Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Receding River of Ice (Juneau, Alaska, USA)

Only a few miles outside of Alaska’s capital (on the only road out of town) is the blue-white icy travel wonder of Mendenhall Glacier. As a poster-child for global warming, this river of ice has receded almost three kilometres in just fifty years, creating Mendenhall Lake at the front of the glacier. Slowly bulldozing its way down the valley, creaking and groaning, it’s beauty among the trees and lake, masks its sharp decline. Smaller bergs having carved off the main glacier float serenely in the lake.

The area includes a number of excellent short walks where salmon, glistening red in the icy pure waters, struggle their last distance upstream to their spawning grounds. In one of nature’s great mysteries, salmon return from the oceans to where they were hatched for their first and only time (science cannot explain this extraordinary feat of memory) laying or fertilising eggs, before dying. They also survive the transition from fresh to salt water, living their entire lives in the open ocean except for birth and reproduction.

If you are fortunate, you may see a black bear or two feverishly hunting the water to prey upon the salmon thrashing their way through the shallow stream beds. The bears’ skills vary dramatically, some able to comfortably pocket a salmon with a simple strike of a paw while others awkwardly pounce in almost comic attempts to satisfy their boundless hunger. Excited whispers ripple through the gathered walkers as they eagerly view the frenzied feeding as the lumbering black bears continue to fill their stomachs in readiness for the pending winter slumber.

While Juneau is a picturesque and petite capital packed with government buildings, its highlight is undoubtedly the Mendenhall Glacier. After all, not many cities can boast a neighbouring glacier in its list of things to see.

Other Natural Wonder North America Posts
Spiritual Medicine Lake (Jasper, Canada)
Bears, Crabs and Eagles on the African Queen (Alaska)
Feeding Frenzy (Alaska)
Unveiling Nature's Grand Masterpiece (Grand Canyon)
Gorge-ous Flume (New Hampshire)
The Fall Kaleidoscope (New England)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Competition: Guess the Weight and Support a Nepalese Orphanage

The great Kiwi folks at Capital Cause Charitable Trust are raising money and awareness for the Orphan Help Centre in Nepal, which supports twenty homeless or disadvantaged children in this tiny Himalayan country. You simply have to go to the Capital Cause website, make a donation and guess the weight of the backpack (as shown above). The contents feature a bundle of hiking goodies (explained on the site) and even include the treasured Australian goodies of Minties (a chewy, mint flavoured sweet) which no hiking trip should be without. Looks too heavy to trek up the Nepalese mountains to me!!

Even better, the prize is a 16 day trip to Nepal including the return flight from anywhere in the world, a hike around the stunning Annapurna region (by Intrepid Travel) and a bundle of great hiking clothes.

Entries close on July 31 (in a day or two) so please support this great cause run by this excellent non-profit organisation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Czech Out the Castles - Part Two (Czech Republic)

The Czech Republic has the most castles per square kilometre of any country in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. This article features four impressive castles near to Prague to be added to the three UNESCO-listed Czech castles featured in part one.

Konopiště Castle (top photo) was home to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose shooting in Bosnia began World War 1 (the actual bullet is on display in the castle). Though built in the 14th century, it is furnished around 1900 and includes the modern conveniences of the time including a flushing toilet, running water and a lift. Somewhat morbidly, the Archduke was a passionate hunter credited with killing over 300,000 animals. The castle including numerous hunting trophies, a shooting gallery (with moving targets), stunning gardens and forests and an extensive collections of medieval arms.

Karlštejn Castle is a photogenic Gothic castle just outside of Prague. Built by Charles IV (the same Charles who has numerous structures named in his honour in Prague) in the mid-1300s to hold the Bohemian crown jewels (now in Prague Castle). The interior of the castle is dull with the exception of the striking Holy Cross Chapel in the Great Tower (the tallest building), guarded by four metre thick walls. The chapel contains pictures of all Czech saints and is richly decorated in gold leaf and in-laid gemstones. Visiting the chapel is difficult and needs advanced purchase tickets.

