Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

To all my readers, thank you for all your supportive comments through 2009 and best wishes for a healthy and fun-filled 2010. May your travel dreams come true.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus - He is in Finland (Rovaniemi, Finland)

Travelling north in Finland, the train crosses the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line at 66° 33′ 39″ north of the equator. All places north of this magical line receives at least one day of 24-hour sun and at least one day where the sun does not lift above the horizon at all. The travel wonder of Rovaniemi is fortuitously situated near the Arctic Circle and takes full advantage of its location. The interminable daylight presents a carpet of flowers and verdant forests flourishing in the brief warming summer months and turns the rivers into raging torrents as melting snow and ice escapes for the nearest oceans.

Most importantly, the town has established the existence of Santa Claus in Lapland. His village conveniently located just north of the Arctic Circle lives on a year-long Christmas celebration with the post office doing a roaring trade. Mr Claus receives over half a million requests a year for bicycles, dolls, electronic games, trucks and other assorted toys through the mail. Santa’s elves decked out in red and white toil away writing letters in response, selling a variety of tinsel-tinged festive paraphernalia and generally assisting Santa conduct his village.

Outside, Santa’s reindeer worn down with clichéd names like Dasher, Dancer and Rudolf loll around their paddocks, the July heat sapping their energy and the moult leaving their fur blotchy and untidy. They contently exchange pats and fondles for handfuls of food, blissfully unaware that their siblings provide a share of the Finnish menu, whether it be steaks, sausages or reindeer jerky.

Night times are strange in summer Rovaniemi – dusk and dawn merge together in a dull light without darkness setting in. Mosquitoes the size of tiny fighter jets swarm in black plumes dive-bombing bare skin with kamikaze passion, vacuuming precious red liquid from your body. The Finns recommend natural citronella over the various chemical concoctions – smelling like marmalade seems a small price to pay to fend off this savage attack force.

Maintaining a tradition practiced for centuries, Rovaniemi boasts a traditional smoke sauna. Taking hours for the wood-fuelled stove to heat the stone, the smoke is released and the people admitted. Sauna is serious business among Finns commenting on the löyly or steam in the same reverent terms that a winemaker will discuss a glass of red. Being a mixed group, everyone is wrapped in a towel, the sauna occasionally stoked with more löyly as water is tossed on the stones. The heat is intense but somehow gentle, small beads of sweat gradually turning into rivulets coursing down my torso. The wood provides a soothing forest aroma without any sense of smokiness.

The Finns chatter away in an incomprehensible language totally unrelated to the typical Slavic, Germanic or Romance-based languages of Europe, contented with the layer of mysticism the Finnish language adds to the country. Mind you, the long glass corridor of the Arktikum Museum strips away much of this mystery providing an excellent and detailed history of this northern land, its fascinating fauna and flora, the sparse population’s harmonious existence with nature and the harsh unforgiving winter battles fought during World War 2 (and the wilful destruction of the city by the Germans in retreat).

The local church highlights how everything is wrapped around the local Sami culture with a stunning central fresco and small supporting artworks, featuring a pious mixture of religion, reindeer and wintry weather.

Sensing a feeling of being well-cooked in the sauna’s heat, refreshment is available in the neighbouring river. The contrast of the water’s temperature gives a sensational burst of tingling freshness right through my body though the overwhelming cold of the currents quickly chases people out.

While people flock to this tiny township conveniently situated on the imaginary corridor of the Arctic Circle to capture an element of Christmas, there is an authentic Finnish experience available for those who want to wander a little beyond Santa’s Village.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Photo of the Week - Santa Claus (Santiago, Chile)

Unlike Santa Clauses in Australia with their cotton wool facial hair, the jolly red fellows in Santiago's main square of Plaza de Armas grow their own beards. Being the middle of summer, it is hot work for these joyous folks who distribute their Christmas cheer. The poor reindeer look like they have seen better days...

To all my readers, compliments of the season to you all and best wishes for a healthy and fun-filled 2010.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Luxury Holidays in the Maldives - Huvafen Fushi Hotel

guest post by Elegant Resorts

Formed in majority by 22 natural atolls and located in the Indian Ocean, this string of islands could well be one of the new seven wonders of the world. Independent from the United Kingdom since 1965, Maldives boasts of a population of just over 300,000 and one of the worlds best locations for luxury holidays and boasts some of the best beaches in the world.

