Friday, April 29, 2011

Bellagio Glass Garden (Las Vegas, USA)

Over 2000 glass flowers dominate the lobby ceiling of the Italianate-styled Bellagio Hotel in the ritzy excesses of Las Vegas. In the midst of the Las Vegas strip, this towering hotel features a restaurant with eleven Picasso paintings, a permanent Cirque du Soleil show and a nightly show of dancing fountains to music all funded by slot machines and gaming tables as far as the eye can see.

Whatever your impressions of Las Vegas, it is well worth a wander in the Las Vegas lobby to marvel at the superb and colourful glass-blown ceiling (titled Fiori di Como), designed by American sculptor Dale Chihuly. And check out the neighbouring internal botanical gardens with resplendent blooms, ponds, bridges and oversized artistic insects.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Three Gorges Cruise (China)

guest post by Sanctuary Retreats

The Three Gorges area is one of the most impressive sites to visit in China. Formed by the Yangtze River it is, as the name suggests, split into three connecting gorges.

Qutang Gorge

From east to west, Qutang Gorge measures five miles in total, running from Baidicheng all the way too the town of Daixi. The gorge is flanked by huge vertical cliffs, some thrusting thousands of meters into the air, the Yangtze River in between only a few dozens of meters wide forming a narrow gate way. With swash and rumble, the surging Yangtze River pours swiftly into the gateway. Looking up towards the tops of towering mountains along the gorge edge, only a narrow strip of clouds and sky can be seen by those on travelling on a luxury cruise down the river. Qutang Gorge is outstanding for its sheer scale and magnificence.

Wu Gorge

Wu Gorge (Witches Gorge) extends 28 miles from the mouth of Daning River in the west to Guandukou of Badong in the east. The Wu Gorge is scattered with impressive peaks and lush surrounding mountains ranges. Its deep calm waters twist and turn their way down its length, allowing for those on China cruises to relax and soak in the surroundings. The twelve peaks of Wushan Mountain all rise up to meet the blue sky above. The mountains are formed of various fascinating shapes and among them is the breath taking Peak of Goddess. It raises high into the heavens, and towers over the Yangtze River. A protruding rock of the Peak has the shape of slim girl clad in a fine dress and often shrouded in clouds and mist.

Xiling Gorge

Xiling Gorge measures 41 miles from Xiangxikou to Nanjinguan. Before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, it was known for being the most dangerous of the three gorges to travel through. The whole Gorge area is covered with high mountains, gullies, shoals and reefs of various sizes. The best known shoal, Qing Shoal is formed by a collapsed craggy cliff. The gorge also comprises of many smaller gorges and never fail to provide fantastic and inspiring views for onlookers. Favourites include Kongling Gorge and Shadow Play Gorge.

Cruising down these gorges is an experience to treasure, as the natural sites afforded are surely one of the most unique on the planet.

Photo Credits: bridge, Qutang, Wu, Xiling

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Alcazar of Seville (Spain) - A Historical Survivor

guest post (and photography) from Sandra Vallaure, editor of Seville Traveller, a website providing useful information on Seville for independent travellers

Seville is the most beautiful city in Spain. Actually, Spaniards often compare it to a woman and always define it as elegant, majestic and gorgeous.

Additionally, it was one of the first Spanish cities founded by the Romans. As you can imagine, History has left its trace in Seville. As a result, the city is a combination of impressive monuments and narrow streets where you can wander as long as your feet permit it.

Among all the monuments Seville has, one stands out: the Alcazar.

The Alcazar is, together with the Cathedral and its bell tower, the Giralda, one of the main symbols of the city.

A little bit of history

The area was initially occupied by the Romans and of the first Christian basilicas was built there. However, it not until the Arab occupation (844-1248) that the Alcazar was built, or at least part of it. When the Arabs finally conquered the city, they decided to create a structure for the governor that would be both a palace and a fortress. In fact, the Spanish word alcazar comes from the Arab al qsar that means palace, castle or fortress.

The Alcazar had the usual Arab architecture, and it was full of beautiful patios surrounded by thin columns supporting horseshoe arches. With the arrival and reconquest of the Christians leaded by King Ferdinand III, the Alcazar became the Royal Palace. From there on, the following kings ordered to perform alterations to adequate the complex to their needs and added further pavilions and structures.

Consequently, the Alcazar evolved into a unique place where you can find -and will actually see if you happen to visit it, a melting pot of Arab, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque styles.

