Rusutsu, Japan – perfect powder snow

When people think of visiting Japan, they think of beautiful temples, vivid shrines with green tiled roofs and vermilion painted woodwork, fascinating culture, and up-to-the-minute technology. What people tend to forget is that Japan also offers some absolutely top quality skiing, and that skiing doesn’t come much better than Rusutsu.

The largest resort of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, Rusutsu gets an average of 40 ft of dry powder snow, which makes it a real magnet for skiers in search of perfect snow. However the good news is that, recent reports of the skiing in this resort verify that the place does not get overcrowded, which is reassuring when we are talking about Japan, as, due to the high population, any place of interest to tourists can quickly fill up with a mass of people.

At 310 m above sea level, Rusutsu nestles close to three mountains, West Mountain, East Mountain, and Mount Izora, and offers thirty-seven ski courses, which cover a total length of 42km. The longest run is an impressive 3.5 km. West Mountain is the smallest, and so is good for those who are still on the nursery slopes. West Mountain also has a snowboard park, and night skiing. East Mountain is reached by gondola, and has some good novice and intermediate slopes. Mount Izora offers the most varied terrain, including some pretty severe gradients that are not for the faint hearted, and are strictly for the very experienced skiers.

The skiing season at Rusutsu runs from December to April, and for the non-skiers, the resort also has an amusement park.

Sapporo Snow Festival – a feast for the eyes

Winter is on its way to the northern hemisphere, and in Sapporo, on Japan’s northernmost main island, that means The snow festival, which is held every February mainly in Odori Park, and attracts two million visitors from Japan and all over the world.

During the festival hundreds of fantastic snow statues and ice sculptures line Odori Park, the grounds of Satoland, and the main street in Susukino, turning Sapporo into a winter wonderland of white crystal ice structures and pristine snow sculpture. The sculptures literally are breathtaking – there are fabulous recreations of famous buildings, such as Nijo Castle and the Taj Mahal, crystalline white dinosaurs jostle for attention with giant snowmen.

The Snow Festival began in 1950, when local high school students built six snow statues in Odori Park. Then in 1955, the Self-Defense Force joined in and built the very first massive snow sculpture, something which they now continue to do. From these small beginnings the festival grew to become one of the biggest and most well-known of Hokkaido’s winter events.

Sapporo is not only famous for its Snow Festival, but also for its lovely beer – well known Hokkaido brands include Sapporo Beer, and the traditional Yebisu beer. Sapporo is also famous for its ramen noodles, and you can also get a very good Genghis Khan here – I don’t mean the Mongolian warlord, but the very excellent Chinese style sauteed lamb with onion and vegetables.

To me, the perfect evening in Sapporo is to stroll around the wonderful Snow Festival, marvel at the magnificent sculptures, and then repair to a good eatery for Genghis Khan and Yebisu. Enjoy!

Where to get the great views of Kuala Lumpur

One unmissable sight of Kuala Lumpur is the spectacular Petronas twin towers, which, until recently, standing at a magnificent 452 metres, were the tallest buildings in the world. These towers have only recently been superseded in height by the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, and are regarded by many as a symbol of Malaysia’s modernity. The Skybridge, that connects the two towers, is one of the highest suspended bridges in the world. If you want to get the wonderful view from the Skybridge, entry to this is free, but only to the first 1,200 people who show up, so be sure to arrive early. It is interesting to note that the Skybridge, which is not actually at the top of the Petronas Twin Towers, is the highest point that the members of the general public can go.

If you would like to take in the view of the city from a point even higher than the Twin Towers, then you should try the observation deck on the top floor of the KL Tower. From here you can get really great city views, especially because the KL Tower is built on a hill, and so you are a few meters higher than the Twin Towers. As a bit of extra fun, why not try the revolving restaurant which is just one floor above the observation deck. Here you can get a really excellent all round view while you eat your meal.

Kuala Lumpur – a great stopover

Kuala Lumpur is the capital and the largest city of Malaysia. If you find yourself flying to the east with Malaysian Airlines, then I strongly recommend that you break your journey with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, and take a look at this interesting city.

The name Kuala Lumpur literally means “muddy estuary” in the Malay language. Kuala Lumpur has grown from being a small village to a major city of some seven million, in a mere half century. In Kuala Lumpur you will find five star hotels that do not break the bank, excellent shopping, (I once did a wardrobe restock on my stopover between the UK and Japan). The food is also excellent and I have particularly fond memories of an excellent vegetable curry eaten at an outdoor restaurant. A little off the usual tourist track, Kuala Lumpur is starting to become more popular with travellers.