The Huvafen Fushi Hotel located in the Maldives, is one of it's finest, and is just 24 km from the international airport. Geographically located 300 miles south west of India and Sri Lanka, Maldives is ideal for honeymoons or just to lose yourself in complete relaxation for a few days or weeks.

With temperatures ranging anywhere from seventy five to ninety one degrees year round, this is the ideal environment for any and all beach and water sport activities. For your private use, plunge pools are a staple with every room and beautiful views across the lagoon come as standard.

If fishing is your desire, you may join others on a fishing trip on a boat properly equipped, or rent a Dhoni (a boat that uses either sail or engine power), leave the hotel for a few days to experience the adventure and excitement of Maldives fishing. Clear crystal waters and 60 meter visibility make the Maldives ideal as a scuba diving destination. With over seven hundred species of fish and large quantities of underwater coral reef the Maldives ensures endless hours of fun for the passionate snorkeler.

Once you have arrived on the island your breath will be taken away by the beauty and serenity of this world class hotel. Visitors are welcomed by natives as a gesture of friendship and introduced to a relaxing atmosphere, second to none. Rooms are spacious and open, with direct access to the beach. All rooms are equipped with overhead fans, safe and telephone. A private bar, Espresso machine and 32” plasma television are also included in the amenities. If you prefer to spend your time in seclusion, a DVD player with Bose surround sound are provided for your pleasure.

Should you decide to make this a “family getaway”, children (although limited) are also catered to, with endless beaches and plenty of activities including dolphin and whale spotting. Spend the day on Male, visiting the day market, the National Museum, the Presidents Palace and the Republic Square. While you could lunch at the restaurant located in your hotel, while out and about, why not experience dining at its best at one of the many local cuisines. Besides scuba diving and snorkeling, should your preference be outdoor activities, Maldives aims to please, with golfing, waterskiing, jet-skiing, body surfing, boarding and parasailing.

If you just want to lay back and enjoy the beauty of the islands, you can take a sunset cruise around the uninhabited islands, on a Dhoni while snacks and drinks are being served to you. If you are not quite relaxed enough, how about the spa for a massage and some pampering. The time is now, the place is The Huvafen Fushi Hotel at the Maldives and the goal is Paradise.

Photo Credit: 1, 3, 4, 2, 5

Monday, December 14, 2009

Photo of the Week -Triberg Falls (Germany)

Germany's Black Forest is home to cuckoo clocks, shimmering lakes, rich cherry chocolate cakes and small half-timbered villages frozen in time (such as Gengenbach). It is also home to Germany's best known waterfall in Triberg Falls. Tumbling in small steps down a rocky path, the setting in verdant green forests creates a soothing scenic image.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Interview: Peter Rudiak-Gould (author "Surviving Paradise")

Peter Rudiak-Gould is an American student studying for an anthropology doctorate at Oxford University in climate change and its effect on the Marshall Islands. He recently published his first book titled Surviving Paradise describing his year on a remote atoll in the Marshall Island teaching English.

This interview discusses Peter's attitude to global warming, especially focussed on how the Marshall Islands are handling this global issue.

Travel Wonders: The population of Marshall Islands appear to have little fear of global warming yet their islands are clearly slowly "drowning". Is this consistent with the way they lead their lives or their faith or what?

Peter Rudiak-Gould: Thankfully, there is more Marshallese interest in the threat now than two years ago. Still, when I was recently in the Marshall Islands and asked general questions about life or about the future, people didn’t usually spontaneously bring up climate change, even though they were familiar with it. It’s probably #10 on people’s list of worries. There are probably several reasons for this. One is that, while people can see some signs of local environmental change (erosion, for instance), these changes are not yet extremely obvious, and they are not affecting people in a big way - by and large, life goes on as it did before. Another is that, when people hear about the problem, there seems to be nothing they can do about it, so there is no point in thinking about it. Another is that some people are skeptical of the threat because they don’t trust scientists - some people say that the country won't be flooded because God promised Noah that he wouldn't flood the earth again. So many of the reasons that Marshallese people don't think about climate change as much as we might hope are the same reasons that Westerners don't think about it as much as we would hope. There might also be a certain amount of fatalism in the country, due to millenia of living in a precarious environment and more recent experiences like nuclear testing. Luckily, there’s a new awareness raising strategy in the Marshall Islands which puts attention on more manageable, present impacts of climate change rather than the possibility of future inundation, and this strategy seems to be succeeding in getting people more engaged with the problem.

TW: With their limited resources, did you speak with Marshall Islanders that you felt were taking positive steps towards reducing the threat of global warming?

