Saturday, October 31, 2009

Photo of the Week - Halloween Pumpkins (Vermont, USA)

In a small rural village in north Vermont, stacks of pumpkins of all shapes and sizes await Halloween enthusiasts to carve their lanterns. Celebrated the night before All Saints or All Hallows Day, the name derives from hallow evening, shortened to halloween. Every year, this primarily American tradition sneaks further into Australia with shops adorned with witches, ghosts, bats and skeletons while children in the suburbs run around the houses trick or treating.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Balcony of Love (Verona Italy)

"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name", said Juliet looking down from a balcony in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in the travel wonder of Verona in northern Italy. This elegant 14th century two storey stone cottage in central Verona was home to the Cappello family that Shakespeare is rumoured to have developed the family name Capulet in his famous play.

Today millions of visitors disgorge from the otels in Verona and flood this narrow laneway to pay homage to the setting of English language's best known love story. Verona has cashed in too with couples able to pay hundreds of Euros to stand on the balcony and take their marriage vows in this iconic location of love.

Ironically, Shakespeare never went to Verona nor was the balcony built when the play was set, but such details spoil a wonderful tale.

A bronze statue of Juliet Capulet stands proudly in the courtyard, her right breast glowing a rich gold from years of gentle rubbing and touching. Good fortune is afforded to visitors who rub Juliet's right breast. Judging by the smoothed area on the statue, many have sought good luck when visiting the historic and grand city of Verona. Some leave their secret desires on small slips of paper tucked into the historic stone wall.

In Verona, spend a few minutes thinking of your loved one as you gaze up at Juliet's famous balcony and massage her chest for good luck.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Other Italian Posts
Touring the Mosaic City (Ravenna)
Chianti Classico
Hiking the Confection Villages (Cinque Terre)
Tuscan Beauty (Pitigliano)
Top Ten Travel Wonders of Rome

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Photo of the Week - Breakfast on Sydney Harbour Bridge

Last Sunday, several thousand lucky people drawn from a ballot had breakfast on the Australian travel wonder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bridge was closed to traffic and transformed into a parkland of fresh grass for the picnic rugs, eskies (local slang for the portable ice boxes that keep everything cool) and baskets full of tasty pastries, juices and other breakfast goodies. I wasn't one of the fortunate few to be selected from the 195,000 entries.

Along with the breakfast, Sydney hosted its annual Seven Bridges Walk, a testing circuit of 25 kilometres around the harbour, crossing seven bridges including the Harbour Bridge and ANZAC Bridge. I completed the circuit in pouring rain, raising a couple of hundred dollars for Diabetes Australia, along with several thousand others drenched but determined participants.

Remarkably a few hours after hosting thousands of people on luscious green lawn, the bridge was again hastily converted and had traffic roaring across its eight lanes - not a blade of grass in sight.

Source: Photos

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Fairytale Mining Town (Goslar, Germany)

The Harz mountains stand tall in the epicentre of Germany, rich in forests, rivers and historic half-timbered villages. Sliced in half by the East and West divide, this area attracts many less visitors than it warrants.

At 1000 years old, the world heritage-listed travel wonder of Goslar is a medieval masterpiece of narrow cobblestone streets, small canals, a glorious historic main square, the 1494 Hotel Kaiserworth (still functions as a hotel today) and 11th century royal castle. The active main square features an old animated clock that celebrates Goslar’s rich mining history on certain hours, a traditional town hall (including a vibrantly frescoed meeting hall), a handful of grand houses, a church and a fountain. Near the town hall is an old official textile measure where debtors and textile cheats (selling under-measures of cloth) were ceremoniously stripped to highlight their crimes. Mind you, on medieval standards, this is mild punishment indeed.

On a grassy hill is the grand mid-11th century Imperial Palace (Kaiserpfalz) with colourful frescoes detailing the town’s history, the tomb of Heinrich III (who built the palace) and his throne.

Just off the main square is an alms-house that has served as a place for the poor for 750 years. Seemingly unchanged over time, today the small rooms off the main hall are used by artists including glassblowers, potters and leatherworkers.

Less than a kilometre away is the location that gave Goslar is riches. For around 1000 uninterrupted years, silver and copper has been dug from the Rammelsberg Mine yielding an estimated 30 million tons of ore moved primarily by hand. Descending the shafts of this mine via ore train and foot highlights the savage and dangerous conditions of mining in past times. Huge waterwheels helped moved the ore to the surface. The mine only closed in 1988.

