Side trips from major cities can often be just as worthy, if not more rewarding, than the main destination itself, writes GUY WILKINSON.
You've arrived in the city, the one you've been looking forward to visiting for months. You've booked into the fancy hotel and scribbled down the check list of all the things you plan to see and do. You'll dine at the achingly cool restaurant, wander the world-famous art gallery, hit the top shops, sample all of the postcard-perfect attractions.
But you're greedy and you want to see even more. One look at the map shows there are other amazing places within easy reach of your big city base. It's at times like this that a double-dip in the form of a half-day or full-day side-trip from a major city can really add another dimension to your holiday. The smaller, less-heralded destinations, compared to the bigger ones, can offer the discerning traveller a wealth of experiences that can be both less predictable and more rewarding.
And what's more, they're usually far easier to organise than you'd expect. Many of them within a short drive or an express or even bullet train ride from major capitals but have a feel that's worlds apart. The following suggestions include some of my favourite detours; places both unique and within easy reach of major cities.
THE CITY: TOKYO
THE SIDE TRIP: NIKKO
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 140km, hourly fast trains take around two hours.
WHY GO: Nikko is a forested world of ancient shrines encapsulating the glory days of the Edo period from 1600 to 1868. Located in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture it contains some of Japan's most celebrated temples in a tranquil, woodland landscape.
WHAT TO DO: Most of the shrines and temples are clustered into one relatively compact area, making it easy to explore by foot. With its lavishly decorated Sunset Gate and hand-carved three wise monkeys sculptures, the ornate Toshogu Shrine is the must-see, but there are dozens more. Though possible as a day trip, stay an extra night – visit the shrines early to beat the crowds – then head to the nearby Yumoto or Asaya hot springs to unwind.
THE CITY: PRAGUE
THE SIDE TRIP: CESKY KRUMLOV
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 175km or around three hours and 45 minutes including train change.
WHY GO: Built around the meandering contours of the Vlatava River, this 12th century UNESCO gem is a charming blend of cobbled alleys, hidden bars and welcoming restaurants. Baroque and Gothic architecture, the waft of goulash and frequent clash of steins transports you to a bygone era.
WHAT TO DO: Part of the joy here lies simply in roaming the old town with no fixed agenda, dropping in on the many museums, shops and galleries before exploring the castle complex guarded by two resident bears. In summertime, it's worth tackling the river by kayak before toasting your adventure with a few beers in the sunshine at the many bars and restaurants around the river.
THE CITY: QUEENSTOWN
THE SIDE TRIP: ARROWTOWN
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 21km or a 25-minute drive via State Highway 6.
WHY GO: If Queenstown, New Zealand, is the flashy, showboating party boy, then Arrowtown is the refined older sibling. Heritage architecture, log fires, colourful cafes and a fascinating gold-rush history replace the Bungee jumps, pumping nightlife and adrenalin-fuelled mayhem.
WHAT TO DO: Head to the Chinese settlement on the banks of the nearby Arrow River to learn more of the captivating gold rush history from the perspective of those who had it toughest. Meander down Buckingham Street, the town's main hub, to admire the historic buildings and stop for tea and scones. If you're looking to up the ante, fly-fishing, horse-riding and cycling excursions are all easily arranged at the visitor centre.
THE CITY: MONTPELLIER
THE SIDE TRIP: NIMES
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 58km or around one hour by train.
WHY GO: Nimes, France, is home to some of the best Roman ruins in the world, especially the spectacular Amphitheatre built during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century AD. It has a laidback feel and buzzing café culture.
WHAT TO DO: Check out the mind-blowing Roman architecture, specifically the dazzling Les Arenes, inspired by the Coliseum in Rome and Maison Carre, a temple dating back the 4th century BC. Be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art just opposite, then head to Pont du Gard, an aqueduct built in the 1st century about 20 kilomtres north of the city.
THE CITY: MADRID
THE SIDE TRIP: CUENCA
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 190km or an hour by train.
WHY GO: To marvel at the Casas Colgados (hanging houses), a cluster of 15th century residences teetering on the edge of a plunging cliff face. It's also an outdoors Mecca with a surrealist art heritage.
WHAT TO DO: Canyoning, rock climbing, kayaking and windsurfing are all popular excursions in the nearby Sierra de Cuenca region. In the old quarter, a 1200-year-old medieval gem, head to the Spanish Museum of Abstract Art, an outstanding collection of some of Spain's most acclaimed surrealist artists situated in one of the lovingly restored 15th-century hanging houses.