Peter: I was just in the country again, from May to September, and there is much more engagement and action than there was in 2003-2004 or 2007 when I was there before. Like in the First World, the man on the street isn't doing very much to prepare for climate change (which is completely understandable!), but there is a sizeable and growing community of activists. First and foremost are the leaders of Women United Together Marshall Islands, which is a women's advocacy organization. They have been organizing workshops to educate women around the country about the threat of climate change. This has made a huge difference. The Ministry of Education, an environmental NGO, and a Catholic church have also helped to raise people's awareness. Interestingly enough, one of the responses that is being advocated is to reduce one's own carbon emissions, even though the Marshall Islands has such a small carbon footprint, both as a nation and per capita. It is a kind of self-blame - these organizations are taking attention away from the culpability of the big polluting nations, and putting attention on the small contribution that Marshall Islanders add to the threat. In some ways this is blaming the victim, and exaggerating Marshall Islanders' power to solve the problem, but it may be succeeding in helping people engage with the problem - and every little bit of emissions reduction helps. The Marshallese government hasn't been as proactive as other low-lying island nations, such as the Maldives which has pledged to go carbon neutral in ten years, held a government meeting underwater to get media attention, and looked into the possibility of buying land overseas in case the islands are flooded. But the grassroots efforts in the Marshall Islands are taking off in a serious way.

TW: How big an issue do you personally believe the threat of global warming is?

Peter: I think the seriousness of the threat is about halfway between the two extremes that we often hear. The two extremes I'm talking about are the idea that global warming is a hoax (what the denialists like to say) and that global warming is an apocalypse that will destroy humanity and much of life on earth (what the alarmists like to say). Halfway between those two viewpoints equals: a big problem. Although low-lying island countries like the Marshall Islands seem to be the worst off, I think that other, poorer countries are in a more dire situation. The worst case scenario in the Marshall Islands--total uninhabitability and mass exodus--is very bad indeed, but not as bad as what some other countries might face. If worst comes to worst in the Marshall Islands, some country would surely allow the 60,000 inhabitants to immigrate. But in various African countries with much larger populations, many of the people would have to stay despite massive crop failures and starvation. So, in summary, climate change won't destroy the world, but it will make it harder for people to live on it, and it could kill millions of people in the Third World. We don't need sensationalistic proclamations of ecological Armageddon in order to care about the problem or appreciate its seriousness.

TW: What personal changes (if any) have you made since the experience of seeing parts of Ujae Island lying underwater in the way you lead your life in Oxford?

Peter: I can’t hold myself up as an example of what to do right. I conserve energy in small ways, I don’t eat very much meat, and I carbon offset my research-related flights. That’s not much, though. But I hope that by studying how people in vulnerable countries react to the idea and reality of global warming, I will be able to help people design more effective awareness and adaptation programs. I do believe that we can make a difference in global warming, but the best thing we can do is not to repent for our carbon sins but to pressure government to sign a climate change treaty that will actually tackle the problem. The ozone hole wasn’t solved by guilt-tripping people about using air conditioners and hairsprays, but by governments passing laws against CFCs and industry finding suitable alternatives to them. The same could be true of climate change, although it's a much harder problem to solve. I do admire people who voluntarily stop flying, for instance, but I worry that the emphasis on guilt and fear has turned many people off to the climate change movement. If people associate environmentalism with feeling bad about themselves, that's going to hurt the movement.

TW: How big do you see the threat and do you think the world's leaders are setting us on an appropriate course for recovery?

Peter: The threat is big, and so far the response has not been terribly impressive. But that's not a reason for despair. We have to realize what a huge endeavor it is to get every country in the world to sign a climate change treaty. And it does need to be every country in the world, because both the causes and the consequences of climate change are global, not respecting any national border. An environmental issue like smog is much easier to solve because the pollution doesn't travel very far, so it's mostly the same people who create the problem who also suffer from it. That means that there is more incentive for people to solve the problem, and it can be tackled on a local or national level, rather than a global one. You don't need everyone in the world to agree to stop the problem, only a certain subset of people. But with climate change, every country in the world needs to sign on. That's an incredibly ambitious goal to set, and it's not surprising that it's taken a few decades. Fingers crossed for Copenhagen. If an agreement is made, it will be a wonderful precedent for international cooperation, and a good sign that we're starting to realize that we're all living on the same planet. Taking the long view, the fact that we're even anywhere close to such an agreement is amazing.

