Winter bucket list experiences and destinations for 2019

South African’s dreaming of a white Christmas should add these winter experiences to their bucket lists.  This season turns the worlds’ soaring mountains and summer destinations into giant natural playgrounds for outdoor lovers.

Whether hurtling down a mountain on a snowboard, sharing romantic moments while the Northern Lights dance above you, or having a cuppa with the real Santa Claus is your thing – We have something on this list to satisfy just about every winter taste bud.

1. Northern Lights spotting at Sommarøy Islands – Norway

The small island of Sommarøy, a one hour drive from Tromsø, is Northern Norway’s best-kept secret. It is the most northern tip of Europe and the perfect place to spot the Northern Lights away from all the crowds.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

This quaint but busy fishing village has only 300 hospitable inhabitants, each baring warm and welcoming expressions.

The white sandy beaches and warm, shallow crystal clear bays make it a favourite summer destination, but winter brings about its own unique charm. As early night falls, the northern lights colourfully dance about, illuminating the many islands just off the coastline.  Viewing natures spectacular light show creating bands of various shades of green and pink will take your breath away. It’s surreal to think that a whole different world exists out there for this night owl.

There are barely any cars making their way across the architecturally beautiful cantilever bridges that connect the many islands making it a tranquil relaxing escape. It is not only the Northern Lights that make an appearance here. Humpback whales and Orcas can be seen gracing the icy bays in mid-November to late January.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Best time to visit

November to March

Visa Requirements

South Africans are required to apply for a Schengen visa to visit Norway. You can apply through the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Pretoria. Allow over 15 working days for the visa application.

Getting there

Book your cheap flights to Tromso. It is advisable to rent a car as the Sommarøy Islands are an hour away from the main city centre. An International driving permit is required and can be obtained through any of the AA centres.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

2. Ski Whiteface Mountain – United States of America

While there are so many excellent skiing destinations in the world, Whiteface Mountain in America offers something a little more daring and worth adding to your bucket list.

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It is New York State’s fifth highest mountain and often referred to as the Winter Sports capital of the world. Here you can attempt your bucket list alpine activities amidst rugged wilderness, spectacular views and wonderfully varied terrain.

Snowboard and ski enthusiasts can enjoy the uncrowned slopes of the greatest vertical drop in the East with 87 trails that span across three of the Adirondack peaks. 20 percent of these slopes are rated for the beginner, 43 percent intermediate and 37 percent expert. Interestingly, some of the intermediate trails in the eastern mountains would have been rated as expert. 

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For the daring – Ski the double-black-diamond natural terrain, at an elevation above the height of three Empire State Buildings. On a clear day, experience views of the mountains of Vermont, the skyscrapers of Montreal and the white mountains of New Hampshire from the summit. There is no lodging or commercial development at the base of the mountain ensuring a tranquil visit. 

Close by you will find Lake Placid – a vibrant postcard-perfect village famed for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

For the non-skiers, a range of other fantastic winter activities are on offer: snowshoeing, bobsledding, ice climbing and ice skating on the gorgeous mirror lake.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Best time to visit

November – April

Visa requirements

South African’s would need to apply for a B-2 visitors visa to enter into the United States. This visa is valid from 1 to 10 years and will allow you to visit for up to 6 months. Visit our step by step guide with all the information needed in order to apply.

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Getting there:

Book your cheap flights to New York. Once you arrive, you will have the option to rent a car, travel via train or via bus.

By car: Lake Placid is a 5-hour drive from New York City. Take the New York State Thruway (I-87) north to Exit 24 (Albany). Take I-87 north (Adirondack Northway) to Exit 30. Pick up Route 9 north and follow it for two miles to Route 73. Continue on Route 73 for 28 Miles to Lake Placid. An International driving permit is required and can be obtained through any of the AA’s centres.

By train: Amtrak has routes between New York City and Montreal.

By bus: Adirondack Trailways has a bus service between New York and Lake Placid.

3. Chasing waterfalls – Iceland

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Countries that are 80 percent uninhabited usually don’t make it onto most travellers bucket lists. But, it so happens that these are the ones that boast the world’s most jaw-dropping landscapes and unique scenery unlike anywhere else in the world.

There is something so special about Iceland that grabs your soul and refuses to let go, the allure of the land of the Vikings is just so strong. A country with a unique personality, that flaunts dramatic landscapes, snow-capped glaciers, two UNESCO world heritage sites, Europe’s first parliament and largest glacier, and geysers shooting 125-degree Celsius water 70 meters above the ground.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

The frequent rain and snow make Iceland a sanctuary for the world’s most breathtaking waterfalls. There are over 10 000 waterfalls here, they are as varied and beautiful as they are many. Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall and is 100 meters. Gullfoss is the country’s most famous one, while Skogafoss is the largest one.  This is a country that will keep you busy exploring the outdoors indefinitely.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Best time to visit

November – January

Visa Requirements

South Africans are required to apply for a Schengen visa to visit Iceland. Visa applications can be done online through VFS Global.  Allow over 15 working days for the visa application.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Getting there

Book your cheap flights to Keflavík, Akureyri or Egilsstaðir.

4. Christmas at the Santa Claus Village – Finland

Embrace the magic of Christmas by heading to the Arctic Circle to spend time with Santa Claus in his family-friendly resort.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

For the last 30 years, The Santa Clause village in Rovaniemi in the Finnish Lapland draws more than 500 000 visitors each year.  A month before Christmas the world turns an eye to Rovaniemi as Santa Clause declares the Christmas season open. Nothing makes the planet’s most iconic figure happier.

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Have a Christmas wishlist? Why not give it to Santa Clause directly or post it at the Santa’s main post office operated by his elves. He receives millions of letters each year from over 198 countries. I am sure your loved ones would enjoy receiving a letter with the arctic circle postmark stamp from here.

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Ever wanted to cross over the arctic circle line? This is the place to experience it and to prove your accomplishment – you even get a signed certificate.  

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Looking for another reason to visit? Husky, reindeer and snowmobile rides under the Northern Lights are a real speciality here. Or spend a few nights in the holiday village or in a real igloo.

Best time to visit

November – February

Visa Requirements

South Africans are required to apply for a Schengen visa which, once received, it will not only allow you to travel to Finland but to many other European destinations as well. The Finland Visa Application Centre in South Africa accepts applications for short stay visas only. Allow over 15 working days for the visa application.

 

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Getting there

Book your cheap flights to Rovaniemi. When you arrive, take a local bus number 8 to the Santa Claus Village. It is only 8 km from the city centre.

 

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

5. Romantic Escapes in Andorra

Rewrite the book of love in Europe’s smallest country. Sandwiched between France and Spain, Andorra excels at just about anything that involves snow. Nestled in the Pyrenees mountains, it’s a country that is known for its 5-star hotels, ski resorts and tax haven status.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

 

The Sport Hermitage in Soldeu is a favourite with romantic mountain view rooms combining luxury and comfort. The hotel spa is a haven for serenity in which to enjoy a remineralising, hydrating or energising treatment. Guests here can enjoy a private helicopter transfer to a nearby ski station, or take a private guided snowmobile tour.  There are two dining restaurants and guests can enjoy a drink in a glass bar.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Vallnord offers some great snow-filled activities. Amongst Andorra’s glacial landscapes, steep valleys and open pastures, one can find 300 km of endless ski slopes for nearly every level. Skiing is not the only activity you can do here – thrilling buggy trail rides are a must.

The UNESCO world heritage site of Madriu-Perafita-Claror covers 10% of the whole country and is a well worth attraction to visit.

 

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

It’s two high streets is a shopper paradise seeing people flock here each year for tax-free shopping. There are over 2000 stores packed into a country that you can drive through in an hour.

Best time to visit

November – March

 

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

Visa Requirements

South Africans do not require a visa for Andorra. However, since you can only access the country via Spain or France you will be required to apply for a Schengen visa.

Visa applications can be done through BLS International.  Allow over 15 working days for the visa application.

Getting there

Like all great places in the world, travelling to Andorra requires a bit of effort. Book your cheap flights to either Barcelona (Spain) or Toulouse, Carcassonne and Perpignan (France). Travel by a rented car for 3 hours before reaching Andorra’s city centre. An International driving permit is required and can be obtained through any of the AA’s centres.

Image by: Chantelle Flores www.51countriesandcounting.com

What are some of your favourite winter destinations? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

 

*Disclaimer!

All information on this blog page was correct at the time of publishing and may change at any time without prior notice from the original source. Travelstart is not affiliated with immigration authorities or their application centres and will not be liable for loss or inconvenience arising from the use of information from this website.

