Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Photo of the Week: Paraportiani Church (Mykonos, Greece)

Along with its seductive beaches, the Greek island of Mykonos is known for its superb white-washed buildings, almost blinding in the bright midday sun. This tiny tourist mecca has a permanent population of less than 10,000 but boasts over 250 churches. Scanned from an old photo, the Paraportiani church is the most photographed and famous. It actually contains a remarkable five churches - the fifth being built on top of four older churches giving the church its strange shape and somewhat dishevelled but striking appearance.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Niagara of New Zealand (Huka Falls)

Only a few kilometres from its birth in Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s longest river funnels into a narrow chasm. The 100 metre wide Waikato River is forced into a narrow 15 metre channel causing a bubbling maelstrom of spray, water and whirlpools before cannoning over a nine metre rock ledge.

Around 200,000 litres (53,000 US gallons) of seething waters, enough to fill five Olympic swimming pools gush over Huka Falls every second before reverting into the calm waters of the Waikato as the river again gradually widens. From a pedestrian footbridge, visitors can view where the landscape turns the sedate emerald green Waikato into the torrent that the Maori term hukanui or river of foam.

Jetboats, so suited to the shallow rapids of the New Zealand rivers drive near to the foot of the falls drenching their passengers and providing a stellar vista of these majestic waters.

Sometimes over-ambitiously described as New Zealand’s Niagara, Huka Falls is a visual feast of spray and bubbling waters bouncing off canyon walls and is a far more spectacular waterfall than its modest heights would ever indicate.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Step Pyramid: The First Pyramid (Saqqara, Egypt)

Written by Travel Wonders and sponsored by, providers of Egypt holidays and holiday dreams around the world.

Around 40 kilometres south of Cairo lays Egypt’s first great pyramid – one of history’s most enduring ancient symbols. While the pyramid is the centrepiece of any funerary complex for an Egyptian pharaoh, a number of other buildings are built to support the pharaoh’s more than comfortable transition to the afterlife.

Historians believe that previous tombs were unimpressively constructed of mud-brick and sand, built as a single large platform. The Step Pyramid was planned with six stacked terraces or mastabas of large stone blocks and was originally encased in polished white limestone. Like their famous cousins at Giza, the large stones created an exceptional workload and huge engineering challenges with over 250,000 tonnes of rock slabs lifted and joined to create this staggering 60 metre tall edifice.

Hidden from view are kilometres of passageways for the burial of the pharaoh’s family and the various goods, food stuffs, furniture, jewels and comforts required for the next life.

Entrance to the complex is via an impressive colonnaded corridor of 20 pairs of six metre columns into a giant hall, the modern roof providing the only relief from the sapping desert heat.

Further buildings include the impressive Jubilee Court featuring shrines to Upper and Lower Egypt (the two kingdoms that merged under pharaonic rule).

Remarkably the shrines include the first example of tourist graffiti with a protected black marking estimated to have been mischievously scrawled 1,500 years after the tomb’s construction.

From this one location, looking further south around 10 kilometres over the parched desert sands, the evolution of Egyptian pyramids stands before us. The so-called Bent Pyramid represents the first straight sided pyramid but the engineers started construction too steeply. Half way through the building, the angle dramatically changes from the initial 56 degrees to the standard 43 degrees resulting in a pronounced kink in the sides. Interestingly, this pyramid retains most of white limestone casing, lost on most pyramids over the centuries.

The neighbouring Red Pyramid, named for its reddish hue, shows the first true pyramid built at an angle of 43 degrees from the start. The three pyramids capture the development of Egypt’s extraordinary monuments – their longevity a testament to exceptional feats of mind-blowing engineering. Only one hundred years later, the great pyramids at Giza and the only survivor of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World were constructed.

While the area is dusty, dry and hot, it is difficult to comprehend standing around nearly 5,000 years of history celebrating one of mankind’s earliest advanced civilisations (check out the Egyptian medical knowledge). Imagine the incredible skills and knowledge required to move huge stone blocks using little more than wooden rollers and manpower. To view the first attempt of Egypt’s finest travel legacy is to witness Egypt’s superb monuments to the immortality of its ancient leaders.

This Egyptian article (written by Travel Wonders) is sponsored by cheap holidays from - the travel comparison website.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Den Gamle By (Arhus, Denmark)

The lyrically sounding Den Gamle By translates as The Old Town. The half-timbered trading houses are part of a superb collection of around 75 historic buildings in the second largest Danish town of Ã…rhus. Presented as an open-air museum and with buildings gathered from all over the country (some nearing 500 years of age), Den Gamle By works as a "living" village with bakers, blacksmiths and grocers capturing the essence of a Danish market town. Furnished to the times, the buildings can be explored highlighting the tougher living conditions of times past. A mayor's house is one of the highlights of this historic town.

