Friday, April 15, 2016

for the love of the rigid

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Archana of To Universe, With Love, asked about my Nudie jeans, and well, there's nothing I love more than waxing lyrical about denim, so hope this is useful to anyone considering Nudie denims.

First up, I firmly believe all denim shopping is best done when you can try them on physically, and buying them online is a risk, unless you're shopping on a website with excellent return and exchange policies.

In the case of Nudies, shopping in person is especially advisable in my experience - the "right" size on me varies widely between cuts, or even between different fabrics in the same cut. Till now, I'm not entirely sure if Nudies are even designed with women in mind - when I bought my first pair in Amsterdam years ago (in 2007), they were billed to me as "unisex", but since I was in a store that sold only men's jeans, I think they were, and probably still are, made with men in mind. On their website, all the styles are modelled by men. There are some websites that model them on women, and these are usually the skinniest styles (like the Skinny Lin) in the fabrics that contain stretch.

This makes buying Nudies somewhat tricky where sizing is concerned. I'm usually a 30 in women's sizes, but in my preferred Nudie styles, I'm a 31 if it's raw denim. Maybe it's because I have fuller hips and thighs, and men's styles usually have narrower hips.

My current pair of Nudies are in the Grim Tim style, in dry selvedge denim - zero stretch - with a button fly. It has a mid-rise, sitting about an inch below my belly button. These ones are size 31, with a 32-inch inseam (as labelled) and the rise measures about 10 inches (see pix to see where I measured). They have been prewashed (sanforised) so there was unlikely to be significant shrinkage.

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They are more than two years old (my first pair went missing). On men, they look slim and straight. On me, they sit around my hips, thighs and calves fairly tightly, like skinny jeans, but from the widest part of the calf down, they're straight through the ankle.

Here's a picture of the full length. I'm about 1.79m, and the hem hits just below my ankle bone.

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In my experience, stiff denim like this doesn't break down that quickly unless you wear them every single day, and like, ride a motorcycle or something. If you wear them on average once a week, and the most extreme thing you do is to kneel down to tie your shoe laces, as I do, they're not going to fade that much in the first year.

In my case, the wash has faded evenly and it it still looks pretty dark overall (though a tad darker in these pictures than in real life) because due to an unfortunate food spill situation, I had to wash them about two months after I bought them. When you wash them that quickly after you buy them, the indigo will bleed out more evenly, and the natural whiskering and fading you're hoping for won't happen till much, much later. So if the worn-in effect is what you're after, don't wash them until at least 6 months after you buy them, and wear them daily.

Speaking of bleeding out, raw denim can wreak serious denim transfer havoc, so beware if you're wearing or carrying anything light coloured. If you're wondering whether it has stopped bleeding, take a piece of white paper and rub it against your jeans to find out.

Fit-wise, these do start to mould themselves to your shape within days of wear, but they do not stretch a whole size bigger with time. My jeans have stayed pretty much the same size as when I bought them, and since that first wash, I've washed them about every eight months to a year - when you live in the sweaty, humid tropics, you just can't go too long without washing your jeans as advised by hardcore lovers of dry denim.

I'd always thought that technically, dry or raw denim means they haven't been sanforised, and they might shrink a bit the first time you wash them, but I've also seen terms like "raw sanforised denim" so I'm a bit fuzzy about the term - best to simply ask when you're buying. My jeans, (which are sanforised) felt a bit snug after my first wash, but not to the extent that I couldn't button them all the way up, and they pretty much relaxed as fit and they originally did after 10 minutes of wear.

I've read that shrinkage differs from fabric to fabric, and I've also read about people sitting in a tub while wearing their jeans when they wash them the first time, so that it fits properly after shrinking. I think this is overkill - unless you bought them incredibly tight, it's not going to shrink so much that you can't get them on or wear them comfortably, and the nature of denim is to loosen up over time as you keep wearing and washing them.

My advice when buying dry Nudies is buy the one that fits best in the store, and don't size down for fear of stretching. A close fit may be what you're after, but what's important is that you can sit, squat, and bend over comfortably. It's important to understand that raw, zero-stretch denim will never look or feel like your favourite skinny jeans. If your heart is with skinny jeans, stick to something with a bit of stretch. 100% raw denim is stiff and needs a lot of wearing to soften.