As in most of Malaysia’s big cities, about 55% of Kuala Lumpur’s population is of Malaysian Chinese descent, and this is reflected in the availability of excellent Chinese food, and a bustling Chinatown. A good proportion of the population is Musilim, and many Malaysian women wear traditional Muslim dress.

The centre of the city lies between Jalan Sultan Ismail, Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Pudu, Jalan Tun Perak and Jalan Ampang, and this is where you will find most of the city’s fabulous shopping malls, five-star hotels and good places to go for an evening out. At the northern edge of the city are the famous Petronas Twin Towers. A little to the south you will find Merdeka Square where there are some of the old colonial buildings. Going a little further south you will find, the suburb of Bangsar which is famed for its restaurants and nightclubs.

For its good food, the marvellous view from the Petronas Twin Towers, great shopping and good hotels, Kuala Lumpur is a great place to spend a few days.

The Pig and Whistle, Kyoto – home from home

The pig and whistle in kyoto has to be seriously one of the best expatriate hangouts in town. And it’s not just the place where the Westerners go, plenty of Japanese enjoy going there too.

You can get pints of draught beer, bottles of Sam Smiths, (you have a choice of room temperature, or straight out of the fridge), shorts and cocktails, all at reasonable sorts of prices for Japan. There are loads of different varieties of whisky, with Scottish, Irish, American and Japanese alternatives.

Not only this, but you can actually get fish and chips here too – although I think they have never quite got hold of the idea that with fish and chips there are supposed to be absolutely loads of chips. But never mind, the tartare sauce and slices of lemon more than make up for this. Their pizza is plain and simple, but filling.

If you are feeling homesick for darts, then you have come to the right place, as the pub boasts both a southern dart board, and a northern dart board, (southern and northern referring to the opposite ends of England, that is).

Brits, Irish, Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Japanese – you can find them all here and more besides.

The Pig is especially good on St Patrick’s night, when it’s green everything and Irish music. It’s also an excellent place to go for Halloween, when people are encouraged to go in fancy dress, and there are prizes for the best costume. It’s also good on New Year’s Eve when they have been known to give out free champagne …

Many people congregate in the Pig in the early part of the evening before taking off later to the clubs, when the Pig closes at around midnight.

Luang Prabang – the quiet city of golden roofs

The small quiet city of Luang Prabang,, overlooked by Mount Phousi, is in north central Laos, on the Mekong River. Relaxing and beautiful, it was formerly the capital of a kingdom of Luang Prabang, and, until the communist takeover of 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. The city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The architecture of Luang Prabang is a combination of Lao traditional wooden houses and the European colonial architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries, Laos once having been part of the French colony of Indochina.

Mount Phousi is really more of a hill than a mountain, and if you climb up it, which makes a great day out for the reasonably energetic, you get a panoramic view over the whole area. From here you will see many shining, golden roofs – these are the temples, also known as wats. Visit one of these and you will find that they are decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha. The city has some thirty monasteries as well as the old Royal Palace, Haw Kham. The oldest, and probably the most beautiful, monastery isVat Xieng Toung, which is well worth a visit.

For your shopping there is a night market where you can find all the traditional Lao arts and crafts.

Local natural wonders include Kuang Si Falls, which are 29 km to the south. This is a large cascade, with multiple stages and pools at different levels, which makes it very impressive. You can even bathe in the pools. Altogether, besides being very picturesque, this is a great place to chill out and meet other travellers.

Laos is still relatively undiscovered, and Luang Prabang is a good place to start your exploration of this intriguing country.

Emirates Palace – the experience of a lifetime

The Emirates Palace has a magnificent 1,002 Swarovski glittering crystal chandeliers, and 20,000 roses are used everyday to decorate the hotel to perfection.

Sayad is the first restaurant in Abu Dhabi to introduce Pacific Rim cuisine, that unique combination of food inspired by the techniques and flavours of the countries that make up Asia, and the other countries that border the Pacific Ocean.

“Gateway to Arabia” is the most popular spa treatment at the Anantara spa within The Emirates Palace. It is an indulgent celebration of the Moroccan hammam, and costs around £175, lasting 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Emirates Palace employs around 2,600 members of staff who are members of approximately 50 different nationalities. This means that there are around 3 members of staff per guest!

The hotel pampers its guests with a vast array of little luxuries such as ‘bath caviar’ and Prada beauty products in all suites.

The Beach House at Manafaru, Maldives

Lying off the southern tip of India, the romantic chain of coral islands known as the Maldives, offer aquamarine waters, with gentle waves lapping at soft white sand, and the ultimate in relaxing get-away-from-it-all holidays.