TW: What role do you believe that well-off western nations (Europe, USA, Canada, Australia,...) should be playing in protecting low lying islands such as the Marshall Islands with the threat of global warming?

Peter: First and foremost, they should be trying to prevent the threat. But this might fail, and even if it succeeds there is a certain amount of warming locked into the system from the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, so the Marshall Islands will have to deal with certain impacts no matter what. So First World nations are obligated to help low-lying islands adapt. This can involve both traditional and non-traditional methods. Traditional methods of securing shorelines are great, but at a certain point they might not be enough. At that point, seawalls might be the only option, and these low-lying countries couldn’t afford these themselves. A richer country would have to help, and would be obligated to do so. In a worst case scenario, if people in low-lying countries have to evacuate, the rich countries should allow them to immigrate. Someone argued that rich countries should allow "climate change refugees" to immigrate in proportion to the amount of greenhouse gases they emit (and therefore their share of causing the problem), which seems reasonable to me.

TW: As individual travellers, what do you believe are important steps that we can take to reduce the effect of climate change?

Peter: Do you think the travel industry doing its fair share facing this global issue? The most significant link between traveling and climate change is, of course, the carbon emissions caused by flying. My feeling on this one is that there are two things that you can do that make sense. One is to cut back on flying, or stop flying altogether. The other is to fly and carbon offset those flights with a reputable carbon offsetting organization. I've heard a lot of people say that only the first of these options is ethical. They say that carbon offsetting is unethical because you are paying to eliminate the sin of flying, and you shouldn't be able to pay money to earn moral credit. Or they say that carbon offsetting makes climate change seem like an easy problem to solve, so people will just carbon offset and not get involved with actually solving the problem. I appreciate these arguments but don't really agree with them. If you are carbon offsetting with a reputable company (like Climate Care -, then you really are eliminating an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emission. Your net effect is zero because it doesn't matter where the emissions are coming from - they all go into one big system. And at the same time, you are creating an incentive for people in various industries to devise ways of reducing carbon emissions and get paid for it. This is a good thing. Carbon offsetting won't solve climate change by itself, but it's better than nothing. What really baffles me is when people decide to fly AND to feel guilty about it, without carbon offsetting. This seems like the worst of all worlds to me: all of the feeling of guilt with none of the action to reduce your impact.

TW: Thank you Peter for your time.

Read my review of Surviving Paradise and Peter's website for more details of his studies and time on the Marshall Islands.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Three Travel Secrets of Sydney

Katie from, the folks that kindly made Travel Wonders a finalist in the 2009 Graphical Most Impressive Travel Blog Award, initiated a game of world-wide virtual tag where bloggers list their Three Best Travel Secrets and then tag other bloggers to grow this tree of travel secrets. Barbara Ann Weibel from the popular Hole In the Donut Travel Blog tagged me so it is my turn to unveil a few secrets from my wonderful home city of Sydney.

Balls Head and Berry Island Reserve

North of the harbour, a short walk around Balls Head and Berry Island (no longer an island) are preserved headlands that offer wonderful views of Sydney Harbour, the famous bridge and the city skyline. Along with the views are a couple of old aboriginal rock engravings (a little worn over time), a quiet park for picnics and some short walking tracks to explore. It is hard to believe that you are only four kilometres from the centre of Sydney.

Historic Houses

Only $30 (half that with a hostel or student pass) buys a three month ticket to 11 historic properties around Sydney. Places include an original convict barracks on the city's Hyde Park, the Museum of Sydney on the site of the first Government House or two stunning early 19th century colonial homes. At one of Australia’s oldest houses at Elizabeth Farm, visitors can sit in the chairs, lie on the beds, test the kitchen utensils and touch the various recreated furniture recreated to the time. Susannah Place Museum in the middle of the historic Rocks district in the centre of Sydney features four working class houses next to each other alongside a 1915 shop, selling products of the time.

Chinese Gardens

For a tranquil escape from the Sydney rush, spend an hour wandering the therapeutic gardens, gushing waterfalls, graceful arched bridges, elegant pavilions and peaceful lakes of the Chinese Gardens. Located in Darling Harbour not far from a number of hotels in Sydney and built as a bicentennial gift by the Chinese in 1988, giant weeping trees and richly coloured buildings leave wonderful reflections in the enchanting lakes. Littered with evocatively named features including the Water Pavilion of Lotus Fragrance and Lake of Brightness, finish in the teahouse with a tea or coffee and a slice of calorific cake.

