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San Francisco Dreaming

Posted By Sheila O'Connor, Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Updated: Thursday, September 9, 2010

"The San Francisco Bay Area is so beautiful, I hesitate to preach about heaven while I’m here,” said Evangelist Billy Graham, and his words sum up the affection residents and visitors alike feel for this outstanding city.

San Francisco is a city where you will never get bored. Golden Gate Park, for example, has attractions for everyone. Originally nothing more than a bunch of sand dunes, the park is now over a thousand acres of grass, trees, shrubbery and athletic facilities. It even has its own bison, yacht lake, nine hole golf course and a few museums.

And whatever else you see in San Francisco, be sure you do not miss the Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Originally founded in 1853 as the first science institution in the west, the Academy moved to the park after the 1906 earthquake damaged its original location downtown.

The building, which was designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano, has the aim of showing how humans can live and work in environmentally-responsible methods. And it does from the minute you walk in by having you enter into a large piazza and face an awesome interior four stories high.

Here you’ll find the Rainforests of the World exhibit with 40 types of birds on display, along with a variety of plants and trees. Note that the visitor gets a sense of both transparency and connectedness between the building and the outside park through the use of clear glass. You feel that you’re actually outside IN the park, rather than inside aconfined building. All this gives the institution an open, airy feeling.

Enjoy the Amazonian Flooded Rain Forest and see the piranhas on display. You’ll be glad there’s a lot of tunnel between you and them!

On the lower floor there’s the Water Planet with over 100 tanks to view. There’s even an albino alligator on display. But don’t worry -- he’s not too interested in the humans watching him, he’s much more interested in staying snug on his heated rock.

Beautiful in its setting is the Coral Reef with 212,000 gallons of water and over 2,000 fish. This is the world’s second biggest (and world’s deepest) coral reef exhibit after the one in Townsville, Australia.

Huge is the coral reef exhibit and huge too is Buccalo, a giant sea bass who’s been with the academy since 1980. Kids of all ages just love him.

Be sure to see the "Living Roof” with its native strawberries, stonecrop and California poppies. These plants will all reduce storm water runoff by up to 3.6 million gallons of water per year and will even attract the endangered Bay Checkerspot Butterfly. The award-winning San Francisco Academy cer-tainly deserves its title as the Leader of Scientific Research on the Natural World. Don’t miss it!

Crowds are big, so go in the off-peak times for a chance to view everything. Hours are Mon to Sat 9.30 to 5pm and Sunday 11 to 5. Admission for adults is $24.95.

Across from the Academy is the de Young Museum, San Francisco’s oldest museum. It has actually been an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric since 1985. The collections include: American paintings; international con-temporary art; decorative arts and crafts from the 17th-21st century; arts from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; and western and non-western textiles.

Another great museum is the Legion of Honor. It was built to commemorate California’s soldiers who died during World War I, the Legion of Honor is a beautiful neoclassical building located in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Gold Gate Bridge and all of San Francisco, the Legion is noted for its breathtaking setting. Its collections include European decorative arts and painting, ancient art and one of the country’s largest and finest collections of works on paper that includes sev-eral prints, drawings, photographs and books. Don’t miss these two excellent museums!

One of the best ways to get a feel for everything that is available in the city is to take a bus tour. The most popular is the Gray Line which gives a narrated history of the city with plenty of stops for photographs. Some of the sights you’ll see include the Transamerica Pyramid, completed in 1972 amidst great controversy. These days the only debate seems to be whether the man in the top office has a pointed head or not!

The tour passes along Dolores Street and stops at Mission Dolores, the oldest structure in the city dating back to 1791. It was built by the first settlers who ensured it would be around a long time with four feet thick walls. In 1987, the Pope visited San Francisco and celebrated mass at the Basilica, next to the mission. While you’re here, it’s worth spending time in the museum.

You’ll probably notice several small reservoirs throughout the city. These are to safeguard against running out of water in the event of another earthquake. In 1906 water was in short supply and dynamite had to be used to blow up buildings in order to create a firebreak and prevent the fire spreading.

Most visitors will want to see Fish-erman’s Wharf with all of its seafood restaurants and colorful boats, but don’t miss the nearby Pier 39 which is a highly regarded attraction in its own right. The pier is the second most visited attraction in California and the third most visited in America. Many of the scores of boats that are docked there sit all year round, although they are actually only used in January and February when the herring are caught. One day’s catch alone can be worth up to $20,000 and so valuable is this that boat captains will pay for a year’s worth of rent just to use the berths for two months.

From Pier 39 you can take a worth-while bay cruise with narrated history that lasts over an hour. (Blue and Gold Line offers several tours during the day and takes you under both of the bay’s famous bridges) The boat takes you past Fort Mason, a historic military fort which is now home to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. You’ll see the USS Pampanito docked on the quay, a retired submarine which sank six enemy ships during World War II. And of course you’ll get a chance to see the infamous Golden Gate Bridge up close.

Golden Gate Bridge has been named the most recognizable and most beau-tiful American landmark (although it is not the best selling postcard--an award that goes to Lombard Street, "the most crooked street in the world”)

This is the bridge they said could not be built. Yet with a length of a mile and three quarters and a depth of 100 feet buried in bedrock, the bridge clearly proves the naysayers wrong. Its classic international orange paint is the best for protecting the bridge against the wind and elements. The name itself comes not from the color of the paint, but from the Golden Gate straits which separate the city of San Francisco from Marin County.

The wind in the bay has been known to cause the bridge to sway up to 21 feet at a time, all while the bridge contends with other elements like the famous San Francisco fog which descends on the city twice a day during the summer months. The fog adds an air of mystery to the bridge and the city that stands to attention behind it. It was in fact because of this fog that early explorers originally missed the entrance to the bay.

Other sights you’ll see on the tour include Coit Tower, built as a monument to the San Francisco firemen from funds donated by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. The top of the monument is shaped like the nozzle of a fireman’s hose

Across the bay you can see Sausilito, once a whaling town with its colorful Mediterranean style houses. Angel Island is the largest and most beautiful island in the area, inhabited 3,000 years ago by Indians and in more recent times used by the military as a quarantine area--a sort of "Ellis Island of the West”. Further on you’ll see the Bay bridge which connects San Francisco to Oakland. This bridge contains more concrete than the entire Empire State Building.

And no trip to San Francisco would be complete without seeing the island of Alcatraz, so named after the peli-cans that were originally discovered there (Portuguese for pelican = alca-traces). This is San Francisco’s top tourist attraction and deservedly so. Originally an army fortress, Alcatraz became a maximum security prison in 1934 housing such famous inmates as Al Capone, Robert Stroud-the birdman of Alcatraz and Machine Gun Kelly. It was also occupied by American Indians who took over the fort in the 1970s for 19 months to campaign for American Indian rights. Escape attempts were not unusual with the most unbelievable being four men who forged the commander’s signature authorizing their own release.

The most famous escape however was by two brothers and a third prisoner who used spoons to escape out the ventilator shafts. They used dummies in their beds (with real hair from the barber’s shop) and fashioned life-vests from makeshift materials. Their bodies were never found and it’s believed they perished in the treacherous undercurrents in the bay.

A video is available showing a 12 minute history of the island and a one hour self-guided audio tour is available (and highly recommended). Prisoners and guards alike describe life on "the rock”. All prisoners were offered food, shelter, clothing and medical care while everything else was a privilege which had to be earned. Those who caused trouble could find themselves in "the hole” the nickname for solitary confinement. One prisoner passed his time here throwing a button into the air, hunting for it in the darkness and once finding it, throwing it away again.

"D” block was the isolation block and although the cells were larger than elsewhere in the prison, they were cold and damp. Robert Stroud spent six years here before being moved to the hospital area for another 11 years. Here he was confined to his cell 24 hours a day.

Prisoners who held jobs would spend 18 hours in their cells while those without would spend 23 hours there (except those in solitary confinement where it was 24 hours). Visitors can wander into the dining room where the food was rated highly.

Once you see it, you’ll realize why San Francisco too is highly rated. Visitors end up developing a lasting crush on this beautiful city by the bay.