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Santa Says Send Some Joy

Send a greeting card to someone special to enter…

Spread some festive cheer with Travelstart. Select your card and complete the fields to send a festive card to someone. You also stand a chance to win a daily travel voucher worth R1,000 and go into the lucky draw to win a trip for 2 to Thailand for 7 nights worth R40,000! Hurry – competition ends 22 December 2019.

Pick one to start





This holidays Travelstart has decided to share the joy! From now until 22 December, you have the chance to join in the festive fun with different challenges we send your way. Get in on the action and spread some cheer by completing a challenge or two – you could win big!

We are giving away a flight voucher to the value of R1,000 every day to one random entrant. Everyone who participates will also go into the lucky draw to win the main prize- a trip for 2 to Thailand for 7 nights worth R40,000!

To find out more visit our competition page or check out #TravelstartsWithSanta on social media for new details each day and for our daily winners.

The grand prize winners will be announced on 24 December 2019

Happy Holidays!
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When is the best time to visit London?

A trip to London should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list! This city is one of those quintessential places to be and a must for all seasoned travellers. London and the UK, in general, can be quite pricey so choosing the best time to visit London is essential if you’re keen on saving a pound or two. Travel to London can be done at any time of the year as this destination has it all with plenty of rainy days that you can’t run away from, even in the heart of summer. Set your sights on the home of Big Ben and let Travelstart help you choose your best time to visit London.

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Weather

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all grey days in London! The city has four distinct seasons and those who plan to visit in summer may even find sweltering days of up to 28°C! In typical European climate, summer falls between the months of June and August and on the other end of the stick, winter falls between the months of December and February. Both are very popular times to visit London as both seasons have wonderful attractions that appeal to every kind of tourist. During summer, you can look forward to lots of open-air concerts and of course, the Royal events with Buckingham Palace being open to the public, as well as other royal halls that give the public a peek into their favourite monarch’s lives. Winter holds all of the festive appeals with no city going quite as big and lavish as London does for Christmas and New Year!

Spring and autumn are great alternatives to the extreme peak season. Spring falls between March and May, and soon after London’s peak season, autumn falls between September and early November.

visit-london

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Winter

London is a peak tourist destination for the festive season and its surrounding public holidays in December and January. If you’re looking for the Christmas atmosphere, you’re in luck over winter as London’s streets are lit up from mid-November already. So, if you’re after that exciting atmosphere but at a more affordable option than December’s peak season, then aim to travel to the city in  November. Right after the end of year festivities, those in the know get their comfortable shoes out and get ready to shop! The best sales happen in January and if you’re happy enough with long queues, then you’ll be in the perfect city to score some great designer savings. After the Christmas rush and January sales, the city calms down a bit. Consider visiting towards the end of January and through February if you’re hoping to avoid the crowds and just enjoy the city in the heart of winter.

Spring and Autumn

London is a busy destination all year long and though it might be a dream of yours to wander the streets on a quiet day, its important to know that the city is popular with tourists yearlong, including the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. Early spring (March to early April) is possibly the best time to visit London when looking to stay clear of the massive crowds. May, just before the peak summer season, has two public holidays and has since become a very popular time to travel to this UK destination too.

There is no tourist-free time in London, but you could consider visiting nearby cities or towns if you’d prefer to skip the crowds. We recommend Manchester and Liverpool.  As for autumn, October and November are wonderful months of the year to visit but also the wettest months of the year in London. Be sure to pack in an umbrella if you decide to visit during this time!

visit-london

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Summer

There’s nothing quite like experiencing summer in London. There’s a buzz in the air that has everyone in good spirits and appreciative of the warm days. Did you know that on average, London only has around 45 sunny days in the year? It may not be many but Londoners sure do know how to enjoy their hot days! If you’re planning a visit during summer, note that the school holidays start in July, so you can expect to see lots of families out and about. One of the perks about travelling to London with your family would definitely be that the city offers free transport to children under 11 years old! Also, if you remember in time, you can get a children’s summer pass to all of the major museums and theatre productions during summer. Make sure to plan and book these passes months in advance as there is a limited number available. If you would prefer to spend your summer in London with fewer little ones walking around then you should consider visiting in June, before the schools are out.

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Average temperatures for London

Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Low °C 2 2 3 6 9 12 14 13 11 8 5 3
High °C 8 8 11 14 18 21 24 23 20 16 11 9
Rainfall (mm) 56 39 46 45 49 50 48 53 56 60 61 58

Daylight hours

Summer: 04:45 – 21:15

Summer in London is the ideal spot for all of your European fun. The days are extra long and there’s so much to do that your days will be filled to the brim with early morning breakfasts, open-air concerts, brunches in the park and nights dancing away! On average, the days are around 16 and a half hours long.

Winter: 07:30 – 16:30

Winter is surely a magical time in London, with fairy lights and snow lighting up the streets! The day can be quite short, around 9 hours only, but you’d be surprised by how much you’re able to do. Also, just because the sun sets early, don’t think that there’s nothing to do! The festive season (end of November to early January) is abuzz with activity!

visit-london-eats

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How much are flights to London?

Off-peak season

November and mid-January through to the end of February is off-peak season and very possibly the best time to visit London! Flights to London are significantly lower and you could save around 30% flight tickets.

Peak season

May to August is considered peak season in London as the sun is out and the city is in all of its splendour with long, summery days! Flights and accommodation are known to be quite a bit pricier during this time than in winter, so expect to pay between 25 – 50% more on flights.

Christmas/New Year

When it comes to the festive season, everyone wants to be in London to join in the fun and soak up the atmosphere! With that in mind, flights and accommodation are generally a lot more expensive than the rest of the year and you could pay up to 60% more than during off-peak season!

visit-london

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Book your cheap flights to London with Travelstart!

Annual events in London

As one of the most popular destinations in the world and a favoured amongst the hundreds of thousands that are constantly returning, London is known to have some of the most wonderful annual events. Visitors and locals alike look forward to these dates as they know to expect only the most spectacular shows on display! From royal events to international races and street parades, choosing the best time to visit London may well depend on the events happening during your stay there.

New Year’s Celebrations – 31st December & 1st January

See the city of London come alive in all of its splendour on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day every year. The city puts on a display like no other and spares no expense. On the 31st of December, you can look forward to a buzz on all of the streets of the city with an amazing display of fireworks at midnight. The next day, expect an extravagant parade during the New Year’s Day Parade – through Piccadilly Circus to Parliament Square.

London Marathon – last Sunday of April

Join more than half a million runners from across the globe as they compete in one of the biggest marathons in the world, the London Marathon. The race passes many iconic landmarks of London and is cheered on by the crowds.

Chelsea Flower Show – end of May

The Chelsea Flower Show attracts visitors from far and wide to this majestic flower show every year. Professional plant breeders and lovers of all things botanical come together at the Royal Hospital Chelsea to admire and compete. Expect plenty of flowers, trees, vegetables and so much more!

The Queen’s Birthday Parade – first week of June

One of Britain’s most loved events, the Queen’s Birthday Parade and Trooping the Colour is a stately event that Brits and tourists adore! Soldiers parade down the streets of London with flags of the battalion being passed amongst the officers. Look forward to a very English atmosphere that’s broadcasted live every year.

Notting Hill Carnival – August

Enjoy a colourful, Caribbean celebration in the town of Notting Hill with parades, floats, music, and a party atmosphere! This event is a yearly bookmark for most of London, with people of all ages and cultural backgrounds coming together to celebrate.

BFI London Film Festival – last two weeks of October

Get your camera ready and add some glitter to your outfit for this star-studded event. The London Film Festival is held annually towards the end of October and is a great place to catch sight of your favourite celebrities. Not just for the famous, the public joins in on the festivities by attending film screenings, workshops, and Q&A sessions.

visit-london

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With all of these events, activities, and places to see, when do you think is the best time to visit London? Let us know in the comments below!

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Mauritius Nightlife – The Ultimate Guide to the Top Hot Spots

Mauritius certainly offers you a delightful holiday destination, with its picturesque beaches and relaxing lifestyle. But if you’re looking to do more than let time drift slowly by, get ready to discover a thrilling nightlife scene!

The warm tropical nights are ideal for exploring the island nation’s variety of exciting nightclubs, trendy bars, classy lounges, and vibrant restaurants. While its pristine beaches, incredible diving, magnificent golf courses, luxury resorts, and shopping draw crowds all year round, Mauritius’ nightlife is just another one of its alluring treasures!

Time to freshen up and have a party at the island’s night-time hotspots. Take a look at the top venues to enjoy the warm nights that Mauritius offers.