While there are a variety of museums and historic houses around Goslar, this is another delightful town where it pays to discard the map and simply wander the small canals and quiet cobblestoned backstreets. It is easy to imagine the local population having done so for many centuries.

Other Germany Posts
A Timeless Promise (Oberammergau Passion Play)
Peering from the Eagle's Nest (Berchtesgaden)
Bacon Beer and Bishops (Bamberg)
The World's Largest Advent Calendar (Gengenbach)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rocks and Rhinos (Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe)

Matobo National Park in central Zimbabwe is a wild rock-strewn travel wonder. With small areas of dry grasslands, the park is a remarkable mix of natural gravity-defying rock formations, ancient cave art and a game park for a broad variety of African animals including the endangered white and black rhinoceros.

A local ranger guided three of us around this superb park for a single day some years ago. The boulder-strewn area is rich in small caves and hollows. The morning commenced exploring a couple of these caves where the San Bushman left impressive ochre cave drawings estimated to be around 1,600 years old. Giraffe, zebras and antelope are distinct in the delicate artwork. The floor of the areas around the caves supposedly contains ashes that have been dated to over 10,000 years old.

However, the most striking elements of the park are the eerie formations, with huge rocks balancing precariously upon each other. Though appearing to be stacked by giants, they are purely a result of erosion and time. Softer volcanic rock is eaten away leaving the harder granite, the normal weathering process separating the rocks from each other. Stunning formations result including the popular symbol of the park, the “Madonna and Child” and the fascinating “Rock Arch” with its centre rock looking like falling at any moment.

The View of the World marks a majestic view over a panoramic moonscape of rounded boulders and harsh rugged grasslands. The view so struck Cecil Rhodes, the founder of de Beers diamond company and whom Rhodesia is named after (Zimbabwe is south Rhodesia) that he asked to be buried there. Some large boulders and a generous plaque inlaid into the large granite platform mark his final wishes and memory. The setting over the dusty plains is strangely serene and harmonious.

Littered throughout the park, strange rainbow coloured lizards sun themselves in the cruel summer rays. With blue heads and green, yellow and red bodies, their rainbow bodies meld elegantly into the lichen stained rocks that form their home.

Full from lunch, the afternoon is reserved for a walking safari. Unarmed, the trusty ranger tracks us through thin grasslands with various antelope and a small herd of zebras nervously eating, their heads regularly bobbing for any signs of danger.

With a sense of nervous excitement, the small group slowly sneak towards a couple of white rhino until we are only ten metres away. They appeared undisturbed continuing to graze leisurely on the scant food supply before lying down for rest. The guide reassures us that rhinos have poor eyesight and hearing so if you approach downwind, the rhinos are likely to remain unaware of your presence. Fortunately, the wind stayed gently blowing in the one direction. Black rhino are less friendly and the only one we spy is kept at a respectable distance.

While Zimbabwe struggles through its modern political challenges, Matobo National Park offers a peaceful haven in the centre of the country. It is best described by Cecil Rhodes himself - “The peacefulness of it all: the chaotic grandeur of it: it creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we all are.

Other African Posts
Gorillas in the Mist (Congo)
The Great Congo River Journey (Congo)
Lake of Stars (Malawi)
The Pink Pageant (Kenya)
Real Africa? (Central African Republic)
African Top Ten Travel Wonders

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winner - Night in a Luxury Hotel Competition

The judges at Priority Club have selected a winner of the free night in a luxury hotel competition. As a reminder, an entrant had to come up with a city they'd most like to visit and the reason for visiting it.

After deliberations, they have decided that the winning entry is "What is it they say about never seeing the things closest to home? Strange as it may seem, although I am a travel writer who lives in Florida, I have never visited Miami. Maybe this is my opportunity - luscious sand, aquamarine water, art deco buildings and neon lights, here I come (I hope)! My choice would be the Holiday Inn Miami Beach Oceanfront, right on the beach."

The winner is Barbara at Hole in the Donut Travels. Congratulations Barbara, I will be in touch to ensure that you collect your prize.

Thank you to all the entrants for their high quality ideas for a dream night away and to Priority Club.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Photo of the Week - Chinstrap Penguin (Antarctica)

In the cold icy surrounds of Antartica, the Chinstrap penguin stands strikingly with its thin black neck stripe. Parenting is a truly shared occupation with one guarding the eggs or chicks while the other heads off to feed, returning with a full belly and regurgitated feeds for the chicks. They then exchange places and the cycle starts again. As the chicks grow, both parents head out to feed leaving the chicks in a creche with other chinstrap chicks, racing the short summer Antarctic months to have the chicks sufficiently matured to swim and fend for themselves.