THE CITY: SAN FRANCISCO
THE SIDE TRIP: SANTA CRUZ
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 118km or a 75-minute drive on major highways.
WHY GO: A vibrant university culture, some of California's best surf beaches, a thriving tech sector and a pervasive whiff of bohemian elan.
WHAT TO DO: Stroll the boardwalk, rent a surfboard and hit the waves. Drop in on the Surf Museum, a charmingly ramshackle exhibit detailing the glory days of the sport located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, (there's even a board with a chunk bitten out by a Great White). Head to the lively downtown area to enjoy the kicking bar and restaurant scene or explore more than 70 wineries and tasting rooms in the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation.
GETTING THERE: It's slower—around two hours-- but it's worth taking the scenic route via Highway 1 from San Francisco. See santacruz.org
THE CITY: SIEM REAP
THE SIDE TRIP: BATTAMBANG
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 185km or a three to four-hour drive.
WHY GO: It has a laidback cool you wouldn't expect from Cambodia's second most populous city, it's home to some of the country's best-preserved French colonial architecture and is teeming with offbeat attractions you just won't find elsewhere.
WHAT TO DO: Be sure to catch a show at Phare Ponleu Selpak (literally translated as the brightness of art) a unique visual arts school training disadvantaged kids to ride unicycles, juggle fire sticks and perform acrobatic stunts as part of their tuition in circus performance. Take a ride on the bamboo train, a simple wooden cart powered by a motorbike engine on an old single-line track. Visit the harrowing Killing Caves and Buddhist temple at Phnom Sampeau, brave the local concoctions at Prasat Phnom Banan, Cambodia's only winery, then climb the 358 steps at nearby Phnom Banan, an 11th-century temple many historians believe was the inspiration behind Angkor Wat.
GETTING THERE: A private taxi between Siem Reap and Battambang costs around $35. Regular bus services are available while boats leave daily in either direction, though it's a 10-hour trip by river. See capitolkh.com
THE CITY: LONDON
THE SIDE TRIP: BATH
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 156km or 90 minutes by fast train.
WHY GO: To soak your cares away in some of the best preserved Roman bathhouses in the world, sample a few traditional ales in old school English pubs and check out the cracking art galleries and museums around town.
WHAT TO DO: In 2006 the Thermae Spa opened to the public allowing visitors to bathe in the geothermic spring water for the first time in nearly 30 years. The bath itself is on the roof, the newly developed complex is a classic fusion of old meets new. The relatively compact city centre is easily explored by foot, there's an excellent free World Heritage Site audio tour, while the impressive Victoria Art Gallery and Holbourne Museum ensure a worthwhile cultural fix.
THE CITY: CAPE TOWN
THE SIDE TRIP: FRANSCHHOEK
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 77km or a one-hour drive.
WHY GO: Franschhoek is Cape Town's answer to Sydney's Hunter Valley, the food and wine capital of the country with over 40 wine cellars, dozens of award winning restaurants and more art galleries than you could wave a paintbrush at.
WHAT TO DO: Aside from repeatedly muttering phrases like "Nutty, yet dextrously balanced," while lurching from one cellar door to another, learn something of the region's history at the intriguing Huguenot Memorial Museum, a celebration of the founders of the region. Head down Huguenot Street and check out the Roubaix House Gallery, home to David Walters, SA's most esteemed potter, then experience wine tasting with a difference onboard the hop-on, hop-off Wine Tram, an open sided vintage contraption taking in some of South Africa's most illustrious wine estates.
THE CITY: DENVER
THE SIDE TRIP: FORT COLLINS
DISTANCE AND TRAVELLING TIME: 105km or a one-hour drive.
WHY GO: The beer. Well, OK it's also geographically stunning with its location at the foothills of The Rockies and there are countless adventures to be had, from white-water rafting to mountain biking and climbing. But mainly it's the beer.
WHAT TO DO: Orientate yourself with a hot-air balloon ride high above the majestic Colorado landscape, tackle some of the best single-track mountain bike trails in the world, white-water raft on the nearby Poudre River or explore the rugged peaks of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. The city is the largest producer of craft beer in the states so it would be remiss not to partake in a brewery tour. Among the best is the Beer and Bikes Tour combining "Two of the best things mankind has ever created."