The Alcazar has been inhabited by most of the main kings and queens of Spanish history: Ferdinand III himself, the Catholic Monarchs, Charles V and many more. Even today, the King Juan Carlos I occupies the Alcazar when he is in Seville.

Don't miss...

I particularly recommend to pay attention to the Ambassador's Hall (Salón de los Embajadores) located inside Don Pedro's palace, also known as Palacio Mudéjar. Every little detail has been taken care of and the ceramics are absolutely spectacular.

Moreover, spend some time at the Maidens' Courtyard (Patio de las Doncellas). It has been recently restored and it is one of the finest examples of an Arab patio that can be found in Seville and, I dare to say, Spain.

Finally, don't miss the gardens. They are magnificent. In truth there is not only one big garden but multiple small ones, every one with a different style and plants. There is even a labyrinth!

The smell of the orange trees, spread everywhere and the sound of the water flowing at the various fountains will charm you. I believe that one of the highlights of the Alcazar is to seat for a while and relax while observing all this nature surrounding you.

The Alcazar is an architectural masterpiece that explains on itself a large period of the history of Spain and Seville. On top of it, it is one of the finest examples of the Arab style of the 10th century. Sometimes how, after earthquakes, wars and fires, it has managed to survive.

So why not going to Seville during your next holiday? You will have the opportunity to enjoy one of the nicest European climates while devoting your time to discover wonders like the Alcazar.

Are you planning to visit the Alcazar? Have you done so already? Share with us your experience in the comments below!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Largest Church in the World?

Where is the biggest church in the world?

St. Peters in the Vatican seems a likely guess. Maybe somewhere else in Italy? Milan? Venice? Spain and Portugal have some huge cathedrals. Maybe Canterbury, seat of the head of the Church of England. There are some big churches in Mexico and South America with their strong Catholic populations. The cathedrals in New York and Washington DC are gigantic too.

The remarkable thing is that with all these thoughts we aren't even on the correct continent. The largest church in the world is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (Notre Dame de la Paix) in Yamoussoukro in the troubled and impoverished west African country of Ivory Coast (or Cote D'Ivoire).

The brainchild of an enthusiastic (or is that, eccentric?) Ivory Coast president (now passed away), Yamoussoukro Basilica was constructed in the late 1980s consuming up to 25 percent of the nation's annual budget for several years. Modelled on St. Peter’s with its huge courtyard and opened by the Pope in 1990 after much debate, this incredible complex can be seen for miles around. Yamoussoukro was only a small village (population under 200) before the president of the time decreed his town of birth as the new capital. The surrounding grand multi-lane boulevards is reminiscent of Paris but almost completely without traffic or activity. The capital has since returned to the largest city of Abidjan.

The dome on the basilica is massive (larger than St. Peters) but the most striking is the mass of stained glass. One noteworthy image shows Jesus Christ with the president and the chief architect.

About the only other building of any scale is the old Presidential Palace. Today it is the burial site for the former president. It isn't open to the public but visitors can walk around the perimeter of the palace to see the human guards along with a number of crocodiles. These get fed every afternoon in quite a flamboyant show. It was reassuring that they were well fed as the fencing appeared to be little more than a few random strands of wire, unlikely to restrain any crocodile with hunger pangs.

Attending a church service in the basilica is an uplifting experience. Primarily in French, though also in some of the local tribal dialects, the service I attended went for over two hours. The attendance wasn’t huge but the lack of numbers was made up by the superb evangelical singing and the fantastic colour in the outfits of the African women, which went a long way to complementing the dazzling stained glass lit in the intense morning sunshine.

Photo credit: Stained glass

Monday, April 18, 2011

Photo of the Week: The Curiosity Shop (Jenolan Caves, Australia)

At 380 million years, Jenolan Caves are thought to be the oldest visited caves in the world. Around two hours drive west of Sydney, ten caves are open to the public. This photo shows the mesmerising beauty of the Orient Cave visited recently with my close and treasured friend Kath. The cave features three exceptionally featured rooms evocatively called the Indian, Egyptian and Persian Cambers. The formation is appropriately called The Curiosity Shop and includes helictites that are the strange formations that grow in all directions defying gravity (and scientific explanation).

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Best of The Algarve Restaurants (Portugal)

guest post by Amy Baker of

One things for sure, when deciding where to go on holiday there are a few important factors to consider: Where will you stay? What will you do? And most importantly for you food lovers, what will you eat? The Algarve, Portugal is well known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the whole of Europe and has carved itself a reputation for having some wonderful restaurants.