So why buy raw denim at all? Personally, I love non-stretch denim - whether they're raw or pre-distressed, they have wonderfully rugged texture and heft, almost like wood grain. It's what makes denim special as a material.

I have noticed that unstretchy denim is more common in dark washes these days.  I've long preferred lighter, broken-in washes, but then I became aware of the environmental damage from producing pre-distressed jeans, and it seemed safer to seek out dark, less "processed" models. (You can also go vintage, as I recently did, but more about that in a separate post.)

While I do own jeans with some stretch, they're exceptions. Denim that is too stretchy and tight has this way of outlining everything - including the shape of my kneecaps - that I hate, and they also flatten my bum. They also have this weird sheen and smoothness to them, which takes the joy out of denim for me.

Not everyone will love Nudies - the back pocket placement, for one, is more flattering on men, although the upside is that they're properly deep and spacious like REAL pockets, as opposed to the decorative nonsense you usually get on women's jeans. Getting the right fit is also a hassle - my friend is a fan of the Tight Long Johns, as are many women, but they look terrible on me.

The best way to tell whether dry, zero-stretch denim is for you is to go to a store and touch and try everything. That's what I did, although when it came down to buying, I bought them online, because it was cheaper. The best prices I've found for Nudie are on Mr Porter, and before I ordered I made sure I noted every detail of the style I wanted when I tried it in the store. Mr Porter also has a decent exchange and return policy that I can vouch for through personal experience, and that's important when you're buying something like jeans.

You can read all about Nudies as a brand here. When I first started buying Nudie jeans, they were all made in Italy, and so is my current pair. More recently, they have outsourced more of their production to India, mainly for other none-denim items in their line like their shirting.

Are there brands other than Nudies to consider? Sadly, most premium denim labels making dry denim are making them for men, and 90% of "raw" styles for women contain stretch, so if you're firmly committed to zero stretch, the options are limited. I've wondered why this is so - the argument is that demand from women is low, but maybe this wouldn't be the case if there were more flattering zero-stretch styles that suit more body types.

Nudie and A.P.C. are the most accessible where raw denim is concerned, because they have a reasonably large number of stockists, and I find Nudie more accessibly priced and more varied in choices. Brands like Imogen + Willie or Tellason carry maybe one style in rigid denim that contains no stretch. But unlike A.P.C. and Nudie, these brands make it a point to tell you precisely which mill and their denim comes from (Cone Mills seem to be the mill of choice).

I like the look of 3sixteen jeans and they carry four styles in a variety of fabrics, which might fit some women. But I'm unlikely to order expensive jeans via pricey international shipping with no certainty on how they fit, and in any case, I have no need for new raws. They also have a collaboration with Self Edge that includes women's styles - with a bit of stretch.

I should stress there is nothing wrong with stretch denim. You will still get nice fades over time - I did with an ancient pair of H&M skinnies. Plus, you can wear them on long plane rides and not want to slit your wrists. But rigid, unstretchy denim has a different attitude altogether, and so long as you don't go out there and buy the tightest pair you can squeeze in, they're perfectly comfortable.

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

effective style

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Photographs: @apc_paris on Instagram

I'm not a big A.P.C. fan, although I admire their things once in a while. But I thought this bit in a piece by Jon Caramanica in NYT (which was actually about WANT Les Essentiels de la vie) summed up the low-key cool of the brand very nicely:

"The clothes encode confidence with only the tiniest of gestures. With a trained eye, you can spot them in the wild, and know that the people savvy enough to wear them have a special kind of zip hiding underneath.This is an admirable place for a brand to be, or to aim for: a mainstream look for non-mainstream people. We — all of us — like to look … effective, and with minimal effort. And there are precious few fashion-minded brands that have that built into their DNA: A.P.C., Unis, Uniqlo on the masstige side, smaller outfits like Harmony."

(In a nice coincidence, he also mentioned Uniqlo, which I am also a fan of, in the same breath.)