Sheila O’Connor is a freelance travel writer who lives in San Francisco. Although Sheila has traveled all over the world, she says there is nowhere quite like home—San Francisco.

Tags:  bay area  california  san francisco  united states 

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Germany: Traveling through a Fairy Tale

Posted By Helen V. Diepenbrock, Monday, June 22, 2015
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010
Germany’s Fairytale Road conjures up visions of gnarled forests, witch towers and a holiday suited for children. However, the route through forgotten villages and unspoiled countrysides offer adventure for travelers of all ages.

The region which lies northwest of Frankfurt is the land of the Brothers Grimm, early 19th Century linguistic scholars, who never intended for their work to be immortalized as bedtime stories or characters at Disneyland. In fact, Grimms Fairytales have been published in 160 languages, ranking it the world’s second most translated book after the Bible.

The 370-mile long route called the Marchenstrasse provides us a glimpse of rural Germany without the high costs, commercialization and tourists of other regions. From the outskirts of Frankfurt to Bremerhaven, its back roads are dotted with medieval towns, 11th Century castles, baroque churches and the best examples of half-timbered houses in Germany. Eight nature parks preserve forests and wildlife along the route extending from the Main River to the North Sea.

The region holds varied possibilities for a great holiday even if you have forgotten your fairytales. This is a land of enchantment with stays in Sleeping Beauty’s castle or the tower where Rapunzel, the captured princess, let down her long golden hair. Fairytales come to life in places like Hameln, the home of Pied Piper, who still enraptures children with his magic flute. Outdoor enthusiasts will find a network of easy hiking and bike trails, as well as boat trips along its rivers. History buffs can trace Germany’s past in university towns, like Gottingen, where 42 Nobel prizes have been delivered.

On a recent trip our party of three retired couples delighted in the variety of activities, as well as reasonable prices for hotels and restaurants.

The heart of the route lies in Kassel, where the Brothers Grimm lived for 30 years. The tourist bureau here is called the Deutsche Marchenstrasse and it is an excellent source for planning your trip, whether you’re going through a tour company or on your own. A word of advice: If traveling on your own, it is well worth the money to hire a private guide who speaks English. The route is well-mapped, but side trips are missed unless you are traveling with a local. Further, English translations are few and far between at many museums and other tourists stops. English-speaking guides can be arranged through Deutsche Maerchenstrasse at If you are traveling by train, you also may consider a car rental or hiring a driver to make the trip more enjoyable.

The Marschenstrasse(Fairytale Road) began as a tourist venture about 30 years ago. The route begins in Hanau at the birthplace of the Grimms. Then it meanders through woodlands and river valleys towards Bremerhaven. More than 70 towns, castles and historic sites dot the map. Many of these places lay claim to a specific fairytale and offer weekend entertainment to celebrate their special story. A word of caution! Kassel was heavily bombed during World War II and was rebuilt as a l950s industrial city. For a taste of old Germany, consider staying at nearby Gottingen as a base for your explorations. The brothers worked as professors and librarians at Gottingen’s prestigious university, which still dominates life in the old section of the city dating back to the 13th Century. Hotels are reasonable and tavern-restaurants offer inexpensive German fare.

"The Grimm Brothers did not write the tales which bear their name,” explained licensed guide Ulrike Ortwein on our recent trip. "They collected the old folktales which had been handed down from one story-teller to the next over many generations.”

Ortwein’s private tour, arranged through the Deutsche Marchenstrasse several weeks before the trip, followed the early career of the Grimm brothers via a loop from Gottingen including Bad Karlshafen, Trendelburg, Hann Munden Baunatal and Kassel.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, born in l785 and l786, were university students when their research led them to forgotten tales. Caught up in the nationalistic movement of the era, they traveled the region in an effort to preserve German oral traditions. Their first collection of fairytales was published in 1812 under the name of Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children and Household Tales). They revised and expanded their work six times with the final versions published in stories, as well as more than 200 l857. This volume contains familiar obscure tales. Also known for their later work in linguistics, the Grimm brothers amassed the first German dictionary.

Ortwein’s day long tour provided us with a leisurely sampling of the region. Riding through dense forests and mist-shrouded fields, it was easy to envision Hansel and Gretel losing their way or the likes of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Frog Prince and Snow White. It seems like most of the stories you heard as a child were born here.

In many villages, the tales come to life. Stopping at Sababurg’s Sleeping Beauty castle, which is now a hotel, is like stepping into a fairytale itself. There is plenty to do here whether you spend the night, stop for tea or hike Tierpark Sababurg, one of Europe’s oldest wildlife refuges with bison, wild horses, red deer and waterfowl amid 800-year old oak trees.

The castle, completed in l334, was the hunting palace of the Hessian landgraves. In olden times a thick hedge of thorny wild roses surrounded the castle, which inspired the tale of Sleeping Beauty. In full regalia the handsome prince makes regular visits to the castle, where he still finds his princess. Roses remain a tradition at the castle, which has a garden of more than 70 varieties and menu items including rose-flavored muffins and rose petal marmalade. The castle offers 18 rooms, individually decorated in fairytale themes, an excellent restaurant that features local trout and venison, as well as cultural events and weddings.

Settled by the Saxons and Francs in the 9th Century, the region was ripe for folklore 1000 years before the Grimm brothers came along. Such legends were passed from one storyteller to the next, resulting in the 19th Century fairytales. A few of these early legends have been preserved in out-of-the-way places like the crumbling Kruckenburg Castle, which dates back to 900 AD near the village of Helmarshausen. A trip to the top of its restored tower with 122 steps provides a panoramic view of the valley once reputed as the land of legendary giants.

Other must-see stops include:

Hann Munden, with its picturesque river setting at the confluence of the Werra and Fulda rivers, offers more than 700 half-timbered houses that have survived the ravages of war. The town is best known as the home of Dr. Eisenbarth, a reputed quack doctor who inspired folktales. His tale comes to life in weekend performances during the summer.

Bad Karlshafen shows the influence of French Huguenots who added their own twists to German legends. Their stories inspired well-known tales as Red Riding Hood and Puss and Boots. This harbor town on the Weser River looks like a French village with its distinct architecture, and offers boat trips and health-related spa facilities.

Trendleburg Castle with its Rapun-zel Tower revives the famous story of the captive maiden and her long golden hair. Now a hotel and restaurant, the castle feels medieval with its museum-like décor of armories, paintings and furnishings from ancient times.

Baunatal is home to the famous Hutt Brewery, which offers a taste of local brew in its Fairytale Room, and pays tribute to Dorothea Viehmann, known as Mother of the Fairytales. Her family still owns the 250-year-old brewery where she heard tales like Cinderella, and told them to the Grimms.

Kassel boasts a host of Grimm-related points of interest. The highlight is the Bruder Grimm Museum with biographical exhibits, as well as co-llections of fairytales from all over the world.

A testimony to the success of our ad-venture came over a beer at the end of the day’s tour on the Fairytale Road. The fellows in our group raised their steins in a tribute to the Grimms. They had reluctantly agreed to this out-of-the-way destination, but admitted they thoroughly enjoyed it. Next time, they would plan a hiking trip in the region while the women of the party vowed to bring along the grandkids.

Tags:  Brothers Grimm  Germany  Grimms Fairytales  Rapunzel 

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The Friendly Thai

Posted By Nora Dunn, Monday, June 1, 2015
Updated: Thursday, September 9, 2010

When we left Chiang Mai, Thailand, TJ and Ou drove us to the train station, and even waited with us while we readied our bags. It was an awkward parting; we had become friends with these two Thai gentlemen in the last four weeks, learning to laugh and enjoy each other’s company without the need for complicated semantics. But all of us knew very well that we may never see each other again, and we didn’t know how to say goodbye. Thankfully, our friends were already ahead of us: they pushed a wooden picture frame with a photo of the four of us into our hands. We still see their friendly Thai faces, every day.

My boyfriend and I weren’t always so sad to leave Thailand. Upon arrival in Bangkok (the main hub of this geographically long country), our sen-ses were assaulted with all manner of sounds and smells, and we were blatantly ripped off more times in the first day than we had been in our entire lives. We had come to Thailand with the perception that Thai people are incredibly friendly, and we felt betrayed by the reality we initially saw.