The seemingly endless number of Algarve restaurants are known for serving up the freshest seafood, the tastiest sardines and the most succulent traditional Algarvian stews. Here is a run-down of some of the regions best spots.

When you think of The Algarve you instantly picture long stretches of sand and crystal clear waters and it is understandable that you wouldn't want to venture far from the shore to enjoy your food. Canico inside the Prainha complex in Alvor is one of the most interesting of the beachside restaurants. Just arriving is an experience as it can only be reached via an elevator which descends down into the cliff from which the restaurant is carved. Every table offers views of a secluded cove making it a perfect spot to watch the sun go down. Windsurf in the quaint fishing village of Alvor is another great spot to try for beachside dining.

If you are happy to spend a little extra to treat yourself then look no further than Vila Joya, the regions only two Michelin star restaurant. Head chef, Dieter Koschina, uses the freshest fish combined with French haute cuisine to ensure his guests enjoy the ultimate dining experience. Another high class affair is the Casa Bitoque in Gaia. This spot is great if you're after a romantic spot to woo someone special. Be sure to sample some of their mouth-watering desserts.

The first thing that springs to mind when you think of The Algarve is sardines and it would be criminal to visit and not sample some for yourself. Follow the locals and head to Portimao. The first thing that will hit you upon arrival at the quay with be the smell of barbequed fish and the calls of the fisherman peddling their catch. If you weren't hungry before you arrived, we guarantee that your mouth will be watering in no time. These restaurants are similar in price and have near identical menus so it will be a case of choosing wherever you can find a table, especially in peak season. The sardines will be grilled right before your eyes and served up with fresh bread, new potatoes and salad. Our top tip? Don't be afraid to eat with your hands like the locals do...we're sure it makes them taste better!

Adega Vila Lisa is a rural restaurant located near to Lagos and Portimao, and has earned itself quite the reputation for serving up wonderful traditional dishes and is constantly listed as one of the best restaurants in Portugal. The signature dish is Pernie de Pork which is slow roasted in a woodfire oven. Make sure that you book in advance and be sure to get detailed directions as it is tucked away and not easily identifiable as a restaurant - that's what gives it its charm.

It's clear that if good food and good wine are something that you look for when planning your holiday then the Algarve is for you. You will be so spoilt for choice when it comes to breakfast, lunch and dinner that you may do little else but eat, but what’s the harm in that? You're on holiday!

For more information on The Algarve’s restaurants head to My Destination Algarve.

Photo Credits: sardines, Canico, Vila Joya,sardines, Adega Vila Lisa

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rivers of Grass (Everglades, Florida)

This article is written by Travel Wonders and is kindly sponsored by Club Med Sandpiper Bay, an active all-inclusive family destination and the ideal getaway resort for your next Florida vacation.

Sandwiched between the ugly urban sprawl of Miami and the alluring beaches of Florida Keys are the exceptional Everglades. This unusual subtropical wilderness of 1.5 million acres is full of sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, mangrove beds and shallow waters and harbours a remarkable range of birdlife, marine life and the infamous alligators.

Waters creep slowly south across Florida carrying huge amounts of grass giving an appearance of a moving unkempt lawn. Walking a couple of short path near the Royal Palm Visitors Centre, alligators abound most seemingly oblivious to folks tiptoeing awkwardly in a strange combination of apprehension, speed and fascination to not rouse these demonised creatures. A huge variety of water birds including ibises, the elegant pink roseate spoonbills with their skillet-like beaks, eagles, osprey and kites populate the area.

Further north, the Shark Valley area includes a hideous concrete walkway that provides a superb panorama of the area showcasing the unusual feel for this marshy world.

Canoeing is the best way to see the area. Slithering along the peaceful and shallow waterways among the mangroves, near the islands (can’t land on most as they are nesting sites) and through the sinister brackishness in the 10,000 Islands area shows the area at its finest. While sighting alligators only protected by a few millimetres of fibreglass is a little unnerving, the tranquility (broken only by incessant mosquitoes) after visiting Miami or Orlando is worth any discomfort.

