Where to go in July

17 - 06 - 2014

Ever yearned to explore an elemental wilderness with barely a soul in sight to spoil your sense of escape? Perhaps you'd prefer to observe an act of collective devotion that represents an unforgettable spectacle, whatever your religious views.

Ever yearned to explore an elemental wilderness with barely a soul in sight to spoil your sense of escape? Perhaps you'd prefer to observe an act of collective devotion that represents an unforgettable spectacle, whatever your religious views. Or maybe you just want to kick back, set up a camping chair in the sun, and listen to some summertime sounds.
July offers travellers the opportunity to do all of the above and more - it's a chance to savour the special atmosphere of Ramadan in some parts of the world; in others, the party – be it on beaches, beside lakes, or in parks – is in full swing. In the waters around Mexico, mighty whale sharks are feasting on plankton; Down Under the people of Darwin are demonstrating their city deserves to be known for much more than just an unquenchable thirst for beer; and in the Kansai region of Japan, the streets throb to the beat of extravagant festivals.

- The great outdoors, Iceland

In July, Icelandic days are up to 20 hours long and the weather is mild. It’s peak season, but while big attractions like the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavík are busy, the warmer weather means once-frozen roads are open, making it a great time to explore Iceland’s elemental wilderness.

Hiking, cycling, horseback riding and kayaking are all good ways to get outdoors. There are fjords, glaciers, lava fields, gorges, meadows and countless small islands here, as well as surprisingly persistent legends of elves and trolls, and the chance to spot birds and whales. Try Hornstrandir, an uninhabited peninsula that’s one of Europe’s last great wildernesses, or popular Þórsmörk, a lush valley protected by brooding glaciers. Or venture into the deep interior – Kerlingarfjöll, on the Kjölur route, is a jagged landscape that was once outlaw country.

- Ramadan in the Middle East

You might have been advised to avoid travel in the Middle East and other Muslim-majority regions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan – but we say the complete opposite.

Between late June and late July, most Muslims here will be fasting between dawn and dusk in dedication to their religion. It’s a month when the atmosphere and pace of the whole region changes dramatically – from a traveller’s perspective, a fascinating time to be there.

Non-Muslims are welcome to join in many aspects of the tradition, and you’re likely to find yourself invited to lavish Iftar meals at sundown or hanging out in enormous Ramadan tents to snack, smoke shisha and play games until the small hours.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in the communal mood of spirituality during the day and celebration at night. But be aware - business hours are considerably shorter this month, most restaurants will be closed during the day and regardless of your own beliefs, you shouldn’t eat or drink in public out of respect. Alcohol will not be widely available.

- Budva, Montenegro

Come summer, Budva is party central on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast, and this July it’s promising to be bigger than ever.

This miniature version of nearby Dubrovnik has loads of charm tucked within its Old Town walls, where cobbled lanes beg to be explored. The renowned Theatre City stages open-air performances on and around the Citadel throughout July, proving there’s more to the poster child of Montenegro’s tourism than beachside bar-hopping.

Budva’s main drawcard this year is the Sea Dance Festival from 15-17 (seadancefestival.me). For its 15th anniversary, Exit (exitfest.org) – voted Europe’s Best Major Festival in 2013 – is introducing the Adriatic after-party by setting up camp (and main stage) at Jaz Beach. Jamiroquai are the first headliners to be announced, and if you’re up for back-to-back revelry, Exit’s adventure packages include transfer from Novi Sad, Serbia.

Thirsty for more adventure? Montenegro is tiny, so rafting through the canyon walls of the Tara River or paragliding over Mt Lovćen’s craggy peaks make spectacular day trips from Budva.

- Kataragama, Sri Lanka

Religious harmony seems to be in short supply in the world today, so it’s refreshing to find somewhere like Kataragama, sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Founded in the 2nd century BC, this holy city snoozes quietly for much of the year, but it explodes into life for the two-week Kataragama Esala festival in July.

In the run-up to the festival, tens of thousands of pilgrims complete an epic trek across Sri Lanka, following in the footsteps of Murugan, the Hindu god of war and victory. Lasting up to two months, the Pada Yatra trek winds from Jaffna, through Trincomalee and Batticaloa to Okanda, and on through Yala National Park to Kataragama, where the real test of devotion begins.

At the end of the arduous trek, pilgrims perform extraordinary acts of self-mortification, piercing their skin with hooks, spears and arrows, rolling in hot sand and walking over glowing coals. All the while, drummers beat out rhythms, pilgrims chant and elephants parade. It adds up to one of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable spectacles.