So there are three favourite spots to visit in Sydney that probably don’t feature on everyone’s itinerary. My final task is to tag five more faithful travel bloggers to keep this tree of travel secrets prospering and growing.

So I tag:

Kirsty at Travel Tips Plus
Eunice at Traveler Folio
Cecil At Travel Feeder
Renny at RennyBA

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review: Surviving Paradise (Peter Rudiak-Gould)

Many people dream of life on an idyllic palm-fringed island surrounded by azure blue waters. Peter Rudiak-Gould was no exception when he volunteered for the WorldTeach program and was posted to the remote Marshall Islands. Laying roughly halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii, the Marshall Islands are noted as a battleground of World War 2 and where the US conducted their nuclear test program (on the now deserted Bikini Atoll).

Not only that, but Peter was posted to Ujae, which the Marshallese consider remote, with a population of less than 500 and with no telephones, cars or shops. For ten months, Peter undertook teaching rude and wild children with little interest in education and who really saw him as little more than a novel longer-term guest. Though the adult population was perfectly friendly, Peter felt that they shunned him and left him somewhat alone.

This tiny island challenged Peter as every step he took and every activity was scrutinised and watched by the population. The Ujae population live in a community-based environment with limited space. And there was little opportunity for Peter to escape this. Early in his book, Rudiak-Gould notes "This was my new world, so I decided to explore it. ... I stepped onto the beach and embarked on a bold one-man expedition: to circle the entirety of the island's shore. Forty-five minutes later I wondered what else I could do for the rest of the year." He continues “This was a country of 1,225 islands totalling only seventy square miles of land – it was Washington DC, shattered into a thousand pieces over an area the size of Mexico."

Only twenty-one, Peter was determined to offer the most he could to the children and to absorb, learn from and understand the Marshallese culture, history, language and people. In this way, the book goes well beyond the simplistic young man’s journey of discovery with insightful stories and fascinating details into the effects of American support for these remote atolls.

Rudiak-Gould learns the Polynesian-based language of Marshallese which gives an insight into the local lives. There are eleven distinct words for coconut and eighteen words for breadfruit. The overwhelming number of fishing terms highlight the dependence on this highly developed skill include the simple four-letter word apep for “using woven brown coconut fronds to catch sardines and minnows as they are chased ashore by larger fish”.

Marshallese is rich in sailing terms (over 100 terms related to a canoe and 35 describing the wind) befitting their remarkable ocean skills. With only the currents and skies to navigate by and sailing a simple outrigger canoe, the Micronesians covered thousands of miles over the open seas, settled many of the Pacific islands including Hawaii and Easter Island and brought the sweet potato from the South American mainland. Fishing in the traditional way using nets and spears continues from the canoes, the islanders expertly locating hidden reefs and known locations for specific species without even a compass.

As a virtual appendix in the book, Rudiak-Gould studies the effect of climate change on an island country that is average of only two metres above sea level. The islanders continue to live in their typical day-to-day existence and are putting their faith in God to solve many of these complex medium-term issues. The book includes an interview with the President of the Marshall Island and his view on global warming and the issue that his nation is one of the most threatened by the rising sea levels.

Surviving Paradise is a fascinating account of an apparently idyllic island life in a place that Peter Rudiak-Gould describes as “a culture based on survival. What looked like paradise was actually one of the hardest places on Earth to live”. Now studying anthropology at Oxford University, Rudiak-Gould combines a sense of travel adventure with humour, the contrast of island and western living, an insightful cultural understanding of the islanders and a brief analysis of climate change. In the writings of someone in their early twenties, it is an entertaining and engaging journey through one of the planet’s most remote communities and is an ideal read over the festive period.

An interview with Peter Rudiak-Gould will appear in the next few days.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Canyon de Chelly (Arizona, USA)

guest post by Vera Marie Badertscher
photography by Leigh Spigelman

You can see it from deep within, or drive along the edge. From the approach through Beautiful Valley to the edge of the Canyon of Death (Canyon del Muerte), a drive along the north and south rims of Canyon de Chelly (prounounced de-shay) stores up images to last a lifetime. In my humble opinion, it is the most beautiful drive in Arizona, along the edge of the most beautiful canyon in Arizona.

Unlike grander canyons, de Chelly has an endearing human scale. Drive across the flat, sandy level space of the plateau called Defiance and look down into green pastures and a cottonwood-lined stream and you feel like an intergalactic traveler who has just discovered life in a hostile universe.