On the A.P.C. Instagram account are posts of what their staff around the world wear in the shops, and they are living examples of the vibe Jon Caramanica describes. No doubt they dress knowing they're representing the brand. But being people who spend long hours on their feet for their job, their outfits are also practical and sensible, without sacrificing style. I can get behind that.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

tropical travel heroes, and other random thoughts about packing

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On the 8th day of a trip to Sri Lanka in December, I discovered that I had picked up a new habit - if I wasn't planning to shower the next morning, I would sleep in the clothes I planned to wear the next day. It was delightfully slovenly, yet time-saving, and only possible because of the nature of the clothing I tend to pack when I'm travelling, especially when I am backpacking.

I was travelling with my travel hero items: drawstring-waist trousers in some kind of soft, wrinkle-resistant, breathable material, bonus if it contains a tiny bit of stretch. If you find something in a flattering cut that can be dressed up or down (and slept in!), stock up. They're more comfortable than jeans, essential if you're travelling somewhere conservative and roll up like a dream. Mine are inexpensive viscose ones from Forever 21 and Cotton On, and while I'm often tempted to grab more pairs, these ones have been virtually indestructible, which is horrible from a landfill point of view but awesome as a wardrobe staple. I can dress them up when need be with a pretty blouse, or sit comfortably on a hot, dusty bus for six hours in them. They work for most warm or moderate climates (late spring, summer, early fall) and wash and dry easily - a godsend in the tropics when you perspire a lot on the go - and are a great screen against mosquitoes and other bugs.

It's easy to let style take a backseat when you're wilting your way through the tropics, especially if you're not lounging by the beach and being chauffeured around. But after years of backpacking - shared bathrooms, bunk beds, et al - I've come to develop a uniform built around comfort and practicality, where I still feel like I've put together a decent outfit I'm willing to wear on the streets back home. These trousers are one example - I wear them on an everyday basis too, not just for travel.

Because these trousers also sit higher on the waist, I can wear t-shirts and tanks that are boxy and slightly cropped without showing skin. You may laugh at the idea that a few inches can make such a big difference, but cropped t-shirts truly let more breeze in, and the the whole effect is also a lot less "pajama party" than with longer t-shirts. I like white but heather grey is the most practical option - when you have to scrub out rings of dirt around the neckline of a white t-shirt, you'll wonder why anyone packs white things to travel in at all...

Alternatively, I also like Uniqlo's sleeveless linen shirts for a more pulled-together look. Linen shifts are also a great option - two of my favourites are from Muji. I like them knee-length for practicality, boxy fit for comfort, and with pockets, always so handy for stuffing a handkerchief in for mopping a sweaty face.

If I'm travelling somewhere with strict rules about covering up when entering a place of worship (where simply covering the shoulders isn't enough), I bring along a men's collar-less linen shirt I bought years ago, and wear it like a jacket when need be. It's handier than wrapping a scarf around me (which gets in the way when I'm taking photos) and I like the option of being able to take it off, instead of wearing long-sleeves all day.

On the beach, I don't care what I wear over my swimmers. I have two pairs of board shorts (plain, logo-free), and any t-shirt that's become too faded or pilled to wear out on the streets become my beach cover-up of the moment. I do have a very comfortable loose-knit pullover made of viscose from Cotton On because sometimes long sleeves in a quick-dry material is comforting when the wind is strong and you're still damp from the sea. I am bratty about putting on damp swimmers in the morning, so I always pack at least three sets of bikinis so that there's always a dry set to change into.

These items pretty much add up to a formula that works for almost all occasions - if I throw in a merino wool sweater, a parka, and a pair of jeans, I'm all set for cooler climes. Shoe-wise, I get by on almost all holidays with a pair of sneakers and a pair of flip-flops. I never take anything dressy unless I specifically planned something into my itinerary.

Other little things that help:
- Packing cubes like the kind by Eagle Creek or Muji - keeps things organised tidy. I only like the small ones though, because anything bigger encourages stuffing in more things, and plus the bigger ones don't work for backpacks.
- Cotton drawstring bags for shoes and dirty laundry (plus some plastic grocery bags for the truly dirty items). I use the ones that you sometimes get when you buy shoes. Or pillow cases.
- Lots of socks and undies. When it comes to these two things, more is more.
- Flip-flops. Useful in tropical downpours, on the beach, in dirty hostel rooms and bathrooms, or at a campsite after a day of hiking.

What are your holiday heroes?