Where to sit back, relax with a drink, and enjoy live music

1. Big Willy’s

big willys mauritius nightlife

Image courtesy of @gerald.boulle1412 via Instagram

Sports fanatics should definitely head to Big Willy’s, a sports bar in Tamarin Bay. Watch an exciting game on one of their three screens, including two huge ones in their outer area. Enjoy their spacious interior, which includes two bars and two dance floors. On Friday and Saturday nights, make sure you’re there to experience an exciting taste of Mauritius nightlife, with live music and talented DJs.

Address: Le Barachois, Tamarin Bay, Tamarin
Phone: +230 483 7400
Hours: Tues to Thurs, 11:00 – 22:00
Fri, 11:00 – 23:00
Sat, 00:00 – 23:00

2. Kenzibar

kenzibar mauritius nightlife

Image courtesy of @fanuet via Instagram

This place in Avenue Petite Marie, Flic en Flac, is where you can simply let loose and chill out with relaxing cold drinks, delicious finger food, and live entertainment. Enjoy the laid-back environment, light and friendly ambience, and sit back and watch colourful dance performances. You’ll find it nearly impossible to stay off the dancefloor! Kenzibar can get pretty packed during the peak season, so we suggest making a booking if you’re a large group. Cash is king at this establishment, so leave your cards at home.

Address: Avenue Petite Marie, Flic En Flac, Black River
Phone: +230 739 6827
Hours: 18:00 – 00:00

3. Zoobar

Indulge yourself in the laidback setting offered at Zoobar in Quatre Bornes. There’s no dress code, promising you a venue where you can just relax and be yourself. Enjoy their Indian-style cuisine and delicious cocktails along with a casual ambience. A fine dish you must try is the Bouillon Crabes Crab Bouillon, a creamy and spicy meal best accompanied by a refreshing beer or fine whiskey.

Address: St Jean Road, Quatre Bornes
Phone: +230 465 4049
Hours: 18:00 – 01:30

4. Lambic

For beer lovers, this is a place you must visit! Explore Lambic in Port Louis, which sits in a 19th-century colonial warehouse. Try out their incredible variety that includes 70 different kinds of freshly0brewed beer. These craft beers include specialities from America, Belgium, Germany, Napa, and Portugal. If you’re hungry, indulge yourself in the beerhouse’s exceptional beer-battered fish!

Address: St Georges Street, Port Louis
Phone: +230 212 6011
Hours: Mon to Thurs, 09:30 – 22:00
Fri, 09:30 – 23:00
Sat, 13:00 – 22:00

Where you can party the rest of the night away

1. C Beach Club

c beach club mauritius nightlife

Image courtesy of @tennisschulewenger via Instagram

Last, but certainly not least, is the first beach club in Mauritius! C Beach Club, in Bel Ombre, is a playground for the classy and elegant crowd. It’s the place to enjoy chic music in a charming setting, with a huge sparkling pool facing the Indian Ocean, guaranteeing a great spot for stunning sunsets. Treat your taste buds to the club’s Italian buffet and don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to dine on the beach. Make sure you make a reservation to get a table.

Address: Domaine de Bel Ombre, B9, Bel Ombre 742CU001
Phone: +230 605 5400
Hours: 10:00 – 23:00

2. Banana Beach Club

banana beach club mauritius nightlife

Image courtesy of @hayley_j_w via Instagram

Many travellers say this is the most popular club on the island and a great way to discover Mauritius’ nightlife! Situated along Grand Baie, the venue includes banana-style décor, with banana tree replicas and lighting. Satisfy your appetite with the hotspot’s tasty food, great cocktails, cosy ambience, and exciting live entertainment. You can book a table in advance, or you can simply walk in. You’re welcome to pay by cash or card.

Address: Route Royale, Grand Baie
Phone: +230 263 0326
Hours: Mon – Sat, 16:00 – 00:00

3. Les Enfants Terribles

les-enfants-terribles-mauritius-nightlife-updated

Image courtesy of Les Enfants Terribles via Facebook

Known as “LET” to the locals, the modern Les Enfants Terribles is a chic and contemporary club situated in Grand Baie. Tending to draw a much fancier crowd, the establishment is well known for hosting numerous private events and special parties with live entertainment courtesy of world-class DJs. Entry into the club is free, but there may be a cover charge for special events.

Address: B13, Grand Baie
Phone: +230 263 8117
Hours: Fri – Sat, 22:30 – 06:00

4. 55 Lounge Club

55 lounge club mauritius nightlife

Image courtesy of @55loungeclubmauritius via Instagram

Situated in the popular Grand Baie, 55 Lounge Club offers you the Mauritius nightlife experience with a charming interior, with rich décor in violet and red, and life-size posters of famous personalities. There’s live entertainment for you to enjoy and the club has been graced with the presence of many a famed, international musician. Popular acts in the past include DJ Ferguson, Think Aloud, and DJ Wiky. Make sure to try the mushroom brûlée and mezze platter, some of 55 Lounge Club’s outstanding dishes. 55 Lounge Club takes bookings in advance and is a great place for groups and parties. Payment options include cash and card.

Address: La Croisette, B45 Twenty-Foot Road, Grand Baie
Phone: +230 5478 0876
Hours: Wed, 22:00 – 17:00
Fri to Sat, 23:00 – 05:00
sofitel mauritius resort mauritius nightlife

Image courtesy of @kdancey via Instagram

Now that you know about the top spots to enjoy the Mauritius nightlife, start packing your bags! Find out the best time to visit Mauritius and start planning your next holiday. Whether it’s a romantic getaway or a family vacation, we have a variety of holiday packages to suit you.

Book cheap flights to Mauritius with Travelstart.co.za!

Do you know of another great place to experience the Mauritius nightlife? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image courtesy of @hiddenretreatsbykarin via Instagram.

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The absolute best Christmas Markets in Europe

Ho Ho Ho, welcome to the Christmas markets of Europe! It’s certainly a merry time of year to spend a few hours wandering the aisles of a snowy winter market in Europe, warm eggnog or mulled wine in hand, snuggled up in layers with the smell of gingerbread in the air.

While South Africa is hot and humid in December, travellers often lust after the snowy scenes of a traditional white Christmas, and where better to experience it all than in the cobbled streets of a literal winter wonderland! These Christmas Markets of Europe are sure to ban your inner Grinch…

Christmas Markets of Europe

Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, Italy

Each of the Christmas Markets of Europe has its own distinct and unique appeal. Italian Christmas traditions may not be as mainstream as other that we know, but one thing is for sure, it’s still a delectable season to celebrate here.

The fifty or so stalls that line this Italian piazza are stocked with handmade and homemade goodies that will result in you booking extra luggage to bring them all back. The market doesn’t take place far from the famous Piazza del Duomo, which is lined with chocolatiers and delis that lead up to the annual nativity scene that is installed here.

READ: 10 Intriguing Christmas Traditions

Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, Germany

A lot of the traditions and images that we have as South Africans have been influenced by Germany. The roasted nutmeg, clove and ginger that are baked into traditional German biscuits instantly bring about images of snow-covered pine trees and a velvet-clad Santa Claus.

Berlin as a city is famous for its Christmas Markets. It’s easy to spend over a week here and visit a new one each day, but if you’re strapped for time, then go straight to the Gendarmenmarkt.

Set up in quaint wooden huts that sit side-by-side under the watchful gaze of the two of the city’s most famous architectural domes, the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom, visitors can wander between stalls to view traditional Christmas ornaments that are reminiscent of a bygone era.

It wouldn’t be Germany without sausages, so make sure to grab a steaming plate of those, and pair them with the spicy mulled wine on sale.

Christmas Markets of Europe

Krakow Christmas Market in Krakow, Poland

If you’re really looking for that special white Christmas, then you’re going to have to head to Krakow! Each year, the snow falls upon the city, covering the buildings and streets in a thick blanket of snow that gives it that picture perfect aesthetic we’ve all seen on postcards.

The market is located on a square in the centre of the Old Town and is open from early morning through to the late hours of the evening. There are often performances by church choirs and local schoolchildren that light up the ambience.

Traditional Polish dishes are always on sale, including the Polish specialities of hot beer, smoked cheeses and grilled meats.

Christmas Markets of Europe

Viennese Christmas Market in Vienna, Austria

Festive spirit has a long and treasured history in Austria, but Vienna in particular. The city’s first recorded Christmas market took place hundreds of years ago in 1298, and has only built its reputation as one of the premier Christmas destinations in Europe since then!

While there are over 20 different markets you can choose between, nobody ever misses the Viennese Christmas Market that takes place annually in front of City Hall. You can meander through the 150 stalls, snacking on traditional foods, and then round off the experience with a zip around the ice skating rink.

