On the dunes of Qatar

FOR A DIFFERENT kind of experience, far from the tropical haze and heat, head for a gem of a place among the sand dunes of Qatar in the chill of winter.

In this peninsular Arab country of arid desert and a long Gulf shoreline of beaches and dunes, go past the usual hustle and bustle of the country’s popular Sealine Beach, and head into the desert of Khor Al Udeid.

This is the magical place where locals and expats go, a natural Disneyland of soft sand where the rides are four-wheel drives and ATVs, instead of roller coasters and spinning teacups.

Experiencing Qatar’s desert in winter is something you will never forget. If you’ve ever been camping, odds are it’s always been in a wooded area or maybe even your own backyard, but here in the deserts of Qatar, it’s a whole other affair.

The perfect time to kick back with your travel entourage is when the temperature drops – from October to May – and you can feel the warmth of the fiery bonfire flame gently lick your exposed skin, that is, if it’s not already bundled up in thick, thermal outfits.

Khor Al Udeid, also known as the Inland Sea, is a favourite mainly due to its distance from the usual flock of tourists willing to wander only as far as Sealine Beach.

Before you begin your hour-long off-road drive to Khor Al Udeid, take your fill of the traditional tourist experience, and enjoy a camel ride.

Camels draped in multicoloured fabric serve as a vibrant pop of colour against the desert background. Whether for a short ride or a snap with these gentle ‘ships of the desert’, it makes for a right start to your desert adventure.

There are also safari packages into the desert, where you can opt for a group adventure of a full-on Arabian camping experience, or just a barbecue/picnic where sand dunes meet the sea.

After the exhilarating off-road drive, look around and you’ll probably find only a couple of other vehicles – which means total privacy.

One of the first things you’ll also notice when you enter the desert is that as far as your eyes can see, the horizon is only a silky stretch of sand and dunes, contrasted by the night sky looking like a blanket weaved from hundreds and thousands of twinkly bright stars.

Unless you have cameras specifically for night-time shooting, the breathtaking sky might not make an appearance in your photographs; just make sure to be there by sundown for the perfect photography glow.

That awe-inducing sight will definitely make a lasting impression on your mind, especially if you have somebody special to share it with.

Grab a couple of rugs and be prepared to cosy up, because there’s arguably no better feeling than being buried under a sea of blankets when the air is extra cool, and you start falling asleep under that vast expanse of sky.

With Doha’s desert charm offering an experience unlike any other, it will probably take you a while to warm up to other holiday destinations.

But fret not, you’ll have plenty to discover while in Qatar, and at least your Instagram feed will be on fire.

Priceless travel experiences

Trafalgar has shown over five million travellers the good life around the world.

It offers amazing experiences that showcase vibrant cityscapes, and helps connect travellers to these amazing destinations in ways beyond their imagination.

This holiday, if you are planning a trip to Spain or Portugal, or even both, let Trafalgar show you some of the authentic experiences that await you in these two countries.

With over 300 days of sunshine, experience each of these countries’ own diverse yet outstanding natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture, the Trafalgar way.

All prices quoted below are based on a per person basis before discount, on twin sharing, and excluding airfare.

Connect with locals to hear their tales

On the 11-day Northern Spain trip, meet the Castañón family at their Cider Mill near Oviedo, and enjoy a My Guest meal as you say salut to traditional Asturian cider. (From US$2,375 / RM9,278)

Stay somewhere with a story that’s more than just a bed for the night

On the 15-day Best of Spain departure, guests will stay at Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia, a collection of elegant 15th century Andalusian townhouses and flower-filled courtyards in the heart of Seville. (From US$3,295 / RM12,872)

Dive into culture to reveal the diversity of the places you visit

Visit Duoro Valley on the 11-day Best of Portugal trip, sample delicious Port wine and learn about the traditional wine-making methods at one of the local Port wine lodges. (From US$2,295 / RM8,965)

See iconic sites and hidden gems on every holiday
On the 13-day Highlights of Spain and Portugal departure on May 20, guests will enjoy a city tour in Cordorba, Seville, Lisbon, Toledo, and Madrid.

They will visit the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, Seville’s famous Gothic Cathedral where Christopher Columbus is entombed, and in Lisbon, the famous Belem Tower and Unesco-listed Hieronymite Monastery. (From US$2,425 / RM9,473)

Meanwhile, meeting a desire from travellers to engage in more meaningful experiences for happy holidays, Trafalgar’s 2018 Europe and Britain programme is now offering unrivalled connectivity with locals across 120 itineraries, 45 countries, and eight different travel styles.

Travel is an opportunity to try new things and experiences you would ordinarily not have an opportunity to experience when at home.