It was not until we slowed down and adopted a way of life in Thailand that we saw its beauty, and met our Friendly Thai friends.

Reeling from Bangkok’s noisy tourist districts with touts scamming us at every turn, we questioned our desire to stay in Thailand for the full 10 days as planned. In an effort to salvage the trip, we hopped on an overnight train to the northern city of Chiang Mai. We secretively stored our bags in the tiny bunks with us (which took up half of the cramped sleeping space) instead of leaving them on the luggage racks, where we were convinced they would be stolen. We felt so jaded, and were going to extremes apparently in the name of street smarts, but more accurately (and unwittingly) in the name of culture shock.

Our first salvation came the next morning in the form of a smartly dressed older Thai woman who sat near us. She spoke just enough English to tell us about her family, who she missed and was returning home to after being in Bangkok for a conference. She generously gave us the cake she packed for her breakfast, insisting that she was arriving at her stop soon and would eat then. We weren’t sure why she even thought to engage us in conversation (much less give us her breakfast), but we didn’t question this blessing. Wide eyed and thankful, we said goodbye to our first Thai friend.

With renewed faith in humanity, we disembarked in Chiang Mai with a bounce in our step. Now, it was easier to deal with the taxi drivers fighting for our fares as we left the train station with the other passengers; "They are simply trying to make a decent wage,” we figured. We agreed on a price for a driver to take us to our guesthouse; the price was probably too high, but at least we were comfortable with paying it, and we had relegated ourselves to the idea that we will never pay the lower local rates.

But even with this new attitude towards our Thai vacation, some of the pitfalls that await many unsuspecting tourists were inescapable. For example, the "authentic” Muay Thai boxing championship match we attended was little more than a practice session for some local kids, as was evidenced by the sea of white faces and complete lack of Thai fans around the ring. We were hassled by massage parlors, taxi drivers, and tour guides. It seemed that everybody wanted a piece of us, and we questioned everything.

We were again growing disappointed with our choice to visit Thailand. We saw little evidence of the world-renowned friendliness of Thai people. Instead, we encountered higher-than-local prices, untrustworthy tour guides, and obstacles to the tours we wanted to book. We had an agenda to "do Thailand” in 10 days, and time was running out.

Things came to a crashing halt in our travel agenda when Cyclone Nargis hit the neighboring country of Burma, devastating the land and compromis-ing the lives of millions, a mere few hundred kilometers away. Knowing that we had a talent for fundraising, we decided to cancel the rest of our Southeast Asian trip in order to lend a helping hand. Given our mediocre experience thus far, we felt no loss in canning our plans.

We wandered into an internet shop, where we had been a few times. We asked the owner – whose name was TJ – where we could buy a map of the area so we could determine how to get supplies to the Burmese border. Before we knew it, he was driving us to the shopping centre himself. When he discovered that we are Rotarians in Canada, he exclaimed "My father was a Rotarian! I will call the president of the Chiang Mai Rotary Club; he is a very powerful man, and he will help you”.

Over the ensuing weeks, TJ gave us unmitigated access to his shop to use the internet and telephone for our cause. TJ also became our driver, our translator, our friend, and even our cultural buffer. Here we were, starting an international NGO on the fly in Asia, where we couldn’t speak the language and only had the slightest of grasps on cultural etiquette. We felt we were constantly tiptoeing around making huge cultural blunders, and TJ became our honest guide during this time.

TJ asked for nothing in return for his generosity. And if we tried to save him time by taking a taxi somewhere ourselves, he actually became angry with us for not letting him drive! We were learning what it is to receive – and accept – the kindness that is typical of so many Thai people.

Through TJ, we met Ou - his college buddy, co-worker, and best friend. Ou was a round jolly man, who loved to crack really bad jokes and laughed heartily at them every time. As a self-confessed expert on Chiang Mai cuisine ("with a belly to prove it,” he would say, proudly rubbing his tummy), we enjoyed discovering foreign foods in restaurants that we would never have found on our own.

Over time, we developed a daily routine: TJ’s wife and young daughter came to the internet shop each morning and we all enjoyed a hearty breakfast of stir-fried rice and chicken or tofu, prepared by a lady with a nondescript food stall down the street. We marveled at the number of tourists who left their guesthouses each morning for a day of sightseeing, very few of whom ever noticed our tiny and inexpensive breakfast establishment.

Every afternoon at around 2pm, the bubble tea lady came by, pushing her large blue cart along the street. As a bubble tea addict, I was enrapt when I first saw TJ and Ou sipping on what could only be taro-flavored bubble tea – my favorite. I raced out to the bubble tea lady outside TJ’s shop, eager to order my own. She spoke no English, so I was relegated to choosing my flavor of the day by selecting a jar from the three rows of pastel colored powder, hoping that green meant apple and not spinach, and that yellow meant lemon and not the popular (but stinky) durian fruit. TJ came outside in hot pursuit, speaking with the bubble tea lady in rapid fire Thai before pressing a few bills in her hand. He had not only bought me a bubble tea, but had also negotiated the future price of bubble tea for me from then on.

I enjoyed a different flavor of bubble tea every day for the rest of my stay in Chiang Mai.

The laundry girl down the street became another staple in our diet of routine in Chiang Mai. Laundry services abound in most Thai cities near guesthouse districts. You pay by weight, and leave your clothes there overnight, receiving them the following morning, neatly folded and packed into a plastic bag. I constantly marveled at how they kept tabs on the steady stream of clothing going through, as I peeked into the back one day and saw rows upon rows of clothing all mixed up together and drying on racks.

Our laundry girl’s name was also Ou (but she had a much different way of pronouncing her name that it was virtually indistinguishable to our unrefined ears). We said hello to her every time we passed by, and she always enthusiastically stopped her singing and washing to wave and say hello – "hello” being the only En-glish word she had truly mastered. When I approached her one day with a button that had fallen off my shirt, she immediately dropped everything to sew it back on, and instead of accepting money for her services, she gave me a big hug and giggled.

The bubble tea lady and the laundry girl were not our only new Thai friends. Local business owners noticed that we weren’t moving on from the area, as most tourists do. The more we became regular faces to the locals, the more we were engaged. I had developed enough Thai to stumble through basic pleasantries and full negotiations with shopkeepers, who found my Thai accent laughable but my attempts honorable.

When I told TJ and Ou of a recent shopping trip, describing what I purchased and how much it cost, they simultaneously raised their eyebrows. Apparently we had crossed a line from tourist to local, as we were now fetching local prices on certain goods.

After three weeks of living in Chiang Mai, we had settled into a comfortable daily routine of fundraising and quietly living like the locals. But we still wanted to see the attractions, so we took an evening off to discover the night market with a group of travelers who had recently arrived. While pushing through the tightly woven crowds, my boyfriend spotted a group of elderly Thai men sitting aside and listening to country music blaring from a small radio. He smiled at this odd sight, and in making eye contact was waved over to join them. Our traveler friends were focused on shopping and kept moving, confused as to why we stopped so enthusiastically in front of a group of old men listening to bad country music.

Twenty minutes later, my boyfriend had just enjoyed some "guy time” with these Thai men. Not a word of English was spoken, but many smiles were exchanged, and the music (and booze) was a common ground that bonded the boys together. In those twenty minutes, not one market shopper even glanced their way, much less joined them in their camaraderie.

Once our fundraising project was wrapped up, we surveyed the time remaining on our six week Southeast Asian adventure. Six weeks initially seemed like a long time to see this part of the world, but we were nearing the end of our trip and had seen little more than Bangkok and Chiang Mai. We no longer had time to go trekking in the mountains, climbing and sunbathing in the Thai beach corridor to the south, nor did we have the time to see much of Malaysia or Singapore, as planned.

But we also had accomplished much more than we had anticipated. We met locals, who were more interested in our friendship than our money. We were taken to remote waterfalls where we frolicked in the water with children who had never seen white people. We took TJ and Ou and their families out for dinner to thank them for their friendship and support, where we discovered a beautiful restaurant on a lake with no English on the menu and some of the best food we have ever eaten. We bought hot roti for dessert each night from a beautiful woman with long hair and a funny hat, whose daughter sold us mangosteens by weight – without actually weighing them (and I always knew we got more than we paid for).

