7 celebrations around the world

It seems like every day, somewhere in the world, a celebration of some form is underway. Many of these festivals are known around the globe and form the crux of a trip to that destination. Others are more low-key, local affairs that you may just stumble upon while out and about. Here are seven celebrations that might just make your trip, from Rio de Janeiro’s flamboyant Carnival, to Bhutan’s exaltation of its migratory black-necked cranes.

Takayama Festival, Japan

Tucked into a valley in the Japanese Alps is the little town of Takayama. Once renowned as a source for high-quality timber and skilled carpenters, its old town still boasts the resulting 17th-century architecture. The town holds the Takayama Festival twice a year — in mid-April to pray for good crops, and in early October to give thanks for the harvest.

Takayama Festival

Held over two days, the celebrations begin with a display of yatai (floats) in the streets. These multi-storey floats look like miniature pagodas with gilded roofs and ornamental dragons. Some house karakuri ningyo, elaborate mechanical dolls that perform re-enactments of traditional myths and legends from the balcony of the float.

During the afternoon, the mikoshi (a portable shrine) is paraded through the town, flanked by Shinto priests dressed in red and white. Inside the shrine is believed to be a kami — a spirit, usually an ancient ancestor or great leader — who blesses the town as it travels through. The celebrations culminate with an evening parade, where the floats are pulled through the streets, illuminated by rows of lanterns. You’ll see locals coming together dressed in traditional kimono or hakama, watching the festivities to the sound of flutes and drums.

Highland Games, Scotland

Though originally intended to show off soldiers’ physical prowess, the Highland Games have evolved into showcases of Scottish culture. More than 80 different events are held over weekends between May and September, spotlighting music and dance as well as sport.

Highland Games, Scotland

You’ll also find traditional ‘heavy’ events, including tug of war, hammer throw and shot put. Perhaps the best-known heavy event is the caber toss, in which a competitor tosses a huge tapered pole that weighs about 79 kg (175 lbs).

Tartan-clad musicians perform both solo and in massed bands, when pipers and drummers come together to perform in unison. Alongside these, dancers kick up their kilts in Highland dance competitions.

Dating from 1314, the Ceres Games in Fife are considered the oldest games and the Cowal Highland Gathering is the biggest. The Braemar Gathering, held the first weekend in September, is probably the most prestigious, attended by the royal family each year.

Vivid Sydney, Australia

As the austral winter nights start to draw in, Sydney bursts into light. ‘Vivid Sydney’ is a festival of music, ideas and art — over a period of three weeks between late May and mid-June, bands and contemporary artists perform all over the city, while a series of workshops is held by leading figures from the creative industries. But the most impactful, eye-catching element of the whole thing? The innovative light installations and sculptures that take over the CBD (central business district) every night from 7pm.

Sydney Harbour

Walking around the streets after dark, you’ll see several of Sydney’s best-loved structures and buildings transformed with kaleidoscopic light shows. On Circular Quay, the façade of the Museum of Contemporary Art becomes a giant, ever-changing canvas, while the sails of the Opera House might be lit up with traditional Aboriginal designs. In past years, the front of the august Customs House has transfixed young children with projections of moving dinosaur shadows, an aquarium, and creeping vines. There are also giant light sculptures stationed in areas such as the Royal Botanical Gardens. Make sure to wander into the Rocks district too, and beyond the main streets — some pieces are tucked away from the crowds.

One of the best ways of drinking it all in — especially the Opera House lights — is to take a cruise around Sydney Harbour. Or simply ride the public ferry from Darling Harbour, which passes under the Sydney Harbour Bridge en route to Circular Quay (the bridge often puts on its own epic light display).

Black-Necked Crane Festival, Bhutan

Bhutan’s deeply rooted religious beliefs are celebrated throughout the year, with entire communities regularly gathering for festivals at monasteries and dzongs across the country. Exact dates tend to differ annually, so incorporating one into your trip can be tricky. However, occurring on the 11th November each year, the Black-Necked Crane Festival is much easier to plan for (although you’ll need to book well in advance).

