Think you’ll seen and done it all in Asia? If you can’t count the 12 experiences that follow among your highlights then think again. (And for those that have done them all, tell us so we can help you brag about it!)
Where: Hokkaido, Japan
Best time to go: January-February
One of the hottest winter resort areas anywhere in recent years, Niseko has been transformed from sleepy backwater to a fully featured powder paradise. It’s no secret why. Huge dumps of snow are becoming an endangered species in some of the world’s best known mountain resorts but Hokkaido has no such problems. It piles up all winter long here, with most resorts open in December through to early April, and some skiable until May. The mountain offers three main groomed areas: Niseko Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village (formerly Higashiyama) and Niseko Annupuri with more than 70 runs, all well served with lifts and gondolas in the typically thorough Japanese way. The overall feel is unusually international for Japan, with an enlightened attitude towards off-piste areas and a wide variety of après ski eats and drinks. Powder lovers will want to try the long drop down the far side of Annupuri and the wide treed areas of Strawberry and Blueberry Fields.
2. Climbing Mt Kinabalu
Best time to go: January-April
An ever-steepening hike leads you from the press of lush jungle – look out for the pitcher plants for which the area is famous – into more sparse woodland of gnarled, lichen-hung limbs. Most people stop at Laban Rata (3,270m) or a nearby hut overnight, before rising early next morning to finish the job. The last hours are more exposed as you clamber up the high rock walls that buttress the summit plateau, at times the path switching to wooden stairs and ladders. Then a sudden change of pitch greets your relieved arrival on the mountain’s uppermost slabs. Around you a Dali-esque tiara of spires crowning the edges of the tilted expanse of granite. One final push across a quite surreal scene and you are at the pinnacle known as Low’s Peak, the absolute top at 4,095m.
3. Deepwater soloing at Railay Beach
Where: Krabi, Thailand
Best time to go: November-March
The magnificent Koh Yao Sea is a climber’s wet dream. Rising from the green-blue waters are a forest of limestone spires and crags, screaming out to be scaled. The bigger islands and peninsulas harbour tight coves with immaculate white beaches – such as those that stud the shore of Phuket – while in many other spots, the streaked walls jut directly from the water. The nexus for the vertically inclined here is the town of Krabi, due east of Phuket, and especially the beautiful little headland of Railay. Here tranquil back-to-back crescent beaches – residents call them simply Sunrise and Sunset – are your route to world-class rock dripping with features that give even complete novices a grasp of what sport climbing is all about. With more than 700 routes bolted in the area, there’s years worth of rock to go at ranging all the way up the scale to 8c (US5.14b). The more experienced though eschew the bolts and go solo, taking on the over-vertical challenges that leave them only the fast way down once the lactic burn sets their arms on fire: a long drop into the cooling ocean. Check the comprehensive www.railay.com for all the details.
Where: Eastern Nepal
Best time to go: October-November
Rafting guide Pat O’Keefe describes this river as a “real live expedition where the clients get to see everything firsthand”. That’s because just getting to the Tamur is an adventure. First a bus is loaded with rafts, gear and 12 days of food – everyone is welcome to pitch in for this bit! Then rafters get the choice to either accompany the bus on the 17-hour, bone-rattling ride east; or take a 40-minute flight. Either way, at the other end the whole team boards the bus for the next phase of the approach which culminates in a stretch of what O’Keefe describes as “Grade V bus travel”. Leaving roads behind, you then negotiate a four-day trek to the put-in, climbing to over 3,000m before dropping again down to sub-tropical altitudes. All this and only then do you reach the river, a wild five-day, Grade IV-IV+ ride. Rafters have to be on their guard early as it kicks off with some of the meanest whitewater just down from the put-in before settling down a touch. Day four is especially hardcord, with rapid upon rapid chained together to really work the crews hard. Then comes day five’s more mellow water as you enter the Terai, the plains that extend over the border into India. A final stop at one of the oldest Hindu temples in Nepal sets the seal on a great all-round experience and all that remains is a scenic flight back over the mountains to Kathmandu.
5. Surfing G-Land
Where: Java, Indonesia
Best time to go: mid-April to September
According to legend, Bill Boyum first sighted this liquid monster from a plane en route from Australia to Vietnam. Getting in to this remote and then-uninhabited corner of Java to scope it out though proved a major logistical feat involving the Indonesian Army, some big trucks and lots of bug spray. What they found is among the very best waves anywhere on the planet. Low pressure systems in Antarctica are the driver, producing pulses of swells, each lasting several days. On reaching Grajagan bay, the break wraps around a point called Plengkung, forming a long and very hollow wave that is also reliable through much of the year thanks to prevailing offshore winds. Today a clutch of surf camps including Bobby’s, originally set up by Boyum and his brother, line the shore, but this is still very much a raw sort of place where testosterone is in the breeze and where expert, well-travelled surfers come to put another notch in their board.