Slowing down our travels was the best thing to happen to our Thai vacation. We spent less money, and saw so much more. We made friends, and learned a way of life. I am happy to confirm that the conceptual image of the Friendly Thai is still a beautiful reality – if you slow down long enough to look.

Nora Dunn is a writer living in Australia. No, she is not THAT Nora Dunn.

Tags:  Asia  Bangkok  Thailand 

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My New York

Posted By Alice Burdick Schweiger , Sunday, February 1, 2009
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010
When you think of a perfect get-away, the Caribbean or a sunny destination probably comes to mind. But rather than planning a basking-in-the-sun-vacation, consider heading North and East–New York City, to be exact. You may not be able to take long walks on a white sandy beach, but you are guaranteed an exciting time with plenty to do and see. New York is much more than skyscrapers, lavish hotels, flagship department stores and neon lights.

For nine years I have lived in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As a writer working from home, I have had the luxury of exploring the diverse neighborhoods of this 23.7 sq. mile island. The brownstone lined streets and quaint cafes of Greenwich Village; the specialty art galleries and chic boutiques of Soho; the hustle and bustle of people filling their bags with organic produce at the Green Market in Union Square; the fresh-baked pastries and fully-stocked cook shops of Little Italy and the lively, hip nightlife of Meatpacking are just some of the countless sights and sounds experienced in New York’s forever blossoming areas. Regardless of the season, wandering around it’s impossible not to stumble across street vendors, unusual sights and hidden treasures. With so much to choose from, here is an an insider’s view of some great indoor sights to see when the temperature rises.

Museum Mile

The Upper East Side stretch of Fifth Avenue from 105th Street to 82nd Street houses a bevy of world-class museums. Bundle up and spend the day museum-hopping. Even on the coldest of days darting from one museum to another will make the blustery weather tolerable. Here are some of the museums worth a stop:

Museum of the City of New York looks at life in New York City dating from the mid-18th century to the present. The museum showcases three floors of ongoing and temporary exhibitions featuring clothing, photographs, paintings and costumes from Broadway musicals. There is also a 25 minute film, presented on three screens, documenting the city’s history. 1220 Fifth Ave and 103rd Street. (212) 534-1672.

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is devoted to historic and contemporary design. The mu-seum holds more than 250,000 objects, including drawings, wall coverings, prints, textiles, furniture, metalwork, ceramics, glass and woodwork. 2 E. 91st Street. (212) 849-8400.

Jewish Museum focuses on 4,000 years of art and Jewish culture. Their permanent collection includes fine arts, broadcast media materials, textiles, and Judaica. Housed in a mansion, some of the artifacts were gathered from European syna-gogues right before World War II. An exhibit by impressionist artist Pissarro can be seen until February 3rd. 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street. (212) 423-3200.

Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940’s, is a stunning, spiral-shaped structure featuring works by some of last century’s greatest artists. From Jackson Pollack to Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne there is a lot worth seeing. 1071 Fifth Avenue. (212) 423-3500.

Neue Galerie is dedicated to German and Austrian Art, including paintings, etchings, photographs and decorative art. Eight paintings and more than 150 drawings by the controversial artist Gustav Klimt are on display. On the first floor Café Sabarsky serves breakfast lunch and dinner and offers Viennese specialties, such as Hungarian beef goulash, sausage, spatzle, apple strudel and Linzertorte. They don’t take reservations, but the charming ambiance, views of Central Park and scrumptious dishes make waiting worthwhile. 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street. (212) 628-6200.

Metropolitan Museum of Art is the mega museum on the mile, displaying art dating back thousands of years. Choose from mummies, armor, Impressionists and Renaissance paintings, Egyptian tombs, Asian art, tapestries, and much more. Any visitor to New York should have no trouble finding a collection to suit their interests. Stop by the gift shop at the Met&;the selection is vast. 1000 Fifth Avenue between 80th and 84th Street. (212) 535-7710.

Off the Mile

Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers guided tours of restored apartments once occupied by working class European immigrant families in the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s. The Eastern European Jewish Levine family who ran a garment business in their apartment, and the Italian Catholic Baldizzi family, are two of the residents’ dwellings that can be seen. While in the neighborhood if you are craving authentic Jewish food after learning about the immigrant experience, head to Russ and Daughters, famous for a large selection smoked fish, herring, caviar, and homemade salads. A family run restaurant, they first opened their doors in 1914, after selling their delicious spreads and smoked appetizers from a pushcart. (179 E. Houston Street.) Or, visit Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, for a Kosher, piping hot, melt in your mouth, potato treat. (137 E. Houston.) Tenement Museum is located at 108 Orchard Street. (212) 431-0233.

Chelsea Market is off the beaten path for most tourists, but a favorite among New Yorkers. From bakeries to culinary food shops, this historical indoor concourse occupying one city block is a great place to eat and shop. Hale and Hearty Soups, located in the market, may hit the spot for an inexpensive warm lunch. (It’s take-out but there are tables in the market to sit and eat.) For sweet treats, walk into the Fat Witch Bakery or Sarabeth’sÛyou won’t be disappointed. You even may want to stop at the Chelsea Wine Vault for a tasting or shop at Marrakesh, specializing in Moroccan decorative art and design. 75 Ninth Avenue between 15th and 16th Street. (212) 243-6005.

Chelsea Piers & Entertainment Complex is the place to be if you want to get physical. This 28-acre waterfront sports village has batting cages, indoor rock climbing, ice skating, areas for indoor soccer, basketball, bowling, heated golf driving range, a health club and more. There are four restaurants and it’s also home of the Silver Screen Studios, where Law and Order, Law and Order Criminal Intent and CSTV are taped. Between 17th and 23rd Streets along the Hudson River. (212) 336-6000.

American Museum of Natural History
is one of the most comprehensive and innovative natural history museums in the country, geared for kids and adults, with more than 30 million artifacts on display. Divided into ìHallsî, visitors can see dinosaurs, fossils, African mammals; learn about human biology, evolution, North American forests, Planet Earth, and much more. There is space show at the Hayden Planetarium. The museum has a few cafes and a food court. Central Park West between 77th and 81th Street. (212) 769-5100.

More Must Sees

Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center is one of the leading opera houses in the world, adorned with a stately staircase, murals by Marc Chagall and crystal chandiellers. Backstage tours are offered to parts of the Met that aren’t seen by the general public. For tour information call (212) 769-7020. This winter season, Macbeth, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Carmen are some of the great operas being performed. West 64th Street and Columbus Avenue. (212) 362-6000.

A Broadway or Off-Broadway show should be a must, as no visitor should head back home without seeing a New York theater production. The marquis’ are looking like Hollywood billboards, with big time film stars performing in some of the hottest musicals and plays. To see what’s available, check out The New York Times or New York Magazine, or log on to or Oftentimes sold-out shows have last minute availability if you go to the box office. While ticket prices aren’t cheap, musicals averaging $120, there are deals available. TKTS Discount Booths, located in Times Square and the South Street Seaport, offer tickets up to 50% off for dozens of productions everyday. Most shows also offer standing room at the back of the main floor at lower rates.

Time Warner Center is a cultural center skyscraper building offering fine dining and casual restaurants, upscale shops, Borders Books, Whole Foods Market, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, luxury condominiums, offices and Time Warner World Headquarters. It is also the home of CNN studio in New York, where Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs broadcast live. Often there is an art exhibit taking place in the Center. 10 Columbus Circle, at West 60th Street. (212) 823-6000.

Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913 and is much more than a train station–it’s one of the city’s greatest landmarks. Recently renovated, this station that serves as a hub for commuters, is adorned with elegant melon-shaped chandeliers, marble floors, two grand staircases, monumental windows and a constellation ceiling. The market place, that sells everything from cheeses to seafood to chocolates to breads, is located on the east side of the terminal. There is also a food court, shops, restaurants, beauty supplies and lounges within the complex. The Municipal Art Society offers a free tour every Wednesday at 12:30 pm, meeting at the clock in the center of the main concourse. The Grand Central Partnership gives a free tour on Friday at 12:30, meeting in front of the Altria Building on 42nd St. and Park Avenue. The terminal main entrance is East 42nd Street and Park Avenue.

