Top 10 easy mountain adventures

Mountains have a strange effect on some people. As soon as they see a soaring summit, they gear up. On go the Gore-Tex and heavy-duty boots, and off they go to pit themselves against the peak, on skis, on ropes or even on foot. 

Some of us, however, think the world's most spectacular mountains deserve a more leisurely appreciation. If, like us, you prefer an easier approach to exploring the heights, try one of the destinations below. You will get to enjoy magnificent scenery, fascinating culture, and no danger of breaking a leg along the way. 

1. BEST WINE REGION: SALTA, ARGENTINA

They say you can't make good wine at altitude. But then, they also say rules are made to be broken. In Europe, few people plant vines higher than 500 metres. In the new world, they are a bit more daring. Argentina's most famous wine-growing region, Mendoza, is home to plenty of vineyards planted at over 1000 metres, many of them producing superb wines. But for real cojones, look to the north-west of the country, close to the Bolivian border. There, the vineyards around the town of Cafayate are planted at well over 2000 metres. What's more, wines such as fruity white torrontes from producers Finca de las Nubes, as well as malbecs by Michel Torino, are winning international acclaim. 

2. BEST FESTIVAL: GOROKA SHOW, PAPUA NEW GUINEA 

Not so long ago, many of the tribes of Papua New Guinea's highlands were locked in frequent conflict. These days, thankfully, the fierce competition is largely channelled into colourful dance-offs, or singsings. Created more than 50 years ago, the Goroka show is the highlands' largest festival. Every year more than 100 tribes vie to deliver the most exciting performance, featuring dancing, drumming and chanting. The costumes are astonishingly elaborate: men and women alike perform in feathered headdresses in brilliant colours, heavy coils of shells decorating arms and legs, skirts and capes made of carefully-stitched foliage. The dances are by turns fierce, sexy and even funny. 

3. BEST PAMPERING: SCHLOSS ELMAU, GERMANY

You could, if the need arose, indulge your active side at Schloss Elmau. Located in the Bavarian Alps above the ski towns of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, you can step straight out of the door onto cross-country runs in winter, or hike into the hills in summer. However, if you did, you would be missing out. Schloss Elmau offers a range of creature comforts so indulgent, it is hard to know where to start. You might kick off the day with a dip in one of the three pools, before trying out a treatment or two in one of the five spas, including one dedicated exclusively to families. Alternatively, head down to the sauna hut, cooling off at intervals with a dip in a fresh Alpine stream. Round off the serious spoiling with your choice from the impressive range of concerts, readings and in-house restaurants. 

4. BEST WILDLIFE SPOTTING: SIMIEN MOUNTAINS, ETHIOPIA

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There ain't a whole lot of snow in Africa, but one of the places you are likely to find the white stuff is atop the Simien Mountains. This series of 4000-metre plus peaks in the Ethiopian Highlands is a favourite with hardcore climbers; however, there is also plenty to lure a softer breed of traveller. Gentle strolls through the dramatically eroded landscape will bring you face to face with some memorable alpine wildlife. Keep an eye on the sky to spot the massive lammergeyer, a bird of prey with an astonishing three-metre wingspan; or look closer to the ground, where herds of gelada are known to gambol. Unlike their lowland cousins, these long-haired baboons are pretty, peaceable creatures, grass eaters who happily spend hours grooming each other.  

5. BEST VILLAIN'S LAIR: ALAMUT, IRAN

James Bond baddies didn't invent the idea of the mountain hideaway. The template was set all the way back in the 11th century by the fanatical followers of Hasan-i- Sabbah. Feared throughout the Middle East for their campaign of terror against local power brokers, they became known as the Assassins. Although their leader remained secure in his mountain-top fortress, Alamut, his henchmen ranged far and wide, assassinating the rich and powerful, convinced they were on a mission from god. Today Alamut, eventually destroyed by the invading Mongols, offers little more than atmospheric ruins, but with its dramatic setting, it makes a lovely day trip from Tehran.  

6. BEST RESTAURANT: FLOCONS VILLAGE, FRANCE

There's something wonderfully civilised about the European concept of the mountain restaurant: an elegant high-altitude dining haven where one can retire halfway through a day outdoors to enjoy superb food. In theory, anyway. In practice, the prices are often as high as the surrounding peaks, putting the experience beyond the reach of mere mortals. For instance, at grand chef Emmanuel Renaut's flagship restaurant, the three Michelin starred Flocons de Sel in the pretty Alpine village of Megeve, your bill is likely to be well into triple figures. Luckily, Renaut has also opened a sister establishment, Flocons Village, a charming bistro where a three-course meal comes to just $50. Merci, monsieur.

7. BEST FAIRYTALE VILLAGE: OGIMACHI, JAPAN

The Swiss aren't the only ones who have a way with picturesque mountain hamlets. Away from the neon-bright cities lies a different Japan, a place of dense beech forests and traditional villages. Few are prettier than Ogimachi, perched in the shadow of Hakusan, one of Japan's three sacred mountains. Ogimachi scored a World Heritage Listing for its collection of 114 beautifully preserved gassho-style houses, with steeply sloping roofs designed to withstand heavy snow. Several are open to visitors; there is also an open-air museum featuring traditional buildings including a Shinto shrine, a stable and a Buddhist temple.

8. BEST NOMADS: HIMBA, NAMIBIA

Namibia is best-known for the soaring sand dunes at Sossusvlei, but an equally fascinating landscape can be found in the country's deep north. The high plains of the Hartmann Valley have an otherworldly feel: thin blades of green grass poke out of bright-red sandy soil, mysterious fairy rings similar to crop circles punctuate the hillsides, and the moon hangs so low you can almost touch it. This memorable environment is home to one of Africa's last nomadic tribes, the Himba. The men frequently live apart from the women, tending sheep and goats; the women are recognisable by their distinctive clay-covered plaits and the paste of red clay and butter they apply to their bodies twice a day. 

9. BEST DRIVE: TROLLSTIGEN, NORWAY

Why hike a mountain pass when you can drive it? Particularly when the infrastructure in question is as impressive as Trollstigen. Engineering nerds aren't the only ones who will be amazed by this road that crests one of western Norway's daunting mountain passes, 850 metres above sea level. You will need to time your visit right: between October and May, the road is closed, blanketed beneath layers of snow.  When it is open, however, the experience of switchbacking your way through 11 hairpin bends, travelling past a waterfall plummeting down 1000 metres and surrounded on all sides by imposing mountains, is unforgettable.

10. BEST SACRED SITE: POTALA PALACE, TIBET

Few cities are as aptly named as Tibet's capital, Lhasa, perched 3650 metres up in the clouds and ringed by massive Himalayan peaks. The name Lhasa translates as Place of the Gods, and this awe-inspiring location does indeed feel like a place where deities might choose to dwell. Dominating the city is the Potala Palace, once both the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama. From the outside, its fortress-like exterior looks forbidding but inside, its 1000 rooms glitter with gold. Beyond the exquisite murals, statues and scroll paintings, the most eye-catching displays are the spectacular stupas, including one containing 590 kilograms of gold and 100,000 pearls and precious stones. 

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