Great experiences

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Looking for amazing holiday moments that go beyond the ordinary and make for a truly memorable time? Then seek out world-class experiences, because nothing will linger longer in the mind – or the soul.


It’s a moment of pure magic. The tree branches shiver and shake, leaves part, and suddenly you’re face to face with an orangutan. It peels its rubbery lips back against its teeth and grins, then does the splits before hanging upside-down and gazing at you, as if waiting for applause. Another orangutan appears, then a third, swinging from liana vines to branch like orange Tarzans, and seemingly as interested in the humans below as you are in them. You turn your face up in amazement, and wonder what the orangutans are thinking as they stare back.

If you aren’t thrilled by the experience of meeting orangutans in the rainforest, then you might as well never leave home again. Some moments are so unusual that they remain with you for years afterwards, if not a lifetime. Forget the so-called ‘shopping experiences’ and ‘dining experiences’ so extravagantly promised in tourism brochures and advertisements. When you look back on your life, it isn’t the shopping mall or restaurant you’re likely to remember. But an up-close encounter with a wild animal as intriguing and endangered as an orangutan? Now that’s the true definition of a memorable experience.

Malaysia and Indonesia have several orangutan rehabilitation centres where you can encounter these delightful animals, such as at Sepilok in Malaysian Borneo or Bukit Lawang in northern Sumatra. The centres look after orphaned young orangutans whose mothers had been killed by poachers or who had been kept illegally as pets, and eventually reintroduce them into the wild.

Few of us are immune to the charms of animals and the wonder of close encounters with wildlife, and seeing iconic animals in their natural surrounds – rather than in zoos – is certainly a world-class experience, whether you’re eyeballing orangutans, swimming with whale sharks, or on a walking safari in South Africa. The ultimate? A sighting of the exceedingly rare and elusive giant panda is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that only a select few are likely to enjoy. The only way to do so is to trek into the dense bamboo forests of Foping National Nature Reserve in central China’s rugged Qinling Mountains, accompanied by local trackers and porters. (Winter is actually easier, since pandas descend to lower altitudes and leave tracks in the snow.) The reward for your effort is a thrilling glimpse of a creature that has become the symbol of endangered species everywhere.

In Nepal, a particularly original animal encounter takes things to the extreme by also involving an adrenalin sport. For millennia, humans have dreamed of flying, and many a flight experience promises that you’ll soar like a bird. Perhaps the closest you can truly get to that experience is para-hawking in the Pokhara Valley. Set off in tandem with an instructor on a paraglider and you can interact with birds of prey (neither hawks nor falcons but Egyptian vultures) by luring them to your arm with buffalo meat. The birds will then guide you to the rising thermals that will have you flying surrounded by Himalayan snow caps.

Flight is a fascinating state, and being aloft is always an extraordinary event. Hot-air ballooning – humans’ oldest way to fly, and surely still the most romantic – is many a traveller’s highlight. At first there’s a struggle with guy ropes and billowing canvas, and burners roar as hot air swells your balloon. Then suddenly you’re aloft, and drifting above the treetops as landscapes unfold beneath. Looking for the best? A hot-air balloon ride from Château d’Œx in the Swiss Alps behind Montreux provides heart-stopping panoramas and a sense of exhilaration. In winter, the early morning air can be crystal clear all the way to the horizon and, as the balloon floats higher, jagged snow-capped peaks stand in every direction as chalets hunker under layers of snow and icicles.

Those with no head for heights – or no time to trek through a jungle – can find world-class experiences without hitting the great outdoors. The fabled Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow is extraordinary for the building alone, recently renovated to its pre-revolution elegance in sumptuous gilt, painted murals, and red Italian velvet. But a night at the illustrious theatre – where Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninoff have all premiered works – ranks among the world’s best cultural events. Its ballet is renowned for its intensity, expressiveness, and superb technique, and is a night to remember.

Too highbrow? Not to worry. You can have world-class cultural events in ordinary places too. Just head to iconic venues such as Preservation Hall in New Orleans: it looks like it should be earmarked for demolition and has hard wooden benches, but you’ll find packed audiences and the best traditional jazz in a city renowned for the world’s best jazz.

Sometimes a world-class experience means going where few people are ever likely to tread. Antarctica is a genuine adventure, echoing with the history of exploration, and offering spellbinding wildlife encounters and landscapes of frozen, elemental grandeur. Set off on a cruise ship from Buenos Aires across the historic Drake Passage before arriving at dramatic walls of ice, colonies of penguins, and scalloped icebergs that drift past like dazzling jewels. Colossal glaciers crumble into the ocean, and volcanoes come encrusted in snow. Animal encounters will be your most enduring memory. Magnificent albatrosses and humpback whales follow your ship, and you can get close enough to basking elephant seals to admire their bristling whiskers. It’s the very epitome of a great experience.


Keep dreaming

If you don’t want to get too carried away, here are four very different hotels that provide original and interesting sleeps, which are experiences in themselves.

Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives

There may be nothing unusual about overwater bungalows, but Gili Lankanfushi, an intimate resort on its own coral island just 20 minutes by speedboat from Malé airport, takes the concept a step further. Its Crusoe Residences can only be reached by boat, and appear to float adrift in a sparkling lagoon so clear you can spot fish cruising the coral beneath your deck. The ultimate in escapes, the residences come with a private water garden, sundeck, and rooftop deck for stargazing.


Grebeni Lighthouse, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Few places provide better outlooks or a more romantic getaway than a lighthouse and, just off the old town of Dubrovnik, you can stay in a lighthouse with five-star style and wrap-around blue Adriatic views. The 1872 lighthouse, which sits on an otherwise uninhabited island, accommodates seven and is serviced daily by staff from the land-bound Dubrovnik Palace Hotel; you can even hire a personal chef and butler.  Two huge sun terraces allow you to bask or dine as you admire the tremendous views, shared only by the island’s protected yellow-legged gulls.


Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort, Huzhou

China has a reputation for spectacular buildings, and there’s no doubt that this resort near Shanghai is high on the eye-catching scale. It rises from the edge of Lake Tai (Taihu) like a giant horseshoe and, at night, LED lights on its exterior provide ever-changing, multi-coloured patterns that make the hotel glow like an alien spaceship. The resort comprises suites, villas, and a spa village served by hot springs.


Cappadocia Cave Resort, Uçhisar, Turkey

Central Turkey’s Cappadocia is famous for its underground dwellings, but this resort takes cave-living to another level: it features a luxurious spa and hammam, a Turkish restaurant, and even a conference centre. Built into a hillside, the resort also captures sweeping views over the region’s peculiar and wonderful rock formations.

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