1. 65th Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival
September 27th to 29th, 2019
‘As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea. . . I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy’ Ernest Hemingway
Since 1954, the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival has made over half a million people as happy as clams. With over three million oysters slurped down over its 65-year history, it’s the world’s longest running oyster festival.
What’s so special about this festival in particular?
Is it the dancing bands, cheerleaders and great live music? Or maybe it’s Galway itself, a cheerful blend of winding medieval cobblestone lanes, chic cafes and boutiques? The answer is a combination of everything, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Ostrea edulis – a mollusc.
And not just any mollusc.
What entices crowds to the Seafood Capital of Ireland is the more exclusive, more expensive wild Atlantic version – the native ‘flat’ oyster – with a wild gamy taste that top chefs describe as ‘the best flavoured in the world’.
For Vitamin Sea foodies, the festival is pure fantasyland. Cooking talks and demonstrations by top chefs are gingered up by Mardi Gras masquerades, parades, a festive food village and no lack of tasting opportunities (don’t miss the uniquely Irish beef and oyster pie).
For many, the highlight of the festival is the World Oyster Opening Championship, which attracts national oyster shucking champions from across the seven seas. Winners are those who open their 30 oysters the fastest and display them the most artistically.
Book online and get entry into the marquee, where you can come out your shell and sample as many of these high-protein, low-fat, zinc rich aphrodisiacs as you wish. A must if you enjoy what novelist Tom Robbins calls ‘French kissing a mermaid’.
September 21 to October 6, 2019
‘Give me a woman who loves beer and I will conquer the world’ Kaiser Wilhelm
Munich, Germany, 1810. Deciding against a possible marriage to Napoleon, Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen agrees to wed Crown Prince Ludwig. Overjoyed, Ludwig invites the citizens of Munich to a knee’s up in city’s fields. After a few Teutonic-sized steins, the citizens christen the spot Theresienwiese (Theresa's fields).
After a few more steins, the inspired mob settle on the name Wiesn, a sensible, two syllable word that can be grunted out even when completely Brahms and Liszt.
Even today, locals only refer to Oktoberfest as Wiesn. Whatever name it goes by, Oktoberfest is the biggest annual party in Europe. With 7.2 million attending the free event in 2018 and sculling through 6.9 million litres of beer and over 1.3 million litres of wine, the statistics – like many of the revellers – are staggering.
Festivities begin at noon on September 21, with the Lord Mayor’s traditional keg tapping ceremony. From then until October 6 the frothy stuff flows like the Rhine, from themed tents that can seat over 6,000 mellow souls.
Booking tickets well in advance is recommended, but its worth trying your luck at the Ochsenbraterie for superb roasts and live entertainment, or the Augustiner Festhall for the smooth Augustiner brew that’s poured from wooden barrels.
Ultimately, thanks to a legion of smaller tents with beer and food in abundance, no-one goes thirsty at Oktoberfest, so you can be guaranteed a seat and a mug in your hand.
As fetching as they are, it's a no-no to get too attached to a beer glass. Remember those stats earlier? In 2018, over 110, 000 blushing brigands were foiled for attempting to walk off with a mug.
An alternative to Oktoberfest is the Stuttgart Beer Festival. Just two hours by train from the city of Munich, the 200-year-old festival runs from September 27 to October 13.
Less crowded, it also provides a proper Bavarian festival experience, with dirndl, lederhosen, beer tents, authentic German food, oompah-pah music, fireworks, and even a hot air balloon race.
3. White Nights in Malta & Paris
5 October, 2019
‘Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist’ René Magritte
Switch off the Netflix and binge instead on the arts, culture and music on epic all-nighters at Notte Bianca festival in Valletta or Nuit Blanche in Paris.
‘Inqas rqad, aktar arti (‘less sleep, more art)' is the Maltese call to action at Notte Bianca (white night), as the Valletta cityscape is transformed into a dazzling light and sound extravaganza, a celebration of creativity in all its forms and free to the public.
Walk in the footsteps of TVs Ayra Stark in Fort St Angelo. Unleash your inner royal in the legendary Grandmaster’s Palace. Gawp at the baroque bling of St Johns Co-Cathedral.
Hop on live entertainment-filled Three Cities to Valletta shuttle and don’t pay the ferryman. Whether cobbled alley, grand piazza or stunning marina, you’ll find visual art exhibitions, theatre performances, live concerts, dance exhibitions, sound and digital installations, all liberally sprinkled with dusk ‘til dawn cafés and restaurants.