Saturday, February 06, 2016

a bit of love for the basics

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If I had to pick a store where I've consistently left with wardrobe gems I refuse to let go of, it would be  Uniqlo, where I have consistently shopped for nearly a decade. I buy necessary foundations like socks (from the men's section), undies and bras, base layers like those Airism tanks with built in bras (so comfortable) or the odd Heat Tech. I buy "utility" clothing like shorts (denim and chinos), t-shirts, lightweight fleece and down pieces for winter/fall travel. I buy well-done basics that have a bit of flair: linen shirts (long-sleeved, sleeveless) and summer dresses (a flowing midi-length dress, boxy linen shirt dresses). In this universe of basics in every colour, there are even "special finds" - I'm in love with a French workman-style denim jacket from the new collab with Ines de la Fressange.

In a shop like Uniqlo - compared to say, Zara - I feel like I'm more likely to figure out my personal style. Like all trend-driven stores, Zara is the instantly gratifying conduit to what's happening now. You can come out looking like you've stepped out of a magazine. It's like a highly polished performance.

A shop like Uniqlo on the other hand is style evolution at a slower pace. There are nods to trends (like wide-leg trousers and culottes), and seasonally-refreshed colour palettes, but generally, one starts with the basics before the eye adjusts and starts to pick out pieces that elevate the foundations you've bought - a navy bomber here, a men's shirt for layering there. There's something very relaxing shopping in a place that doesn't sell a look, where it's not about the vision of a particular designer. I do love the inspiration that comes from fashion, but as a regular person with a life that demands practicality, my sensibilities are grounded by something much more down to earth.

This note of appreciation for Uniqlo stemmed from the realisation that I somehow did almost all my Lunar New Year shopping there, the above two items being prime examples. The dress on the left is an excellent weight linen that tempts me to buy one in every colour. The jacket is a little out of character for me seeing as I wear a lot of jeans and am not a fan of double-denim pairings. But they look great with dresses and are a great alternative to the cardigans I wear in the office. I recently did a spring clean where I had to discard some clothes that I loved but that had become too worn to keep wearing. But as in the years before, I didn't throw out anything from Uniqlo.

Meanwhile, the folks of Put This On had a good post recently on what makes street style interesting, in which they shared a nice quote from Styleforum owner Fok Yan Leung:

"The problem with “fashion people” who are often photographed is that it’s much too easy to fall into the trap of looking all uniquely the same. You shop in the same stores, you replenish your clothing regularly, you work the fashion circuit, and it would take an extraordinary sense of self to not be influenced by globalized fashion. That, or you react so strongly to or against that you become a caricature.

On the other hand, random people on the street who look cool probably took their time to purchase their clothing and want to look good, but they are not surrounded by “fashion, fashion, fashion” constantly. And their dress has to fit their lifestyles, which does not generally involve being around a bunch of fashion people all day. So you have someone who might find a uniform and wear it for 5 years (a lifetime in fashion). Or someone who buys several pieces every year and incorporates them into his wardrobe, thus evolving their own style, but at a much slower pace than fashion is changing."    


Sunday, January 17, 2016

lately...

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Photographer: Tim Hout via Apiece Apart

A few nights ago, I spent a fair bit of time window shopping online, and the following day, I spent a day out shopping where I relentlessly tried stuff. I bought nothing. I was feeling restless, style-wise, but I didn't actually want anything new. I was merely bored, and thankfully, impulse control prevailed.

One of the things I used to do was to collect images of inspiration, and post them on my Tumblr or here. I stopped doing that due to lack of time to read blogs and blog, but then I started wondering into shops more, often something trying stuff on just see how something looked on me. And this predictably, led to actual purchases.

At the end of the day, I'm drawn to simple pieces, usually based on classic shapes, and it's not impossible to update a wardrobe of such pieces to acknowledge the current - an unexpected shoe-pairing here, some layering there, taking up the hems of an old shirt or dress. Which means some of the things I buy don't end up getting much traction, because nice as they are, they never meant much to begin with. I could have done more with what I had.

So I started slowing down and lingering over fashion imagery I like again, in particular looking out for looks that remind me of things I already have, or pair similar pieces in unexpected ways. I started pulling out things I'd stopped wearing for a while and trying them on when I had the time - sometimes I think of new ways to wear them, sometimes they're fit differently from how I remembered. Even if there is nothing remarkable about an outfit - it doesn't take much imagine to put together a simple long-sleeved top, jeans and white trainers - I think seeing it done well on another person, beautifully photographed, is a nice reminder that gets me going: "Why am I over-thinking it when this works so well?"