Outside of the park, rides are available on airboats, a hovercraft with a giant fan attached to the back and remarkably manoeuvrable. Though it makes a hideous din, it buzzes along at 30 to 40 kilometres per hour, tree branches whisking past your ears and the wind tousling the hair. Slamming on the brakes (or is that turning the fan off?), the craft pulls into a grassy knoll and sure enough peering through the reeds are the beady eyes of an alligator lying peacefully in the weak afternoon sun. Many more are spotted each staking their own territory with the dedication of a medieval army.

Another alligator cruises up to the boat in their haunting whisper-quiet glide, ripples slowly falling from its eyes, the only part above the water line. This prehistoric monster so ideally evolved for its environment rides to less than a metre from the craft before it is time for “see you later, alligator” and on through further lagoons, accelerating through the shallows of the Everglades.

Take a break from the hectic theme parks of Orlando or the glitzy beach life of the Florida Keys and spend a day or two exploring the unique and tranquil wilderness of the Everglades. Though commercialised with alligator farms and airboats, try to escape for a quiet hike or peaceful canoe through this most unusual ecosystem.

This article is kindly sponsored by Club Med Sandpiper Bay. Located in sunny idyllic southern Florida, Sandpiper Bay is an all inclusive spa resort that offers tennis, golf, fitness, yoga, and fun activities for couples and families alike.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday Machu Picchu (Peru)

It was one hundred years ago when a young American Yale student Hiram Bingham, guided by locals arrived at Machu Picchu and discovered and unveiled this iconic location to the outside world. Over the years, Bingham cleared four centuries of growth, mapping and studying the site and solving some of the mysteries of this advanced civilisation.

Strings of special events are planned to celebrate the special event (putting pressure on the delicate area) from musical concerts to indigenous rituals. In one moving tribute and after considerable international pressure, a number of treasures taken by Bingham to add to his university's collections, for further study and protection, are going to be returned to Peru to start a museum in Cusco.

Gilbert H. Grosvenor, editor National Geographic magazine, eloquently summed up the wonder of Machu Picchu when he wrote in April 1913 in an issue of the magazine dedicated to Bingham's story and photos (one example included showing the same area as the modern photo) said "What an extraordinary people the builders of Machu Picchu must have been to have constructed, without steel implements, and using only stone hammers and wedges, the wonderful city of refuge on the mountain top."

Indeed, Machu Picchu is one of the finest travel wonders I have ever witnessed, made special by remarkable architecture and techology for the time, the exceptional Andean mountain setting and the superb multi-day hike along the Inca Trail to first see this mysterious lost city on sunrise from an entrance that sits high above the city.

Note: Bingham's photo is in the public domain and is one of hundreds of Bingham's images held by the Peabody Museum, Yale University.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Flora and Fauna of the Seychelles

guest post by David Collins of

If your idea of the perfect break involves fantastic wildlife and plants then you may want to consider going on holidays in the Seychelles.

As the African island nation is awash with amazing flora and fauna, you are sure to have a fascinating time discovering the country's natural beauty during your break.

And as it is home to some of the rarest animal and plant species in the world, you could soon get back to nature.

With just under half of the country's landmass consisting of natural parks and reserves, there should be plenty of opportunities for you to take in some beautiful fauna and flora.

Be sure to visit Aldabra, which is the world's largest raised coral atoll. By visiting this set of four coral islands you will be able to see a range of plants and creatures that have been specially protected from the effects of human habitants.

Some 152,000 giant tortoises live on the atoll, the largest population of the creature to be found in the entire world. This number includes 100,000 of the Aldabra species, with the islands their only remaining habitat in the world. If you want to see these creatures in their natural environment you will have no option but to go on a holiday to the Seychelles.

However, the Aldabra giant tortoise is just one of hundreds of species of fauna to be found at the Unesco World Heritage site. Flying foxes, the Aldabra brush warbler and the Aldabra drong can also be seen here.

It is also the only place in the world where a reptile - in this case, the tortoise - is the dominant herbivore.

You will also find the atoll is home to a diverse array of flora. Some 273 species of flowering plants and ferns are to be found here, including seagrass meadows, mangroves and pemohis acidula. Around 20 of these are endemic, with a further 22 only shared with neighbouring islands.

Tourist access to the atoll is carefully controlled, so you may need to book in advance in order to see the stunning sights that can be found here.

Some fantastic natural scenes can also be seen at the Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve on Praslin Island. Like the Aldabra atoll, this is a Unesco World Heritage site and contains an amazing array of species, including the coco de mer plant which bears the largest seeds in the entire plant kingdom.

