Monday, January 30, 2012

Three Top Mountain Spas

guest post by Spa Breaks

Spa hotels of all descriptions are synonymous with relaxation, tranquillity and stunning views. However, mountain spas take all those attributes and amplify them tenfold. Surrounded by an imposing yet beautiful range of snow-capped peaks, you’re able to treat yourself in comfort in a well-heated spa while gazing upon the Alps, Rockies or other alpine haven. Holidaying in a spa hotel takes you away from the stresses of urban living. With that in mind, which mountain spas are the best to visit? Here are three of the very finest.

Aqua Dome, Austria

Nestled in the Tirol region of western Austria, the Aqua Dome is a fun, family-friendly venue which has something for visitors young and old. Among its facilities are a massive indoor swimming pool, an ice grotto, a volcano waterfall and one of the most relaxing saunas around. The Aqua Dome’s architecture blends in seamlessly with the landscape, which will make you feel that you’re actually in the Alps.

Red Mountain Resort and Spa, USA

For similar spa enjoyment in North America, the Red Mountain Resort and Spa is just the place for you. Located in the peaceful town of Ivins, Utah, this particular resort combines the thrills of relaxation and adventure. The resort lies within easy reach of a state park, has awe-inspiring views of the local mountain range and has a spa to die for. The Sagestone Spa has its own fusion of locally-sourced desert botanicals, salts and clays to help you achieve ultimate relaxation.

Holidaying at a mountain spa can really help you to get away from it all. If you shop around, you can find some enticing spa offers which will help you save money on your trip. When you’re actually there, whether you spend your time in the spa or exploring the local area, you’ll come back refreshed.

Therme Vals, Switzerland

Built over the only thermal springs in the region, this magnificent spa complex (top photo) has plenty to offer. Its location in south eastern Switzerland means that if you’re staying at Therme Vals, you get to enjoy the stunning scenery on offer, as well as its many facilities. Beautifully architected as a series of geometric caves, Therme Vals includes its own flower chamber and a fire room where you can warm up after walking around Vals. Additionally, the complex has some top-notch cuisine on offer, completing the package if you decide to holiday at Therme Vals.

Photo Credits: Therme Vals, Aqua Dome, Red Mountain

Friday, January 27, 2012

Of Drought and Flooding Rains (Bourke, Australia)

For several decades, Bourke (and most towns far around) have been protected from flooding waters by giant levee banks. Like comforting blankets, these raised banks track the river through Bourke and sweep around its outskirts. Life-giving flood waters revitalise parched soils and rivers, slowly creep down across the flat lands from the north but no longer inundate the town centres. The waters ixexorably and unyieldingly sweep south at only 100 to 150 kilometres in a week with the floods arrival being able to be predicted weeks in advance, often to a few hours of accuracy.

Long term residents speak in hushed but relaxed tones about times of floods and river heights. Sipping at a beer one steamy December evening, Steve spoke to me confidently in early December "It shouldn't reach more than 11.5 metres and probably will get to us just after Christmas". (The flood map to the left showing day/month of peak flood point in each town is from 2010-2011 to give an idea of the slow meandering nature of the flood waters.) There was no cause for panic in the knowledge of the importance of the flood waters goodness despite a likely few days or weeks of isolation from cut roads.

For most of the past decade, there was no talk of floods for most of Australia was in drought. The parched red-soil plains ran bare to the far horizon only sprinkled with warrior gum trees and rugged green saltbush scrub - crops and livestock impossible to maintain, the cotton gins idle, the fruit-pickers eerily silent, the endless crooked fencelines guarding empty lands. The stories of drought are much harsher, the hardship of no rain more palpable, the stoic nature of the people tested to extreme, the pall of near despair apparent in rural towns all around.

Yet even the first few sprinkles of rain springs life into the thirsty soils, verdant new growth thrusting from the ochre grounds, life and vigour returns to the population.

Famed Australian poet Henry Lawson said "to know Bourke is to know Australia". This iconic Australian outback town is a barometer of Aussie life and a journey that both residents and visitors to Australia should make.

Photo Credits: flood, map, drought

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Photo of the Week: Red-Tailed Cockatoos in Silhouette (Bourke, Australia)

A favourite photo (click on it to enlarge), mildly in the style of moving picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, showing three magnificent red-tailed cockatoos each in different aspects of their flight. The explosion of scarlet tucked under their tail can be seen on the front bird and a superb sight when viewing a flock from below.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Must Visit Sights of Edinburgh (Scotland)

guest post by Euro Bookings

There’s nothing worse than arriving in an exciting new city when time’s at a premium and not knowing which places of interest are worth visiting and which are well worth steering clear of. With that in mind, here’s a brief guide to Edinburgh’s best sites and it’s also worth noting that hotels in Edinburgh are in a plentiful supply.