So take advantage of the authentic and memorable adventures offered on a guided holiday.

From flamenco dancing in Seville, to after-hours private dining at The Vatican, winemaking with an Italian family on their boutique property in Tuscany, feasting on a home-cooked dinner in a 17th century farmhouse in France, or staying at Ireland’s finest – Ashford Castle, enjoy ‘the good life’ and find your happy place in Europe with Trafalgar.
Book a Trafalgar holiday by this Sunday (March 18) for selected departures and enjoy up to 45% discount for the second guest.

In addition, travellers who book a Trafalgar holiday may log on to www.holidaytours.com.my/trafalgarfrenchriviera to enter a draw to win a free trip to the French Riviera for two.

Visit Holiday Tours at the Matta Fair from tomorrow to Sunday at booths 1233-1256, Hall 1, or call 03-6286 6220 today to secure the best deals.

Hidden gem of Jelebu

IGNITE that adventurous spark in your soul when you make Taman Negeri Kenaboi (formerly known as Taman Alam Liar) the next holiday destination to visit.

At a recent programme by Tourism Malaysia (Central) and the Negri Sembilan Forestry Department, participants comprising media personnel and travel agents got to experience the unspoilt greenery of Jelebu.

The two-day-one-night camping trip, themed Wild Jolobu (as spoken in the local dialect), delivered an adrenaline-pumped taste of Mother Nature at her best, and what the state has to offer in terms of eco-tourism.

If you’re tired of the constant hustle and bustle of city life, perhaps it’s time to disconnect, literally, as you won’t be within mobile coverage when you reach Kampung Esok, the last transfer point before heading to the state park by bus.

“People sometimes like it when there is no [mobile] reception because it feels like they have privacy,” said the state park assistant director Juliana Yahya.

“That means, when they come here, outsiders cannot disturb them. Some people feel comfortable when there’s no reception.”

The question of safety might pop up, but you can breathe a little easier, as the state park is well-engaged with the Fire and Rescue Department.

All visitors are required to submit their itinerary while in the park prior to their trip.

If they don’t exit the park according to schedule, the department will take action, under the assumption that something has happened to them.

To hike the Hantu Besar and Hantu Kecil mountains, you will need to include your name, IC number, and next-of-kin contact details at the police station.

Whether you arrange for transportation from Kampung Esok, or plan to take your own four-wheel-drive to Taman Negeri Kenaboi, make sure you apply for the entry permit from the state Forestry Department before the journey.

And even if you’re used to hiking, camping, and roughing it out in the wild, experiencing the bumpy ride as you’re crossing the river into the state park truly sets an exciting tone to the trip.

For a taste of something slightly challenging, you can hike through streams to Jeram Berungut, where you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of river canyons and cool, clear waters.

The 45-minute slippery effort of finding your footing on the rocky river floor will be paid off as you sit by the inviting waters, or jump right in and let your eyes slowly take in the quiet beauty around you.

Schedule a time slot to go tubing in the Kenaboi river on the last day of your trip, and feel your mind, body, and soul flow freely down the waters, during the exhilarating activity.

You might have also heard of the 93-metre-high Lata Kijang waterfall in the state park, but on your way there, make sure to ask your guide about the rhinoceros hornbill nesting place.
According to Juliana, the nearly extinct species usually found in East Malaysia prefers to nest on higher treetops.

“Species like this usually prefer areas with more privacy, so we rarely get to see them, but we do get to hear them a lot,” she added.

Since Jelebu is only two hours away from Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negeri Kenaboi makes the perfect location for a weekend getaway from everyday life and lets you de-stress with a fresh change of scenery.

For more, contact the Negri Sembilan Forestry Department.

Cars, castles and communism: Things to know about the Czech Republic

PRAGUE: The Czech Republic emerged from four decades behind the Iron Curtain to become a member of the European Union and one of Europe’s tourist hotspots.

Here are five things to know about the central European country of 10.6 million people that kicks off a two-round presidential election on Friday.

Prague, an architectural gem

Its capital is a popular tourist magnet, boasting a picturesque historic centre that entered the Unesco heritage list in 1992.

Under the dominating Prague Castle, the old town – which is split by the Vltava river – is rich in architectural jewels, Renaissance and Baroque palaces, Gothic cathedrals and art deco buildings that illustrate its 1,000-year history.

Every year millions of tourists cross the Vltava on Charles Bridge, the city’s most popular medieval site. The bridge’s foundation stone was laid on July 9, 1357 by Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.

The ‘Czech Trump’

Pro-Russian, pro-Chinese and anti-immigration President Milos Zeman is targeting a second five-year term.