So if you are in need of exactly such a retreat, this month saw the opening of The Beach House on the small holiday island of Manafaru, a beautiful five-star Maldivian resort, which offers privacy, luxury and service.

The lush, green island of Manafaru is at the most northerly tip of the Maldives, in the lagoon-ringed clear waters of the Haa Alifu Atoll.

The Beach House is composed of sixty-eight beautifully designed contemporary thatched villas, offering style, elegance and simplicity, as well as up-to-the-minute technology, such as iPod hookups, high speed internet, LCD TV’s, espresso bars, and luxury in the form of king-size beds, private pools and rather magnificent open air bathrooms. Each villa also has an outdoor dining area, and there are even water villas with glass-panelled floors, and beach villas where you get your own heavenly private beach.

And as well as swimming and relaxing, there is a club house where you can enjoy a 32 inch LCD TV, games consoles, a golf simulator, and even an amazing bungee trampoline where you can jump to incredible heights. Naturally, being on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean you will probably want to try out some of the watersports available, so take your pick of wind surfing, catamarans, canoes and pedal boats – all non-motorised to maintain the island as a peaceful retreat. But if something a bit more motorised is you thing, then fear not, you can be whisked across to another island for a spot of jet skiing, water skiing, wake boarding and banana boat riding. Really, you can’t fail to have fun here.

The Beach House also has its own spa where you can ease the stresses and strains away with caviar and pearl facials, and host of other healthful and invigorating treatments.

On top of all this, let’s not forget food – The Beach House has three gourmet restaurants, and its very own wine cellar.

Dubai – for a luxurious break in the sun

Dubai has changed drastically in the past ten years, and is still changing – it is fast becoming one of the most modern and upbeat centres of Asia, attracting attention as a world business hub, and becoming an increasingly popular spot for tourists, boasting magnificent five star hotels and a cornucopia of shopping with top brands, fine products and enviable prices.

The city is also developing a reputation for vibrant nightlife and top-quality restaurants – the pinnacle of which must be Gordon Ramsay’s refined Verre, which is a delight of white china, white linen, simple silver cutlery, and some truly gastronomic refined cusine.

Warm and sunny all year round, Dubai is a great place to jet off to for a bit of sunshine if you live in parts where the winter is cold and grey. At my time of writing, in January, the temperature in Dubai is twenty degrees Celsius. Summer gets a little sweaty, and if you feel the need to cool off, then what could be better than heading off for the slopes of Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East.

The only possible problem with being in Dubai is that there is building work going on all over the place – but it’s a growing city and so inevitable. You might bear this in mind when choosing your hotel, and it is advisable to do a bit of research. One place which is currently unaffected by building work is the Jumeirah beach hotel, which is particularly good for families and has its own private beach. Another hotel of the same group, which is not close to any current building work, is the Madinat jumeirah, which is cleverly constructed in the style of an ancient Arabian city, and is threaded by waterways, with cafés, restaurants and its own souk.

For the ultimate in a luxury holiday, it just has to be Dubai.

India by rail – Part 2

When considering travelling in India by rail, it is worth bearing in mind that even long distances such as Bombay to Delhi, or Delhi to Varanasi, can be covered more time-effectively than flying, using the overnight sleeper trains. The trains are comfortable too, provided you don’t pick the cheapest class of all – and even that can be fun. In terms of comfort, on its main lines the Indian railways now have carriages with air conditioning and tinted windows, instead of the old compartment carriages with open windows. If you still want to travel with the good views, open windows and heat, then you need to go second class – then you can still enjoy sitting on the steps with the door open, watching the world go by.

If you are planning on using the railways in India as part of your trip, it is well worth doing some research beforehand, which is pretty straightforward as there is an absolute mine of information available on the web. In this respect, once again it’s hats off to Mark Smith, aka known as The man in Seat sixty-oneHis website has loads of information on trains and railways worldwide, not just India. Next up, take a look at the travel forum India mike, which has info on all aspects of travel in India.

One recommended journey to take is a route that crosses the southern part of the Indian peninsula, from coast to coast, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, a journey of less than 500 kilometres. You can journey either way, starting in Chennai or in Kerala.

If you feel that independent travel is not for you, and you fancy going with an established tour operator, then you could try explore who offer a delightful two week guided railway journey across northern India from Kolkata to Amritsar, taking in the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort at Agra on the way.

Either way, the Indian railways offer a great experience, and a safe and inexpensive way to get about this vast and varied subcontinent.