x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Scenic routes, skiing, art and luxury stays

From skiing to luxury stays, there's plenty to see and do in the next few months.

The Glacier Express runs from the ski resort of St Moritz to Zermatt, Switzerland. Courtesy of Glacier Express
The Glacier Express runs from the ski resort of St Moritz to Zermatt, Switzerland. Courtesy of Glacier Express

W Retreat Koh Samui, November

Maenam Beach, one of the more peaceful spots on the buzzing Thai island of Koh Samui, is the idyllic location for the first W Hotels resort in South-east Asia, opening on Monday. The design-savvy group is better known for its trendy urban hotels in cities such as New York, Barcelona and Doha, but if its retreat on the Maldives is anything to go by, this will be something to relish.

Situated on an 11-hectare cape on the north coast, fringed by nearly a kilometre of secluded bone-white beach, the resort promises a level of privacy that's hard to come by on the island. However, the international airport, with direct flights to Abu Dhabi, is just 15 minutes away - a detail that will make it particularly attractive for buyers interested in the 17 ultra-exclusive villas for sale on the site. Each villa has access to hotel facilities, including restaurants, bar and the spa (which offers Temazcal treatments based on Brazilian tribal rituals). Take advantage of W's "Whatever/Whenever" philosophy, which goes that extra mile to accommodate guests. Brunch on a deserted beach? Diving lessons? A spot of island hopping? Not a problem.

Double rooms at W Retreat Koh Samui (www.whotels.com/kohsamui; 00 66 77 915999) cost from 16,000 Thai baht (Dh1,955) including taxes.

Socotra Island, November

Socotra is a tiny Yemeni island in the Indian Ocean that has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years but opened up to tourism only a decade ago. If you are a nature lover with a taste for the unusual, Socotra, which means "Island of Bliss", will certainly live up to its name. It is home to 850 species of plant, 300 of which are unique to the island. Much of the flora looks like it comes from an alien planet: the dragon's blood tree resembles a giant mushroom and bleeds red sap when cut.

Also unique to the island are 24 species of reptile and 10 species of bird, including the super-rare Socotra bunting. To find more endemic species anywhere else on earth, you'd have to go to the Galapagos Islands, but Socotra, for the moment at least, has only a fraction of the number of tourists and is cheaper to visit. The infrastructure is basic, with only a handful of hotels clustered around Hadibu, the main town, and a guided tour by 4x4 is essential to see the island properly.

There is great hiking around the stark granite outcrops of the Haghier Mountains and into the vast, largely unexplored cave complex at Hoq. The diving is spectacular, too, with 730 species of fish swimming around you at the Ras Dihamri Marine Reserve.

Waikato Trails, November

One of the great attractions of New Zealand as a destination is its wealth of outdoor activities. Cyclists have always been well catered for here, but the activity received a boost last year when the prime minister, John Key, announced plans to construct a cycle route running the length of the two islands. The first stage of Key's National Cycleway Project is the completion of the NZ$3.4 million (Dh9.4m) Waikato River Trails, near Rotorua on the North Island. The cycle trail, now stretching more than 100km, runs along the banks of the Waikato, New Zealand's longest river, from Atiamuri to Horahora. The trails are for cyclists of all abilities, so you'll be able to admire the dramatic beauty of the landscape without fear of a sudden plunge.

Those with an interest in geology will admire the ancient volcanic peaks and pink ignimbrite rock formations. Boardwalks extend over significant wetlands and birdwatchers can look forward to seeing the forest popokatea (whitehead) and whiro whiro (grey warbler). A visit in November, towards the start of the New Zealand summer but before the holiday rush, means warm, dry weather - perfect for cycling.

Art Basel Miami Beach, December 2 to 5

Art events don't come much bigger or more glamorous than Art Basel Miami Beach. Since 2002, it has established itself as one of the most important dates in the art calendar, alongside the Venice Biennale and its older sibling, Art Basel in Switzerland. Everyone who's anyone - in fashion, design and music as well as the art world - comes here to soak up the Miami winter sun and speculate on the hottest works.