Meanwhile in Paris, things will get into the groove with the theme of motion – inspired by a scene from Jean Luc Godard film Band of Outsiders, and the fact that Paris will be hosting the 2024 Olympics.
Musicians and dancers will whiz by on ornate platforms while the Porte de Pantin to the Porte de la Villette will be transformed into a people’s velodrome (think Blade Runner on bikes). Show you’re no couch potato and join in a run or walk across the city, as a sea of trainers run through the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Louvre, the Pompidou and many more.
4. Marradi Chestnut Festival, Italian Apennines
6, 13, 20 & 27 October, 2019
‘A San Martino castagne e vino (Chestnuts & wine at St Martin’s)' Traditional*
‘Le castagne, le caldarroste, bruciate ubriache! (‘chestnuts, roasted chestnuts, drunk chestnuts)' bellows a genial Luciano Pavarotti type in Marradi’s old town square.
Set beside the crystal River Lamone in the Tuscan-Romagna Apennines, Marradi is a picture-postcard mountain town of medieval walls, red brick roofs, domed churches, winding alleys and charming balconies with wood-shuttered windows.
Held every Sunday in October, Marradi's chestnut festival is one of Tuscany’s finest and goes back centuries, with versatile, high-calorie chestnuts being a staple food of the Mugello mountainfolk since time immemorial.
Protected by law as the Marrone del Mugello IGP, this chestnut variety is considered numero uno in Italy.
In autumn, the Capital of Chestnuts comes to life, when countless stalls along streets and alleyways heave with local delicacies made from the prickle-coated nut.
Discover recipes perfected over centuries for Torta di Marroni (chestnut cake), Tuscan necci crepes or Castagnaccio cannoli, filled with ricotta cream and chestnut honey. Offset the sweet with savoury flat, toasted piadine or crescione wraps from Romagna. Toast with drunk chestnuts, roasted, soaked in grappa or new wine, flambéed and sprinkled with sugar.
Why not make a proper meal of the festival? From Florence, catch either the ‘Black Giant’ a very old steam train, or the quieter ‘Dante Train’.
All the way to Marradi, feast your eyes on panoramas of historical towns, emerald-cloaked mountains, olive groves, rolling vineyards, ancient farmhouses, orchards and the Casentino Forest National Park, filled with wild beech and chestnut, deer, wild boar and even wolves.
*Old Italian rhyming mnemonic to ensure the new wine was ready to be served with chestnuts on the Feast of St Martin.
5. Air Balloon Festivals & New Mexico in the Fall
October 5 to 13, 2019
‘We could not help feeling a certain mixture of awe and admiration’ Benjamin Franklin*
Every year in October, the sugar maples of New Mexico’s national parks blaze in a glorious explosion of reds, oranges, golds and purples. Add to that natural show a magical moving theatre of hundreds of hot air balloons, sailing silently through the crisp October air.
Welcome to Mass Ascension at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, in the US state aptly named the Land of Enchantment.
Every morning is mystical thanks to the Dawn Patrol, a group of selected balloons that launch before sunrise to catch the breaking dawn. Not to be outdone, a magical night landscape is created every sunset, when balloons are lit up by their burners.
Counterbalancing all this sublime is the ridiculous (and super-fun) Special Shapes Rodeo, where special builds such as cacti, stage coaches, aliens, Jim Beam bottles and hulking animals make the jaw drop as they fill with gas.
You can even have this almost religious experience nearly all to yourself. Consider upgrading to the VIP Gondola Club ($110 per adult) and enjoy the balloons away from the crowds, or hire you own concierge, complete with golf cart and driver ($350). Purchase tickets in advance.
While in Albuquerque, viewing the autumn colours is a must. Just outside the city is Cibola National Forest and the Fourth of July Canyon, where spectacular New Mexico scenery combines with the orange, red, and purple hues from the Rocky Mountain maples and Bigtooth maples to sensational effect.
For more fabulous fall colours and balloons, hop on the amazing Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and head for the quieter Taos Mountain Balloon Rally (Oct 27-29).
*US statesman and inventor Franklin witnessed the first manned balloon ascent by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris, 1783.
6. Grape Harvest Festival in Montmartre, Paris
09 Oct to 13 Oct, 2019
‘Wine is inspiring and adds greatly to the joy of living’ Napoleon Bonaparte
The City of Light raises up spirits and thrills the senses like no other. With the creeping tread of winter approaching, the Grape Harvest Festival (Fête des Vendanges) in Paris’s Montmartre will keep your joie de vivre brimming over for months.