10 MORE ESSENTIAL SIDE TRIPS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Rich in cultural and historical significance, China's one-time capital is a thriving university town on the south banks of the Yangtze River. Encircled by the 600-year-old City Wall of Nanjing, it's full of trendy cafes, restaurants and ancient Ming Dynasty ruins, not to mention fascinating museums, palaces and temples. See cityofnanjing.com
SIDE TRIP: SALEM
Salem was home to the infamous 1692 witch trials that saw nearly 20 women burned at the stake. But it was also the epicentre of the clipper ship trade with the Far East from the mid-17th century. The legacy is a fascinating melange of museums, boutique shops, cafes and galleries in a blustery maritime setting. See salem.org
SIDE TRIP: COMPIEGNE
Just north of the capital on the banks of the Oise River, Compiegne blends historical intrigue with a lively cosmopolitan feel. The Chateau, an ornate royal residence restored by Napoleon III, remains the main attraction but there are also forested areas, cycling trails and offbeat cultural attarctions such as Museum of Historical Figurines. See campanile-compiegne.fr
SIDE TRIP: SIENA
Though Florence traditionally steals the limelight, there's far more to nearby Siena than the bi-annual Palio horse races for which it's famed. Surrounded by the vineyards and olive groves of Chianti, this medieval city is crammed with stunning gothic architecture and the central Piazza del Campo is among the most attractive squares in Europe. See terresiena.it/en
SIDE TRIP: LAUSANNE
Museums dedicated to anything from the Olympics to naïve art and photography ensure Lausanne has more to its arsenal than a beautiful lakeside, alpine setting. The city is home to two universities and a cutting-edge design school; the thriving arty culture is juxtaposed by centuries-old cobbled streets and gothic buildings. See lausanne-tourisme.ch/en/
CITY: HERVEY BAY
SIDE TRIP: RAINBOW BEACH
Lush rainforests, pristine white-sand beaches and an infinitely more chilled out feel to the party scene of Hervey Bay, Queensland; lesser known Rainbow Beach is a destination in its own right though it's only a short barge ride from iconic Fraser Island. Located at the base of the Inskip Peninsula, it also has excellent surf breaks, toweing cliffs, 4WD beach adventures and vast National Parks. See visitfrasercoast.com
SIDE TRIP: ESSAOUIRA
A former favourite of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, this tranquil little fishing port is characterised by blue and white paintjobs, the smell of sea air and ubiquitous battered skiffs bobbing in the harbour. The artistic heritage and cultural diversity only add to its considerable allure; it feels more like Brittany than north Africa. See visitmorocco.com
SIDE TRIP: GHENT
A maze of waterways, ancient cathedral spires, trams and bicycles give Ghent's ridiculously appealing town centre a wonderfully historic air. But a lively student population offsets what might easily have become staid, tour-bus hell. There's a friendly energy to this city often missing from places so knowingly attractive. See visitgent.be
SIDE TRIP: ERICEIRA
Take an ancient fishing village, add eight kilometres of world-class surf coastline, fresh seafood, a compact town centre filled with white-washed buildings and undulating cobbled streets and you get the idea why this is special little town is so highly regarded. See visitportugal.com
SIDE TRIP: KANCHANABURI
Infamous for its dark World War II legacy – the city was the setting for Pierre Boulle's The Bridge on the River Kwai – Kanchanaburi has since re-invented itself into a far happier destination where the surrounding forests, waterfalls and hilltop monasteries of Wat Tham Seua and Wat Tham Khao Noi make an intriguing divergence from Thailand's hectic capital. See tourismthailand.org
FIVE SIDE TRIPS FROM AUSTRALIAN CAPITALS
SIDE TRIP: MUDGEE
Although it's the third-largest grape-producing region in the state, Mudgee has the historic feel and boutique cellar doors but without the hordes. Situated on the edge of Wollemi National Park, it's a perfect weekend getaway. See visitnsw.com/Mudgee
SIDE TRIP: DAYLESFORD
The former goldmining town is perfect for the city slicker to unwind; it contains Australia's largest concentration of natural hot springs set amongst lush alpine and forest scenery. See visitvictoria.com
SIDE TRIP: MORETON ISLAND
Ride the ferry from Brisbane for a 4WD adventure around this scenic sand island that's almost entirely protected by National Park. Activities include dolphin-watching, swimming, trekking and camping beneath the night sky. See visitmoretonisland.com
SIDE TRIP: YANCHEP NATIONAL PARK
Less than 50 kilometres north of the city, Yanchep is known for its koala colonies and wildlife, expansive cave systems (there are more than 400) and Aboriginal cultural heritage. See dpaw.wa.gov.au
SIDE TRIP: PORT LINCOLN
About an hour's flight away, Port Lincoln is the place to go cage-shark diving, swimming with sea lions or bluefin tuna or charter a deep-sea fishing boat. It's also the seafood capital of Australia. See southaustralia.com