Hluboká Castle is a gleaming white almost-fairytale Gothic castle in the south of the Czech Republic near České Budějovice (Budweis in German, where the original Budweiser Beer was created and brewed). The interior is typically regal with sumptuous but impractical furnishings and decorated with striking tapestries and paintings.

Křivoklát Castle is a medieval castle set among scenic rolling forested hills, only a short distance west of Prague. Celebrating its 900th year, it served as a brutal prison in the middle ages with a torture chamber and a variety of nasty instruments still on display. A superb library of historic books, knight's dining hall and elegant chapel highlight the castle’s interior while its strategic defensive capabilities are evident throughout. In the courtyard, displays of middle-aged trades are displayed including blacksmithing, wood-carving and ceramics.

The Czech Republic spent centuries at the crossroads of cultures, empires and religions leaving a rich fabric of castles. Enjoy these seven travel wonders that are among the jewels of castles with superb architecture and fascinating histories.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Czech Out the Castles - Part One (Czech Republic)

The travel wonder of Prague Castle and the spires of St Vitus Cathedral overlooking the Vltava River (top photo) is one of Europe's most enduring images. Central to a number of prominant Prague hotels and being at a focal point of European history, Prague Castle is only one of a number of enchanting, historic or ornate castles around the Czech Republic. This article highlights seven other castles sprinkled across the Czech Republic worthy of a visit - the first three heritage listed by UNESCO and the final four within a couple of hours of Prague.

Litomyšl Castle's detailed decorations are in a style called sgraffito where different coloured plasters are applied to the walls and then scratched to produce outlines of varying colours. The striking design gives the aristocratic feel of a French chateau. A still accurate 1728 sundial sits in the courtyard. Furthermore, the castle is treasured as the birthplace of the country’s most famous composer, Bedřich Smetana, known locally as “the father of Czech music” and which is sometimes played in the attached original Baroque theatre (one of only five in the world). The nearby main square is huge for such a small town and truly elegant with renaissance houses painted in a variety of pastel colours.

Lednice Castle was owned by the Princes of Liechtenstein until communist rule after World War 2. Denuded of all its furniture by the departing family, it has been restored to some of its former glory. The interior includes stunning oriental wallpapers and a staggering wooden staircase, hand-carved from one immense piece of hardwood with intricate railings. Outside is a huge park including the chance of a boat ride down the meandering river highlighting a towering out-of-place minaret (ready for a call-to-prayer) and a purpose-built ruined castle, purely for decoration.

Kroměříž Castle is the baroque palace of the local archbishops in the east of the country. The castle has a historic library and some fine paintings but the highlight is the surrounding formal garden complete with ornate symmetric designs, colourful blooms, crisply clipped hedges and elegant statues. The gardens have a lot of the style of the best of the French chateaux with their precision, creativity and floral opulence. The phenomenal garden has earned this castle its UNESCO heritage listing.

Four more Czech castles are featured in part two.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Photo of the Week - Moon Landing 40th Anniversary (Washington DC, USA)

Not far from the US Capitol is one of the world's finest displays of air and space objects. Among the Smithsonian's staggering collection of aircraft, rocketships and spacecraft is an original lunar module as used to get the Apollo astronauts from their main craft to the moon's surface and back again (only the top portion is used for the return journey).

I recall being sent home from school as a young child to view the first landing on the moon live on black and white television. It seems appropriate for this image to be photo of the week on this the fortieth annivesary of first landing a human on the moon.

Source: NASA

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Andean Sistine Chapel (Andahuaylillas, Peru)

To establish European thinking and religious beliefs with the indigenous Indian population three hundred years ago, the Spanish built a modest mud-brick and wooden church on the site of an old Incan temple in a small village about forty kilometres south of Cusco. Arriving late in the afternoon in dull light, the church certainly didn’t inspire any wonder, and I wished I’d stayed on the bus to Cusco. However the temptation was too great with descriptions likening this colonial church to the Sistine Chapel.