READ: Celebrating Christmas the South African versus the United Kingdom way

Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg, France

As one of the oldest Christmas Markets of Europe (it first opened in 1570!), the Christkindelsmärik really sits at the top of the market bucket list if you’re a Christmas fanatic. Each year, the month-long festival takes over the streets and squares of the town, filling up the alleys with festive revellers.

From handmade decorations for the tree, to renowned Alsatian wines, this is the place you’ll find it all. And of course, it’ll have the distinct elegance of any French affair! But what absolutely can’t be missed at Christkindelsmärik, is the Great Christmas Tree that towers over Place Kleber.

Christmas Markets of Europe

Tallinn Christmas Market in Tallinn, Estonia

While it may seem ridiculous to say, one of the most important Christmas trees in the whole of Europe can be found in Tallinn. Visit Estonia claims it was one of the first Christmas trees that was ever put on display on a town square in 1441. Each year, the most incredible spruce is brought to the town square and adorned with traditional decorations.

Around the tree, you’ll find a host of markets stalls peddling their art, bric-à-brac tasty treats and the like. Make sure to try the black pudding for a proper Estonian experience.

Christmas Markets of Europe

Bath Christmas Market in Bath, United Kingdom

Set amongst the stone buildings of Bath’s centre, the Bath Christmas Market is a highlight each year. Travellers from all over the United Kingdom make their way to the city each November and December for this reason alone.

Carols by candlelight are a regular highlight for attendees, while the smell of roasting chestnuts, freshly-baked cookies and mulled wine float through the air. The market is famous for its selection of makers, that each presents their unique wares in wooden ‘chalets’.

Make your visit extra special by booking tickets for the Christmas pantomime put on each year at Theatre Royal Bath.

Book cheap flight to Europe with Travelstart

Which other Christmas Markets of Europe do you think we should add to our list? Let us know in the comments below…

The post The absolute best Christmas Markets in Europe appeared first on Travelstart Blog.

Visit Istanbul This Summer For A Rand-Friendly Getaway

Want to escape the scorching SA sun (and the tourists!) and see somewhere new this summer? There’s always the tried and tested options; Thailand, Mauritius or the UK – but the Turkish city of Istanbul is something a little different. In fact, we’d go as far as to say that if you’re searching for a rand-friendly destination over South Africa’s summer, you absolutely have to visit Istanbul.

Turkish winter isn’t like German winter, or Russian winter. At least, not in Istanbul. You won’t find your boots slowly freezing to the pavement, nor will you realise when it’s already too late that you actually don’t want that cup of hot chocolate because that would mean taking your hands out of your pockets. In fact, Istanbul is positively balmy compared to much of Europe. In November for example, the average daily temperatures range between 10 and 15. Nice and fresh, but not so fresh that it’ll give you cardiac arrest the second you step foot out of the door.

What to see in Istanbul

As a destination, Istanbul is a fascinating city, a melting pot of cultures and influences which is only to be expected from a place which literally bridges Asia and Europe. Cross the Bosphorus river and you’re in a different continent. Cruise down it and you’re smack bang in between the two continents admiring Asia on one side and Europe on the other. Though Istanbul is a fairly affordable city year-round, if you visit during winter you’ll have your pick of hotels, restaurants and activities at ridiculously low prices.

On the European side is where you’ll find the most famous sites; The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, The Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern and all the other iconic landmarks. Almost all of them are worth a visit but if you’re on limited time, you can’t skip the Grand Bazaar or Hagia Sophia.

blue mosque Istanbul

Blue Mosque
Photo Credit: Sophie Baker

Tips For Buying At The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world and sees an astonishingly large amount of people pass through its doors every day. No visit to Istanbul is complete without a stop here. There’s almost everything under the sun from spices to glassware to clothes and bath products, and it’s a great place to buy authentic Turkish products as well as souvenirs and gifts. Who needs a mall when you have the bazaar?

If you do decide to buy something at the Grand Bazaar – and with so much beautiful stuff, it’s hard not to – then leave your inhibitions at home and haggle the price. It’s not rude in Turkish culture. In fact, it’s expected. Generally, sellers start out with a price way higher than what they’ll actually accept, especially when they spot that you’re not local. You can generally expect to get the price down by anything from 30% to 60%. The best tip is not to buy at the first store you see.

The shops at the Grand Bazaar tend to be grouped into areas of similar products, so get a rough price from one or two stores before negotiating with the one you’re most interested in. The nearer to the main entrance the prices will be higher! Even here, you can pick up some amazing bargains. Pure silk scarves, cashmere shawls, ceramic kitchenware and authentic spices are all far cheaper than they would be in South Africa.

grand bazaar istanbul

Shopping at the Grand Bazaar
Photo credit: Sophie Baker

Hagia Sophia

Visiting the Hagia Sophia is a humbling experience. Not only is it imposing in size, it’s also beautifully ornate and possesses huge cultural and historical significance. Initially built as a church in 537 during the Byzantine era, it was the largest building in the world for nearly a thousand years.

In 1453 when the Ottomans gained control of Istanbul, the famous Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place to explore, with huge columns, stained glass windows, towering columns and the giant Quran verses suspended in the air and It has now been serving as a museum for over 80 years where it receives over three million visitors per year! The queues can be very long, so to avoid the queues either get there early, go with a tour guide, or invest in the Istanbul Museum Pass which allows you to skip the line and gives you access to the major attractions.

Istanbul Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia
Photo credit: Sophie Baker

Where to Stay

Istanbul certainly doesn’t lack hotels and accommodation, and it can be overwhelming sorting through so many accommodation options in so many different areas but for your first visit, you’re probably going to want to base yourself in the Old Town of Sultanahmet which is close to all of the main tourist sites.

Even with the prime real estate factor, you can still easily stay in a beautiful top-rated hotel for around R1000-1500 per night for two people, with breakfast included. A good option would be Hotel Amira which is located within walking distance of all the attractions and boasts a beautiful rooftop terrace where you can drink in the sights of Sultanahmet – or just drink in your cocktail! If for some reason you prefer to bypass local boutique hospitality and go with a bigger chain hotel, there’s plenty of choice in that department too from Marriott to Sofitel and more.

Indulge in the most delicious food of your life

It’s easy to see that Turkish food has gained popularity across the world, and for good reason; the things you’ve tried at home or on a night out in London really only scratch the surface of Turkish food.  When you visit Istanbul you’ll quickly realise that it is a foodie city of note, up there with Hong Kong, Berlin and Morocco.

Turkish Street Food

It’s hard to walk any street in Istanbul without coming across a food vendor of some kind every few hundred metres; whether they’re selling the famous doner kebabs or enticing you with sahlep, a hot drink made from crushed orchid root.

If you wander the streets in the morning, you’ll see locals munching on simit, something resembling a pretzel. It’s a gorgeous breakfast on-the-go made from freshly baked dough dipped in black sesame and molasses. Bagels, eat your heart out!

Delicious lamb, beef or fish sandwiches can come as cheap as R15, with wraps, kebabs and all manner of pastries ranging from R10 to R40 for a very hearty meal. Everything is freshly prepared in front of you, and you’ll be salivating just at the smell. For dessert, you can feast on hot halva encased inside cold Turkish ice-cream served from a street vendor outside the spice bazaar, the perfect sweet treat for any season.

doner istanbul

Doner
Photo credit: Sophie Baker

…and all the other food too

The street food is undeniably delicious, but even for the fine dining fans Istanbul doesn’t disappoint. In the recent World Restaurant Awards, the Istanbul-based Mikla came in at number 40. It’s by far the cheapest restaurant on the Top Fifty list, with the tasting menu starting from only R750. Not bad for one of the top fifty restaurants on the entire planet!

Another thing you absolutely cannot skip when in Turkey is, of course, Turkish delight. Visit Hafiz Mustafa for an elegant and reserved buying experience or brave the grand bazaar or spice bazaar for a more local one. It makes the perfect gift so do remember to pack a couple of boxes of the sweet treats to bring back home for those who weren’t lucky enough to make the trip with you.

The best thing about Turkish cuisine is that whether you want to eat off fine china and starched white linen or use your hands on a busy street corner, you’re guaranteed to be able to find something which is satisfying and delicious.

It’s true that money spent on travel is the only kind of spending that makes you richer; but a holiday in Istanbul is the best of both worlds. Culture, cuisine, and memories to last a lifetime without the big spending.

What are you waiting for? Book cheap flights to Istanbul now.

*Disclaimer!

All information on this blog page was correct at the time of publishing and may change at any time without prior notice. Travelstart will not be held liable for loss or inconvenience resulting from the use of out-dated or incorrectly noted information.

