laughter and bright lights at 4am and peered blearily out from my covers. The coach was packed with people and bags, so many bags. My neighbours had joined south of Hyderabad and were visibly startled to see my pasty white face. We nodded hellos and I rolled over and dozed as they noisily devoured snacks.

There would be plenty of time to become best friends because the first stop on our itinerary was Tiruchirapalli, nearly 1,000km away. A chai boy woke me at six and thrust a scalding hot plastic cup into my hands. The coach was loosely divided into sections of eight bunks and I had one of the upper ones, my favourite, because you could sit on a lower seat during the day, watch the scenery and chat, or climb up to your place to read or snooze.

 
Indian breakfast. Photograph: Alamy

Introductions were made over a breakfast of chapatis, rice and dhal ladled onto metal plates from giant vats dragged down the aisle. I hadn’t brought a plate, a schoolboy error, so was given a flimsy paper one which made the whole business of balancing it on my knees while eating a sloppy meal with my right hand (I’m left-handed) on a bouncy train just that little bit more difficult. I also had an audience. My neighbours, a boisterous 13-strong extended family, watched my every clumsy mouthful with horror and hilarity.

Head of the family was MV Koteswara, a lawyer who spoke good English and quickly decided I was hopeless. “Keep close to us, do what I tell you and it’ll be OK,” he said. But he couldn’t do anything about delays and we arrived the next morning at Tiruchirapalli many hours late, dangerously late to be able to complete the first darshan of the trip.

I’d got the impression that we were on a bit of a holiday jaunt, a coach tour of the Lake District, but I was wrong. Darshan was taken very seriously. To complete darshan the believer must behold a deity (often in the form of a statue), holy person or sacred object and receive a blessing. Darshan is only possible at certain times of the day and people often queue for hours to get just a few seconds in front of the deity, so a late train was bad news.


Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple. Photograph: Getty Images

A fleet of very tired buses took us a few miles to the river island of Srirangam and its vast temple complex devoted to Ranganatha, a form of Vishnu. My neighbours raced to join the darshan queue but as a non-Hindu I was not allowed in the inner sanctum (some temples allow non-Hindus, some don’t) so explored the complex’s many courtyards, towers and shrines. A couple of hours later the pilgrims emerged successful, chatting excitedly and back on the buses women led gentle devotional chanting.

Meeting an earnest young student, Yakanna, forcefully illustrated the importance of darshan. His parents were farmers and had taken out a bank loan so he could go on this trip. “It’s a lot of money for them,” he explained, “but they know it’s something that means so much to me and are happy for me.”

 
On day 6 … a visit to Kamakshi Amman Temple Photograph: Alamy

The pattern was set for the next few days: pretty comfortable nights, food cooked in the “pantry car” and pepped up with homemade pickles produced by my neighbours, washing in buckets of cold water in the surprisingly clean bathrooms (although many men took advantage of lengthy stops to strip to their undies on the tracks and wash) and some amazing temples.

The most extraordinary was a further 230km south at Ramanathaswamy on Rameswaram island where darshan started with a bathe in the sea, then continued into the temple itself for pilgrims to visit 22 separate theerthams (tanks and wells) where buckets of water were thrown over them. Thousands of people crowded, dripping wet, small children shivering, through the dark complex. It was an incredibly moving scene. The mood on the train that night was particularly high, at least once clothes hung out of carriage windows had finally dried.

 
Pilgrims waiting to bathe at the Ramanathaswamy temple. Photograph: Alamy

I was the only westerner on the train and my presence was met with everything from indifference to incredulity but always friendliness. I never got very far wandering through the train because I would be invited to sit for a chat (Google Translate made a good stab at Telugu, most passengers’ first language) every few metres. Life on tour did have its challenges. There was no personal space, physical or emotional, but that’s India and I confess I did sneak off once or twice for a quiet beer and a chicken masala.