To open the doors is to unveil a dazzling array of wall paintings and frescoes contrasted by a richly glowing gilded altarpiece carved from wood. The artwork, rich in red and gold paint, tell powerful religious stories. One graphic painting highlights the punishments for going to hell and the rewards for getting to heaven. The ceiling is decorated in floral patterns and glitters with gold leaf.

andahuaylillas frescoNear the entrance is a baptismal prayer written in five languages including three local Indian languages revealing the Spaniards attempts to convert the population to Catholicism.

While lofty monikers like “the Sistine Chapel of the Americas” are a gross exaggeration, the modest travel wonder of Andahuaylillas is on the road between Lake Titicaca and Cusco and worth a brief stop.

Other Peru Posts
Pathways to the Gods (Nazca Lines)
Raiders of the Lost Tombs (Chauchilla Tombs)
Exploring the Incan Wonderland (Machu Picchu)
Trekking to the Lost City (Inca Trail)
Potatoes with your Guinea Pig, Sir?
Flight of the Condor (Colca Canyon)
Living in Reeds (Lake Titicaca)
Top Ten Travel Wonders of South America

Photo Credit: Fresco image kindly supplied by Ken at randomtruth

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Discovering Luxury Resorts in the Caribbean (Barbados)

guest post by Elegant Resorts

Barbados is a spectacular island paradise, offering some of the finest luxury resorts in the Caribbean. White sand beaches, beautiful waters shaded in vivid hues from turquoise to azure, Barbados is tropical at its finest. There are luxury resorts to suit every taste, from families on holiday to honeymooners looking for that special place to share their most romantic moments. All these resorts are located right on the doorstep of some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.

When planning which luxury resort to stay at in Barbados,
you must first determine which coast is best suited to provide the optimum pleasure for your planned activities. For instance, the brisk winds coming off the sea toward the east coast makes this spot a favorite with surfers, sun bathers, and those who love to boogie board. Conversely, the west coast, considered the “platinum” coast, offers quiet beauty and pristine white-sand beaches. The southeast coast is perhaps the busiest part of the island, offering some of the best resorts in Barbados, and lots and lots to do.

Luxury resorts in Barbados come in all shapes and sizes, from small boutique resorts offering just the basics to those offering all-inclusive stays. Most luxury resorts welcome families with children and offer all kinds of outdoor activities. Some offer fully-supervised child activity services, allowing the kids to have as much fun as their parents. And meals at all-inclusive resorts are included in the price.

Adults on a romantic getaway, those getting married in Barbados, or newlyweds may find that the luxury resorts located on the west coast beaches of Barbados offer a bit more intimacy and quiet natural beauty than the other spots. There you can stay in luxurious poolside rooms and share an intimate meal while enjoying incredible ocean views.

You’ll experience gourmet dining at its best at any one of the luxury resorts in Barbados, whether you’re having lunch overlooking St. Lawrence Bay, or enjoying a meal on the beach prepared exclusively for you by the hotel chef, nothing about your stay in Barbados will be ordinary. Luxury and elegance abound in Barbados.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Photo of the Week - Tour de France and Bastille Day (France)

As I post this, France will be awash in celebrations and fireworks for their treasured national day commemorating the storming of a Parisian prison in 1789 and the launch of the French republic. Remarkably, over 100 professional cyclists will continue on their 3,500 kilometre journey around France in the world's most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France. Surely, it is the most physically and physiologically demanding event in world sport.

The photo is of a lone amateur cyclist on the Col de Tourmalet which at 2115 metres is the highest road in the Pyrenées. The ride up this awesome mountain runs for over 17 kilometres on a slope of over 7 degrees. Personally, I drove and enjoyed a fantastic view over this famed snow-capped mountain range and a steaming cup of coffee. There was a surprising number of cyclists at the summit proud of their achievement in riding this towering peak.

Over 12 million spectators line the route over a three week period with supporters painting mountain roads with the names of their favourite cyclists. It is estimated that the winner this year will take 400,000 pedal strokes and expend around 125,000 calories. No wonder the cyclists are so lean!