The post Visit Istanbul This Summer For A Rand-Friendly Getaway appeared first on Travelstart Blog.

Hand Luggage Restrictions at South African Airports

[Updated: 7 December 2018]

When it comes to what you carry on to a plane, things have become stricter. ACSA has enforced new land luggage restrictions for domestic travel at airports across South Africa which came into effect 2 February 2015. Find out what you need to know for your next trip!

Economy Class passengers

At the crux of the new hand luggage regulations is that Economy Class passengers boarding a commercial aircraft are restricted to:

  • One bag + one slimline laptop bag per passenger.
  • No bag should exceed these dimensions: 36 x 23 x 56cm = total dimensions of 115cm, including handles and wheels.
  • Weight limit per bag: 7kg
  • In addition to your carry-on baggage, you may carry with you a handbag and overcoat.
  • Guests with infants seated on their laps are allowed to carry a small bag with the in-flight needs of the infant such as feeding bottles, nappies and medication.

Any hand luggage which exceeds the dimensions, piece and weight restrictions stipulated above will have to be checked-in. This could delay you, cause you to miss your flight, or incur extra charges so take heed of this announcement to avoid a frustrating domestic travel experience. The airlines are not accepting responsibility should you miss your flight due to incorrect hand baggage.

Hand Luggage Restrictions

Carry-on baggage restrictions for Business Class and First Class passengers

  • Two bags + one slimline laptop bag per business class/first class passenger.
  • No bag should exceed these dimensions: 36 x 23 x 56cm
  • Weight limit per bag: 7kg

How would you classify a slimline laptop?

A slimline laptop bag accommodates a laptop and a charger. It can be carried over the shoulder or in your hand. A slimline laptop bag does not have any wheels.

Are there exceptions?

Yes, if an airline has granted a passenger exception, a uniformed airline staff member will accompany the passenger to the security checkpoint. The airline staff member needs to confirm the exception to the security staff or any official manning the hand baggage control point. If a passenger wants to get approval for a greater baggage allowance, this can only be done by the airline.

In each of the cases above, a woman’s handbag and a man’s satchel / “man-bag” is considered part of dress code and is exempt from these regulations. Essentially what they are concerned with is people with large bags trying to pass these off as “hand luggage” in addition to bringing on regulation size hand luggage.

ACSA says

Airports Company South Africa will be supporting the airlines and the South African Civil Aviation Authority regulations with regards to hand luggage that is allowed within the cabin.

The principles of this campaign will be in the interest of ensuring compliance of the airline’s hand baggage policies and also in enhancing safety measures when flying.

The enforcement of this programme will be led by the airlines operating at Airports Company South Africa airports and supported by the airport authority.

Passengers who do not comply will be identified before the security checkpoints. In the event of hand baggage not being compliant, the passenger will be referred back to the check-in counters to check the baggage in as hold luggage.

hand luggage

Airlines say

Mango says it will not penalise travellers for additional bags that have to be checked in as a consequence of the new regulation as it does not charge per piece of baggage within its 20kg allowance.

Passengers using other low-cost airlines such as kulula and FlySafair need to be aware of the additional costs they could incur.

Kulula allows one free checked bag weighing up to 20kg and one piece of hand luggage weighing up to 7kg. Additional bags require passengers to pay between R320 (online – payable by credit card only) or R415 (at the airport). While FlySafair tickets include a hand luggage quota, checked baggage fees start at R155 (purchased online) and R250 (purchased at the airport). An extra bag will cost you R250.

Travelstart says

Always keep in mind peak travel seasons and longer queues over the holidays. Make sure you are well within the luggage restrictions to enable a seamless and hassle-free check-in experience for you and your fellow travellers.

Also check out:

Now that you’re equipped with the hand luggage restrictions start packing your bags and get ready for your next exciting trip. Sign up to Travelstart’s newsletter and get the best flight specials to incredible destinations!

What has your experience been with hand and check-in luggage at the airport? Let us know in the comments below.

The post Hand Luggage Restrictions at South African Airports appeared first on Travelstart Blog.

Exploring Thailand’s Islands: 11 of the Best

Known as the land of smiles, the beautiful islands of Thailand welcome you with a friendly “Sawasdee”. Choosing which of Thailand’s islands to explore can be overwhelming as each island offers something unique and special. Whether you want to party into the wee hours, learn to dive or escape on a romantic, secluded break, you’ll find the perfect island to suit your mood.

We reveal 11 of the best islands in Thailand – what to do, how to get there, and where you can stay.

11. Ko Mak

Ideal for: a quiet and remote escape

thailand islands

Photo credit: @007estefania via Instagram

One of Thailand’s lesser-known islands, Ko Mak is an undeveloped, hidden treasure. This coconut-scented island is located in the National Marine Park in eastern Thailand, filled with coconut and rubber plantations. Spend your days lazing on the beach, kayaking along the crystal-clear waters, windsurfing, snorkelling, jungle trekking, topping it all off with traditional Thai massages.

Nightlife on Ko Mak consists of swaying in your hammock, beer in hand, watching sunsets disappear from your bungalow.

How to get there: You can reach Ko Mak by speedboat from the Laem Ngop pier in Trat. There is a selection of accommodation, from simple beach huts to 4-star beach resorts right on the water.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @tj_rai via Instagram

10. Ko Samet

Ideal for: a quick city break

thailand islands

Photo credit: @veronika_brazdilova via Instagram

With its silky, dazzling-white beaches fringed with coconut palms, it is no surprise that Ko Samet is one of the best islands in Thailand. Just a stone’s throw from Bangkok, this 6km-long island is a firm favourite with locals, tourists and expats escaping here for a weekend break from Bangkok. Here you can swim, snorkel, windsurf and suntan to your heart’s content – with 14 beaches to choose from! Stroll around the centre of town perusing the souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. Haad Sai Kaew, Ao Hin Khok, and Ao Phai form the island’s most popular beaches with lively cocktail bars and restaurants dotting the coastline. For a romantic trip or quiet beach break, head to the secluded bay of Ao Phrao.

Baan Ploy Sea come highly recommended for a luxury stay, or you can find plenty of alternatives along the main beach of Haad Sai Kaew.

How to get there: Take a taxi or hop on a bus from Ekkamai bus terminal to Ban Phe pier, where you can ferry across to Ko Samet within 30-40 minutes.

9. Similan Islands

Ideal for: island-hopping and scuba diving

thailand islands

Photo credit: @alyzandra3 via Instagram

Nestled away from the more popular and busier of Thailand’s islands, the Similan Islands are unknown to most travellers island-hopping through Thailand – and that’s what makes them special. These 11 sand spits together form Mu Ko Similan National Park. These islands are a diver’s paradise with visibility up to 30 metres deep. The waters are brimming with tuna, manta rays, turtles, reef sharks, barracuda, red grouper, moray eels and whale sharks.

Accommodation on the islands is limited so you’ll need to book ahead of time if you’re visiting during peak diving season. Only three of the islands have accommodation – Ko Meang, Ko Similan and Ko Tachai. Your options are basic bungalows and tented campsites. If hotels and resorts are more your kind of thing, you’re better off staying on the Khao Lak mainland and going on day trips to the islands instead.

Alternatively, you can book liveaboard boat tours for 4-5 days, giving you the opportunity to wake up between the islands, surrounded by incredible scenery and wildlife.

How to get there: This diving hotspot is just two hours by boat from Khao Lak. Note that the islands are closed to tourists between May and October.

8. Ko Pha Ngan

Ideal for: party animals

thailand islands

Photo credit: @nataliekrzy via Instagram

Often referred to as Thailand’s hedonistic island of guilty pleasures, Ko Pha Ngan is where party animals and solo travellers go to let their hair down. Located between Ko Samui and Ko Tao, island hopping between these three islands is a popular choice. Ko Pha Ngan is synonymous with full moon parties and the best ones can be found on Haad Rin’s Sunrise Beach during August, December and January. Expect action-packed beach and cocktail bars every night of the week. By day you can rent a scooter or tour guide and explore the Buddhist temples, scenery and viewpoints around the island. Phaeng Waterfall, the hidden Chaloklum Beach and the herbal sauna at Wat Pho are a few highlights not to be missed. There is no shortage of much-needed luxury spas and meditation retreats around the island.

Le Divine Comedie is a stunning beach resort with all the trimmings 15 minutes away from the action. If you want to stay in the heart of full moon party atmosphere, Suncliff Resort offers dorms and private rooms overlooking the beach.