Edinburgh Castle

Perched above the city centre is Edinburgh Castle, arguably the most iconic attraction in the Scottish capital. Go on the free tour and learn more about the historical significance of Edinburgh Castle from one of the experienced guides and witness the one o’clock gun salute, which has taken place nearly every day since as far back as 1861.

National Galleries of Scotland

There are several free museums in Edinburgh that are well worth taking in, one of which is the National Galleries of Scotland. Spread over three sites across the city, the National Galleries of Scotland has thousands of pieces of Scottish and international art to check out and a fascinating sculpture exhibition currently runs until June that’s definitely worth going to see.

National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland is another free museum that can keep people of all ages entertained for a few hours. Gallery subjects range from art and design to world cultures. There are detailed displays related to Scottish history inlcuding Celtic treasures and battles with England. There are also typically special one-off exhibitions to explore.

Scott Monument

Located in the valley beneath Edinburgh Castle, Scott Monument offers a great view of the city if you can muster the energy to climb to the top of the 287 steps to reach the top. The huge structure was built as a tribute to Sir Walter Scott, a famous Scottish writer who was born in the city in the 1700s.

The Royal Mile

Edinburgh’s Old Town is a fascinating place and within the labyrinth of streets that makes it up is The Royal Mile. Running between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood pubs, restaurants and interesting shops line The Royal Mile, which is a charming area of the city that brings together the old and new to brilliant effect. It’s also the perfect spot to treat yourself to a few local delicacies or sample a whisky.

Photo Credits: Edinburgh Castle, National Museum, Royal Mile

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Historic Court House: 100 Years of Change? (Bourke, Australia)

Bourke has a most distinct and unusual courthouse, one of a number of historic buildings. Built in a colonial style surrounding a small garden area for cooling and for legal folks to commune and contemplate, remarkably little has changed since its construction in 1899 (for the princely sum of 9,500 pounds) as the archival photos show. As Australia's only inland maritime court (the crown on the spire indicates this - click on the photo to see it enlarged), it has heard some significant cases over the years and continues to mete justice out today.

Isn't it striking how the archival photos show uncluttered streetscapes - no mobile phone towers, no electricity poles, no street signage. All those elements of modern life!!

The garden has a little less style now and it is certainly due a good mow.

Historic photos courtesy of State Archives NSW

Monday, January 16, 2012

Historic Buildings (Bourke, Australia)

Now the Gidgee Guesthouse, the London Bank building was constructed in Bourke in 1888, still retaining its sense of grandeur and opulence of Bourke's golden period as a major inland port. Today the guesthouse has an eclectic feel with their rooms leading to a garden courtyard filled with native plants and various knick-knacks.

Around the corner, the equally fine Lands Building (built in 1899) shows the creativity of early architects with air flowing under the building over rainwater cisterns and up through the wall cavities to create a natural air conditioning throughout the building (similar in idea to India's Amber Fort). Today regular air-conditioners have replaced this ingenious method that kept workers comfortable for nearly a century.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top Five Historic Amusement Parks

guest post by Nick Sim

The early 20th century was a boom time for amusement parks in North America, Europe and beyond. Magnificent, towering wooden rollercoasters, beautifully handcrafted carousels and a range of innovative new contraptions drew in droves of excited visitors to these bustling new leisure areas. These early attractions helped to lay the foundations for what today is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Sadly, the timber that was used to construct many of the rides during this golden era ultimately proved to be their downfall. It offered a tempting target for arsonists, resulting in the loss of a number of historically significant parks. Fortunately for history fans, there are still some fascinating early amusement parks in operation today. Here are five of the very best:

1. Blackpool Pleasure Beach (UK)

The construction of the first rail link to Blackpool in 1846 led to a boom period for the coastal town that lasted right through to the 1960s. Opened in 1896, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a survivor from that era and still one of the UK’s most popular amusement parks. History fans will be attracted to its line-up of vintage attractions. The River Caves was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, while the 1904 Flying Machines (photo) is both a surprisingly thrilling ride and a stunning kinetic sculpture.

2. The Coney Island Cyclone (USA)

Arguably the most famous historic roller coaster in the world, the Coney Island Cyclone in New York first opened in 1927. A “hybrid” coaster made of wood and steel, it has survived numerous threats of demolition and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Riding it today can be a mixed experience: it’s very rough, but the views from the top are stunning.

3. Luna Park, Melbourne (Australia)

A number of identically-named Luna Parks were opened across the US and Australia during the initial rush of amusement park construction, and those in Melbourne and Sydney are still operating. Like Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Melbourne’s version mixes classic original attractions with enough modern additions to keep the public interested. The stand-out ride at the park is the Scenic Railway, which is the oldest continuously-operating rollercoaster in the world.

4. Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach (UK)

Great Yarmouth’s Pleasure Beach is on a smaller scale to its unrelated namesake in Blackpool, but is still well worth a look. While its selection of modern attractions is a little underwhelming, the park retains the essential feel of a boom-era British seaside destination. As with Luna Park, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach is dominated by its Scenic Railway. Look out for the brakeman who rides with you: there are no brakes built into the circuit.

5. Lakemont Park, Pennsylvania (USA)

Only one amusement park can lay claim to having the oldest operational roller coaster in the world, and it’s Lakemont Park. Its record-holder, Leap-The-Dips (top photo), stands at just 41 feet tall and is unlikely to set your pulse racing in the same way as a modern equivalent. Nevertheless, having opened in 1902 it is a throwback to the very beginnings of the amusement park industry.

Looking for historical thrills closer to home? Many living history museums contain selections of vintage fairground attractions that offer a glimpse into a bygone era.

Nick Sim combines his love of travel and amusement parks on his own site, where covers the latest news and reviews from UK theme parks.

Photo Credits: Lakemont, Coney Island, Luna Park,

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bourke and Outback Australia

Outback Australia is an immense sparsely populated timeless land of arid plains and rugged country. Ochre red ancient landscapes meet cobalt blue skies. Slow meandering rivers bursting with birdlife give life to the parched lands. Small towns and communities, often on a river are separated by vast distances. Between remote settlements, the areas are shared between treasured national parks, some of the world’s most lucrative mining and huge farming properties, a few even bigger than European nations or US states. The sense of empty space is exhilarating and entrancing.

The landscape has become a canvas for artists capturing the vastness, light and colour in imagery, while the harshness and remoteness has been immortalised in prose by fine Australian poets including Henry Lawson and Dorothea MacKellar. The latter’s eponymous My Country captures the outback and includes the lines:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.

Bourke, 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney, is the iconic town synonymous with this remoteness. The majestic Darling River lined with aged river gums runs through the centre of Bourke. The large multi-layer wharf reminds everyone of the town’s rich history as Australia’s largest inland port, the wharf containing different tiers to account for the dramatic difference in river levels between times of flood and times of drought. For many years river steamers carried wool and other goods thousands of kilometres to sea opening up the huge tracts of inland Australia for its agricultural and grazing value.

Today the replica 19th century paddle steamer, the PV Jandra runs cruises along the river and under the North Bourke lift bridge, constructed with a large sweeping bend to accommodate bullock drays as one landowner wouldn’t sell his land to house the other end of the bridge.

The main street is littered with reminders of a golden past including the grand scallop pink post office (photo), the unusual court house (that even heard maritime cases) and old hotels and guesthouses with their ornate wrought iron verandahs.

Jenny Greentree, a fine and talented pastel artist beautifully captures the region in her work shown at her Back O Bourke Gallery (which shows some of Jenny's artwork) describing with passion the varying moods of the country, its spirit and its occasional cruelty. Jenny's superb Vision Splendid series captures the spirit of the lands in a rainbow series of seven images. Jenny showed me two artworks from the same location only drawn six months apart, one of a dry seared land of rich red soil and another of soaking waters, dragonflies humming across the surface.

As I pen this article, the land around Bourke is lush with life replacing the scorched drought-ridden lands of a few short years ago. Large flocks of birds of many species populate the skies and trees feeding on the seeds and grasses. Most striking are the red-tailed black cockatoos with their shock of scarlet feathers among a black satin coat.

Most memorable in the area are the stunning sunsets. In dry times, the dusty skies ignite in a vivid crimson but even in damper times, golden skies reflect gloriously off the small billabongs (waterholes) and lakes, the endless land sleeping again for another day bringing some relief from the searing heat of the summer days. With little city lighting, the night sky sparkles like a jewel box, the milky way gleaming as a celestial highway.

No journey to Australia is complete without escaping the cities and exploring folkloric outback Australia, and no place engenders the spirit of the outback as well as the legendary town of Bourke. Gain a new perspective for rural life, a rich cultural past and stunning natural vistas.

Three or four follow-on articles on outback Australia will appear in the following weeks.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Photo of the Week: Ama Dablam (Nepal)

At just under 7000 metres, the towering peak of Ama Dablam silently oversees trekkers for a few days as they slowly walk towards the base camp for Mt Everest and the Gokyo Lakes. With the riotous crimson of a barberry bush and a cobalt blue sky, its reassuring presence makes for a photogenic visual feast. Though taken over a decade ago, it remains a favourite memory walking among the Everest amphitheatre of the world's highest mountains.

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