The types of images I go for are ones featuring a style and colour palette similar to what I own, and I avoid things that I know have no place in my life: heels, formal clothing, winter-wear, to name a few. Yes, there is the chance that looking at such images prompts a craving to buy new things, but usually the urge passes.

"Shop your closet" has become a catchphrase, like "investment buys", but unlike the latter, I think it's immensely sensible, surprisingly fun and it actually saves you money. If you're at that stage of your life when you've spent at least a decade buying your own clothes, and you have a decent trove* of clothing to tap, you shouldn't let that go to waste.

*This is why I think decluttering is overrated. It's too easy to go overboard with the purging.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

blank canvas

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When my I finally accepted the fact that it was time to part ways with my filthy Converse trainers last year - the filthiness was tolerable to me, the rip on one side made it impractical - I got a new pair. I've always loved trainers, and my Chucks (classic low tops) had been a faithful companion for about seven good years. Getting a new pair reminded me of the freshness a new pair of white trainers added to clothing. My old ones had lots of character no doubt but a clean new pair took my same old outfits in a new direction - zippier, sporty but more pulled-together.

First, I bought a model hilariously named the Dainty (above). It is less chunky than the classic All-Stars and cut lower at the ankle, and something of a refreshing change for big-footed girls like me. I love it mainly for its off-white-and-navy colourway. I'd always gone for the off-white with blue and red trim, and losing the red seems to make for a more understated vibe. I loved and wore it frequently, especially on holidays.

This happy trainer update opened me to the idea of a more "formal" variation on the theme - plain white leather Jack Purcells. Jack Purcells (owned by Converse since the 1970s) look a little more grown-up and in white leather, they are very much in line with the currently fashionable Common Projects/Adidas Stan Smiths look.

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They're also more comfortable than classic Chucks (but I'm not comparing against the latest version with Nike sole technology) and the quality in my opinion is better than the Stan Smiths. I especially love how they look with dresses and tailored trousers and shirts for work.

Incidentally, January is always shoe-buying month for me - it coincides with the sales so it's good for snapping up a bargain. Also, I've always felt Chinese New Year (in Feb) calls for new shoes so unconsciously I start looking out.

It's also the time of the year where I delude myself into thinking maybe a sweater dress isn't all that impractical in Singapore (because so many are going on sweet discounts and look so awesome). But I've not made that mistake this year so far, and hope to keep it that away.

Another shopping resolution for the year: Rein in the tendency to shop my feelings. It's been going on for about 18 months now and it needs to stop.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

discoveries and disappointments

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All my essentials, between my feet, Kandy, Sri Lanka, Dec 2015

I stole this post title from a piece I read in the Financial Times in which their travel contributors gavetheir take on their travel discoveries and disappointments of the year. It seemed like a good way of summing up some of the thoughts that had been poking at me during my latest holiday in Sri Lanka (I had a GREAT time in Sri Lanka, which I will share about in more detail in a separate post).

One of the things that struck me as I was planning for my trip was how the term "Instagram-able" has become an acceptable way of describing a place or a thing. This annoyed me because it's so lazy - what does it even mean? It surprised me, that despite the proliferation of travel blogs, it isn't easy to find good ones offering practical advice, or providing a good sense of that person's experience on the ground.

I've found that it's better to choose words over photos when researching my destinations. Yes, photos play a role in piquing my interest, but they can be deceptive. A lot of places look more impressive than photos suggest. A lot of places are exactly what they are. And a lot of places are fairly underwhelming.

True, there aren't many real frontiers left to explore in this world, but that doesn't mean we can't preserve a little mystique by deliberately leaving some things to chance. Sometimes it's better to read about the place, and avoid looking at pictures. Sometimes it's better to just turn up and decide for yourself whether a place means something to you.

My best travel discoveries these year were awesome because they were actual discoveries for me. A museum I decided to pop into because a few years earlier, I had read a fascinating article about it. A town I had to visit because I'd always had a soft spot for the Byzantines. I went to all these places on instinct and it was ok if I didn't love them.