The Paley Center for Media
(formerly known as the Museum of Television and Radio) houses a collection of over 100,000 TV and radio shows spanning almost 100 year. Available for viewing and listening either individually or with a group, choose from news, documentaries, performing arts programs, reality, animation, children's shows, sports, comedy and variety shows. 25 West 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. (212) 621-6800.

New Yorkers’ Favorite Eateries

There are over 18,000 restaurants in New York City, from cheap eats to extravagant dining. Below are five favorites among New Yorkers--where you don’t have to mortgage your home to dine:

Pastis It’s a large hopping French bistro in the heart of the cobblestone street Meatpacking District. This high-energy in-spot serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and provides consistently tasty fare, including a steak sandwich with grilled onions and gruyere cheese, grilled chicken and fresh fish. It is great for both eating and people-watching. 9 Ninth Avenue at Little W 12th St. (212) 929-4844

Reservations at a decent dinner hour at Nobu are difficult to get unless you phone one month ahead, but if you are looking for a top-notch Japanese restaurant, it’s worth putting the call on your calendar. With the savory fresh seafood, sashimi and sushi along with a large selection of hot and cold dishes, it’s no wonder it is one of New York’s most desirable places to dine. 105 Hudson Street (212) 219-0500.

Bar Pitti
This well-priced bare-bones Greenwich Village Italian eatery serves fresh pasta combinations. It can be cramped, and you may have to wait to be seated, but the food never fails. 268 Sixth Avenue. (212) 982-3300.If you are searching for a quintessential only in New York inexpensive but wildly unique, irresistible place to eat, consider:

Peanut Butter & Co For more comfort food, stop by this small Greenwich Village café offering unusual peanut butter combination sandwiches. A grilled peanut Butter sandwich stuffed with bananas and honey, or ground peanut butter with Marshmallow fluff or peanut butter with chicken and pineapple jam, are a few combos that have visitors coming back for more. 240 Sullivan Street. (212) 677-3995.

S’Mac Don’t bother counting your calories at this all-American East Village eatery serving a variety of macaroni and cheese combos in sizzling skillets. Muenster and American with a touch of gorgonzola and sharp cheddar, or Gruyere with a slab of bacon, are two favorites. 345 East 12th Street between First and Second Avenue. (212) 358-7912.

Tags:  Alice Burdick Schweiger  Chelsea Market  Museum Mile  New York  New Yorkers’ Favorite Eateries 

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The Scottish Highlands (for Sissies)

Posted By Guylaine Spencer, Sunday, February 1, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Fort William in the Scottish Highlands bills itself as The Outdoor Capital of the UK, but you don't need to be as fit as an Olympic athlete and carry a tent on your back in order to enjoy some of the world's most famous mountain scenery. If you're not a hiker, you an still explore this region at your ease by car or public transportation.

Fort William

My visit started with a train ride from Glasgow to Fort William via the storied West Highland Line. For three and a half hours we chugged through the lashing rain past vast loch-filled moors populated only by sheep and hairy cows. I sipped hot chocolate and watched streams coursing down mossy green hills wrapped in mist that looked like candy floss. The trip took a little longer than advertised, making an incredible twenty stops along the way, but with a view like that, I wasn’t complaining.

The scenery grew wilder and the peaks higher the further north we climbed, and when I finally disembarked at Fort William and lugged my suitcase uphill to the Bank St. Hotel (why are budget hotels always located UP-hill?), I found that I could see the mountain range from my window. Many hikers come to Fort William just to climb nearby Ben Nevis, which at 4400 feet is Britain's highest mountain. The circumference at the base is 24 miles, which gives you some idea of the size of this monster.

The population of this tourist-friendly town is around 10,000. The main shopping district consists of a few streets running parallel to the lakeshore and about a dozen crossing those. High Street is pedestrian-only with a wide choice of restaurants, pubs and stores. One of the charity shops caught my eye. As the clerk kindly explained to me, PDSA’s profits provide free veterinarian care to pets of qualified owners who can’t afford the full fees, like elderly people on small pensions or people with disabilities.

What a great idea, I thought, and how fitting for a nation that seems to adore its pets, including the famous Scottish terriers that you see everywhere.

Two flower-filled parks book-end the centre of Fort William. One of them faces a marina, offering a bit of public access to Loch Linnhe, which is blocked for a good stretch by an ugly highway. There’s also another small access area where the ferry and boat tour companies have their piers.

I took one of the Crannog boat tours based on their brochures promise of a visit to Seal Island. Being from Canada, I imagined a colony with thousands of animals, so I was amused to learn that "seal colony” in Scotland means a rock about the size of my living room with a half-a-dozen seals lounging about like customers at a pub. Still, it was fun to be out on the lake enjoying the glowering Ben Nevis, fighting the stiff wind’s effort to yank me by my hair up into the sky.

On another day I visited the West Highland Museum. This old-fashioned treasure trove was created back in the 1920s by volunteers, and from the look of the displays and signage, it hasn't been changed since. The quirky collection includes Jacobite memorabilia, fancy dresses from long-buried belles, Highland tartans and a "birching table" (a curious apparatus of corporal punishment). I remarked to the museum guide on duty how happy I was to see a museum that hadn't been sanitized and modernized to the point of blandness; the loquacious lady agreed and lamented the "dumbing down” of museums these days. "Museums used to be for all ages," she said, "But today their only purpose is to entertain the children..."

That evening, just outside of the museum, I got a chance to see some of the town's children, or its young adolescents at least, entertaining the adults on bag-pipes and drums. Dressed in blue tartan kilts, they made a pleasing picture as they led the tourists through the streets in a curious reverse of the piped piper tale. The hotels and pubs in town also offer live music several days a week.


Feeling pretty much at home now in Fort William, I set out to explore the rest of the Highlands through day trips. At first I was reluctant to visit Glencoe because so much emphasis in the travel guides is placed on its status as the site of the 1692 massacre, and I’m uncomfortable with "tragedy tourism”. However, photographs of the mountains lured me and I’m glad I went. I took a bus to Glencoe Junction then a taxi to Glencoe Visitor Centre. The centre focuses on the region's geology, wildlife, conservation, sustainable tourism, even the thorny issue of the impact of mountaineering and camping on the environment (brought home all too clearly by the large trailer park nearby). It’s worth a short visit if only for the sight from the viewing platform out back. If you don't want to go in, though, you can wander the scenic trails around the centre for free.


The town of Inverness boasts a population of 60,000, and is the capital of the Highlands. The road from Fort William skirts the edges of steep hills and offers a variety of scenery: pretty villages, farms, wild countryside and Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Alas, no sightings of Nessie that day. The bus that took us to Inverness turned into a commuter service on the way home, with several passengers getting off at unmarked spots along the road and wishing the driver a good night and "see you tomorrow".

Inverness Castle was built in 1835 but sits on the site of earlier castles going back to the 11th century. You can’t go inside because it’s a sheriff’s court today but I did wander around the lovely grounds and got a grand view of the city below. Nearby are the city's art gallery and museum. Walk along the River Ness and you'll come to an ornate iron foot bridge. Stop in to buy art cards by local artists at the River Gallery. If you have a (very) sweet tooth, try the Border Cake at the River Café. For a really spoil-me-rotten lunch, the meals at the Mustard Seed Restaurant, housed in a former church built in 1823, will make you go down on your knees to give thanks.

Kyle or Lochalsh

I tried another Scottish wildlife tour one day with Seaprobe Atlantis in Kyle of Lochalsh, a small town that has grown recently due to the building of the controversial Skye Bridge. Having scaled down my expectations, I enjoyed this short boat trip, even though I could see little through the murky glass bottom of the boat besides jelly fish. The hills, islands, lighthouse and ruins seen from deck, as well as the odd seal or sea bird, were reward enough. The bus from Fort William took us past the famous Eilean Donan — one of the most filmed and photographed castles in the country.