His prime minister, billionaire populist Andrej Babis who is dubbed the “Czech Trump”, has failed to form a coalition and instead composed a minority government.

The government, expected to lose a confidence vote on January 16, largely comprises members of his anti-corruption and anti-euro ANO (Yes) movement and non-partisan experts.

Car-driven economy

With its flagship Skoda, the Czech economy is heavily dependent on car production and exports to the eurozone.

It recovered in 2014, after a long crisis, and in 2017 the Czech National Bank forecast growth of 4.5 percent – up from 2.6% in 2016 – with 3.4% expected for 2018.

Unemployment fell to 3.5 percent in Nov, the lowest level in two decades.

Nazi, Soviet occupation

The republic has its roots in Czechoslovakia, which declared independence from the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, and comprised Czech and Slovak people.

From 1938 Nazi Germany annexed various parts of the country but Czechoslovakia regained its autonomy in 1945.

Three years later a Communist coup brought the country under the yolk of the Soviet Union.

Moscow crushed a 1968 attempt at liberal reform, the “Prague Spring”. In 1989 the Velvet Revolution ended four decades of Soviet domination, propelling dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to the presidency.

In 1993 Czechoslovakia split into two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Havel became the first Czech president.

Firmly European

The Czech Republic has turned its back on its Soviet past, joining the NATO transatlantic military alliance in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

It is also a part of Europe’s Schengen border-free area but has resisted adopting the euro, favouring its own koruna currency. — AFP

Tropical island paradise with a cautious eye to growth

SAO TOME, SAO TOME and Principe: It’s a nation that boasts warm azure seas and dream beaches, a landscape ranging from volcanic rocks to tropical rainforest, and stable democratic rule – yet many people have never heard of it.

Tourists to Sao Tome and Principe, a scattering of islands off the coast of western equatorial Africa that once served the slave and sugar trades of Portuguese colonial rulers, are rare.

And though this paradise has been dubbed “the islands in the middle of the world” – because of their proximity to the zero point on GPS, with the prime meridian just six degrees to the west and the equator crossing one island – it rarely features on any radar for investors.

Eyes to the East

In 2002, Sao Tome’s then president Fradique de Menezes announced a deal with the United States to create the deepwater port his country lacks and to build a US military base.

Washington never confirmed the plan, despite stakes in the booming oil industry of the region.

Today – like many other African nations – the country has turned to China to help its development, especially infrastructure.

In December 2016, Sao Tome renewed diplomatic ties with Beijing to the detriment of its rival Taiwan, which had cooperated with the African archipelago since 1997.

“Our country wanted to join this group of countries that is benefiting from Chinese funding,” Finance Minister Americo De Oliveira Ramos told AFP after the pact with Beijing.

Economic sectors such as health, oil or China’s primary interest here – fisheries – are earmarked for development, according to the finance minister.

China is also pursuing the deepwater port proposal that went into abeyance as the Pentagon waged the Iraq War.

In June, Sao Tome signed an agreement to let Chinese trawlers ply the country’s waters alongside those of Japan and the European Union.

‘Smart tourism’

China’s arrival has raised concerns among environmentalists, particularly opposed to illegal and intensive shark fishing.

But paradise is unspoilt in rural areas that are home to almost 600 recorded species of plant, not to mention those that remain undiscovered and unidentified.

The government is keen to encourage tourism to provide jobs and income – two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line – but without harming the islands’ natural beauty.

Renowned local chef Joao Carlos Silva – also a celebrity in Portugal – is pounding the drum for low-volume ecotourism.

He uses organic produce in his kitchen, most of which he gathers and grows in the garden of his farm.

“We live in a country with an interesting biodiversity and where we can grow crops without chemicals and with traditional techniques,” Silva says, advocating “smart tourism”, a far cry from mass arrivals.

Toll of development

Among the obstacles to growth in tourism, entrepreneurs cite the sky-high cost of lending.

Manuel Nazare, the owner of the Praia Inhame hotel in Porto Alegre, told AFP in 2016: “I borrow money from the local bank at very high rates, 24%”.

Another hindrance is the price of a trip, which makes visiting Sao Tome a luxury for Europeans though the cost of living is low.

A return air fare from Lisbon costs at least 850 euros (RM4,107) and connecting flights are sparse, via Gabon, Ghana or Portugal.

While officials plan growth, including expansion of the international airport, the toll of development on the environment is an issue.

A veteran figure in the tourism sector said he had observed a worrying degradation of the sea floor over the past two decades.

“The big question is whether the public will benefit from development, and whether nature in Sao Tome will be preserved,” he said. — AFP

Where to travel in 2018 if you’re on a budget

THE rise of ultra-low-budget airlines and new flight classes like basic coach herald an even more affordable year for air travel in 2018, says online travel agent Hipmunk, and they have the fares to prove it.