While some excellent open-air museums are sprinkled around northern Europe, Den Gamle By started the concept of open-air museums in 1914 and makes for a wonderful travel wonder to explore while in Denmark.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Olympics Saves a Frog (Sydney, Australia)

It is exactly ten years since Cathy Freeman stood among cascading waters and lit the Olympic torch to start sixteen extraordinary days at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Sydneysiders exalted in a remarkable games as visitors rolled in from all corners of the globe and the eyes of the world peered down upon us. The lead-up had its typical share of controversies over the money being spent, ticketing issues and the like, but the exposure of Sydney to the world, the fine memories and world-class sporting facilities are tremendous local legacies.

One of the most unusual issues was created by a humble frog. Not overly attractive, the endangered (and appropriately named in line with home sporting colours) green and golden bell frog was discovered on the planned site of the future tennis stadium. With plans for the stadium already approved and the Olympics nearing, the games that sold itself on its environmental approach decided to protect this humble frog and its habitat, the tennis facility being moved a couple of kilometres away.

The Brickpit had been quarried for 70 years providing around two-thirds of all the red bricks involved in the construction of the millions of Sydney homes. This abandoned and ugly industrial wasteland with remnants of toxic chemicals was finally to be filled and converted to tennis courts.

The decaying brickwork machinery was left laying, claypits abandoned and a remarkable 550 metres circular walk was erected as a floating walkway almost twenty metres above the ground. Somewhat eerie sound recordings around the walk recount past brick workers' experiences in the factory while the motorcycle-like croak of the green and golden bell frog echoes from another hidden speaker.

The Brickpit Ring Walk is an unusual travel wonder comprising one of a number of walks on the preserved lands on the Olympic site, others include a birds wetlands, several parks and an extensive mangrove area with boardwalks.

As you walk this strange circle of galvenised metal and plastic looking down on a lake and grasslands, think how the bell frogs, invisible from above, can luxuriate in the thought that their home was almost converted to a home of topspin, drop volleys and slice serves.

Photo Credit: Bell frog courtesy of Taronga Park Education Department
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Top of the World (Mt Everest, Nepal)

This article is dedicated to Sue Fear, the first Australian-born woman to climb Mt Everest and who tragically lost her life descending after an ascent of her fifth 8000 metre giant. She loved the mountains and was a fine and inspiring leader of our small Himalayan trekking group.

It was bitterly cold and teeth chattered as I sat among a handful of brave souls perched on a rock upon a mountain top. Ice-encrusted prayer flags stood unmoved by the chilling breeze. We were waiting for the first rays of sunlight to awaken the world’s giant – the travel wonder of Mt Everest – the tallest mountain on our planet.

As each day took hold and the sun’s beams reflected on the whiteness of the snowy peaks, the extraordinary Himalayan amphitheatre rises in all its splendour. The world’s tallest peaks stand in concert as part of a 360 degree mountain panorama. In this same range with Everest stands the world’s 4th, 5th and 6th highest peaks and the world’s third highest mountain (Kanchenjunga) can be viewed on the horizon. Even from the dizzying and oxygen-deprived heights of Gokyo Ri (at 5360 metres), it is a further three vertical kilometres to the top of these largest world peaks.

A couple of hours earlier, these same folks escaped the toasty warm comfort of a sleeping bag, struggled with boots and headlamps while trying not to remove the precious gloves and egged on by the chance to lay eyes on the world’s greatest peaks. Leaving the tiny hamlet of Gokyo, the strong moonlight silhouetted the handful of rugged stone houses along with the craggy heights of Gokyo Ri, a peak that stood a further 600 metres above us.

The panting and tiredness in the legs, the rest stops after every few steps, the struggle to spot the path among the dusting of snow and the biting Nepalese cold of an hour ago is all forgotten, swept away by a mesmerising mountain vista. Azure blue glacial lakes glisten while the brooding greyness of the Everest glacier continues it unrelenting journey through the towering giants sweeping all before it.

A Nepalese guide indicates the path taken by climbers attempting to climb Mt Everest. Stories of the challenges of climbing Everest – the Hillary Step, the Western Cwm and more – incredible challenges for the early climbers at heights above 8000 metres in such difficult and unpredictable weather. With only one-third of the oxygen available at sea level, it is barely within the range of human endeavour to climb these towering peaks. For me, I am truly contented to enjoy the view warmed by the strengthening sun and a small block of chocolate religiously carried for weeks for this moment.

Among its neighbours, Mt Everest is somewhat different. An elegant pyramid, it is almost devoid of snow and ice, the harsh winds keeping the blackened face relative clear of ice. A stream of snow is jettisoned from its peak, the stillness of the morning in sharp contrast to the conditions typically found at the peak of Everest.