Other Wildlife Photos of the Week
Leopard Seal
Mountain Gorilla
Brown Bear
Hoary Marmot
Top Ten Wildlife Wonders of the World

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beyond the Bears (Churchill, Canada)

The tiny population (around 500) of the desolate township of Churchill share a love-hate relationship with polar bears. Accessible only via a three-hour air flight or overnight rail journey, this northerly outpost is enthused by the dollars associated with the wildlife-loving visitors (almost everyone who visits Churchill comes to see the polar bears) but not necessarily by the bears themselves. Signs near the edge of town with stylised pictures of polar bears warn visitors to not walk beyond the centre of town.

Churchill carefully police for rogue bears that wander into the township scouring streets and bins for a few morsels of food unwilling to wait the last few weeks for the freeze. These are darted and carted off to the “polar bear prison”, a large hangar-like corrugated iron compound. The bears are kept until the bay freezes when they are transferred via helicopter far out to the ice fields. Sadly, those impounded for the third time are euthanised in the interests of the population’s safety.

Churchill has all the feel of a remote town. The main street is wide and featureless with houses insulated against the savage winter cold and the summer mosquito plagues. The odd brave sole quickly bustles from the comfort of one building to another, snuggling their face into the cuddly warmth of their jacket. Though the thermometer shows -15°C, the biting wind chills it to -40°C. The best cold weather gear seems defenceless against such Arctic conditions.

Apart from the extraordinary polar bears, there is little else to encourage visiting this remote town. A small single room Eskimo museum contains some excellent historic handicrafts, a nearby property offers husky rides on wheeled sleds to keep their dogs physically fit and an old fort reminds of past times when the French and English scuffled for this historic fur trading area.

The short stumpy spruce trees are a sight, much shorter than normal from the harsh permafrost conditions and suffering from a strange condition called snow pruning, where the tree only grows branches on the side protected from the strong prevailing winds. Like a demented forestry experiment, it is somewhat disconcerting seeing clumps of trees bare on one side but with branches on the other.

Leaving the toasty warmth of the lounge’s roaring fire and braving the biting evening cold (not to mention the fear of bears wandering the dingy streets) may offer the lights of the aurora borealis. Around midnight one evening during my stay, wishing to find an area free from lights but not wanting to wander far from the safety of the central town, the clear night sky lit weakly to dancing green bands of light from this strange celestial phenomenon. Full on, the aurora must provide a stunning lightshow.

Churchill is a long pilgrimage to the northern wilds of Canada but well worthwhile to bear witness to one of nature’s great travel wonders as giant polar bears hover on the shores of Hudson Bay awaiting the onset of winter and a chance to hunt seals. It is a rewarding and uplifting experience to stand within a few feet of one of the planet’s great creatures, enjoying the antics of the cubs or staring into the eyes of a fully-grown adult, all from the safety of an oversized buggy.

Other Canada Posts
Polar Bear Splendour (Churchill)
The Twenty Dollar View (Lake Louise)
The Spiritual Medicine Lake
Johnston Canyon

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Polar Bear Splendour (Churchill, Canada)

Even in the relative safety of a large vehicle, a polar bear is a chilling, awe-inspiring animal. When only a pane of reinforced glass separates you from the world’s largest land-based carnivore, a strange mix of fear and excitement sets in.

Every year around mid-October, migrating polar bears congregate in their hundreds for a handful of weeks in the northerly Canadian town of Churchill, awaiting Hudson Bay to freeze over. Purpose built tundra buggies, a kind of bus perched on a high-clearance, all-terrain truck chassis, ferry snap-happy tourists out onto the shores of the bay to witness these endangered arctic giants.

Some bears sniff around the buggy hoping for a tasty treat while others content themselves sleeping lazily on the crusty snow-laden ground. The occasional athletic bear leaps onto its hind legs, lifting itself to window level, the scratching on the metallic sides echoing uneasily through the buggy.

Mothers shepherd their cubs cautiously while younger adults stage mock fights, these solitary animals bought so close together waiting for the biting northerly cold to freeze the bay. The young cubs are a scream, their boundless energy and uncertain footing on the icy ground creating plenty of entertainment to those on the buggy. Once the bay is frozen, the polar bears can leave the shores and hunt for their favoured ring seals, the rich fresh meat rebuilding their fat reserves lost over the summer months.

Shallow lakes have already frozen, a mothers showing her cubs technique for walking on thin ice, cautiously spreading her weight over a wide area by widely stretching her legs in an exaggerated sliding walk like an oversized spider climbing a window. The bumbling cubs eagerly stroll behind like cotton balls blowing in the wind seemingly oblivious to the threats of the barely formed ice layer and paying scant attention to their mother’s lessons.

