10 unique places to see and celebrate spring

1. Explore England’s bluebell woods

From late March until May, woodland up and down the UK is transformed by carpets of bluebells. Walking in bluebell-woods provided inspiration for Romantic poets including Keats and Tennyson; they’re also a great opportunity for photographers and make for a nice family day out.

Bluebells in Hampshire, England (Shutterstock)

The National Trust can help you find beauty spots near you. If you can’t wait until bluebell time, the snowdrops come out towards the end of January; their appearance in the woods is one of the first signs that winter’s on the way out.

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2. Get colourful at Holi in India or Nepal

Holi, the Hindu celebration of spring is, literally, one of the world’s most colourful festivals. To mark the end of winter and the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil’, people take to the streets of northern India and Nepal in March each year for one of the highlights of the Holi festival, mass water and paint fights.

Holi in Delhi, India (Shutterstock)

Wear clothes you’re not worried about ruining if you’re planning on joining in the festivities, and be careful with your camera gear too.

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3. Discover Lantern Festival in Hong Kong

Lantern Festival highlights the end of Chinese New Year celebrations, and is marked by lighting colourful paper lanterns and letting them off into the night sky. Hong Kong, which is usually lit-up with neon, takes on a softer glow from the displays of lanterns in public spaces.

Chinese lanterns, Hong Kong (Shutterstock)

Tuck into yuan xiao (glutinous rice balls) and guess the answers to riddles tied to lanterns to get into the spirit of the festival. The festivals occurs around the end of February/beginning of March each year – 15 days after Chinese New Year.

4. Marvel at Mayan technology at Chichen Itza, Mexico

Each year thousands of locals and travellers congregate at El Castillo, a massive pyramid in the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, to witness the descent of Kukulcán, the Mayan snake deity.

Chichen Itza sunset (Shutterstock)

The alignment of the sun and El Castillo at the Spring equinox make the shadows of feathered serpents on the northern staircase appear to run down the sides of the edifice, so it appears as though the snake god has come to life.

The date of spring equinox changes each year, but it’s usually on or a few days either side of 20 March.

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5. Tiptoe through the tulips at Keukenhof

Keukenhof (between Amsterdam and The Hague in the Netherlands) is one of the best places in Europe to see spring flowers, especially tulips – the most famous flower in the Netherlands.

Tulips in the Netherlands (Shutterstock)

Including over 7 million individually planted bulbs, the gardens are one of the most popular attractions in the Netherlands and have clocked up more than 44 million visitors in the last 60 years. The park is open annually from mid-March to mid-May.

6. Witness the ‘Black Sun’ in Denmark

Watch flocks of starlings on their spring migration block-out the setting sun in Denmark’s Tønder Marsh. The spectacle of over a million birds finding somewhere to nest for the night has been dubbed ‘Black Sun’ as the manoeuvres of the huge flocks take over the skies.

Flock of starlings (Shutterstock)

The exact locations of the nightly displays are impossible to predict in advance; Tønder tourist board http://www.romo.dk/en/home/ recommends you visit with a guide or a group to get the best possible chance of seeing the spectacle. This natural phenomenon occurs around sunset from mid-March to mid-April).

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7. See cherry blossom in Japan

The indigenous cherry blossoms of Eastern Asia have come to represent spring. Japan is the iconic home of hanami(cherry blossom viewing festivals) and, although you could try your hand at karaoke and sake under the trees, all you really need to enjoy the best of the festival is a blanket to lie on and a couple of bento boxes.

Cherry blossom in Fukushima, Japan (Shutterstock)

Alternatively, there are a number of cherry blossom festivals held annually from late March to the end of April in other countries around the world if you can’t make it to Japan.

8. Be amazed by blooms in Namaqualand

Namaqualand (also referred to as Namaqua National Park) is an arid landscape in South Africa’s Northern Cape, but while it is sparse for most of the year, spring (August and September) brings with it a blanket of colourful flowers. Covering the region’s scenery, more than 1,000 of Namaqualand’s 3,500 species of plants growing at this time are found no where else on earth.

Field of flowers in Namaqualand, South Africa (Shutterstock)

Take two or three days to drive through the park and surrounding area to enjoy the rainbow views – its signature orange blooms are the most common, but with some exploration you should find variation in colour.