Where: Hong Kong
Best time to go: November
Those that know the real Hong Kong know that it’s far from all skyscrapers and congested roads. Switch to natural heights and traditional byways and you soon get a very different perspective on the city. As governor of the territory from 1971 to 1982, Crawford MacLehose surely knew this. A keen hiker, he set up its country park system and it is therefore fitting that Hong Kong’s first long-distance trail carries his name. The most beautiful sections are worth walking at any time but for many, doing the lot in one go as part of the Oxfam Trailwalker is a seminal Hong Kong experience. The event has its origins in a British Army training exercise but was thrown open to all in 1986 and since then it has ballooned into an event that attracts close to a thousand, four-person teams who raise HK$ millions for Oxfam every year. The winners typically finish in less than 13 hours; the last official finishers staggering in just ahead of the 48-hour cut-off. This year’s race takes place on November 19-21.
7. Diving Sipadan’s drop-off
Where: Sabah, Malaysia
Best time to go: April-December
Jacques Cousteau called it an “untouched piece of art”. Its consequent fame in diving circles mean that’s no longer true of course but this tiny blip of an island still ranks among the top handful of dive destinations on the planet. Sipadan Island is an atoll that has formed on top off an ancient volcano, meaning that within a short swim of the fringing sands, there is 600m of wall to discover, together with all the marine life that such a vertical buffet table attracts. Pelagics are particularly common and the main attraction for most, especially the many turtles and, off Barracuda Point, the huge schools of the fish that gave their name to the site. Today you can visit but can’t stay on the island itself. Instead you should base yourself on one of the neighbouring islands, Mabul or Kapalai but make sure to book your trip well in advance as there’s a daily limit on numbers allowed to dive here.
8. Manta-watching in Palau
Where: Palau, Micronesia
Best time to go: December-March
Mantas are year round visitors to the islands of Palau but during the winter and early spring, they are especially numerous. Inquisitive animals, they will come close to divers once they have judged them harmless and seem to enjoy the bubble trail from scuba apparatus. The best advice is to be patient and let them come to you. The cleaning stations at the Devilfish City site are an ideal spot to watch mantas as is German Channel where they like to feed in the nutrient-laden current.
9. Hiking the Annapurna Circuit
Best time to go: September & November
(straddling the crowded peak season)
It’s been THE classic Himalayan circuit for decades: a supreme example of long-distance, high-altitude trail, crossing varied terrain and vegetation zones and served by quaint trailside villages that allow for ‘teahouse trekking’. Within the trails’ loop lies one of the world’s highest massifs, with Annapurna I (at 8,091m the highest of its five peaks) the tenth tallest mountain in the world. In addition, there’s wonderful views of Dhaulagiri to the west and a brush with the once near-mythical kingdom of Mustang. In recent years, road development has started to degrade the experience at its western extremity though and as this looks set to continue, this is one experience on our list to get to sooner rather than later. Plan on walking for 17-21 days, typically completing the loop in the easier, anti-clockwise direction. Note that Thorong La, the circuit’s highest point at 5,416m, is high enough to induce severe altitude problems and should be treated with care. Start early to beat the wind and walk with a party at all times for safety.
10. Snorkelling with whale sharks
Where: Donsol, Luzon, Philippines
Best time to go: February-April
Way, way down the long leg of Luzon that extends down the Pacific side of the Philippines is a little town that has become synonymous with the whale shark. At one time the fisherfolk of Donsol hunted the sharks that are regular visitors to the waters to the west of them, but now they are some of the animal’s greatest defenders thanks to the money they earn from taking snorkellers out to see them. They even have an annual festival in honour of the butanding, as it is called in their language. Sightings are extremely regular and most people come back to shore having seen up to a dozen different animals.
11. Biking to Everest
Best times to go: March-May, September-October
To see the northern side of Everest is to see the aspect that the early explorers saw back in the day, for then the Nepalese side was closed to foreigners. The Chinese are drawing the world’s tallest mountain ever closer to them though. The road that was paved as part of the effort to get the Olympic flame up top makes this bike trip far more doable, but it takes away a little of the feeling of remoteness. Coming soon is the railway. Work has begun to extend the Tibet line from Lhasa to Shigatse and ultimately it may run even closer. Rows of trinkets may soon be heard tinkling in the wind beside the flap of prayer flags. Ride this way soon . . .
Where: Panay, Philippines
Best time to go: November-March
Famous beach resort and party town it may be, but Boracay is not simply a place to spend your R&R. It also happens to sit in the path of some tidy breezes that make it a nexus for Philippine kiters, and for visitors, many of them just learning the ropes. In this case, Bulabog Beach, far less famous with beachgoers than the storied sands of White Beach, is where the action is. Here a wide, waist-deep lagoon beckons, a perfect set up to build confidence in those just starting to take wing.