How to get there: You can easily reach Ko Pha Ngan via a short one-hour ferry ride from Ko Samui.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @ajavopickova via Instagram

7. Ko Lipe

Ideal for: a couple’s getaway

thailand islands

Photo credit: @adepasch via Instagram

Calling all romantics and honeymooners alike. With its apricot sunsets, lively cocktail bars and unspoilt beaches, Ko Lipe sets the tone for romance. The island is void of large beach resorts, giving you long stretches of unspoilt beaches all to yourself. Ko Lipe is home to three main beaches – Sunrise, Sunset and Pattaya beaches – all within a 15 -minute walk from each other. Pattaya Beach hums with restaurants and late-night beach bars, while Sunrise Beach is perfect for snorkelling, long romantic walks, catching a tan, and luxuriating in mostly high-end resorts.

Pop into any of the restaurants along ‘Walking Street’ before heading off on an island-hopping tour or kayaking to a few private beaches, ending off at Ko Adang for sunset.

You’ll find varied accommodation on Ko Lipe. Popular options include Salisa Resort and Bloom Café and Hostel.

How to get there: The quickest way is to fly into Hat Yai, and hop onto a shuttle down to Bak Para pier where a ferry will take you to Ko Lipe for around 650 Baht. The entire island is walkable, and you won’t find many motorised vehicles apart from a few motorbikes and motorbike taxis (with sidecars).

6. Ko Chang

Ideal for: families and adventure seekers

thailand islands

Photo credit: @sebhav via Instagram

The second-largest of Thailand’s islands, Ko Chang is all about the simple life. Touching borders with Cambodia, the island is clad with dense forests, waterfalls, rivers, and hiking trails aplenty. Kayak through the mangrove swamps and stop to admire the local fishing traditions in Salakkok Bay. Don’t leave Ko Chang without taking a cooking class – there are lots to choose from in Klong Prao village!

Escape to Had Sai Noi Beach for a drink at one of the bohemian beach bars. Try some fresh crab at White Sands Beach night market, and end off your night watching the flame-throwers and dancers along Lonely Beach.

Channel your inner ‘chi’ with yoga classes at The Mangrove Hideaway or enjoy the family villas at Serenity Resort.

How to get there: You can reach Ko Chang by flying to Trat Airport, catching a shuttle to the pier and hopping on a ferry straight to the island.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @oysterhotels via Instagram

5. Phuket

Ideal for: living it up

thailand islands

Photo credit: @yoga_anneoo via Instagram

Beach yoga? Check. Water parks? Check. Thrilling nightlife? Check. Celebrity-chefs and private butlers? Check. Yip, Phuket has it all. There is no whim or fantasy that Phuket can’t make true. This famous island caters to every traveller, whether you’re after a lowkey stay or plan to live it up in style. Just a short 90-minute flight from Bangkok, Phuket is home to an array of designer boutiques, world-class cuisine, golf courses, museums, aquariums and water parks, and endless beach resorts ranging from the basic to the lavish.

Phuket is especially busy between November and February, so if you’re after a quieter crowd, consider going between March and May just before the rainy season sets in. Kata Noi and Mai Khao beaches are perfect for a more laidback vibe; while Patong is notorious for its heaving nightlife and night markets. The drive to Patong beach alone boasts phenomenal views of the karst islands dotted around Phang Nga Bay.

Bang Tao Beach is a firm favourite with its big, swaying coconut palms and reggae beach bars. COMO Point Yamu is an idyllic honeymoon stay just 20 minutes away from the beach.

For a pampering retreat, Impiana Resort Patong comes highly recommended, while the modern Hugger Hostel in Phuket Old Town is a chic, budget-friendly alternative.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @maruska88888 via Instagram

Also see: The best time to visit Phuket

4. Ko Lanta

Ideal for: a little bit of everything

thailand islands

Photo credit: @keyifliyim via Instagram

Ko Lanta is your all-around island where you can experience a bit of everything. Less than an hour’s boat ride from Krabi, Ko Lanta is all about serenity, nature and fantastic seafood. The island is over 30km long and is navigable by scooter. By day you can explore the local fishing communities and sit down to a cold beer and seafood spread with the locals. Kayak through the mangrove swamps, explore the caves on Ghost Island, hike between the jungle teahouses, indulge in a mandatory beach massage, take a cooking class and perfect your golden tan – Ko Lanta is where you come to get away from it all and relax.

Backpacker lodges have recently given way to upscale, luxury resorts but you can still find affordable bungalows and guesthouses throughout the island. Klong Nin is a peaceful alternative to the tourist bustle of Long Beach, and Baan Pakgasri Hideaway offers a rustic beach break. For something more upscale, Twin Lotus Resort and Spa is an adults-only oasis.

How to get there: Ko Lanta is easily reachable via ferry or speedboat from the surrounding islands. If you’re coming from Krabi, travelling by shuttle and car ferry is the cheapest option.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @schestakowitsch via Instagram

3. Ko Samui

Ideal for: families, honeymooners, first-timers and yogis

thailand islands

Photo credit: @_michelleju_ via Instagram

Ko Samui needs little introduction. There is plenty to see and do on the island and there is something for everyone. Ko Samui best suits families and those looking to unwind and absorb island life. It is a firm favourite for holistic retreats and yoga sanctuaries – you can find classes almost anywhere. If you’re in search of a party scene, make your way to Chaweng. Home to more of a young crowd, Chaweng is packed with busy beaches, bars and restaurants. Further north of the island lies Bophut – the perfect location for those looking for a relaxing vibe with a bit of atmosphere. Fisherman’s Village is a great day or evening tour, bustling with street food, night markets, cute boutiques and the long beaches all to yourself. Ko Samui is home to some spectacular waterfall treks and mountain bike trails for a day off the beach.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @_only_summer_ via Instagram

To get around you can hire a scooter and easily make your way around the entire island in a day. There are also plenty of taxis available to transport you to and from the port. From cosy beach bungalows to exclusive private villas, Ko Samui has endless accommodation options. New Hut Bungalows offer simple beach huts, while Sea Dance Resort is great for couples.

How to get there: If you’re limited for time, you can fly straight to Ko Samui Airport. A cheaper option is to fly from Bangkok to Surat Thani and hop on a ferry to the island. You can add around three hours to your trip from Surat Thani Airport to Ko Samui.

thailand islands

Photo credit: Nadia Marth

2. Ko Tao (Turtle Island)

Ideal for: scuba divers and adventure seekers

thailand islands

Photo credit: @fallintravel via Instagram

You could describe Ko Tao as a blend of Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. What’s great is that you can visit all three of these islands within a week and have a very different experience on each of them. Ko Tao is perfect for outdoorsy types, so if rock climbing, hiking, cycling, wakeboarding, kitesurfing and scuba diving is your thing, Ko Tao is your island! You can also pick up some Muay Thai classes to test your fitness. Ko Tao is recognised as one of the best diving places in the world, and you can easily do your open water course or more advanced diving courses at any of the PADI centres on the island.

The longest and busiest beach on Ko Tao, Sairee Beach is a great spot to catch a tan, play some volleyball and watch the sunset, cocktail in hand. By night, the beach bars come alive with reggae beats and fire dancers.

You’ll find plenty of family-friendly accommodation in Ko Tao. Some favourites include Haadtien Beach Resort near Mae Haad Bay and Beach Club by Haadtien.

How to get there: Ko Tao is a two-hour ferry ride from Ko Samui.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @ihasia.kohtao via Instagram

1. Phi Phi Islands

Ideal for: solo travellers and adventure seekers

thailand islands

Photo credit: @networker.sabrinfit via Instagram

As any traveller to Phi Phi will tell you, the Phi Phi Islands are the poster-child for Thailand’s beaches. With its dramatic limestone cliffs, turquoise bays and silky-soft sands, it’s no wonder this iconic island group is on every traveller’s list. Unlike its wild sister island, Ko Pha Ngan, Phi Phi attracts more of a sophisticated young crowd looking to have a good time. The absence of frenetic scooters lends to the slow, chilled pace of Phi Phi’s atmosphere, and you can settle into quieter surroundings to the north of the island.

Phi Phi’s claim to fame is Maya Bay (along the smaller island of Ko Phi Phi Leh) where the film, The Beach, was filmed. Access to the beach is currently closed to allow the ecosystem and coral reefs to recover but you can hop on a sleep-aboard boat and tour the bay and surrounding islands. Tonsai and Loh Dalum beaches boast lively beach bars and fire dancing where you can party under the stars all night long.

Phi Phi Don is the bigger of the two islands that make up Phi Phi, and is home to some of the best beach resorts. For an extravagant splurge, spoil yourself at the 5-star Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort, featuring a dive centre, spa, infinity pool and private beach. Solo travellers might enjoy staying at Ibiza House Phi Phi, with its selection of dormitories, private rooms and villas, as well as live DJ sets and pool parties.