With the art market rallying against the recession and prices picking up, this year promises to be bigger than ever. More than 250 leading galleries from all over the world will exhibit work by about 2,000 artists. The action is centred on the cavernous Miami Beach Convention Centre, but the excitement spreads throughout the city, with shows, talks and parties popping up all over South Beach, Downtown and the Design District. Whether you go to seek out the next Richard Serra, to buy an actual Richard Serra, or just to marvel from the sidelines, this is a cultural event not to be missed.

Tickets to Art Basel Miami Beach, cost from US$36 (Dh132) for a one-day adult ticket and are available from www.artbaselmiamibeach.com.

Shangri-La Hotel, Paris, December

If you're planning a trip to Paris this winter, forget all other hotel options and book into the hotly anticipated Shangri-La, opening early December in the glitzy 16th Arrondissement.

This is the first European venture from the prestigious Hong Kong-based hotel group, and if you've stayed at Shangri-Las in Shanghai, Bangkok or Abu Dhabi, you'll know just how high its standards are. This promises to be a very special addition. Number 10, avenue d'Iena was built at the turn of the 20th century by Roland Bonaparte, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Lucien, to accommodate his vast collection of scientific specimens from around the world. Shangri-La have worked with top designers Richard Martinet and Pierre-Yves Rochon to preserve the building's integrity while enhancing the interior space.

The seven-storey building will house 81 deluxe rooms and suites, and the rooftop suite offers privileged views of the nearby Eiffel Tower. When the romance of Paris in the snow becomes too much, you can retreat to the hotel's trademark spa or take a dip in the indoor swimming pool, before dining under a glass dome at the gourmet French restaurant.

Shangri-La Paris (www.shangri-la.com; 00 33 1 8027 1935) has double rooms from €750 (Dh3,866) including taxes.

German Christmas markets, December

One of the joys of visiting Europe during Christmas is the cold, dark weather. Why? Because it gives you an excuse to wrap up warm and head to a brightly lit Christmas market, where you can drink delicious hot chocolate and eat roasted almonds while sating your gift-buying needs with local arts and crafts. The classic destination is Germany, where there are hundreds of markets around the country to choose from. Berlin alone has 60, and the market at Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche attracts more than four million visitors each year.

Nuremburg and Dresden have thriving markets, too, but the classiest of the lot is probably Stuttgart. The southern German town has hosted a Christmas market for more than 300 years, and today it's one of the biggest and most beautiful in Europe, with 230 stalls on the main squares and along the atmospheric alleyways. The lights are fabulous and you'll need willpower to resist the ubiquitous smell of cinnamon waffles. While adults browse for stocking-fillers, younger visitors will be lured towards the "fairy-tale land" on Palace Square. Don't miss the magnificent ice rink in front of the New Palace.

The market in Stuttgart runs from November 24 to December 23.

Glacier Express, Switzerland, December-January

You don't have to be a train obsessive to get excited at the prospect of a trip on Switzerland's Glacier Express in mid-winter. This service from the glamorous ski resort of St Moritz to the equally glamorous Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn is one of the most scenic train rides in the world. The "express" part of the name is misleading, because this is a slow-moving train: it takes seven-and-a-half hours to cover 290km, giving you time to appreciate the stunning scenery.

The train encounters 291 crevasse-spanning bridges and 90 tunnels along the way, and climbs to a height of 2,033 metres at Oberalp Pass. Look out for the dramatic Landwasser Viaduct, where the railway edges around a cliff on one mountain, then glides across the viaduct to another mountain and into a tunnel. The panoramic windows mean you won't miss out on anything, unless you get distracted by the excellent lunches served on board. The express runs once a day both ways, from December 12 to May 13, giving you an excuse to try out the slopes at the world-class ski resorts at either end.

Tickets for the Glacier Express from St Moritz to Zermatt, cost from 133 Swiss francs (Dh508) and are available from www.glacierexpress.ch.

Picasso in Zurich, January

Since its foundation in 1910, Zurich's splendid Kunsthaus has become one of the most important art galleries in Europe. To celebrate its centenary, the gallery is restaging its most revolutionary show. In 1932, Pablo Picasso was invited to curate a retrospective of his own work, covering the first three decades of his career. He was the first artist to do so and it caused something of a scandal. A total of 34,000 tickets were sold in nine weeks - an extraordinary figure in a time before blockbuster shows.