Chase the sunset along the edge of the canyon and watch tall spires sketched in shadows separate from the canyon walls and fade into a solid black mass. Stop along the way to see the ancient vertical trail that people living in the canyon still use-nimble as the goats they lead. Look across at White House Ruins (top photo), testimony to ancient occupation. If you are truly blessed, as you gaze down at the rural scene of life in the canyon, you'll see horses running free, splashing through the stream, whirling like spirits blessing the day.

Most people who visit Canyon de Chelly ride trucks through the bottom of the canyon,splashing through the stream, craning their necks up at the curved red walls. Because the canyon is on the Navajo Reservation and people live in the canyon, you cannot just wander in on your own. You can climb aboard the old troop trucks at the historic Thunderbird Lodge near the campgrounds in the Canyon itself. Or you can go to the Park visitor center and hire a Navajo driver to take your own vehicle into the canyon. The Navajo guides will tell you tales--some true--like the one about the mesa where people starved rather than give in to Kit Carson who had been sent to relocate them. They will tell bad jokes, like the one about the tall formation leaning into the chasm. "Martini rock" the guide will say, "One drop will kill you."

This ride into the canyon ranks as a trip of a lifetime, but while you're there, don't forget the rim drive. Unfortunately, many people miss that alternative view. From the information center along the north rim in the early morning, and along the south rim to Spider Woman Rock at sunset, a canyon rim tour turns the canyon inside out.

Vera Marie Badertscher writes travel articles and blogs about books, movies and travel at A Traveler's Library. A long-time Arizona resident, she actually prefers the human-scale of Canyon de Chelly over that other famous Arizona attraction, The Grand Canyon.

Leigh Spigelman is a photographer experienced in travel, nature, wildlife photography and architecture imaging. He is based in the Southwest United States and travels extensively in his digital pursuits. See his photography website at and check out Leigh’s blog.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (Canada)

guest post by Elegant Resorts

Banff, in the beautiful Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada is one of the worlds best places for luxury ski holidays. It has a long snow ski season and some of the world's coldest and driest snow. This makes Banff a reliable place for a ski holiday in a magical place that is one of the largest ski areas in Canada. There are glaciers, high mountain peaks, and valleys where you will spot a variety of wildlife.

When looking for luxury skiing in Banff the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel has such grandeur that it is known as "The Castle in the Rockies". The luxury and individualized service enhances its majestic beauty and comfort. Modeled after a Scottish Baronial castle, it has reigned supreme among hotels for over a century.

The fifth floor was renovated and turned into a Gold Floor with elegance, tasteful and comfortable furnishings, and gorgeous mountain views. The Presidential Suite is in the top tower and is reached by a private glass elevator. Unusual features include a baby grand piano, a spiral staircase, a crystal chandelier, wrap-around windows for a spectacular view and a canopy bed decorated with original European tapestries.

You can be pampered at the world-famous 36,000 square foot Willow Stream Spa where the mineral waters are regarded as sacred and therapeutic whilst the Alpine air is supposed to have healing powers. The three waterfall pools are also a sight to behold and there is also the luxury of whirlpools, saunas, private steam rooms, and excellent massages and facials.

Among the twelve restaurants are the five diamond Banffshire Club which offers a truly elegant dining experience with fresh innovative cuisine. Afternoon tea can be soothing as you sit and view the Bow Valley.

This is also a perfect location for a fairy tale romantic wedding. There are different sizes and styles of rooms to choose from including meeting rooms to ballrooms or even the use of the Bow Valley Terrace. The menu choices go from simple cocktails to an elaborate banquet so that you can plan your wedding according to your available budget.

There are three world-class ski areas (Lake Louise, Norquay, and Sunshine Village) covering 7,700 acres that can be easily reached by resort shuttles. There are runs from nursery slopes all the way to double-black diamond ones. At all times you can enjoy the magnificent mountain views and the feelings of a spiritual experience.

You can also go on sleigh rides, a gondola ride, go tobogganing, ice skating, dog sledding, snowboarding, golfing, or take a horse and carriage tour. There is great shopping in the area and within walking distance as well as over 100 restaurants with a selection of international cuisine including Mediterranean, Mexican with a Wild West theme, Italian, Korean, and even an Old Spaghetti Factory, ribs, burgers, and good steaks. There is an active night life with live music and dancing which includes an Irish pub with a variety of beers.