From rock climbing and snorkelling to pool parties, beach hangovers and Muay Thai fights, you definitely won’t be bored on Phi Phi Island.

How to get there: A short one-hour ferry ride from Phuket, or 90-minute ride from Krabi or Ko Lanta will get you to the Phi Phi Islands.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @wladimirolguin via Instagram

Tips to remember on the islands:

  1. Do not ride elephants or take photos with exotic animals – this fuels animal abuse.
  2. Respect the beaches and sea animals.
  3. Do not touch or walk on the corals.
  4. Keep enough cash on hand – not all islands have foreign exchange bureaus.
  5. Always wear a life jacket when taking a ferry or boat trip – you never know when you may need to swim ashore.
  6. Tuck into all the local dishes, and try a ‘special’ coconut – with rum!

The dry season runs from November to April. Peak season on Thailand’s islands falls between November and February, especially over weekends, so book your accommodation in advance.

Ready to explore Thailand’s islands with all their beauty, sun-kissed beaches and exciting activities? Whether it’s thrilling nightlife you’re after, or a more laidback holiday lazing under towering palm trees, you’ll find it difficult to return home once you’re living the island life. Make sure you add these 5 key ingredients for the perfect holiday in Thailand!

Book cheap flights to Thailand with Travelstart.co.za!

 

Tell us which of these islands in Thailand is your favourite in the comments below.

thailand islands

Photo credit: @scubachictravel via Instagram

Map of Thailand’s Islands

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Featured image credit: @billiemel via Instagram

The post Exploring Thailand’s Islands: 11 of the Best appeared first on Travelstart Blog.

Your Best Time to Visit Turkey

Turkey is a magnificent destination that astounds visitors with its spectacular sights, wonderful cuisine and rich heritage. There is so much to do in this beautiful country, and you could easily spend a few weeks travelling from city to city, taking in the immense metropolitan cities, breathtaking countryside views, and of course, the magnificent coasts! The best time to visit Turkey may be a hard one to decide on, as the country has four seasons that are all equally magical in their own regard! Set your travel dates to which season suits you best, and embark on a journey of a lifetime. Depending on your season of choice, prepare to wander the alleyways of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, float hundreds of metres above ground in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, make your way through the culturally-infused streets of Ankara, or let the warm sea waters caress your toes in the coastal city of Izmir!

grand-bazaar-visit-turkey

Image courtesy of @septem_vita via Instagram.

Weather

The coast of Turkey, including popular cities such as Antalya, Bodrum and Izmir, has a wonderful Mediterranean climate with warm temperatures throughout the year and clear, summer days. Winters on the coast are rather mild, with slightly wet days in between. The inner regions of the country are much more continental than the coast and due to the mountainous areas, the climate of central Turkey has four distinct seasons – including a hot summer and icy, snowy winter! Summer in Turkey falls between the months of June and August, and winter falls between the months of November and January.

When looking for the best time to visit Turkey to get the best of it all, consider visiting during the shoulder season of the country. Visiting over the spring and autumn seasons is a wonderful idea as you’re bound to enjoy warm days and almost no rain. Also, crowds are much thinner during this time and you can explore at your own pace. Spring in Turkey falls between the end of March and May, whereas autumn can be enjoyed between September and early November.

Summer

izmir-beach-visit-turkey

Image courtesy of @travellingguggs via Instagram.

With its Mediterranean climate and hot temperatures, summer in Turkey is best spent soaking up the glorious sun in and around the coastal cities. Did someone say daytime highs of around 30°C? Expect only the most amazing beach vacation in Turkey! The country has some wonderful cities and towns to visit during the hot days of the year such as Patara City, with its longest beach strip in all of the country, the all-white Bodrum, with plenty of pristine beaches and Antalya, with its picture-perfect Mediterranean atmosphere and the amazing Konyaalti Beach. These are just a few of the top beaches in Turkey, with hundreds more to choose from during your summer vacation.

Spring and Autumn

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Image courtesy of @gulernazarli via Instagram

Spring and autumn in Turkey are great alternatives to visit this beautiful country. The temperatures are pleasant and with thinner crowds than during summer, you’re bound to have a more relaxed and enjoyable time visiting. Spring time temperatures range between 15 and 23 °C. This is ideal for city sightseeing and visiting famous attractions in the capital city, Ankara and the heart of the country, Istanbul. You will have the time and space to take leisurely walks, visiting places such as the Blue Mosque and hike up a hill to see the famous Ankara Castle! For the leisurely traveler, this may be the best time to visit Turkey for sure.  Autumn in the coastal cities is quite a treat as though daytime highs are considerably lower; the sea temperatures tend to stay on the warmer side, so dips in the ocean are a great way to end off a busy day relaxing. Order a portion of baklava at a nearby restaurant to end off your day with a taste of this delicious dessert.

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Image courtesy of @sweetchrisbee via Instagram.

Winter

Winter can get pretty cold and icy in Turkey, making it the perfect location for a white festive season and a great option to indulge in some snow sport! The snowy hilltops of the north-eastern region of the country are the best place to be for this. The cities of Antalya and Bursa are great options when looking for ski spots with winters that can reach -10 degrees Celcius on a regular day in January! That said, whereas the coastal cities of Turkey are more or less shut down during winter except for the festive season, the big cities are alive and all-welcoming, making winter quite possibly the best time to visit Turkey. During your Turkish winter break in the city, enjoy wholesome Turkish dishes at any of the top restaurants across the country and after, have your fortune told after a steaming cup of brewed Turkish coffee.

Daytime temperatures

Summer: 05:00 – 20:30

Summer in Turkey guarantees warm, sunny days and 13 hours of daylight to enjoy. The sun rises early and this is ideal for early morning trips down to the ocean if you’re on the coast, or even just the famous Turkish breakfast to be enjoyed in cafes around the city centres.

Winter: 08:00 – 17:30

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Image courtesy of @sarapepolibiasin via Instagram.

Winter in Turkey can be quite chilly with short days of 9 and a half hours. Don’t worry though as this is more than sufficient for days exploring the cities or better yet, skiing on the slopes of the Andalusian region in the north of the country.

How much are flights to Turkey?

Peak season: June to August

During the summer season, Turkey is a buzz of activity and flights to the country can be on the slightly pricier side. Book at least 3 months ahead of time to avoid hefty prices and budget to spend around 15% more for your flight tickets and accommodation than the rest of the year.

Festive season: December/January

Though Turkey is in the heart of its winter during this time, the appeal of a white Turkish festive season is certainly high! Flights and accommodation are known to be highest when booking last minute, and you can look at spending up to 50% more for flights than during summer!

Shoulder/off-peak season: March/April

Enjoy more affordable flights during the best time to visit Turkey at a fraction of the cost. Flights during this period of time are really well-priced, and you can look at securing your tickets to this beautiful destination for around 15% cheaper than during peak season.

Book your cheap flights to Turkey with Travelstart today!

 

Annual Events

Mesir Paste Festival, end of March

This festival has been around for more almost 500 years and celebrates the wonder of the miracle cure, mesir. Every year between the 21st and 24th of March, the paste is prepared by chefs and their apprentices and distributed amongst festival goers in the town of Manisa. Join in the fun of catching little portions of the paste thrown from the city’s minarets and enjoy the concerts after!

Victory Day, 30 August

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Image courtesy of @leeroy_martinez via Instagram.

A day to remember in Turkish history, Victory Day celebrates the Turkish War of Independence and this date, 30 August, is an annual public holiday. The country comes together to enjoy military parades, speeches and visiting monuments across the country, especially so in Ankara. Visitors can look forward to the parades, air force demonstrations and traditional sweets to enjoy.

Istanbul International Music Festival, end of May

This prestigious event takes place every year in the city of Istanbul and brings together classical music enthusiasts from across the world. The event is known to be creative and uplifting, with fresh ideas and takes on old classics. Look forward to performances across the country in concert halls, with free mini concerts across parks and gardens.

Oil Wrestling Festival, June

This festival is more than 600 years and is encourages men from all across the country to join in the fun! Participants are put into various groups, dependent on age and size, and are then oiled and set up to wrestle each other in the name of good ol’ fun. The winner then carries a gold belt, which is paraded through the city of Edirme.

Whirling Dervishes Festival, mid-December

Celebrating the life and works of Sufi poet, Rumi, this music and dance festival is one for the books. See the famous whirling dervishes and participate in the dancing, singing and poetry readings that take place during the event. The festival is a week-long and takes place in the city of Konya.