There are good chances that you’ll spot other creatures that inhabit this desolate, chilly environment. With all dressed in a standard uniform of white to camouflage into the surroundings, arctic foxes compete with arctic owls and flocks of ptarmigan exploring the desert-like tundra for food.

Read more about Churchill and the polar bears.

Photo Source: Tundra Buggy

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jewels of the Caribbean (Barbados)

Guest post by Elegant Resorts

Barbados (known as "the pearl of the Caribbean") is a rather small pear-shaped island which is 20 miles of soft coral. This ancient and enormous coral reef was formed approximately one million years ago and is permeated by water, which resulted in spectacular underground caverns. Its glorious beaches can be enjoyed with 340 days of sunshine a year. With abundant water sports including water skiing, sailing, fishing, windsurfing, scuba diving, and snorkeling, Barbados makes the perfect getaway when searching for luxury holidays.

Two of the premier resorts for your stay are Cobblers Cove and Sandy Lane.

Cobblers Cove is an elegant English Country House style in a secluded setting and with a relaxing atmosphere. It is located on one of the best beaches in Barbados, where you can swim with the sea turtles and enjoy an abundance of other activities. Their gourmet restaurant offers breakfast, dinner, afternoon tea, cocktails and a culinary demonstration by Chef Porteus along with a complimentary wine tasting.

Sandy Lane is a luxury 112-room resort set in an ancient mahogany grove overlooking the Caribbean Sea on Barbados' West Coast. The classic elegance was enhanced by a multi-million-dollar expansion and overhaul, and you may well encounter celebrities and royalty. Your transfer to and from the airport is in a chauffeured luxury car. Three golf courses with 45 holes, one of which was designed by Tom Fazio, appeal to the golfer, who can also enjoy the 55,000-square-foot Clubhouse with its pro shop, elegant restaurant, and panoramic views. The Galleria at Sandy Lane features diamonds, distinctive jewelry, and limited edition timepieces.

When you are ready to explore the island, there are many unique attractions to put on your schedule.

The culture is shaped by an English influence and is evident in the Anglican stone churches and the cricket games still played on the village greens.

The Animal Flower Cave is in the parish of St. Lucy, the most northerly point of Barbados. The name comes from the sea anemones that inhabit the pools in the cave. You can even swim in some of the deeper pools. Openings in the cave offer spectacular views. Also visit the Flower Forest with its flowers of brilliant colours.

The Andromeda Botanical Gardens in St. Joseph has six acres of orchids, ferns, hibiscus, begonias, palms, cacti, and more. A stream bisects the land and forms waterfalls and pools. These exotic gardens were started in 1954 by a local horticulturist, Iris Bannochie, who bequeathed the land to the Barbados National Trust.

Harrison's Cave in Bridgetown is a huge underground cavern with stalactites and stalagmites, deep emerald pools, and waterfalls that you can enjoy in an electrically operated tram.

The Barbados Museum in Garrison is housed in what was the British Military Prison, which had its upper section built in 1817 and lower section in 1853. There are artifacts of the Amerindians (the Caribbean islands' early inhabitants), "Yesterday's Children" (a gallery giving an educational travel back into history), rare historical maps of the island, furnishings of an 18th century plantation house, a natural history display, and a reference library.

The Heritage Park and Rum Factory, with free admission, is the first rum distillery inaugurated in 1996 situated on a former sugar and molasses plantation dating back 350 years. Produced there is ESA Field, a white rum much preferred by connoisseurs.

St. Nicholas Abbey is a plantation great house built about 1650 and furnished with antiques. It is surrounded by sugar cane fields. It never functioned as an abbey but was named so by one owner. It is one of three authentic Jacobean houses in the Western Hemisphere and is characterized by its curved gables. Each year more than 200 acres are still being cultivated, and an on-site sugar refinery has been reconstructed.

In the parish of Christ Church is the Graeme Hall Swamp, the largest expanse of inland water on Barbados. Visitors can stay dry and walk on a boardwalk to view the red and white mangrove trees , more than 40 species of birds as well as green monkeys and unusual plants.

Christ Church also has duty-free shops, especially in the Bridgetown area surrounding the cruise ship terminal. Local handcrafts include black coral jewelry, straw bags, clay pottery, wall hangings, and more.

Whether it is a relaxing time on the beach, water sports or a variety of attractions, as a holiday location, Barbados is the pearl of the Caribbean.