I had a great time, met some wonderful people, learned about Hinduism and came away with a bit more understanding of Indian life – and two unopened packs of wet wipes.

• Flights from Heathrow to Delhi were provided by Virgin Atlantic (return from £439). Bharat Darshan tours can be booked at irctctourism.com. Accommodation at Tree of Life guesthouse in Delhi (doubles from £48) was provided by India Someday, which organises personalised itineraries for all budgets

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COLOMBO, May 3 (Xinhua) — Sri Lanka plans to attract more tourists from the Middle East by conducting promotion campaigns, a minister here said on Thursday.

Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs Minister John Amaratunga told Xinhua that Sri Lanka received only 35,000 tourists from Saudi Arabia last year. There was great potential for the attraction of more tourists from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East region.

The minister also said Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau together with leading Sri Lankan tour operators participated in the Riyadh Travel Fair last month to promote the island country’s tourism.

“The visit was a great success. We see an increase in tourist arrivals to the country. The tourists from the middle-eastern region are willing to spend their time in the central hills of Sri Lanka,” Amaratunga said.

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Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau has successfully concluded a two-day promotional mission to Saudi Arabia as part of its on-going efforts to develop new markets and increase the number of visitors and spend from the region to Sri Lanka.Headed by Anjantha Ratnayake, assistant director, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, a delegation of 20 partners from Sri Lanka’s tourism and hospitality industries visited Dammam and Riyadh and held the roadshow at Holiday Inn Corniche and Holiday Inn Qasr on April 8 and 9, holding one to one meetings and informational seminars with leading travel agency representatives and outbound operators in each city.

Ratnayake said: “The mission has been a resounding success, with excellent attendance with the right partners in each of the cities visited, and our co-participating Sri Lankan industry partners reporting highly productive meetings that will result in increased business and travel to Sri Lanka from the region.”
In 2017, Sri Lanka received a total of 78,873 tourists from the Middle East region with Saudi Arabia topping the rank with the most number of tourist visitor arrival from the region with a total of 35,481 visitors. Currently, there are 28 direct flight services a week connecting Saudi Arabia to Sri Lanka, suggesting the potential to grow and develop the market further, especially as travellers from the country on average have one of the highest travel spends in the world. This will result in not only return dividends for Sri Lanka’s tourism and hospitality industries, but also for the retail industry.

Ratnayake added: “Sri Lanka has much to offer visitors from Saudi Arabia with our distinctive, adventure-packed, eco-friendly, family-focused experiences and offerings, as well as our rich nature, heritage and culture, year-round schedule of festivals and special events, numerous parks and eco-centers, and luxury resorts and wellness centres. Our mission has done much to put Sri Lanka on the map and in the hearts and minds of Saudi-based travel partners, and in combination with future promotions planned for the country and the region, I’m confident we will see many more visitors from Saudi Arabia making Sri Lanka their next holiday destination of choice in the coming months.”
In each of the cities visited, over a hundred key outbound travel professionals attended the Sri Lanka Tourism workshops and seminars to learn more about its touristic offerings and business opportunities. Both events were also attended and supported by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Azmi Thassim, along with Sri Lankan commercial secretary to Saudi Arabia, Gayan Rajapakse.A total of 13 industry partners from Sri Lanka-based tourism and hospitality entities joined the roadshow including Aitken Spence Travels, Isra Holidays, Centuria Travels, I Am Sri Lanka, Araliya Green Hills Hotel, Explore The Wonders, and Asian Adventures Travel Management Company, among others.

The Saudi Arabia mission was successfully coordinated by Aviareps, the world’s leading destination marketing and promotion company. – TradeArabia News Service

Copyright 2018 Al Hilal Publishing and Marketing Group Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. (Syndigate.info).

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The grand windows of Casa Almson are flung wide, the trade winds offering a gentle breeze off the Florida straits as the sun descends across Havana, and I am learning Spanish. “Anoche, yo fui en un nightclub de mala fama,” I say. WAAAAHK. “What the hell was that?” I retreat to English. “Was that a duck?”Alma, mi profesora, cocks her head and listens as the creature makes another complaint.

