Gap Year Gaps: Island Hopping in Greece

A year can be a long time – just because you’re working or volunteering abroad doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to a vacation. In a new feature, Gap Year Gaps will explore the best ways to break up your gap year with some extracurricular travel.

Gap years are all about cramming in as many once-in-a-lifetime experiences as you can into a twelve-month period. So whether you’re working in an orphanage in Romania or learning Italian in Milan, you’ve still plenty of time to get out there and explore the wider world. To that end, we’re taking a look at exploring the vast archipelago that constitutes the Greek islands this week.

Whether package holidays are your thing, or you prefer just to hop on a plane and fend for yourself once you reach your destination, the Greek islands cater to travellers of all tastes. While certain islands have gained an undeserved reputation for partying and excess in recent years, the Greek islands as a whole have way more to offer than just cheap booze and musty clubs. Here are a couple of reputation-defying vacation ideas:

Rhodes

History buffs looking at holidays to Greek islands inevitably hit upon Rhodes as a destination, given its wealth of ancient ruins and artefact-laden museums. The fabled Colossus of Rhodes might be long gone (though talk persists of it being rebuilt), but there are plenty of incredible historical sites to visit – such as the acropolis of Lindos, an ancient coastal citadel dating from 300 BC that changed hands between the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottoman Empire. Beyond the World Heritage delights of Rhodes City, intrepid hikers will find that the island is filled with unspoilt terrain, with rugged ravines and hidden beaches that demand exploration.

Santorini

The volcanic island of Santorini is about as far away as you can get from the clubs and general hubbub of cities like Faliraki and Malia. The island’s several villages are all built around the caldera of a volcano, yielding incredible views, while the rest of the island is relatively untouched, so you don’t have to travel far to find spots of unspoilt Mediterranean beauty – such as the island’s black, white and red beaches. If you’re interested in avoiding the tourists, avoid the villages of Fira and Ia during the summer, as cruise liners dock here daily and offload their cargo. However, once the sun sets (or peak season ends) and the tourists depart, Fira and Io remain charming hillside towns with excellent local food and a laid-back attitude.

Crete Package HolidaysThe largest of the Greek islands, Crete is easily the most diverse, both in terms of landscape and in terms of attractions. Outside of the big cities, Crete is a walker’s paradise, with highlights such as Samaria Gorge (Europe’s largest), the ruins of ancient Knossos, and Europe’s only palm tree forest on the east coast of the island. Given the island’s popularity, coupled in with substantial transport infrastructure for an island of its size, last-minute cheap Crete holidays are fairly easy to find all year round. Though be warned: Crete is host to around 25 per cent of Greece’s entire tourist trade, so avoid the north coast of the island and its monolithic hotels and cocktail hours if you prefer the pastoral and historical.

12 Blogs Of Chrismas Day One in Lapland

Every winter, as many as 200,000 Brits travel to Finland’s Lapland to meet Santa Claus, go skiing, snowmobiling, ride reindeer-pulled sleighs or experience a husky safari. Santa’s village is located on the Arctic Circle, north of which the sun can be seen even at midnight during the summertime.

During the winter, however, the sun stays below the horizon for most of the time and in midwinter, or the twilight period, light is provided by the moon and stars as well as the magical Northern Lights and a clean, bright cover of glistening snow. Santa’s village is particularly popular amongst families, who can visit Santa’s main post office, the Christmas exhibition and Santa’s Ice Park as well as taking part in other wintery activities.

Northern Lights

Lapland’s pure and clean snow cover provides a magnificent setting for all kinds of activities and adventures; those who visit Lapland say that more memorable adventures are hard to find. Most of these adventures pass off without incident, but things do sometimes go wrong. The most serious accidents, in addition to skiing injuries, happen on snow mobile safaris. Snow mobiles have powerful engines and can travel at over 100km an hour – and without a seatbelt on difficult terrain many Brits have lost their lives. The competitiveness of groups of younger men in particular can have catastrophic consequences.

Another thing to remember when visiting Lapland is the quickly changing temperature; the weather can be fairly mild one day, but plummet to minus 35°C (minus 31°F) the next. It is important to check the temperature every morning and to dress accordingly. In fact this is a national pastime and if you spend any length of time in Finland, you will notice that Finns are obsessed with the temperature and thermometers are everywhere: outside every home, on billboards, shops… It is easy to see why this is so – it is not uncommon for tourists to return from reindeer and husky safaris with severe frostbite and even hypothermia. So do dress warm, wear several layers of thermal clothing and plan your activities carefully – if the day is particularly cold, it may be a good idea to postpone your trip into the wilderness.

Down south in the consular section in Helsinki, we also deal with dozens of Brits every winter who intend to get married in Lapland. Kakslauttanen near the Russian border, just over 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, is a particularly popular destination for British couples. If you do want to get married in a snow chapel and spend your wedding night in a futuristic glass igloo, do remember to prepare well and have all the paperwork in order. Sometimes during the excitement of wedding preparations British couples forget that they must produce a “certificate of no impediment” when getting married in Finland. Please check our website for more information on how to obtain one.

On the whole, wintery Lapland is a wonderful place to visit. So come and visit Santa Claus, but wrap up well and do take care whilst you’re here!

Laura Hakala, Vice Consul, Helsinki

Gap Year Gaps: Skiing in North America

A year can be a long time – just because you’re working or volunteering abroad doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to a vacation. In a new feature, Gap Year Gaps will explore the best ways to break up your gap year with some extracurricular travel.

Everyone needs a holiday – even if you’re on a disaster relief project in Jamaica or teaching English in Canada, a ski holiday with friends can make for the perfect break.