9. Party at Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro

Traditionally a celebration of the pleasures of the flesh before the austerity of Lent, Mardi Gras is one of the world’s most iconic carnivals and a great excuse for a party. Arguably the two most well-known Mardi Gras cel ebrations are held in New Orleans, the capital of Louisiana, USA and in Rio de Janerio, Brazil – both in February each year.

Rio Carnival (Shutterstock)

Fling bead necklaces and wear purple in the New Orleans French Quarter or samba the night away in feathers and sequins at the Rio Carnival and you’ll be ready for 40 quiet nights afterwards!

10. Get pagan at Edinburgh’s Beltane festival

Edinburgh’s Beltane festival, which pays homage to the ancient Gaelic festival of the same name, is held on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh on 30 April each year.

Traditionally a celebration of fertility, ‘beltane’ derives from a Gaelic term meaning ‘bright/sacred fire’, which organisers have taken to heart in the modern celebrations.

Beltane, Edinburgh (Shutterstock)

Expect dazzling fire displays, pounding drums and a lot of body paint as the procession of the May Queen and Green Man enact the birth of summer.

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Main image: Oryx between flowers, Namaqualand, South Africa (Shutterstock)

The world’s weirdest underwater postboxes

1. Hideaway Island, Vanuatu

Situated within a marine sanctuary off Hideaway Island, this underwater post office even has its own Tripadvisor entry (it’s got a 4 star average, in case you’re wondering). The post office is open to visiting snorkellers as well as guests, and local postal workers are on hand to help if you can’t duckdive the three metres to post your letter.

2. Paradise Island, Bahamas

The Bahamas can claim to be the birthplace of ‘wet’ mail: in 1939, a photosphere used for filming a silent version of Jules Verne‘s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was converted into an underwater post office and renamed ‘Sea Floor Bahamas’. Adjacent to a spiralling 100-foot tower, the post box was recently commemorated with a set of its very own stamps.

3. St Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Located inside the Coral World Marine Park’s Underwater Observatory, this is one of a handful of underwater postboxes in the world where you won’t get wet posting your letter. More importantly, it won’t get wet either.

4. Risør, Norway

The world’s first ‘dry’ underwater post office, the Risør Underwater Post Office in southern Norway came close to being shut down in 2011, when very few letters were being sent using it. The local tourism board and local businesses sprang into action and offered their support, so it’s still open today.

5. Jemeluk Beach, Bali

Part of the Jemeluk Bay Underwater Gallery, this post box sits amongst a collection of underwater art including a mermaid (sponsored by Bodyshop) and a huge baby’s head. The area has been declared a ‘no fishing’ zone, so you know your mail is safe.

6. Mataking Island, Malaysia

When the local Reef Dive Resort on Mataking Island in Sabah sank a cargo ship to create an artificial reef for divers, they had the foresight to fit an underwater mailbox, the first of its kind in Malaysia. Divers seal their mail inside a plastic bag and get it postmarked with a special stamp before their dive. A local postal worker collects the mail every two weeks.

7. Susami Bay, Japan

Recognised as the world’s deepest underwater postbox by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2002, this functioning mailbox sits 33 feet under the sea in Susami Bay in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture. Divers are encourage to buy water-resistant postcards from the local general store and use a supplied oil-based marker to write on them. The cards are collected every few days and taken to the local post office – even the edible, squid-flavoured ones, developed by a local entrepreneur.

Old Skool bungee jumping with Karl Pilkington

We got to the island of Pentecost in Vanuatu where I met John. He took me from the landing strip through the woods where I could hear whistling and singing, and through the trees until we came to a massive tower that looked like it was made of scaffolding poles. As I got closer I could see it was a structure of wooden poles all bound together with rope. It looked like a giant game of KerPlunk.

Men and women were dancing and singing while others were climbing up the side of the wooden frame. John explained that they were looking forward to seeing a white man do a land dive. As he explained why they do the land diving, men were jumping from various heights with nothing but vines wrapped round their ankles. Somehow, they measure the vines so that the land divers just brush the ground before being whipped back up by the vines.

The highest jumping platform was around 30 metres high. When one of the men jumped, the whole structure shook violently, as if it could come down at any moment. As each man landed another two blokes ran up and cut the vines free to clear them before the next man dived, like a kind of air traffic control.