A toast to the world's cyclists and a toast to France on Bastille Day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Exotic Wonders of Turkey

Guest Post by Ker & Downey

Turkey is the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Noted for it’s mix of European and Middle Eastern cultures, Turkey has served as the battlegrounds between eastern and western values for centuries. Fortunately for modern travelers, the countries identification with both the East and West allows the country to offer an amazingly unique and special experience.

Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and Cappadocia, is the capital and cultural center of the country. Serving as the capital of the Roman Empire, East Roman Empire, Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire , the country is framed in the backdrop of history and has a unique cultural flair unmatched by any other world Mega-City. Of the utmost importance to any traveler is the city’s notable architecture. Ancient Greek, Roman, Turkish and Arabic buildings dot the city, contrasting sharply with the high-rises and luxury apartments that rise in the forefront.

Contrasting sharply with Istanbul, Cappadocia is a land lost in time. Formerly the home of the Hittite rulers- who controlled much of the known world in the time of the pharaohs- Cappadocia is now known for it’s moon-like landscape and ‘fairy chimneys.’ The area is of great interest to travelers because of the unique churches and prayers of worship carved directly into the mountains and rocks which jut from the landscape.

For those looking for a beach vacation, the Turkish coastline is one of the most beautiful in the world. Hotels and luxury resorts pepper the beaches along the Aegean coast and add a gilded touch to the natural Mediterranean beauty of the area. For those seeking a bespoke adventure definitively off the beaten path, Ankara is an old historic town which sees few tourists because of its relatively remote location. The city enjoys an excellent cultural life too, having a lot of museums and cultural events.

If you're looking for an exotic and luxurious vacation to the far reaches of the world, Turkey may be just what you're looking for.

Ker & Downey is a luxury travel company servicing not only Turkey, but other exotic locations around the world. For more information visit

Photo: Cappadocia

Friday, July 10, 2009

Touring the Mosaic City (Ravenna, Italy) - Part Two

Check out the first half of the tour of Ravenna before continuing here.

A few blocks away are Ravenna’s oldest mosaics. The octagonal Neonian Bapistery is supposedly a converted Roman bathhouse and contains further superb mosaics including Christ’s baptism ringed by his twelve apostles in the centre of the huge dome. You can get close to some of the mosaics giving a greater insight into the adept work of the artisans. A huge baptismal font big enough to swim in sits to one side.

Across the road is a small museum with further mosaics, a giant intricately carved marble throne and a striking but indecipherable sixth century carved marble Easter calendar.

To get a break from mosaics for a while, the tomb of the famous Italian poet Dante (who wrote Italy’s finest work called The Divine Comedy), exiled from Florence, lies a block east of the baptistery. Despite the stunning mosaics, this is Ravenna’s most popular attraction. Marked as an area for silent reflection, the tomb sits next to an untidy grassy mound where the tomb was hidden during the second World War.

The bustling, neighbouring Piazza Garibaldi is far less serene with some excellent eateries from this food-rich region of Italy. With Parma (famous for its cheese and hams) and Bologna (famous for its tortellini) nearby, there is a mouthwatering range of food. Called a ragú, I settled for a cheap and hearty meat casserole in a rich herby tomato sauce served with crusty bread – superb.

If not yet overdosing on mosaics, Ravenna’s other finest mosaics are two blocks further east. With more a feeling of a traditional rectangular church with stylish columns, the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, contains two long walls of mosaics. One side shows a procession of martyrs and the other shows a procession of virgins led by the Three Wise Men carrying their gifts (top photo). Again, the lighting gives the entire interior a golden green tinge.

It is worth a final quick glance into the Arian Bapistery that makes for an interesting contrast with the earlier baptistery. Similarly octagonal and with much the same mosaic themes, the main work of Christ’s baptism seems less striking and clear.

Though far less celebrated by Italian tourism, Ravenna makes for a superb one-day visit. Without the constant hum of Vespas and manic drivers, replaced by cycling and strolling locals, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed town has a far more authentic Italian feel to it. The quieter streets, atmospheric piazzas and superb food complement the mesmerising religious mosaics that adorn the 1,500 year old Byzantine churches and basilicas.