You can also enjoy the Banff Centre for Performing Arts, many offerings of Indian art and souvenirs, hot springs pools, museums, and galleries. Snowboard or ski lessons are offered, especially for beginners.

Photo Credits: Foyer, Meal

Drinks Around the World: Vin Chaud (France)

At the start of every month, Travel Wonders highlights a special drink from my travels around the world. Visiting the French Alps in winter, I recall drinking a spicy warm red wine that the French call vin chaud. Since then I learned that it is similar to glühwein in the Germanic nations and called mulled wine in English.

It is easy to make at home which I have done several times. Simply take a bottle of cheap (or corked) red wine and add a few cinnamon sticks, several cloves, two thinly sliced oranges (or lemons) and a quarter of a cup of honey. Heat slowly, letting the wine mixture simmer but not boil. Serve nicely warmed and enjoy the relaxing and spicy drink. The aromas are simply superb.

Vin chaud originally revived wine that had gone off - a far more regular occurrence in times past with poorer wine corks and storage.

A favourite in the winter snowfields, vin chaud is an excellent end to a day of skiing or hiking in the mountains. Salut to all!

Photo Credit: Image

Previous Drinks Around the World include Bloody Caesar from Canada, a Pisco Sour from South America, Singapore Sling, Belgium's Chimay Beer, Scotland's smoky Talisker Scotch Whisky and the Czech Republic's Becherovka.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Little Yellow Train (Languedoc-Roussillon, France)

A small bright yellow train with cherry red trim has meandered its way through the French Catalan Pyrenees in the Languedoc Roussillon region near the Spanish border, connecting remote and isolated mountain villages for over 100 years. Popular with travellers, le train jaune tracks through dramatic alpine scenery over towering bridges, tunnels gouged through the mountains and a number of viaducts.

The train departs from the travel wonder medieval village of Villefrance-de-Confluent. Before boarding the train, a short walk to Fort Liberia that stands guard over the town helps stretch the legs. Offering a stunning view of parenthesis-shaped Villefrance, the view shows the tightly packed stone houses, narrow streets and intact (and UNESCO heritage-listed) medieval defensive walls that protected the small town for centuries from Spanish sieges. The village has lots of witches and broomstick models dangling from doorways and shop windows, protecting the population from the evil mountain spirits.

While chilly at first, the train includes two open carriages (they were referred to as les bains or the bathtubs) that gives the full effect of the fresh mountain air and the engineering marvel (built before World War 1) of getting a line through this mountainous countryside. The track bends and curls between mountains, ploughing into the inky darkness of a tunnel when no other paths are available. At several points on the journey, the train travels high via bridges and viaducts over the forested valley floor including the vertigo-inducing Séjourné Viaduct with its dramatic double-decker arching.

Tiny stations whisk past, the train only stopping at more major stops unless signalled by a passenger to stop. The lion’s share of travellers stay on the train for the entire return journey. The village of Olette features tall narrow houses that cling to the cliff edges with the confidence of mountain goats. Several of the villages appear frozen in time, their grey stony houses having weathered centuries of harsh winters.

The train is powered by an electric current along a third rail, produced by a hydro plant from a nearby dam (so it is a green train too!). And the train needs all its power too as it climbs to Bolquère-Eyne, France’s highest rail station at almost 1600 metres, with all the spirit of the “I think I can” children’s story.

More reassuredly, as the little yellow train crosses a plateau and tumbles down into the final stop at Latour-de-Carol, is the news that the train boasts three separate braking systems each capable of stopping the train alone. The train travels through lush farmlands, dotted with caramel-coloured cows and large rolls of hay readying for the harsh mountain winters.

It was strongly recommended to get off at Bourg-Madam (a hotel owner reassures me “Latour-de-Carol is boring”), three stops from the end, walk through scenic surrounds for around half an hour (up hill) across the Spanish border to the quaint town of Puigcerdà with its historic belltower and return in time to pick up the train on its return leg.

Operated by French rail (and so available on rail passes), the Yellow Train offers a refreshing and relaxing day among stunning mountain scenery and tiny medieval villages of yesteryear.

Photos: Séjourné Viaduct, Gisclard Suspension Bridge.
Map courtesy of SNCF (French National Railways).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mothers’ Boundless Love (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

The Irish super-group, U2 sang about them in Mothers of the Disappeared. These are every day Argentine mothers and grandmothers who lost their sons and daughters in the so-called Dirty War when they were seized by representatives of the military government of the time in the late 1970s. Most of the missing are assumed to have been tortured and murdered.