Even though I usually travel on a limiting schedule - I get 21 days of paid leave a year and I don't usually get to spend more than two weeks in a country - I've become more determined to be a little more spontaneous on holidays. For example, I don't always book all my accommodation in advance so that I can make last minute changes to my itinerary, and I don't force myself to do everything I planned on doing. This has meant some frightful hotel experiences but nothing I don't get over in about 30 minutes.

Onto the discoveries:

The mosaics of Ravenna, Italy
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The Byzantine-era mosaics I saw in Turkey left a big impression on me, and one of the souvenirs I picked up on that trip was a very good book simply titled "Byzantium", a concise and accessibly written history of the empire. The author, Judith Herrin, had mentioned some mosaics she had seen as a girl that left a deep impression, in Ravenna, a province in Italy. When a friend and I decided to visit Italy in April, I insisted we make a detour to Ravenna to see these mosaics.

As it turns out, the mosaics, in particular the ones at the mausoleum of Galla Placidia (above), are the perfect example of things that look better in real life. None of the few pictures I saw before I got there prepared me for what I saw. None of the photos I took captured the way the tiny, gem-like tiles glittered in the light, the way they seem to suspend time. Over a thousand years old - built in the fifth century - they felt as alive as the day they were finished. In the nearby town of Lido di Classe was my favourite accommodation of the whole trip, Ca' Barbona - the owners are friendly, the rooms are cozy and pretty, and the food will warm your heart and stomach. It was the epitome of the type of bed and breakfast I didn't know still existed.

The Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj in Rome, Italy
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I read this Vanity Fair story some years ago, so it was with some amusement when my friend and I, while strolling down Via del Corso in search of shopping (I admit it, I was looking for & Other Stories), saw a sign for the palazzo. It is pricey to enter, the way private museums usually are. And the art collection, while boasting some very fine pieces, might be best described as the "B-side" of an artist's portfolio - less popular, or actually just not as good. But the family, a very aristocratic one, has had a bit of drama in recent years, which adds a certain intrigue to the visit - particularly as the audio guide is narrated by one of the heirs. It's interesting because beyond the art, the visit gives you an idea of what it's like to be royalty in Italy, and what might simply be a series of sumptuously decorated state rooms take one a liveliness when you realise people actually still live there. I spied a bottle of shampoo stashed behind a shelf in the marbled bathroom. It could be a clever prop, but it made all the difference between a relic and a living space.

Lido di Venice, Italy
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Venice is beautiful, and it is possible, despite the crowds, to walk into an alley and feel transported. But I needed a break from all the grandeur, and so I took the water taxi to Lido di Venezia, another island. Lido is touristy in its own right - it's wide, flat sandy beaches have attracted no less by Lord Byron himself, while September brings celebrities for the Venice Film Festival. But when we visited in April, the sunny beaches were relatively quiet and perfect for picnics. Beautiful Art Deco buildings sit next to the more pedestrian modern residential buildings, and the whole place has an assuming, relaxed vibe. I have never been to Miami but I imagine Lido looks like the low-key, European version.

The national parks of Sri Lanka
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Poring over a map of Sri Lanka, I'd noticed a large number of national parks, but it took actually being there for me to appreciate the amazing biodiversity of the country. In the north, the famous Sigiriya rock is surrounded by quite a few national parks, and the lush, undulating forest beneath your feet is breathtaking. Above is Horton Plains National Park, high up on a plateau in hilly tea country. While World's End, a look-out point, is its top-billed attraction, I recommend spending more time exploring its less tread-upon trails. Clocked in mist, it is otherworldly in its beauty - winding rivers, waterfalls, rolling grasslands (I preferred the open trails to walking under the cover of the cloud forest) - and boasts Sri Lanka's second- and third-highest peaks, both fairly easy climbs. The downside is the considerable cost of hiring a driver to bring you there - and the longer you stay the more it will cost you. But it's easy enough to make friends with fellow guests at your guesthouse (most people staying in the nearby town of Nuwara Eliya are there for Horton Plains).

And the disappointments:
- Actually, this one is simple: anywhere and anything that has become an Instagram cliche

Hope 2015 has been kind to everyone, and here's to more adventure in 2016.