As soon as the jumpers were released from the vines they ran back up the tower to have another go, like kids in the park playing on a slide. I imagine it would be difficult to refuse to do the jump if you lived here. It seemed to be such a tight community and might lead to being shunned.

I think most people in life just want to fit in so follow suit rather than questioning things. It reminded me of the bungee jumping situation…

John said that if the divers brushed the land with the hair on their head, it blessed the land. ‘No chance of me doing that then,’ I thought. I’d have to plant my head in the earth like an ostrich for my hair to brush the land. He explained that the higher the jump, the more plentiful the harvest.

There were no St John’s Ambulance people on stand-by if things went tits up. Even in the professional set-up in New Zealand I had to sign a waiver to say if anything happened it wasn’t their responsibility, so I doubted if this village had any sort of cover. They didn’t even cover their bollocks, so Life Cover wasn’t going to be on offer.

The men wore a nambas, which is a small bit of material worn over the knob. The bollocks are left free. I didn’t see the point of the material. It didn’t really cover anything. It’s like when you wrap a bottle of wine for someone at Christmas. There’s no surprise there, and it was the same with the nambas – it wasn’t hiding anything.

But, as with everywhere else in the world, you’ll always get someone who wants to be different. There was a man who was walking around dressed in a right load of foliage. He was the Lady Gaga of the area. Maybe this was his way of getting out of doing the dive, by getting camouflaged up. The odd thing about the clothing was how the tradition had carried on and yet the odd villager had a mobile phone or wore a quality watch. The watch just didn’t look right. It was never designed to go with a knob sheath. If anything I’d probably wear the watch round the nambas as a belt to stop it falling off. Surely if they accepted mobile phones and watches they might as well wear underpants or a pair of trunks.

A young lad who looked about six years old did a jump from around 25 feet. Kids of his age in England are being told not to play conkers at school due to little injuries, and yet here’s little Billy diving to his imminent death just for the sake of growing some cabbages. This is what happens when people don’t have enough to do. No jobs, no paperwork or bills to pay, no washing of clothes, no sales calls to answer, or windows or cars to wash, so they turn to arsing about.

There was no way I was going to do it from the top. I told John it was too risky. I explained that I have a mortgage and other responsibilities that I wouldn’t be able to sort out with a broken neck. He told me: ‘Not a problem. It safe. Been doing for many years, no accidents. No worry.’ Yet one after another, men continued to hurl themselves off the tower like lemmings. These people need wings more than the kiwi bird.

Everything seemed to be going well until a man whose vines were too long went and planted his head in the ground. He lay on the ground shaking like a baby sparrow that had fallen out its nest with his eyes rolling about in the back of his head. The singing and dancing continued as two men went over and slapped his face. Eventually he came back round with a big smile on his face.

I didn’t want to let everyone in the village down, and I knew Ricky and Stephen would moan at me if I didn’t get involved somehow, so I came up with an idea. I agreed to do the lowest possible land dive. I pointed to the lowest rung on the structure and asked everyone if jumping from there still counted as a land dive. They said it would. Two men prepared the vines for my dive. They definitely looked too long for the distance I was going to jump. They tied them around my ankles. I got up on the ledge to find it was a lot higher than I thought. Just as on the bungee platform in New Zealand where loud rock music blasted out of speakers, here the singing and whistling puts you in a kind of trance. I held onto the wooden frame with one arm and leaned as far forward as possible. Now I just had to let go. I remember having the same feeling when I was learning to swim as a kid, when you know you have to let go of the side of the pool and push away. This was like letting go of the edge of a pool, except there was no water. No one was shouting at me like the jump in New Zealand, no one was counting me down – I just had to wait until my inner voice said, ‘Release’. The thing Sam kept saying to me on the bungee in New Zealand was in my head: ‘Coach, pass me the ball, and I’ll make the play.’ With everyone wearing a nambas, now wasn’t the time to be asking for any ball to play with. I let go.

The vines they had attached to my legs were far too long. I face-planted the earth. Given the distance I’d jumped I’d have been better using shoelaces instead of vines, but the villagers loved it. The chanting and whistling got louder, and they lifted me in the air in celebration. I felt good, not from the dive, but because I felt they had appreciated my effort.

Check out Karl Pilkington’s chat with Michael Palin on Amazon. It’s quite the meeting of minds…