WAAAAHK.

“It’s a goose,” she decides. “They’re making a Santería ritual.” She is referring to the creole religion of Cuba.

“Not good news for the goose then?” I ask, and she shakes her head.

At Christmas, I packed in my job to write a book in Havana. If you say mid-life crisis, I’m flattered you think I’m so young. I rented an apartment on the sixth floor of a beautiful, if put-upon building in Centro Habana, the most frayed part of the Cuban capital.

 
‘We rush to the balconies to watch ships steaming in.’ Waves crash along the Malecon in Old Havana. Photograph: Rachel Lewis/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Part of the plan was to immerse myself in the city, and very quickly life on the streets was tugging at me. On the first day, a man leaning against a wall said: “Mi amigo, what are you looking for?” I wasn’t really sure where to start with a question like that, so I stopped and almost got run over by a 1952 Chrysler.

Getting to the apartment requires taking a lift like the one that delivers Mickey Rourke to hell in the film Angel Heart. The operators, Juan and Miriam, take turns. They close the gate and up we trundle in the cage, passing washed-out windows, bare bulbs and gritty floors. Juan plays Bryan Adams at deafening volume, and Miriam is so hungry she hasn’t the strength to press the button, so we start giving her breakfast.

 
Beware falling masonry … La Maravilla building in the old town. Photograph: Rachel Lewis/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Once inside, Casa Almson offers up high ceilings, elegant cornicing, slightly disreputable art and balconies on every side. It’s an elegant platform from which to look down on the city.

I am joined by my pal Chris, who is finishing a book on the opioid crisis in the US, and we write in the mornings. Once in a while, Chris shouts and we rush to the balconies to watch ships steaming in – they glide past the Morro Castle and into Havana bay, sounding their sirens as they come.

The house is not a refuge, though. The street comes up and in. There is the constant rumble of the 1950s cars, the shouts of hawkers selling everything from meat to peanuts to water. There are arguments, laughter and, of course, music.

One afternoon, again during my Spanish lesson, a furious row breaks out next door, every word audible through the well of the building. “You know how the eskimos have 100 words for snow?” says mi profesora. “Well, we Cubans have 100 words for dick.”

 
‘High ceilings, slightly disreputable art and balconies on every side.’ Casa Almson, Havana

In the afternoons, I leave Chris to write, and go on adventures. Sometimes it is enough just to walk. It’s one of the few cities in the world where you can saunter up the middle of the road. The bici-taxis swerve round me, asking where I want to go as I watch people shout up to friends on the higher floors, who then lower baskets for their provisions.

“You know why everyone walks in the centre of the road?” a friend tells me. “It’s because there is a real danger of falling masonry.” It is true, the city is falling to pieces, but another Cuban friend will say, “Don’t look at the buildings, look at the people.”

It’s hard not to look at both. From the mad hubbub of Centro, I wander into Vedado, a beautiful old neighbourhood of villas. On the more elegant streets, ancient jaguey trees drip vines while their roots tear up the paving stones. Here it’s possible to see a little of the lives being led behind the 19th-century facades, where Habaneros battle with shortages and bureaucracy by gripping on to culture and, the occasional swearword apart, an immense good humour.

At sunset I am back in Casa Almson learning Spanish, but sometimes mi profesora is away, and Chris and I go and sit on the wall of the Malecón, the road that edges the sea, or else find ourselves in the garden at the Nacional, the most august hotel in the city, drinking mojitos.

Where once eating was a trial in Havana, now it’s all choice. Using a crib sheet provided by expat travel specialist Toby Brocklehurst, we go in search of the best Havana now offers, superb restaurants such as La Corte del Principe where the ceviche is world class, or else San Cristóbal, where Barack Obama took Michelle during their 2016 visit, and which is only a few yards from Casa Almson.