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Image courtesy of @muniii_moonbean via Instagram.

Turkey is such a wonderful destination and is on many a bucket list! Have you been to this country or plan on visiting soon? Sign up to our newsletter for the best flight deals and holiday packages to Turkey and an endless list of magical destinations!

 

Featured image courtesy of @globe_today via Instagram.

 

The post Your Best Time to Visit Turkey appeared first on Travelstart Blog.

See Zagreb and Istanbul (On A South African Budget)

Combine the gorgeous cities of Zagreb and Istanbul for a whirlwind European experience. The magical Croatian capital is an underappreciated European wonderland, while the bustling east-meets-west metropolis of Istanbul will leave you enthralled and breathless.

You might have noticed that Turkish airlines is offering some insanely cheap flights to Istanbul and the rest of Europe lately. If you haven’t, you’ve been missing out on some amazing travel opportunities.

As South Africans, it can be hard to stomach the price of travelling through Europe, especially when you’re talking about cities like London, Vienna and Paris; they’re all beautiful, but not the most rand-friendly getaways. Luckily for us there’s now a way for you to travel to Europe and see not one but two cities, all while keeping to a tight budget, thanks to Turkish Airlines’ Touristanbul initiative,

Here’s how to do it!

Flights

Book with Travelstart to get Turkish airlines flights from Johannesburg to Croatia at R8,259 return for loads of dates in 2019. You’ll stop over in Istanbul, where you can take advantage of the TourIstanbul programme, which you can read about here. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get to experience the impressive newly-opened Istanbul airport, set to be the biggest airport in the world upon completion. Yep, even bigger than JFK or Heathrow!

Depending on layover time, some economy passengers are entitled to a night in a four star hotel in the city. If you’re not there overnight but have a good few hours to kill, there’s the option of a layover tour where you can see the sights and sounds of Istanbul. If you qualify for the layover, you’ll likely be put up for the night in the area of Sultanahmet or Beyoglu, two of the best-located neighbourhoods of Istanbul. All of this is free and comes as part of your airfare. During the tour, for example, you’ll even get free entrance to the major sights such as Hagia Sophia as well as a free meal.

If you want longer in Istanbul, you can also opt to spend a night or two there on the inbound or outbound journey by purchasing a multi-city ticket, which Travelstart can help you with.

What to Do In Istanbul

Istanbul is a sightseer’s dream, and there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a short stay in the city. Here are some of the most popular places to visit. Most of the mosques and palaces are closed on Tuesdays, while the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

The Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya

Probably Istanbul’s most famous sight. A huge, majestic temple set against the Istanbul skyline, it’s hard to miss the red walls of what was the world’s biggest church for nearly a thousand years before being converted into a mosque. Hagia Sophia is now a museum detailing the incredible history of the mosque, where you can still marvel at the original carvings and portraits, huge monuments and intricate golden ceilings.

Istanbul/Ayasofya at night

Istanbul at Night
Photo credit: @pencilandpolaroid via Instagram

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi palace was the home of generations of Ottoman Sultans and their wives for nearly four hundred years, and became a museum in 1924. Manicured green courtyards, a glittering treasury featuring the crown jewels of the empire, collections of art, ornate Turkish baths and intricately tiled rooms make it a must-see in Istanbul. Walk to the end and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over the Sea of Marmara as well as the Bosphorus River and the Golden Horn. Eat your heart out, Buckingham Palace!

The Blue Mosque

One of the few sites that is free to visit. Similar in style to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque isn’t one of the biggest but it is one of the most detailed and beautiful. Currently, there’s a lot of restoration going on which for some people can detract from the experience, but it’s still worth visiting.  It’s worth noting that you need to bring a scarf if you’re a woman as it’s an active mosque and requires your hair to be covered.

Grand Bazaar

A visit to the Grand Bazaar is a must-do for bargain hunters in Istanbul. Contrary to popular belief, the Grand Bazaar isn’t just one big tourist trap. Plenty of locals do their shopping there buying everything from carpets and leather goods to everyday items like spices, cooking ware and a multitude of other things. There’s around five thousand shops under the roof of the grand bazaar, so it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything you couldn’t find here. If you want to bring home souvenirs, jewellery or even a gorgeous leather bag, the Grand Bazaar is the place to go. Be sure to take note of where you entered the Grand Bazaar – it’s a crowded maze of stalls, smells, and sounds; ‘organised chaos’ is a gentle way of describing it! Remember that negotiating on price is expected, so don’t be shy!

Where to stay – Istanbul

For first time visitors to Istanbul, Sultanahmet is the best area to base yourself. Though it quietens down at night, it’s close to all of the major attractions and means you can easily walk around between them. It’s also easy to navigate and has plenty of public transport options nearby including trams and metro stations.

If you’ve visited before or are visiting for a long period, you may want to consider Beyoglu, a more local neighbourhood with plenty of nightlife and restaurants. It’s across the river, meaning a tram ride is necessary to reach Sultanahmet for sightseeing. It’s R6 or so for a ride on the tram, but they can get crowded in peak times.

What To Do In Zagreb

Taste wine

Set in a 200 year old cellar near the Zagreb Cathedral is Bornstein, the city’s oldest wine bar. Inside it houses a small wine shop as well as a little bar; a tasting there is special experience thanks to the passionate and knowledgeable owners. Croatian wine is some of the best and cheapest on offer in Europe, and their red varietals are especially good. You can opt for ‘the usuals’ like merlot or a good cabernet sauvignon, or you can go for the local varieties…who knows, maybe you’ll discover the Croatian version of South Africa’s pinotage.

Take Photos From The Zagreb Skyscraper

Based just off the main square of Ban Jelacic, the Zagreb Skyscraper offers a bar and restaurant with 360 degree panoramic views from the city’s tallest building. Take the ride up to the top floor and walk around, taking in the sights of the business district to the bottom, the beautiful old town, the lower town and main square and the residential suburbs. From the Skyscraper you have unobstructed views of St Mark’s Square and the Zagreb Cathedral.

Visit a Museum

Zagreb has more museums per capita than anywhere else in the world; and they’re not just boring, stuffy museums either. There’s the world-famous museum of broken relationships, as well as the kid-friendly museum of illusions.

Day trip to Plitvice

Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of Croatia’s most beautiful places and – dare we say it – one of the most beautiful places in the world. A huge national park full of waterfalls, forests and wooden bridges linking bright turquoise and emerald lakes and streams, it’s stunning in every season. In winter, the water often freezes over to create waterfalls that are frozen in time, as if someone had simply wandered in and pressed the pause button. In autumn you’ll see the lakes contrasted against shades of red, yellow and orange hues and in spring and summer, there’s brilliant sunshine and gorgeously clear waters, making it beautiful for hiking. Plitvice is an absolute wonderland only two hours from Zagreb, and is definitely a one of Croatia’s must-do’s.

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Plitvice Lakes, two hours outside Zagreb
Photo credit: @pencilandpolaroid via Instagram

Day Trip to Lake Bled, Slovenia

Yep, that’s right! If you’re feeling ambitious you can even fit in a third European country on your trip! The atmospheric capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana is only a two-hour drive from Zagreb. It’s then a short drive on to Lake Bled, which is one of the most picturesque places you’ll ever see in your life, particularly when the mountains develop snowy peaks in the winter months.

Where to stay – Zagreb

The best area to stay in Zagreb is Donji Grad, or Lower Town. Bed and Breakfast or traditional guesthouses are more limited than apartments, but there are a few around such as Regal Residence, right in the pedestrian zone of Zagreb.

Otherwise, there are a selection of good three, four and five star hotels; Jagerhorn Hotel is a good three-star option in a convenient area, but Esplanade Hotel is a fantastic deal for the five-star luxury that it offers. Plus, the spread at breakfast is so enticing (think bottomless champagne, endless smoked salmon and freshly squeezed orange juice) that you’ll probably not need to eat again until dinner! Or if you prefer the comforts of home, you can choose one of the many apartments on offer in the centre. Some are tiny bachelor flats, others are huge and luxurious modern penthouses.

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Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb
Photo credit: @pencilandpolaroid via Instagram

If you really want to cut costs or are travelling alone and fancy meeting new people there’s an abundance of hostels in Zagreb; a great option is Taban hostel which sits right at the top of the vibrant Tkalčićeva street.

Have you visited Turkey or Croatia recently? Share your experiences in the comments section below!

*Disclaimer!

All information on this blog page was correct at the time of publishing and may change at any time without prior notice. Travelstart will not be held liable for loss or inconvenience resulting from the use of out-dated or incorrectly noted information.

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