Over the Sea to Skye

I began my journey to Skye by taking the train to Maillaig because I wanted to see the great Glenfinnan Viaduct, today more commonly known as the "Harry Potter Bridge". The view down into the valley from this surprisingly elegant concrete curve to the monument honoring Prince Charlie is nothing short of breath-taking. On the day I was there, the train stopped right on the viaduct for several moments, while we hovered, it seemed, 100 feet in the air. I tried desperately to take shots through the window, but kept getting reflective glare. To my delight, the train conductor came into the car (I was right up front) and crooked a finger at me. I followed. In the front cab an open window yawned. I poked the camera through and — voila — succeeded in capturing a memory for life.

The rest of the train trip offered more delights. At one stop, a pair of red deer stood watching the train, as if waiting to pick up incoming guests.

At another point, through the window a quick flash of silver caught my eye as we whooshed past the glimmering sands of Loch Morar beach.

The train I took to Mallaig was run by First Scot Rail. You can also ride the "Hogwarts Express" (its real name is the Jacobite Steam Locomotive), which operates summers only on a limited schedule and at roughly double the price of the regular train. As I stood in the station at Fort William one day I watched a man in an open-topped car full of coal heaving shovels full of the black rock into the engine. He was struggling to stay upright.

Despite all the nostalgia about steam trains, I bet the workers who had to feed the beasts year round weren't that sad to see them go.

Upon arrival in Maillaig I had some time to look around this gritty fishing little port before taking the ferry. It had its pretty aspects — the Tea Garden café just near the water, and the lone girl playing bag-pipes to passengers arriving by train — but its harbor is a reminder of what a real fishing port looks like before the work dries up and gentrifiers come in and turn it into a museum piece.

The Calmac ferry was a surprise. It was huge, for one thing, more like a floating apartment building than a boat, and very modern. It took less than half an hour to whisk us over the sea to Armadale.

Having only part of an afternoon, I had to limit my exploration mainly to the port and to the ruins of Armadale Castle and its gardens. A stroll through the paths of the extensive gardens is rewarding for anyone with an eye for exotic trees and a nose for fragrant blossoms.

The hills and mountains, the spectacular sea views and ancient archeological sites of Skye make the island a magnet for photographers, artists and craftspeople, many of whom are inspired to create works with Celtic motifs. As I boarded the ferry back to Maillaig, I resolved to return for a more leisurely exploration of this once-remote and still romantic Scottish island.

Practicalities in Fort William

Accommodation: The town offers range of hotels and B and Bs. I stayed at the Bank Street Lodge, which has dorm rooms and private rooms with en-suite bath, and a fully-equipped communal kitchen if you want to cook or prepare bag lunches.


Ossian’s: Serves casual meals in a high-ceilinged dining room of faded grandeur. Picture deep-set windows, chandeliers and, on the wall, framed photographs of the town from days gone by.

Hot Roast Place: Makes a hearty hot pork and apple sauce sandwich.

Guylaine Spencer is a Canadian freelance writer specializing in travel, history and the arts. She’s also the publisher of

Tags:  Fort William  Glencoe  Inverss  Ossians  Scotland  Scottish Highlands 

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Santa Catalina

Posted By Sheila O'Connor, Friday, January 2, 2009
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010
"It’s like a touch of the Mediterranean right here in the United States,” says Margaret Davies, a resident of the UK, after her first stay in Catalina Island. And it’s a gem that’s been hidden for too long.

Just a one hour boat ride from Long Beach and easily accessible from LAX, a visit here should not be missed.

The best (and practically, only) way around the island is by golf cart. For some visitors, this is the best part of their holiday and it’s not surprising the golf carts themselves have become Avalon’s number one attraction. Cars are very scarce on the island and there’s actually a 12-15 year waiting list to get a parking sticker, so even the residents buy golf carts. This limits the cars on Catalina Island to around 800 and makes it a very pedestrian-friendly island.

One building you’ll see on your approach to the harbor is the large round Art Deco Casino building — actually Catalina’s most recognizable landmark. The name has nothing to do with gambling but everything to do with the Italian meaning of the word — a place of entertainment. The 12-story building was constructed in 1929 by William Wrigley Jr. and today tours are available. It contains the world’s largest circular ballroom. A great place for a dance you might think, and that’s just what they did with it on May 8, 1940 when 6,200 people danced to the music of Kay Kyser — the largest number of people ever to dance in one place. There’s also a huge cinema open to the public, showing the latest movie (otherwise the building is only open to those on the tour).

Famous names that frequented the island include Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne and Sir Winston Churchill. Tiger Woods was even a visitor here — at the tender age of 4 he played the Catalina Island Golf course, the first golf course in Southern California.

Wrigley Memorial

But one name you’ll hear more than any other is that of Wrigley. The island’s most famous resident was none other than the chewing gum magnate. The family had their home here and the Wrigley Mansion is now a luxury inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having welcomed such guests as the Prince of Wales. Even if you can’t stay there, definitely do visit the Memorial and the botanical gardens. The gardens themselves contain cacti from around the world and several species grow only on this island. You might be surprised to learn that some of the succulents are edible and can even refresh you in an emergency (though of course the specimens in this garden are not meant to be eaten, only admired — thirsty visitors can go get a drink downtown--half an hour walk away!).

The memorial to Wrigley has placards that show how construction was carried out — the red roof tiles came from Wrigley’s own quarry and the majority of the building materials came from the island itself. Over 150,000 feet of lumber was used, with the memorial being started in 1933 and opened to the public in October 1934. Walk right up to the marble tiled arch and look out to the beautiful views over the canyon and bay.

The memorial was dedicated to the man who did so much to preserve the beauty of this island for future generations. Even the recent fire which has blackened a lot of the vegetation around the island still makes you appreciate one of California’s natural assets.

Undersea Adventure

For history below, rather than above, the ocean, check out the Undersea Adventure which goes to Lover’s Cove, Avalon’s marine preserve. The boat doesn’t go underwater per se, but each person has their own window and seat. The boat staff feed the fish and they come right up to your window in droves (or should that be "schools?”) The boat goes through a kelp forest on the way and kelp here can grow up to 2 feet in just one day. It doesn’t have a root system but anchors itself to rocks and the sea bed, absorbing the nutrients it needs from the water. It’s interesting to note that the glass bottom boat which you can still see today, was invented right here in Catalina. Some fish can deposit between 15-80,000 eggs at a time and it’s the males who guard the batch for 2-3 weeks, without eating or sleeping. Don’t be surprised to see a school of mackerel — they travel together in large numbers for safety reasons. And what about sharks I hear you ask? Yes, they do have them. "But one wouldn’t bite you if you put your head in its mouth”, says our ship’s captain. "There hasn’t been a fatal shark attack yet on Catalina Island,” he reassures us.


From dangers below the sea to dangers above it, all species have not had it easy. Take the once-native bald eagles for instance. They’ve not had a good time. They were once found in abundance on the island, but are much scarcer now. In the years between 1947-61, 53 million liters of DDT were dumped into the ocean and the fish became contaminated. So too did the eagles and falcons that fed on them. As a result of the poison, eagle shells were found to crack when the mother sat on them and the unborn chicks became dehydrated and died. Until recently, imitation eggs were put under the mother and the real eggs incubated by humans and hatched. The parent eagles seemed quite happy to nurture the chicks returned to the nest, as if nothing untoward had ever happened.

This Easter, however, saw the third baby eagle hatched naturally in the nest and researchers are concluding that the eagle is finally returning to the island. It’s parents had been raised in San Francisco zoo, a result of eggs having been removed and incubated several years ago.

Up to then, twenty eggs had been removed from the nest, incubated and the hatched chicks returned to the nests, all thanks to the work of the Catalina Island Conservancy. The preservation of eagle eggs was actually started 27 years ago by an undergraduate student called Dave Garcelon. He provided the eagles with nesting places and he and his biologists started taking newly hatched eggs out of the nests, sometimes by dangling from a helicopter, once they noticed the problem of unhatched eggs.