The previous day, the group had snuck a view of Mt Everest. On a rarely used track walking towards Tibet from Gokyo, past further glistening lakes a flattish path finds a junction between the intervening peaks where Everest stands tall. The view is arrogantly described as Scoundrel’s View (photo shows the view on a clear day), no peak having being climbed to see Mt Everest in all its glory – the vista being somehow unearned. The remarkable Ngozumpa Glacier creaks and groans audibly from this vantage point. Disappointingly, a small cloud sat on the Everest peak hiding its upper reaches but adding to the anticipation of viewing this travel wonder the following morning.

Even trekking among the Himalayan mountains for a couple of weeks, nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of viewing the world’s tallest mountains – elegant moody rock giants. The rickety bridges, the cold and physical exertion becomes a fading memory in such august company.

Other Nepal Posts
Sexual Surprise in Nepal's Heart (Kathmandu)
Monkeying Around (Kathmandu)

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Photo of the Week: New York New York Hotel 9/11 Memorial (Las Vegas, USA)

On this ninth anniversary, I recall sitting at home in Sydney transfixed in the late evening of 9/11 (Sydney is many hours ahead of the east coast of the US) watching live CNN coverage as this act of terrorism unfolded and changed the 21st century world. Even in Las Vegas, the city of excess, there are memorials to those lost in front of the New York New York Hotel Casino. Simple T-shirts, small momentos, fluttering flags and moving personal notes make a rich and touching memorial to those thousands who lost their life in this horrific tragedy.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Ultimate Jungle Beach Holiday (Santa Teresa, Costa Rica)

guest post by Dahlia Nahome of Costa Rican Vacation

Costa Rica has long been a top destination of travellers from around the globe. It has something for everyone but the reasonably unknown and unspoilt beauty of the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, on the Pacific coast around Santa Teresa, is a hidden gem. It has a growing community of surfers and artisans from all over the world who have decided to make it their home. This has translated into a vibrant and colourful place to explore and chill out, with the perfect combination of a tropical beach town matched with quality restaurants and services.

It is quite a difficult place to get to but once you make the trip from either San Jose or Liberia (and please only travel in a 4x4 in the wet season!), it is very much worth the effort.

Here are my top 5 reasons for adding it to your hit list of places to visit:

1. The beaches are your own. No more worries about other sun worshippers getting too close for comfort on a packed and sweaty beach. The beaches from Mal Pais up to, and especially Manzanillo are huge and people-less. You sometimes feel that you are on your own private beach and this photo shows you exactly what I mean.

Being in the tropics also means that the beaches are surrounded by lush, dense jungle, full of the sounds of howler monkeys and an abundance of huge palm trees. Pick coconuts and drink the fresh and naturally isotonic pipa juice from your hammock – it really is this idyllic. Our beaches recently won Trip Advisor's best beach in Central and South America.

There are rock pools between Manzanillo and Playa Hermosa between mid and low tide. Not only are these tidal pools breathtaking to see, but there are a whole host of little fish to share the experience with. This makes for stunning images for those budding photographers out there and it doesn’t cost a penny. When the tide is high, you wouldn’t even know they were there!

2. Incredible surf. I am not a surfer, but my husband is, so I feel qualified (by association), to write about it. I don’t know if you surf but this is an exceptional place to give it a go. During the dry seasons, the waves on Hermosa beach are consistent and gently rolling, providing the novices out there with sufficient white wash to get the basics covered and practice and practice and practice. During June, July and August, the surf can get quite big and scary or big and fun, dependant on your skill level. Being a surfing town also means that there is no shortage of quality surf instructors – for all ages and all of whom speak at least a few languages proficiently. Lessons cost around $40 - $50 for a two hour session and you can also hire boards from around $10 a day. The beach breaks of Playa Carmen, Mal Pais and Santa Teresa are some of the more consistent in the whole country. Waves all year round. There are also a number of secret point breaks that you might encounter.

3. Yoga. Where there is surf, you will find yoga – and lots of it too. Whether you are into pilates, ashtanga or vinyasa flow, there are some breathtaking places to practise that are extremely reasonably priced. One of the most beautiful I would recommend, is Horizon, Playa Carmen, with inspiring vistas. A favourite and long established yoga teacher for the area is called Nancy Goodfellow. Nancy is based out of Prananar down in Hermosa and can be reached through I have been with some seriously advanced people in her class who have rated Nancy amongst one of the best in the world.