 
‘In the afternoons I go on adventures.’ Ruaridh Nicoll watches the sunset

And from there, as the city cools to night, La Fábrica de Arte calls. It is a cultural centre that has become a great nightspot. Created out of an old cooking oil factory by Afro-Cuban musician X Alfonso, it attracts anyone looking for a good time, and all disappear into the warren where in one place there’s an art gallery, another a live music stage, elsewhere a club, and lots of secret little rooms where hidden conversations take place.

It’s usually the early hours before the city quietens. Beyond the shuttered windows of the house, there is the faintest whisper of music from a club or passing car. But the night the goose got it, the Santería initiates spilled on to the streets and began a singing competition, outdoing each other with their unaccompanied ballads, clearly enjoying their voices bouncing off the for once silent streets.

For a while I laughed, but then I rolled over and put earplugs in. Sometimes one needs a break from full immersion.

Way to go

Journey Latin America offers 11 days in Havana, Viñales and Trinidad, from £1,784pp, including flights from Gatwick, transfers, accommodation, breakfast, excursions and tourist card visa. Casa Almson is €70 a night for four sharing two rooms, but a discount can be negotiated for trips of over two weeks. To use Toby Brocklehurst’s services go to incloud9.com

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Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau has successfully concluded a two-day promotional mission to Saudi Arabia as part of its on-going efforts to develop new markets and increase the number of visitors and spend from the region to Sri Lanka.

Headed by Anjantha Ratnayake, assistant director, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, a delegation of 20 partners from Sri Lanka’s tourism and hospitality industries visited Dammam and Riyadh and held the roadshow at Holiday Inn Corniche and Holiday Inn Qasr on April 8 and 9, holding one to one meetings and informational seminars with leading travel agency representatives and outbound operators in each city.

Ratnayake said: “The mission has been a resounding success, with excellent attendance with the right partners in each of the cities visited, and our co-participating Sri Lankan industry partners reporting highly productive meetings that will result in increased business and travel to Sri Lanka from the region.”

In 2017, Sri Lanka received a total of 78,873 tourists from the Middle East region with Saudi Arabia topping the rank with the most number of tourist visitor arrival from the region with a total of 35,481 visitors. Currently, there are 28 direct flight services a week connecting Saudi Arabia to Sri Lanka, suggesting the potential to grow and develop the market further, especially as travellers from the country on average have one of the highest travel spends in the world. This will result in not only return dividends for Sri Lanka’s tourism and hospitality industries, but also for the retail industry.

Ratnayake added: “Sri Lanka has much to offer visitors from Saudi Arabia with our distinctive, adventure-packed, eco-friendly, family-focused experiences and offerings, as well as our rich nature, heritage and culture, year-round schedule of festivals and special events, numerous parks and eco-centers, and luxury resorts and wellness centres. Our mission has done much to put Sri Lanka on the map and in the hearts and minds of Saudi-based travel partners, and in combination with future promotions planned for the country and the region, I’m confident we will see many more visitors from Saudi Arabia making Sri Lanka their next holiday destination of choice in the coming months.”

In each of the cities visited, over a hundred key outbound travel professionals attended the Sri Lanka Tourism workshops and seminars to learn more about its touristic offerings and business opportunities. Both events were also attended and supported by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Azmi Thassim, along with Sri Lankan commercial secretary to Saudi Arabia, Gayan Rajapakse.

A total of 13 industry partners from Sri Lanka-based tourism and hospitality entities joined the roadshow including Aitken Spence Travels, Isra Holidays, Centuria Travels, I Am Sri Lanka, Araliya Green Hills Hotel, Explore The Wonders, and Asian Adventures Travel Management Company, among others.

The Saudi Arabia mission was successfully coordinated by Aviareps, the world’s leading destination marketing and promotion company. – TradeArabia News Service

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Full details are available from the link below:

Source URL: Travel – Google News

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