Fines to the tune of $140 million have now been paid by the DDT polluters — the largest ever for environmental crimes (except for the Exxon Valdez oil spill). Without this human assistance, it’s certain that the birds would have disappeared from the island altogether and the bald eagles would no longer call Catalina home. Today, the Conservancy protects the birds, as well as 88 percent of the island. It was started in 1972 by the Wrigley Family.


And when it comes to wild creatures, you don’t get much wilder than the bison you’ll find throughout the island. They’re quite unexpected (and you thought the tourists were all the wild animals you needed to see!) Fourteen of them were originally brought to the island in 1924 for a movie called the Vanishing American, after the book of the same name by Zane Gey, but at the end the crew didn’t know what to do with them, so they left them there! The American might have vanished, but the bison certainly did not. These days they’ve made the island their home but to avoid overpopulation and the problems that that can bring, each year, around 200 are allowed to stay and the rest are sent to a South Dakota Indian reservation where they are used for breeding. The Vanishing American is just one of the movies that’s been filmed here. Others include Rosemary’s Baby, Apollo 13, The Hunt for Red October, and many others.

Island Tours

And you can get a glimpse of what attracted movie-makers to this island by taking an island bus tour. Check out the Skyline Drive Tour --you’ll pass by some of the recently burned areas and learn that 1/10 of the island was affected, about 4,750 acres. This trip takes you to the Airport in the Sky where private planes are flown and which was made by leveling two mountain peaks. You’ll pass some spectacular views of Avalon Bay on the way. You’ll also see what looks like ski slopes but these are actually fire breaks (it hasn’t snowed on the island, according to our coach tour guide, since 1949). The fire was accidentally started by workers on a radio tower who were cutting steel using a blow torch. The legendary spark that started it caused 760 firefighters to fight the resulting blaze for an exhausting four days. Fortunately, none of the wildlife were injured. It seems the animals knew when to get out of the way.


For a great place to stay that’s close to the bus terminal for tours, check out the Hotel Atwood. Suites for families are available and the location is superb at just half a block from the beach. They’ve been taking care of guests here since the Roaring 20s. They offer packages for families that include kayaking, glass bottom boats and mini-golf (our kids did this latter activity four times, they suddenly became competitive with each other and since the course was located across the street, they were able to get there easily). Santa Catalina was formed about 100 million years ago when there was a collision of plates off the coast of Baja California and the island was pushed out of the sea. It was discovered in 1542 by the Spanish sailor Cabrillo (he called it San Salvador after his ship and the name was changed 60 years later to celebrate the Catholic saint, Saint Catherine). The island is said to be traveling at 1 — to 2 inches each year and some joke that it’s on a "slow cruise to San Francisco”. But don’t wait until it gets there, go see it now at it’s beautiful location before it sails away! You won’t be disappointed.

Catalina Island Visitor Information: 310-510-1520
Visitor Information
Hotel Atwood and the Discovery Tours
Catalina Express Karmel Shuttle (from airport to port)
Catalina Conservancy

Tags:  Catalina Conservancy  Catalina Island  Hotel Atwood and the Discovery Tours  Santa Catalina  Sheila O'Connor  Undersea Adventure 

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Fall Into Michigan’s Great Southwest

Posted By Millicent Huminsky, Monday, October 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
"How do you put the apples on the trees?” Margo Klug gets lots of questions from visitors to "Big Dan’s” Hartford farm, but this one asked by a five-year-old girl is still her favorite. "I knew she wanted to know whether we glued them on like the red paper apples on her kindergarten bulletin board or whether they were hung like Christmas ornaments,” Klug said. "So I explained, simply, how apples grow and that their stems held them on the branches until she picked them.”

Klug’s "Big Dan’s U-Pick’em” farm is one of dozens that opens its orchards and fields to visitors from neighboring cities and states. See what life on a working farm is all about. "Big Dan” pulls a hay wagon with his tractor through the orchards and to the pumpkin patch on the hill, while giving tips on which apples are best for eating or cooking and how to store them. He always stops at the highest point on his farm to point out the panoramic view of the countryside where jewel-colored trees can be seen for miles. Klug’s, like most u-pick farmers, encourages their visitors to taste-test the apple varieties. "It is the only way to decide whether you like the flavor and texture,” Margo Klug explained.

A few miles west of Klug Orchards Farm Market is Jollay Orchards in Coloma. This farm offers its own blend of family fun and education that can easily take hours to enjoy. They, too, use a hay wagon to tour visitors around their farm. Jollay’s grows pie and jack-o-lantern pumpkins and gourds in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes in their patches. "It is fun to watch children’s eyes when they discover our patch of white pumpkins,” Jay Jollay, owner of the orchards, said. "They wonder why they are not orange and get excited when we tell them how they can carve them into a ghost or paint them whatever colors they want to make goblins, witches, cats and monsters.

”After picking their apples and pumpkins, the hay wagon jostles down the path to a haunted house. Inside the darkened building, mechanically animated characters and recorded sounds provide ghoulish fun and surprises for ages 5 years old and up. The hayride proceeds to a corn maze that challenges you to find its way out — not an easy task when most of the stalks tower over the heads of even the tallest person. The reward for reaching the exit is a visit to Jollay’s farm market where bins and shelves brim with ready-picked fruits and vegetables. Choose an apple and dip it into a pot of warm caramel to coat it with your favorite toppings. Other farm fresh selections include apple pies baked in brown paper bags, cookies, warm apple dumplings, and cider.

Jollay and Klug Orchards are just two of the many farms in the region. Most u-picks are open daily through the end of October, although some farm stands stay open until mid -November. Hayrides, corn mazes and haunted houses are usually offered on weekends only.

Wine Lovers Raise Glasses to Revelry or Romance

Their bare backs and legs dripping with purplish-red juice and grape skins, five college-aged men look up with boyish delight from the huge oak vat of grapes. They have been stomping around this grown-up mud puddle, feeling the warm grape juice squirt between their toes and the pulp suck against their ankles. Not one mother reprimands them. In fact, the crowd is cheering them on to produce more grape juice than the other stomping teams.

Some miles away, a couple sits at a window-side table overlooking row after row of lush, green grape vines. Aware only of each other, they clink wine glasses and enjoy the shimmer of light through the golden-hued Tabor Hill Lake Michigan Shore Traminette. The wine’s melon bouquet with its touch of spice adds extra pleasure as they take their first sips. No one cheers. No one rushes the quiet conversation. It’s time to savor together.

A broad spectrum of activities awaits you in Southwestern Michigan’s wine country. The region’s temperate climate, buffered by Lake Michigan to the west, closely replicates the finest wine areas of France, Germany and California’s Sonoma Valley. Its award-winning Rieslings, Chardon-nays, Cabernet Sauvignons and Gewürztraminers are made from the best European grape cultivars by winemakers who have studied the works of Old World winemasters.

Perhaps the most valuable thing these winemakers learned from the Old Country is that their art is bottled hospitality. They warmly welcome visitors to tour their cellars and taste their wines, brandies, cordials, sparkling juices and specialty beers at no charge. Most have special events and festivals throughout the year.

A Wine Trail meanders its way through three counties with a dozen wineries highlighted along the way. Each winery has its own charm. Area winery tours are family-friendly and festivals offer activities for all ages.

Round Barn Winery & Distillery in Baroda is almost next to Tabor Hill. A distillery and brewery add cordials, brandies, and beer to the wine and juice list at the tasting bar. An historic round barn, hand-built by Amish craftsmen, holds special events and weddings. The winemaker offers classes each spring and fall to teach the art of white and red winemaking.

Karma Vista Vineyards in Coloma has its winery and tasting room atop one of the highest hills in Berrien County. In addition to the breathtaking view, visitors will enjoy the fine European and American-style wines, breads and cheeses; and gifts for all occasions.

Lemon Creek Fruit Farm & Winery in Berrien Springs has an historic vineyard that William Lemon started 150 years ago. You want to have time to visit the fruit farm, too, before you leave. A stop at the tasting room as well as selecting farm-fresh produce makes for a well-rounded visit. They also are one of the few makers of Ice Wines.