4. The Sunsets. Moving onto something a little less high physical impact, the sunsets here are amazing. Being on the Pacific side of Costa Rica means glorious and never ending glows each evening. The only question is where to watch it each night: do you head up the mountain to Brisas del Mar for spectacular views of the peninsula, scrumptious cocktails and yummy food, head to the beach bar at D&N on Playa Carmen for some chilled out sunset music or simply retire to your beachfront villa or hotel?

5. Wildlife Aplenty. I touched on this earlier, but the Nicoya Peninsula really is haven for travellers looking to be submerged in nature. There are huge iguanas everywhere, white faced and howler monkeys in the trees outside your bedroom window, colourful parrots flying through the air, wonderful nature walks through the Cabo Blanco nature reserve and if you are lucky, you might even get to see baby turtles being released into the sea at Calatus, a 45 minute drive north of Manzanillo.

There are so many more reasons that you should think of coming to Santa Teresa – horse riding, buying freshly caught fish straight off the fishermen at Mal Pais, artisan organic farmers markets on Saturday’s or just slowing down for a few weeks, but for now, I hope that I have given you a taste for the Nicoya Peninsula. Come and enjoy it for yourselves.

Pura Vida.

Dahlia is an ex-London city girl who moved the jungle with her husband and two young children. She runs as well as enjoying writing about the Nicoya Peninsula.

Photo Credits: All photos by Dahlia Nahome except lone bicycle.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Exploring Red Rock Canyon (USA)

guest post and photos by good travel blogging friend Bret of The JetPacker.

The trembling bass of a raging nightclub. The constant ringing of slot machines. The relentless barrage of advertisements. Honking horns. Flashing lights. Drunken laughter.

Sometimes Las Vegas can be overwhelming. Sometimes you need peace and quiet. Sometimes you need fresh air... even if the air is hot and dry.

From a hotel room high above The Strip, you scan the harsh desert landscape in the distance, looking for a temporary escape, when something unusual captures your attention, sticking out like a bright red sore thumb...Red Rock Canyon.

Fifteen miles west of Las Vegas is an odd place where the flat, sandy desert landscape gives way to a patch of crimson hills. At first glance, these strikingly massive clumps of Aztec sandstone in the middle of no where seem misplaced. Like nature's mistake.

But it's not. Hundreds of millions of years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, active fault lines violently pushed land masses together at such speed that wet sand dunes fossilized, causing the minerals from the water to lodge in the rocks and alter its color.

Red Rock Canyon serves as a visual record of that tumultuous time in earth's history, a chronicle of the region’s geographic history that stretches from the red band streaking across the mountains of the Keystone Thrust Fault to the smooth crimson and amber rocks of Calico Hills.

Today, Red Rock Canyon is a prehistoric playground for hikers, rock-climbers and curious sight-seers. A 13-mile scenic drive winds through Joshua trees and cactus, twisting around jackrabbit burrows and rattlesnake holes, gaining over a thousand feet in elevation, rendering the Vegas strip a tiny glimmer in the distance.

Those with a more adventurous spirit can hike across 58 miles of trails, attempt to traverse cliff walls as high as 3,000 feet, or bike along roads frequented by wild burros, coyotes and desert tortoises.

You can easily spend an entire day appreciating the visually stunning and unique features of Red Rock Canyon for an admission fee of only $7. It's cheaper than a hand of blackjack... and even more rewarding.

Bret is a writer for The JetPacker, a humorous travel site packed with odd travel news, cool lists, fun facts and stories about the weird and interesting aspects of travel.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Drinks Around the World: Kriek - Sour Cherry Beer (Belgium)

Some years ago, I received a strong recommendation to try a kriek - "it is unlike any beer you will have ever tasted". And boy, were they correct.

Kriek is a sour-cherry flavoured beer, brewed in a special manner called lambic. A typical mix of wheat, hops, water and malt is exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria (sounds almost medicinal), fermented rapidly, with sour cherries added after the fermentation.

Opening the bottle results in a truly pungent wet earth odour (more odour than aroma!), pouring as a deep red drink where the head disappears almost immediately (more like champagne than beer). The taste is not beer-like at all - a tart, dry flavour with a slight touch of bubbles and a biting sourness somewhere between cranberry and lemon juice, but closer to lemon. The mouth tends to shrivel at the reminder of the taste and even has a similarity to cider.

For me, I could never manage more than one but it was a surprisingly enjoyable and palate cleansing. It is an appreciated taste among proud Belgian beer drinkers. The brewing technique is treasured and limited to a tiny pocket of Belgium. My description is probably unjust but it is a unique taste experience and worth seeking out as a drink around the world should you wander through .
At the start of every month, Travel Wonders highlights a characteristic drink experienced on his travel. Only two previous beers have featured in this series: the Belgian classic monastery beer, Chimay and the most northern beer in the world (Mack Pilsner).

Photo Credit: kriek

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