Source: Photos 2,3,4

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Luxury Hotel Competition Closing

A competition with the folks from Priority Club Rewards to win a night in one of IHG's 4,300 hotels including Holiday Inns, Crowne Plazas and many more (**), closes in two days time (9 October).

All you need to do is:

1. Add a comment to the original competition post on your select IHG Hotel in the world for a special stay and the reason why. Ensure that I can track you down if you win by leaving an email address or contact details within your URL.

2. Subscribe to Travel Wonders via email using the panel in the top right of the sidebar.

The winner will be announced a couple of days after the close.

Note that the winner will be required to register an account with Priority Club Rewards and email me with their membership number. Priority Club Rewards will transfer the points directly into the account.

** Please note that the prize is for 25,000 points and will not cover a stay in an Intercontinental Hotel.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Exploring Volcanic Lanzarote (Spain)

Guest post by Nick Ball

The Canary Island of Lanzarote has long had a reputation as a bucket and spade beach holiday destination. Justifiably so in fact, as around 1.5 million foreign tourists visit every year.

But this small speck of Spain, located just 80 miles off the coast of Morocco, offers much more than just sunshine and sun loungers alone. As Lanzarote boasts some awe-inspiring scenery – forged by a massive series of volcanic eruptions. Along with some truly unique and highly imaginative man made tourist attractions, created by a famous local artist called César Manrique.

During the 1730´s Lanzarote was rocked by one of the modern world’s longest lasting volcanic eruptions. Which lasted for six years, destroying most of the best farmland on the island and covering much of the south in a carpet of lava.

These seismic shocks forced many Lanzaroteños to flee the island. But today this whole region is one of Spain´s most popular National Parks – welcoming close to 900,000 tourists every year. The scenery here is extremely surreal and has often been likened to the surface of the moon. So much so that it has in fact been used as backdrop for a number of science-fiction films such as One Million Years BC and Krull.

Elsewhere an island born artist called César Manrique has worked with Lanzarote´s twisted terrain to create a series of unique visitor attractions. During the 1970´s Manrique fought for the controlled evolution of tourist development on the island. As he feared that Lanzarote could become buried beneath a sea of concrete – as had already happened to large swathes of land in southern Spain and on some of the larger Canary Islands.

At the same time he sought to create ecologically friendly tourist attractions as an alternative to the golf courses and water parks that were springing up in other sunspots.

His best known project on the island is the breathtaking Jameos del Agua. Where he used a massive lava tunnel as a backdrop for an underground grotto, concert auditorium and tropical gardens. Creating a site that was described by visiting VIP Rita Heyworth as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”.

The Jameos del Agua project really helped to put Lanzarote on the map as a tourist destination in the 1970´s. As it gained international plaudits and helped to attract lots of famous guests – such as Peter Sellers and Omar Sharif. All keen to find out more about this unusual new holiday island.

Manrique went on to create a further six similar sites. In the process helping to gain Lanzarote the privileged status of a UNESCO protected biosphere.

Nick Ball is the editor of the Lanzarote Guidebook that includes an in-depth island guide to sightseeing, attractions, accommodation and excursions on this easternmost of the Canary Islands. Download the excellent free 96-page guide to this volcanic island paradise.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Book Review: Overcoming the 7 Major Obstacles to Traveling the World (Anil Polat)

Anil Polat of Foxnomad has recently published an e-book titled Overcoming the 7 Major Obstacles to Traveling the World, inspiring people to not let obstacles and excuses prevent them from travelling the world. It is a book aimed at people keen to travel but finding reasons to not go. Aimed both as a one-time read and as a regular ready-reference with a collection of tips and ideas towards reaching a goal of travelling to your dream destination, this book should help inspire fighting your demons that may be holding you back from travel.

Polat takes seven of the major issues and covers thoughtful ways to overcome each of them. On the topic of expense, Polat looks at ways to make practical everyday savings towards travel from tracking a budget and curbing your spending to savings with your computing needs and selling excess stuff from around your house. Similarly, the author looks using your job skills rather than treating it as a shackle to your current location.

There is considerable focus on the issue and discomfort of leaving family and close friends behind with this electronic age making staying in touch much easier and more practical.

Produced as an e-book and priced at US$14.95, Overcoming the 7 Major Obstacles to Traveling the World is available for immediate download. For the month of October, the author is donating the funds from the e-book to micro-lending organisation, Kiva.

If you have an enthusiasm to travel the world, here is a chance to free yourself from those negative gremlins with some down-to-earth advice in an easy to read format.

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