Other Italian Posts
Chianti Classico
Hiking the Confection Villages (Cinque Terre)
Top Ten Travel Wonders of Rome

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Touring the Mosaic City (Ravenna, Italy) - Part One

In two hundred years of rule between the fifth and seventh centuries, the Byzantines left their crowning glory with a dazzling array of Christian mosaics in the restful town of Ravenna on Italy’s east coast. Without the crowds that infest the travel wonders of Rome, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Venice and the Cinque Terre, Ravenna makes for a superb single travel day wandering between the World heritage-listed cathedral, churches and monuments to admire the extraordinary artistry created in tiles.

At first sight, Ravenna appears to be an historic town of buildings with dull exteriors. It is only when you wander inside these churches and museums that you discover interiors filled with a breathtaking kaleidoscope of glistening mosaics. Most of the sights are central and a single tickets offers entrance into several buildings making visiting hassle-free.

While much of Italy stands adorned with exceptional frescoes, the mosaics of Ravenna create a different feeling with their sparkle when they catch the natural light. Furthermore, unlike the magnificent frescoes, the tiles do not fade with age, ensuring they sparkle today with the same breathtaking majesty, as the populace would have enjoyed around 1500 years ago. The effort by the artisans to carefully cut and place tiny pieces of glass, marble and stones into such massive spiritual images must have been painstaking work.

The most remarkable of all is Basilica of St Vitalus (interior and exterior photos above). A dull octagonal building of darkish yellow stone from the outside gives way to a glowing apse and choir area with natural light streaming through the tiny windows highlighting the dazzling green, blue and gold mosaics of familiar biblical tales. The stunning central ceiling shows Christ at the centre of five figures including St Vitale (top photo) while to give an example of the biblical detail, the chancel photo shows Abel’s sacrifice of a lamb, Moses tending sheep and side images of Matthew and Mark with the lion (Luke and John are on the other side). The arch at the entrance to this area is adorned with Christ and the twelve apostles.

Next door to the basilica is the Tomb of Gallia Placidia. Being only a small space inside, avoid a tour group to fully appreciate this building. The translucent light from the alabaster windows lights a magical luminescent deep blue ceiling of golden stars and flowers. One striking image shows a saint next to a burning grill and a cupboard containing the four gospels.

The tour of Ravenna continues in a second post.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Capitol in the Capital (Washington DC, USA)

With more American readers than any other, it seems appropriate on Independence Day to write about the iconic travel wonder of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. The glorious white-washed classical building perches defiantly on Capitol Hill looking down a long verdant mall of national monuments, memorials and museums.

Built over 200 years ago, the building is grandly decorated with Greek columns and a huge cupola. Inside, the cavernous central room, the Rotunda, is bathed in natural light with numerous statues and artworks denoting major points in American history. A huge sculpture runs around the cupola and highlights America’s history starting with discovery by Christopher Columbus, through the Pilgrims, the signing of the constitution, the Civil War and the Wright Brother’s flight and accounts for recent events including the landing on the moon. With impressive planning, space is reserved for future significant events. The ceiling of the giant cupola is painted with an Italian-like mural showing George Washington ascending to heaven supported by various Roman and Greek gods.

Typical of most systems with its roots drawn from the British form of parliament, the Senate runs off on one side of the building while the House of Representatives runs off the other. Free tours run regularly showcasing the building’s highlights. If Congress is sitting, non-Americans can view the action by showing their passport. While the session I saw by mired in a dull and uninspiring debate about events in Nebraska, seeing the operations of the house made the effort worthwhile. A flag flies over the relevant wing if the house is sitting.

The original Supreme Court is included on the tour, though the current ultimate court in the USA is now housed in a separate building not far away. A glorious garden rich with orchids sits at the foot of the Capitol building.

Washington DC is a city rich in travel wonders befitting a capital city including the visually striking US Capitol.

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