Although Hindus make up the bulk of the pilgrims, they are joined by Muslims bound for Kataragama’s Ul-Khizr mosque and Buddhists heading to the Kirivehara dagoba (Buddhist stupa). It’s this culture-hopping blend of customs and beliefs that gives Kataragama its unique atmosphere.

- Isla Holbox, Mexico

Lying in the Caribbean Sea just off the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Isla Holbox is, for most of the year, the perfect place to unwind, stroll the beaches, and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere.

All that changes in July though when the largest fish in the sea - the whale shark - is drawn to the abundant plankton in the waters here, and visitors are drawn to the chance to swim with these massive creatures. Despite reaching lengths of over 15 metres and weighing in at up to 15 tons, whale sharks are classified as a vulnerable species so make sure to book with a reputable company that only allows three people, including the guide, in the water with the sharks at any one time.

- Vancouver, Canada

A long list of adjectives is needed to describe Vancouver’s cultural and artistic scene – eclectic, vibrant, and authentic are a few that just scratch the surface of the city’s offerings. In July, the summer festival schedule ticks all of the boxes as it shifts into high gear; three major music festivals take place, each as varied as the city itself.

Beginning in June but continuing into July, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival showcases top acts from around the world and takes place downtown. Major performances include Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Bobby McFerrin and Arturo Sandoval.

In mid-July Jericho Beach Park holds the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, an outdoor festival hosting acts such as Joan Baez, Foy Vance and Frank Yamma.

For the classical connoisseur, the Vancouver Early Music Festival is held near the end of July. Events highlight classical and historic music at venues downtown and on UBC campus.

- Lake Geneva, Switzerland

You might think visiting Switzerland in summer is akin to drinking decaf coffee – the point of the experience is missing. You’d be wrong. The country turns on the charm whether covered in snow or with the sun reflecting off its pure lakes and nowhere is this more evident than in the lyrical landscapes of the Lake Geneva region. Trade in your skis for hiking boots and your hot chocolate for local wine in between dips in Western Europe’s largest lake and a visit to one of the best jazz festivals in the world.

Vineyards creep up the sloped terraces from the shores of Lake Geneva – a Unesco World Heritage site – forming the Lauvaux wine region, where you can wander between vines and taste-test your way between villages.

Heading southeast, the lakeside town of Montreux is best known for its famed international Montreux Jazz Festival (montreuxjazzfestival.com), which has been going strong since 1967. It’s not all about jazz and this year’s line-up includes Pharrell Williams, Massive Attack, Stevie Wonder and Damon Albarn. Along with paid events there’s also a bunch of free open-air concerts. The festival runs from 4-19 July.

- Darwin, Australia

Ever since a local genius came up with a solution to a litter problem in 1974, Darwin has hosted its infamous Beer Can Regatta at Mindil Beach.

The all-day waterside festival, held on 6 July this year, is very much a family affair despite the name conjuring images of Aussie blokes doing their bit to uphold Darwin’s reputation as a hard-drinking, beer-loving corner of Down Under.

The regatta sees seafaring contraptions of various sizes and shapes amusing the spectators while some enter the fray with ‘secret weapons’ (read: water pistols and flour bombs). Activities for little kids – as well as big kids in their homemade beer-can boats – are held throughout the day.

Beachfront competitions include tug-o-war, sandcastle building, and thong throwing (we’re talking about shoes here). The event raises money for the local Lions Club charity. July is a great time of the year to hit Australia’s Top End – it’s the coolest and driest and the sunsets are nothing short of glorious.

- Kansai, Japan

Summer in Japan is the season for festivals, fireworks and street food. For all three in July, head to Kansai, where the sultry air brings two of the country’s biggest celebrations.

Gion Matsuri, Japan’s most famous festival, runs all month in the temple-filled ancient capital of Kyoto. Don’t miss the grand parade (17 July), when downtown is closed to traffic as floats are heaved through the streets by chanting locals. Only a week later nearby Osaka lets loose for the Tenjin Matsuri on 24 and 25 July. Here a procession of performers and mikoshi (portable shrines) moves from the streets and on to the river in dozens of bonfire-lit boats. A massive firework display blasts away the final night.

At both festivals, rub shoulders with Kansai people out in their summery yukata (cotton kimono), and taste your way along rows of food stalls hawking Kansai’s finest fried goods – tako-yaki (battered octopus pieces), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), yaki-soba (fried noodles) and more.