Every Thursday afternoon for over thirty years, this women’s group, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have gathered in the main square of Buenos Aires to seek reunification with their children and grandchildren. They walk, slowly and purposefully, in a large circle adorned by stylised white shawls painted on the ground. The painted symbols appear a little like white doves, the universal symbol of peace. The women wear simple matching head scarves in white, embroidered with the name or names of their missing children. They chat among themselves catching up on the weekly happenings.

Adorned with the city’s main cathedral, the presidential palace and several major government buildings, the Plaza de Mayo celebrates the May uprisings which earned Argentine independence from the Spanish in the early nineteenth century. The Mothers today who gather also seek their own freedom and closure in this main square which represents freedom protests from another eta.

Some appear worn down - maybe by the passage of time, maybe by a heavy heart over the lost of their young ones, maybe by the stark duality of the significance yet apparent futility of this weekly gathering. Others walk with a strength drawn from pride, unwearied by the years of fighting for reconnection with their loved ones.

One grandmother I spoke with indicated in her broken English that she had missed attending this walk less than ten times in all the years of this weekly pilgrimage of protest. Her will and strength made it seem to me to be the most important thing in her life.

Surely a mother or grandmother can show no greater love.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Photo of the Week - Blossoming Spring

As the northern hemisphere cools for the winter months, Australia blossoms into spring. This year the flowers appear especially vivid with a combination of hot sunny weather and short periods of soaking rain.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Little Switzerland in Luxembourg

The tiny travel wonder of Luxembourg, precariously sandwiched between France and Germany at a European crossroads has a woven web of hiking paths that crisscross the country. While the city features excellent historic walks such as the Wenzel Walk, the northern part of Luxembourg offers a tremendous array of walking and hiking options. With maps available from tourist offices and clear signposts with blue triangles marking the paths, hiking is one of Luxembourg’s most popular leisurely pursuits (after all, one-third of the country is forested). And there is no better place to walk than the grandly named Little Switzerland. While there is nothing alpine about this lowland region, the dramatic landscape gives some credibility to its moniker.

Start from the country’s oldest town of Echternach with its sprawling abbey credited to St Willibrord (a wily Yorkshireman who the locals believed cured epilepsy in the seventh century). With little thought over a strong steaming coffee, I selected E1 (see map), a suitable sounding walk of twelve kilometres. After a short but strenuous climb, a nice viewpoint (Troosknäppchen) offers fine vistas of the abbey and town.

The path follows the Müllerthal Trail (the miller’s path named from the numerous watermills that once existed on the river) quickly leading to densely wooded forests, lush verdant valleys and spectacular rock formations. Left over from the Ice Age, roughly hewn rock steps and ladders weave a narrow, twisting path between towering 20 metre high rock walls at times only wide enough for a single file of walkers.

This ancient landscape generates its own steamy microclimate of high humidity producing vegetation unique to Europe with moss coating everything in a carpet of green and ferns sprouting from small rocky crevices.

The trail leads through the evocatively named Wolfsschlucht (the wolves’ lair - top photo) that apparently sheltered wolves in times past. Continuing along a tiny brook, through the Labyrinth and past the giant single rock of Perekop, the trail leads to Hohllay. This is an old cave where traces remain where millstones were cut. Regular performances still run at the nearby amphitheatre, a wonderful natural location for plays, theatre and music.

Sharing lunch with a couple of hikers, climbers clambered up the sheer rock walls, the occasional yelp of a slipping climber being caught by his ropes breaking the peaceful forest ambiance.

Turning back along a small creek with tiny waterfalls, the path toured via Zig-zag Gorge (photo below right) and an atmospheric cavern called Räuberhöhle (thief’s hideout - photo left) before tracking the Sûre River back to Echternach.

It seems an accident of history that this tiny country exists as an independent country with its history of battles and wars. Indeed, the castles that litter nearly every rocky outcrop, gorge and small hill is a strong reminder of how many battles have been fought over the years for this scenic centre of Europe. It is a gift as the feisty and proud population of the self-promoted “Europe’s smallest big country” offer superb trekking through well-preserved forests broken only by the occasional muffled greeting of moien in the strange sounding German-like dialect.

Other Benelux Posts
1000 Years in 100 Minutes (Luxembourg City)
A City of More than Sex and Drugs? (Amsterdam)
Belgian Pride
Drinks Around the World: Chimay Beer

More details available from the Müllerthal Trail website.

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