We’ve scoured the range of ski holidays available this winter and settled on easily the best two resorts in North America: Vail Ski Resort in Colorado, and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia. Both resorts offer established and beginner skiers the chance to experience skiing on inspirational slopes, and the opportunity to explore other sports and activities, in breath-taking surroundings.

Vail Ski Resort

Whistler Ski Holidays, CanadaVail Mountain is a massive 5,289 acre resort nestled in Colorado – the largest single mountain resort in the US, second only to Whistler Blackcomb in terms of total trails in North America. There’s a slight bias in the number of trials geared towards advanced and expert skiers, making it the perfect spot for the seasoned snowhounds to hit the slopes. That’s not to say beginners don’t get a look in, with a variety of ski lessons and entry slopes to suit skiers of all ability levels.

In a first for USA ski holidays, Vail Resort is taking inspiration from the world of video games this season – each ski pass will be equipped with a radio transmitter, which will track things like your total vertical feet skied and upload them to the web. The purpose? You’ll earn special virtual achievements and gain levels like in a video game. In future, Vail Resorts says it will be expanding the programme to allow dedicated skiers to unlock special rewards and resort perks. Neat, non?When it comes to the best skiing holidays in Canada, let alone North America, Whistler Blackcomb is pretty much at the top of the list. Certainly, its statistics speak for themselves. The resort is 50 per cent larger than its nearest rival, its lift about to cope with 65,507 skiers per hour, while an amazing 2 million visitors hit the slopes annually – making it the most-visited ski resort worldwide. It even sports an epic vertical run of some 11km (or 7 miles if you prefer) – a world record until 2009.

Whistler Blackcomb

When it comes to the best skiing holidays in Canada, let alone North America, Whistler Blackcomb is pretty much at the top of the list. Certainly, its statistics speak for themselves. The resort is 50 per cent larger than its nearest rival, its lift about to cope with 65,507 skiers per hour, while an amazing 2 million visitors hit the slopes annually – making it the most-visited ski resort worldwide. It even sports an epic vertical run of some 11km (or 7 miles if you prefer) – a world record until 2009.
Technically two mountains (the Whistler and Blackcomb resorts merged in 2007), Whistler Blackcomb caters to all levels of skiers and snowboarders, and is home to a mind-blowing 200+ trails, five terrain parks, one super pipe and one half pipe. While the resort’s world-class ski and snowboarding facilities are deservedly renowned, it’s Whistler Blackcomb’s extensive après-ski amenities that keep folk coming back. When you retire from the powder, there’s Whistler proper, a picturesque fairytale village located that supports the resort with over 130 restaurants and 200 shops.

So Why Wait?

Whatever you do on your gap year, remember that you have to look after the most important person, you. You do deserve a break from it all from time to time, so why not take your friends on a group ski trip to relax and unwind? It could just be the best decision you make this winter.

Uncharted: Japan’s Hinterland and Snow Monkeys

Uncharted: a new series dedicated to exploring the hidden gems of the globe. We’ll help you find secret destinations that elude the majority of travellers. Today’s entry takes us to the remote countryside of Japan to meet an amazing relative.

Japan is becoming a very popular destination for people on gap years. Thanks to the boom in cheap Asia flights, huge numbers of plucky travellers come here to work on volunteer projects or to learn Japanese. If you have a week off from your course or project, you should definitely consider heading into Japan’s hinterland. With a wide variety of climates and geographical features you’ll discover some amazing uncharted locations, fantastic views and, if you look in the rights place, the amazing Snow Monkeys of Japan.

Into The Mist

Japan AirfaresJapan is a huge country with a wide range of climates and rugged geographical features. Indeed, over 70% of Japan’s area is unsuitable for agriculture or inhabitation. This has resulted in densely populated cities, and a sparsely populated countryside. If you take the train from the cities and into the hinterland you will discover an amazing world of dramatic scenery and panoramic views. Mountains, mist, tiny towns and encounters with friendly locals will be your reward if you choose to explore these remote destinations. One particular area to check out is the Central Highlands, which is home to the Japanese Alps; hiking up some of these stunning mountains will literally take your breath away.

If you do head into a remote area make sure you have a guidebook, a camera, some good hiking boots and a bit of the local language – great hikes and conversations in broken Japanese await you if you leave the cities and choose to wander into the countryside.

A Warm Bath On A Cold Day

Japanaese MonkeysCheap airfares have made getting to Asia relatively easy. However, you wouldn’t want to come all this way without seeing some spectacular wildlife, and if you head into the Japanese countryside you’ll have the chance to see something very special. Japanese Macaques are the northernmost living primates (apart from humans of course) and must survive winters which get as cold as -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Not only are they hardy, these animals are incredibly clever. So smart that they found a solution for their frosty habitat: a nice warm bath. In Snow Monkey Park, which is located in the Nagano prefecture, you’ll be able to see them as they bathe in thermal spas. By huddling in these locations the monkeys can survive the cold hard winters; it’s not all torment though as you’ll see the monkeys splashing and playing in the warm waters. Snowball fights have yet to break out amongst the primates though, if we understand Darwin correctly, it’s only a matter of time.

Such an amazing site would normally be tracked out by thousands of visitors per day. However, the thermal pools can only be accessed by a two kilometre path. This trail in combination with the park’s remote destination, mean you’re likely to be one of only a few visitors to the site.

Unchartered Japan

So if you are in Japan on a volunteer project, a course or just there to sightsee, be sure to get out to some of its more remote areas. There are literally thousands of tiny unheard of destinations which will prove to be rewarding for their views, people and food. Make sure you don’t miss out on the Snow Monkeys, and be sure to let us know if you see them throwing snowballs.