After comparing the average price for flight bookings departing the US in 2017 and 2018, Hipmunk estimates that international booking prices have dropped six percent in 2018 compared to last year.

Likewise, the average price of domestic flights have dropped up to 18 percent for US travelers.

For budget-conscious travelers already looking forward to planning out their escapades for 2018, here’s a look at some of the cheapest international and domestic destinations this year:

International destinations from the US:

La Paz, Bolivia, average airfare in 2018: US$737 (RM3k), -26% change from 2017

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, $US816 (RM3.3k), -24% change from 2017

Nice, France US$1,231 (RM5k), -19% change from 2017

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, US$1,051 (RM4.3k), -19 % change from 2017

Bergen, Norway, US$790 (RM3.2k), -16% change from 2017

Phuket, Thailand, US$1,028, -14% change from 2017

Frankfurt, Germany, US$1,036 (RM4,136), -14% change from 2017

Rome, Italy, US$917, 12 percent change from 2017

London, England, US$762 (RM3.7k), -11% change from 2017

Copenhagen, Denmark, US$751 (RM3k) , -11% change from 2017

Cheap destinations within US for 2018:

Atlanta, GA, US$250 (RM1k), -18% change 2017

Key West, FL, US$475 (RM1.9k), -16% change from 2017

San Antonio, TX, US$340 (RM1.4k), -16% change from 2017

Washington DC, US$333 (RM1.4k), -15% change from 2017

Richmond, VA, US$390 (RM1.6k), -13% change from 2017

Cincinnati, OH, US$347 (RM1.4k) , -13% change from 2017

Minneapolis, MN, US$289 (RM1.2k), -13% change from 2017

Reno, NV, US$426 (RM1.7k), -13% change from 2017

New York City, NY, US$299 (RM1.2k), -12% change from 2017

Albuquerque, NM, US$341 (RM1.4k), -11% change from 2017

— AFP Relaxnews

India gets its first contemporary sculpture park

USE only for The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace, Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur.

Madhavendra Palace, within Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur, Rajasthan, in northern India, is now home to a sculpture park — the first of its kind in the country.

This magnificent palace, built at the end of the 19th century and located within an 18th-century fort in the hills surrounding Jaipur, has been turned into a gallery for sculptures. The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace opened Dec 10 with a collection of works by 24 artists, including 15 Indian artists.

Curator Peter Nagy, director of Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi, said: “For most of my career as a gallerist and curator, I have been trying to break away from the whitebox exhibition space. With this project, I am able to indulge my passions for art, architecture and décor, into a marvelous synthesis of the past and present”.

The exhibition, which runs until November 2018, is the result of a collaboration between the Rajasthan government and the Saat Saath Arts Foundation, a non-profit organization seeking to support international exchange between India and the rest of the world through the visual arts and education.

The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace’s inaugural exhibition runs until November 2018 at the Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. — AFP Relaxnews

Tesla secures big order for its electric trucks from Anheuser-Busch

SOMETIMES, when something new comes along, it requires a big name to take the plunge first before everyone else gets onboard. Tesla will certainly be hoping that’s the case after securing a significant order for its revolutionary electric semi-articulated trucks from the giant Anheuser-Busch company.

Although it’s not the first order Tesla has received for its new truck, the deal for 40 of them for the brewing company is one of the largest, and definitely one of the most high-profile so far. So, as well as being a significant order for Tesla in financial terms, it could also be some of the best advertising possible for its electric trucks having a fleet of them emblazoned with the Budweiser logo.

Tesla only unveiled the trucks last month, and it’s believed around a dozen orders have already been placed by companies including the likes of Walmart.

This isn’t a move by Anheuser-Busch that comes out of the blue though, and that’s because the company has already revealed plans to make significant efficiencies in its supply chain, including reducing its carbon footprint by some 30% by the year 2025.

James Sembrot, the head of logistics at Anheuser-Busch, said of the order, “At Anheuser-Busch, we are constantly seeking new ways to make our supply chain more sustainable, efficient, and innovative. This investment in Tesla semi-trucks helps us achieve these goals while improving road safety and lowering our environmental impact.”

But being all-electric and emitting zero emissions is just the start of the revolutionary nature of the trucks AB will be taking delivery of. They will also be configured for autonomous driving or what’s known as platooning, which is a series of trucks daisy-chaining and being led by a single human driver at the front.

AB is looking at autonomous hydrogen-electric long-haul trucks as well, which are currently being developed by a company called Nikola, in conjunction with Otto and Uber. — AFP