Black neck cranes

The Phobjikha Valley, in central Bhutan, is the country’s largest wetland and in early November each year, hundreds of black-necked cranes fly over from Tibet. The Bhutanese have been celebrating the arrival of these revered birds for hundreds of years at Gangtey Monastery which overlooks the valley.

In the monastery’s open-air courtyard, the community sits together to watch a series of songs, dances and plays themed around the cranes. You’ll see small children wearing beaks and white, cape-like wings, and folk dancers draped in traditional yellow and red cloth. It’s best to visit with a guide who can explain the significance of the events as you sit in the courtyard with the locals.

Spend a few nights in the valley (Gangtey Lodge has the best views) and you can go walking along the glacial valley floor to get a closer look at the birds. There’s also the Black-Necked Crane Information Centre, which is run by enthusiastic ornithologists who can help you observe them through powerful telescopes.

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, Brazil

Every year, in the week before Lent, Rio de Janeiro’s Sambadrome (a yawning avenue with a capacity of 90,000) erupts into the world’s biggest fiesta. Contestants from the city’s 100-plus samba schools shimmy their way down its length in a joyous cacophony of dance, singing and drumming.

Carnival, Rio de Janeiro

Each school is given a theme, which is then portrayed through costumes and extravagantly decorated floats, and judges award points based on a range of criteria. This year’s parade included floats disguised as giant caimans and a (fully mechanical) lurching pirate ship. Dancers of all ages (from 18 to 80) samba all over every float, and spill out in front and behind them as they process down the avenue. There are usually two (scantily dressed) female dancers leading each school, each festooned like peacocks in an explosion of sequins and gravity-defying feathered headdresses.

The best way to take in the electric atmosphere of ‘Carnaval’ is to attend the Winner’s Parade (essentially the closing ceremony) through a hotel package — they’re good value when you consider that they also include shuttle bus transfers to and from the Sambadrome. Seating-wise, you can opt for a spot in a block of six numbered seats so you’re not forced to stand in the bleachers all night. Or, — for those wanting even more comfort — you could view the phantasmagoria from an air-conditioned VIP box, with all snacks and drinks included. Just remember to pace yourself: the party goes on till at least 5am.

Canada Day, Ottawa (and across the country)

Every year on 1st July, the whole of Canada unites to celebrate the country’s Confederation. On this day in 1867, the British North America act brought the British provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Québec and Ontario into the Dominion of Canada, establishing the country as a self-governing entity within the British Empire.

Canada Day Ottawa

Across the country, live concerts, parades, fireworks and other public celebrations take place to mark this milestone in the country’s independence. While there’s usually something going on wherever you are in Canada, the capital, Ottawa, parties the hardest. Streets (and people) are decked out with maple-leaf emblems. Thousands of fireworks explode to music over the Ottawa River and various other points around the city. And, musicians of all genres perform on Parliament Hill.

Franschhoek Cap Classique & Champagne Festival, South Africa

Held on the first weekend of December, the Cap Classique & Champagne Festival celebrates ‘the magic of bubbles’. People from far and wide gather in the South African Winelands town of Franschhoek for two days of sipping sparkling wine and champagne.

Franschhoek, South Africa

Held on the lawns surrounding the Huguenot Monument on Franschhoek’s main street, the event showcases vintages produced by the region’s many vineyards and wineries, including JC Le Roux, La Motte and Pierre Jourdan, as well as champagnes from France. As the summer sun shines over the surrounding vivid-green hills and sweeping mountainous backdrop, corks are popped, fizzing glasses chinked, and tasting palates put to the test amid flowing conversation and live music.

The Winelands is also renowned for its gourmet cuisine, and guests are treated to a wide range of gastronomic delicacies brought along by local restaurants and food outlets such as Le Franschhoek and Huguenot Fine Chocolates, each specially designed by skilled chefs to complement the drinks on offer.

Entry to the festival includes your own tasting glass and coupons for ten complimentary méthode cap classique and champagne tastings. There’s also a different dress theme each year, with 2017’s being ‘black and white with a splash of summer’.

Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel. Audley Travel is a tour operator offering tailor-made trips around the world.

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