Paris’s celebration of the grape reaches back into the mists of time. After vanquishing Vercingetorix’s Gauls, Julius Caesar’s conquering forces built a temple to their vinum-quaffing god Bacchus on hills that ran thick with vines – and named the land Lutetia.
Over 2,000 years later, Bacchus’s old perch has long gone. In its place is the Sacré-Cœur cathedral in modern day Montmartre. Presiding over Paris, the decorous cathedral became a symbol of the Belle Époque and, along with fine cuisine, other ornate monuments and a distinct Bohemian energy, ensures Montmartre’s ‘beautiful era’ stays very much alive and high-kicking.
A lot of that la belle vie flows from Paris’s only working vineyard, the exquisite little Clos Montmartre, source of the wine consumed at the five-day festival since 1934.
At the 85th festival this year, the district’s cultural heritage, diversity and unique village atmosphere – which permeates secret gardens and petite cabarets such as the timeless Moulin Rouge – will be celebrated through the theme of colour.
Expect an explosion of shades and sorcery, tones and tunes, tastes and textures. Restaurants and street food markets throughout the 16th arrondissement will be filled with local and regional delicacies.
Armies of schoolchildren will paint the steps of Montmartre’s famous 14 staircases in kaleidoscopic hues. Giant papier-mache puppets, masked harlequins, street artists, multi-cultural musicians and dynamic dancers will add to the psychedelic programme of events, which includes a closing rainbow ball beneath the Sacré-Cœur hosted by a top Parisian DJ.
With Paris being Paris, you could easily come over all romantic. In that case, why not declare your love at the popular Non-Marriage Ceremony?
While a wine-tasting trip to the Loire Valley, Bordeaux or Champagne might be the done thing, popping into Paris for a quick festival pick-me-up is simply fantastique.
7. Day of the Dead, Mérida, Mexico
28 October to 2 November, 2019
‘After all, to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure’ J.K. Rowling
Celebrating life on the Day of the Dead in Mexico should be on everyone’s bucket list. Día de los Muertos is a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime experience that thrills, chills and ultimately rewards with a vivid memory to treasure – that while death might be final, it also might be a lot of fun.
Day of the Dead is the most colourful, vibrant and culturally dynamic event in Mexico’s already colourful annual calendar.
Visit Mérida during its one-week celebration and you’ll see intricately painted Catrina faces, shops, altars and graveyards decorated with orange marigold flowers, painted or sugar skulls, and entire families gathering around candlelit graveyards sharing traditional foods and tequila, surrounded by mariachis playing music and singing for the departed.
Seem a little strange?
Mourning the dead was considered disrespectful by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs. ¡Asústame panteón! (scare me cemetery!) is a typical Mexican saying, expressing fearlessness of death. Which is not surprising coming from the descendants of sacrificial juego de pelota Maya (Maya ballgame players).
For pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase of life. The dead were forever family, to be kept alive in memory and spirit and celebrated on their temporary return to Earth once a year.
One of the best places to experience Día de los Muertos is in Mérida, the welcoming capital of the Yucatán state, home of the Maya civilisation, Chichén Itza temple and flamingo-rich Celestun National Park. It is also the safest city in Mexico with low crime rates.
For a week, Mérida erupts in colour and life-affirming joy (unlike Hallowe’en’s dark night of terror and devilry), with ceremonial processions, outdoor theatres and Mayan and Spanish song and dance. Celebrating a flaca (the skinny one) doesn’t get more liberating than this.
8. Festival of Lights in Mauritius
27 Oct, 2019
‘Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius’ Mark Twain
For an extremely exotic adventure – complete with fairytale beaches, swaying coconut palms, 25oC average daily temperatures, wild lions, cheetahs and a made for Instagram Indian festival celebrated over 2,000 miles away from its motherland – make it Mauritius.
Location of choice for Bollywood blockbusters, celeb visitors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kylie Minogue, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Mauritius is the embodiment of a paradise island.
Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, adds another colourful reason to visit this island of powder-white-sand beaches.
Mauritius has the highest percentage of Hindus in Africa. In the 1840s, thousands left the sub-continent behind to work in colonial sugarcane plantations. Over the years, the Asian arrivals helped transform the island into a peace-loving multicultural, multilingual haven as evidenced by the local Creole tongue, a mixture of Indian and African languages.