To bring the show back to life, its curators have travelled the world to collect 70 of the original works. Be sure to catch this one-of-a-kind revival before it closes on January 30. While in Zurich, stay at the magnificent Dolder Grand overlooking the city. The hotel has a two-Michelin-star restaurant, a 4,000-square-metre spa, and its rates include entrance to the Picasso show.

Double rooms at the Dolder Grand (www.thedoldergrand.com; 00 41 44 456 60 00) has double rooms from 870 Swiss francs (Dh3,324), including taxes. Tickets to the Picasso show cost 22 Swiss francs (Dh84) for adults and are available from www.kunsthaus.ch.

Gorilla trekking at Bwindi, January

There are many good reasons to visit Uganda, the green, friendly country in the heart of East Africa, but the most compelling is the opportunity to encounter mountain gorillas in the wild. There are approximately 600 of these magnificent, gentle creatures left in the world, and more than half of them are to be found at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south-west of the country. January, in the middle of the dry season, is the perfect time to visit. Rainfall may be low but Bwindi is always green and intensely fertile. The rainforest is magical, but once you hear the first telltale grunts and snuffles from the undergrowth, everything else will fade away.

As encounters with wildlife go, coming face to face with a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat is among the most emotional you'll ever experience. Permits are limited to 24 per day so book in advance - or let a travel company organise it for you. Stay at the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, a luxurious base for trekking high up in the forest.

Gorilla trekking permits for Bwindi are priced at US$500 (Dh1,836) per day (and including guide fee, park entrance fees for the day and community levy), and are available from www.uwa.or.ug.

Foodie skiing in Kitzbuhel, January

As a destination for world-class skiing, Austria is hard to beat, but if gourmet food is as important to you as perfect pistes, you'd probably opt for France or Italy instead. Which is why it's surprising to learn that Kitzbuhel, a top resort in the Austrian Alps, is gaining a reputation as a gourmand's paradise. Proving that there's more to Austria than Wienerschnitzel, the medieval Tyrolean city now boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants. Best in town is Hotel Tennerhof (www.tennerhof.com; 00 43 5356 63181), a five-star lodge with great views of the slopes, where you can eat crayfish soufflé and rabbit bouillon.

The Neuwirt restaurant at Hotel Schwarzer Adler (www.adlerkitz.at; 00 43 5356 6911), and KAPS at the A-Rosa resort and spa [http://resort.a-rosa.de; 00 43 5356 65660 992], also serve superb food. But the best of all is outside the town in the village of Kirchberg, six kilometres away. Restaurant Rosengarten (www.rosengarten-taxacher.com; 00 43 5357 4201) was upgraded to two Michelin stars last year and in December it will expand into a hotel. Head chef Simon Taxacher is renowned for his sophisticated French-Mediterranean cuisine. There's nothing quite like Danube catfish with steamed horseradish, or sauté of frogs' legs with lemon and leek risotto, to build up the appetite for a good day's skiing.

Chadar Trek, India, January

Winter is the time of year when visitors to India tend to retreat to the warmer south, steering well clear of the Himalayas. Not so the few hardy trekkers who embark each January on the Chadar Trek along the frozen Zanskar River. The Zanskar is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, with stark, spectacular valleys and peaks rising to more than 7,000 metres. In winter, the river is covered with a blanket of ice - chadar in Hindi - and becomes the only viable passage through the snow-bound region. Local merchants have been walking it for centuries, and now adventure travellers are discovering the rewards of undertaking this daunting 14-day, 140km march.

The downsides? Minus-30-degree nights, thin ice, and the risk of frostbite or worse. The upsides? Glimpsing ibexes, dipper birds and, if you're really lucky, the elusive snow leopard; getting an insight into a fascinating ancient culture divorced from modern life; visiting Buddhist monasteries built into cliffs; basking in the awesome beauty of the landscape. And, of course, after it's all over, having the satisfaction of completing one of the world's most challenging treks.

A 20-day trek with India Beat (www.indiabeat.co.uk; 00 91 141 651 9797] costs 1,500 British pounds [Dh8777] based on two people travelling, not including sleeping bags or trekking shoes.