Numerous other forms of palm trees can be seen in the reserve so make sure you take the time to check these out, you may want to pack a digital camera to show your friends and family back home the fantastic flora you have seen!

There will also be plenty of birdspotting opportunities for keen ornithologists, including the endemic black parrot, the cave-nesting swiftlet and the Seychelles kestrel (photo).

If you like reptiles, keep an eye out for green geckos, chameleons and Seychelles wolf snake - these are just some of the cold-blooded creatures that can be seen.

Flora fans should also consider visiting the Kot Man-Ya Exotic Flower Garden in Mahe. More than 200 species of plants can be seen here, so it is the perfect place for any horticultural enthusiast to stop by when on a holiday to the Seychelles.

A range of animals can also be found here including rabbits, giant tortoises and guinea pigs.

However, in order to preserve the precious plants and species that are in the garden, groups are requested to make a reservation before visiting.

The Seychelles is home to such a diverse array of beautiful flora and fau you are bound to find a holiday here to be captivating.

Photo Credits: sunset, tortoise, coco de mer, kestrel, flowers

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Trolls Way (Geiranger, Norway)

Everytime I think of the travel wonder of Trollstigen (the Troll’s Ladder), one of Norway’s and Europe’s finest drives, I am reminded of a great story told to me as a child.

It is the story of Three Billy Goats Gruff, a fable told to children around the world (but especially Scandinavia) for over a century. In this tale, there are three goats who have run out of grass in their field and to get to more grass, they need to cross a bridge guarded by a nasty old troll (a stout Norse mythology creature with an oversized nose) who likes to eat goats. The first goat is challenged and explains that his older brother is coming and the troll let him pass with the promise of a larger meal. The second goat wanders across the bridge and again explains that his eldest brother is following closely behind and is allowed to pass. The eldest goat crosses the bridge and as the troll goes to eat him, he is gored to death, leaving the bridge safe for all times.

Trollstigen is a snaking single lane road carved out of the mountainous path between Ǻndalsnes and the extraordinarily beautiful Geirangerfjord in central Norway – an aquamarine highway of water sandwiched between towering granite walls that stand tall even among the stunningly exceptional fjords which pockmark the west coast of Norway.

The road is engulfed by a chessboard of mountains with evocative names like The King, The Queen and The Bishop. The pounding waterfall of Stigfossen finds a more direct way down the mountain cutting under the road in a few places, falling into a gushing dark stream where it is easy to believe that trolls have stealthily inhabited for centuries. Even road signs warn motorists (and cyclists – apparently trolls like cyclists) of troll crossings.

Having survived the climb of Trollstigen, its eleven hairpin turns and avoiding being on the troll’s morning tea menu, you are rewarded with a superb vista of Geirangerfjord. A ferry ride and a drive down the Eagles Road (Ørneveien) past some turf-roofed farms of yesteryear and you arrive at the delightful village of Geiranger and its extraordinary waterway.

Tourist boats ply these waters regularly in the warmer months. The steep walls of the fjord are punctuated by towering waterfalls several hundred metres in height. The two most notable falls are the lead players in another Norse tale. The elegant Seven Sisters is being wooed by a matching fall on the other side appropriately called The Suitor (these Norwegians have rich imaginations!).

Strangely on this most treasured drive, I am sure I spotted a few trolls in the distance but I didn’t see a single goat. Maybe the trolls still manage the Trollstigen crossings.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Drinks Around the World: Anijsmelk (Netherlands)

Wandering around the Netherlands for a while and it is obvious they have a love of licorice (especially salted licorice - an acquired taste indeed). As a parallel, a popular drink is anijsmelk (literally anise milk) which is simply made by adding a couple of anise sugar cubes and a dash of honey into a glass of warm milk.

Although having an aroma a little like fennel or Turkish raki, the flavour is far more delicate, mild, slightly spicy and fragrant and certainly not an over-powering licorice taste.

Originally made by crushing aniseed into milk, the Dutch believe it is ideal before bedtime (especially when the weather is cold as the advertisement indicates) aiding sleep and helping digest any large dinners. With the cubes being tiny, the small packets of anijsbokjes can be bought on the web.
At the start of each month, Travel Wonders highlights a characteristic drink experienced on his travels. Other offerings from western Europe include Spanish Horchata, Bibicaffe from Italy, Sour Cherry Beer or Kriek from Belgium and French vin chaud.

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