This happy masala is what brings travellers and locals of every shade and creed to celebrate Diwali in Mauritius.
The already heavenly island becomes a vision fit for the gods, as houses, gardens and buildings are adorned with clay lamps, candles and multi-hued lights and skies sparkle with fireworks to ward off evil spirits and symbolise the start of summer.
Diwali in Mauritius is a public holiday and there are public celebrations in most towns and villages as Hindus and everyone else celebrates Lord Ram’s victorious return, new beginnings and victory of good over evil.
The best towns to experience Diwali are Quatre Bornes, Sodnac, and Triolet, home town of the most elaborate decorations, light displays and firework shows.
Many neighbourhoods, such as Curepipe, have a house that welcomes any passer-by inside for Diwali treats. If you find such a house, be sure to feast on the traditional Mauritian Diwali sweet, gateau patate, made with sweet potato and coconut.
9. Pirates Week Festival, Cayman Islands
7-17 November, 2019*
‘For my part, I am the innocentest person of them all’ Captain William Kidd
Beautiful beaches. Bewitching views. Bougie cocktails served in coconuts or pineapples. For many of us, a sun, sea, sand and sexily sunny holiday is a guilty pleasure we cannot resist. Add a dash of swashbuckling style and Pirates Week in the Caribbean is the hellraising bad boy of all bucket lists.
‘Wherever we want to go, we’ll go’ parps Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. It might come from a Hollywood scriptwriter, but the line does sum up a corsair’s unconstrained, cavalier attitude to life.
And it doesn’t more unconstrained than the Cayman Islands over three weekends that celebrate the devil-may-care swagger of golden age buccaneers.
The Caymans were once home to real-life pirates of the Caribbean. Pearl-white, honey-gold and luminescent-pink-sand beaches, coconut palms, rainbow-hued marine life, shallow reefs and shipwrecks lure over 35,000 visitors to the festival for three weekends of action-packed revelry across all three islands in the archetypal pirates’ paradise.
A riot of colour and laid-back Caribbean charm, the islands go all out to beat each other, with dozens of events including tall ship pirate sails and sea battles, pirate fight circles, story-telling, walk the plank, historic re-enactments, sporting events and costume competitions.
Throw in loads of crafts, culture, lively steel drums, song, dance and pirates aplenty, and it’s all one big, joyous party.
Encircled by coral reefs and pristine turquoise waters, the Cayman Islands are a marine paradise that offers the visitor much more than just festivities. Swim with the stingrays. Dive through schools of kaleidoscopic fish along coral reefs.
Explore Grand Cayman’s wild dry subtropical rainforest. Visit the world’s only green sea turtle farm. Go fishing for blue marlin, or just plonk yourself down on pink-sand Point of Sand beach, rum punch in hand.
*Weekends on alternate islands.
10. Sky Lantern Festival, Thailand
12 November, 2019*
‘When you realise how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky’ Gautama Buddha
Where did animators get their inspiration for Rapunzel and the floating lights in Tangled? Described by audiences as the most beautiful and moving scene in Disney’s history, the idea emerged from experiencing sky lantern festivals first hand.
The most magical of all lantern festivals takes place in Chang Mai, Thailand.
Here, in the Northern Lanna Kingdom, the festival is both spiritually euphoric and visually stunning. It’s been likened to thousands of pulsing jellyfish, being lost in a fantasy land, an organic galaxy of ever-changing constellations, dreamy and surreal, and like being in a fairytale.
Yee Peng (yee meaning two and peng, full moon) is held every full moon in the second month of the Lanna lunar calendar. Buddhists believe that if you make a wish when you release your lantern, it will come true, provided you do good deeds the following year.
Yee Peng coincides with Loy Krathong (Thai for float a basket) and involves floating little flaming baskets down the Ping River. Locals believe this is the time of year when rivers are at their fullest and the moon at its brightest – the ideal time to let go of bad karma, ills, adversity and to generate good fortune for the new year, which the release of lanterns and boats symbolise.
With homes and streets decorated with Chinese lanterns, metre long flame-powered lanterns rising en masse into the heavens and thousands of tiny candlelit boats sailing the Ping, the visual effect is like the river and sky are on fire. The emotional effect is a bit like how you felt when the clock turned twelve on your best ever New Year’s bash.
*Dates are subject to last minute changes, keep an eye on the expat sites.