St. Julian® Wine Company in Paw Paw is the oldest and largest winery in Michigan. Its founder named the winery after the patron saint of his birthplace, Faleria, Italy. Like other area wineries, it offers European-style fine wines as well as unique and refreshing fruit blends. St. Julian is a past recipient of the coveted Tasters Guild Winery of the Year Award.

Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant in Buchanan, is one of Michigan’s most renowned wineries. Tabor Hill was the first winery in the state to grow European grape varietals such as Riesling and Chardonnay; the first to bring in French expertise to make dry, sparkling wines; and the first to open a restaurant that has since earned critical acclaim. The tasting room and gift shop offer an extensive wine list, including several national and state medalists.

Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs is nestled on an 80-acre fruit farm. Sixty acres of tart cherry orchards have been converted to high quality wine grapes and Niagara juice grapes. The vineyard master tries new techniques, such as special trellising, shoot positioning, and cane laydown to produce quality wines for the enjoyment of their customers.

Unwrap a Classic Christmas

Kids scramble out of cars, tromping through new-fallen snow. Their voices echo over the hills and through fields of lush-green pines, spruces and firs. Trees stand firm in neat rows, the snow clinging to their branches reflecting the dying light of the day. Children disappear between them, anxious to find just the right one. "You can hear them. ‘How about this one?’ Or, ‘I found one!’” said Char Bishop, owner and operator of Yule-Tide Acres in Berrien Center.

Millions of Americans also love Michigan Christmas trees. According to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, Michigan’s annual harvest is over 6 million. Michigan Christmas trees not only decorate the homes of Michigan and U.S. families, but also several foreign countries.

The season is filled with classic Christmas activities — from horse-drawn sleigh rides to finding unique gifts to cutting your own Christmas tree.

At Yule-Tide Acres, many visitors love to grab a saw to cut their own tree. They also enjoy other holiday treats: sipping free hot chocolate and cider and shopping for Christmas gifts.

Visitors come from all over, Bishop said. One couple even hauled their tree all the way back home to Florida after visiting area relatives for Thanksgiving. Wherever folks come from, she said they all enjoy the slower pace.

In Galien, Pinecrest Farms owner Richard Soper has been growing Christmas trees for over 25 years. He has seen generations make the experience a tradition.

Soper’s family has made finding the right tree a tradition. During busy times, up to 14 family members pitch in by giving horse-drawn wagon rides to the fields and helping visitors. With nearly 4,000 trees to choose from, you are sure to find the perfect one. Visitors also enjoy free hot chocolate, find gifts and get fragrant handmade wreaths, swags and centerpieces to decorate their homes.

The best time to get a tree? Most farms are open the first day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. Attractions such as hay wagon rides are usually offered on weekends.

In Dowagiac, Traditional Trees grows a wide variety of Christmas trees — Douglas, Fraser, Concolor, and Balsam Firs and Colorado Blue Spruce. Owners Charles and Earline Jones let visitors take wagons out to find their tree and bring it back to the processing facility. There they can have it mounted on what Charles calls their "10-second stand.” They bore a hole in the center of the trunk with a special bit and fit the tree onto a spike on the stand. "It’s very popular,” he said. Visitors warm themselves by the cheery wood stove, drink hot, spiced cider and find handmade wreaths, garland and boughs. Also enjoy the season by shopping without the crowds, downhill and cross-country skiing or just strolling along a snowy nature path.

For more information, please visit the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council online at or call 269-925-6301.

Photo credits: All photos in this article were courtesy of Ken McKeown, except the grape photo, courtesy of St. Joe Today

Tags:  Jolly Orchards  Klug Orchards  Michigan  Southwest Michigan 

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Chilé - Contrast, Beauty and Paradox

Posted By Stephen Banick, Monday, October 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
I should have known that such a stupendous view wouldn’t come without risk. One morning not long after my arrival in Chile, I was seated on the balcony of my 12th story penthouse and gazing up at the 20,000 foot wall of the Andes mountains towering above the eastern suburbs of Santiago when suddenly the entire building started to shake.

The 7.0 temblor rocked, rolled and shimmied for a good one minute or so; fortunately, the damage report was minimal: just a few broken knick-knacks. Outside, a cacophony of barking dogs and car alarms serenaded harmlessly while the embassy swimming pool adjacent to my apartment building sloshed around like Jell-O.

No biggie - it was just another terremoto, a Chilean pastime it seems. Thankfully, Santiago is equipped to handle these terrestrial shakeups. In fact, Chilean construction engineering prowess rivals its counterparts in other earthquake-prone metropolises such as Tokyo and San Francisco. A good thing, too; in 1960, the world’s largest recorded quake (a Richter 9.5) obliterated a third of Chile before blasting Japan with a tsunami – a mere 10,000 miles away.

If ever a country could be described by sheer metaphor, it’s Chile. Just as is her landscape testimony to the grinding tectonic plates of the earth and extreme polarities of Mother Nature, so are her people defined by radical change, cultural collision and societal paradox.

Consider her contours and features: Is there a more bizarrely shaped country, with a greater contrast of topography, in the world? The image of "anorexic millipede” comes to mind.

Spanning 2,800 miles in length from north to south, Chile’s average east-west width is barely 100 miles. But like any real estate gerrymandered into peculiar borders, there’s a darn good reason for it… Chile’s eastern flank is hemmed in by the world’s second highest mountain range, those auspicious Andes, sporting 36 active volcanoes. To the north is the fierce Atacama Desert, the world’s driest, which just went 27 years without measurable rainfall. Not that this severe land isn’t without its assets. Just ask the world’s two largest copper magnates, Rio Tinto Zinc and BHP Billiton (who pull $27 billion out of the ground each year), or the lapis lazuli miners of Ocalle, the only place in the world outside of Afghanistan where this lovely gem is mined. South? Only 600 miles from Antarctica – enough said. West? The tempestuous waters of the Pacific, the only real gateway into this quarantined realm. In between these territorial thresholds, however, lies a world of delight.

The middle of the country, where Santiago is located, features a wonderful Mediterranean-like climate, with summer hi-lo temps of 85/54°F and winter temps averaging 57/37. This capitol city of 6 million is a pleasant blend of Old World colonialism and New World commercialism, boasting an impressive modern skyline, transit system and conveniently accessible international airport. Santiago is the taciturn twin to its mercurial sibling Buenos Aires; the latter known more for its arts, architecture and food, while Santiago is a town predicated on commercial sensibilities and an "out-of-the-spotlight” practicality.

One can stroll around the historic downtown and take in the both old and new government palaces and halls or a colorful street fair… or dine in trendy, upscale El Golf (yes, that means "golf” – named after a swank country club!) along chic Avenida Isadora Goyenechea, featuring a smorgasbord of Chilean cuisine. A seafood dinner for two in a four-star restaurant, with dessert, coffee and a crisp Chardonnay (or bifsteak with a robust 2004 Carmenere) will only set you back a modest $50 U.S. – but hurry up, because the Chilean peso is strong and rapidly rising against the dollar.

If nocturnal shenanigans are your vida loca, you can "party till ya drop” on Providencia’s Avenida Suecia, a Latin version of Bourbon Street. Run out of cash? Don’t worry – there are as many ATMs per block in Providencia as on any street in Manhattan, London or Zurich. If bohemian culture, dancing or artwork is your cup of maté, check out the jewelry shops, galleries and all-night Salsa (the Chilean national pastime) clubs in the Bellavista district, or the lively cafes and watering holes of Nuñoa. And if you’re inclined toward cosmopolitan living without the rush, you can always relax in the comfortable neighborhoods of Las Condes, Vitacura and Lo Barnachea.

Not that Santiago and Chile in general aren’t without their blemishes. Witness the draconian rule of Augusto Pinochet (highlighted by thousands of civilian "disappearances”) in the 1970’s and 80’s. Many elder Chileans like to call Pinochet "the stern uncle” and still consider his 1973 coup of democratically-elected president Salvador Allende as a necessary, bitter remedy for Allende’s corrupt and economically disastrous tenure. Furthermore, since 40% of Chile’s manufacturing takes place in the Santiago vicinity, this city’s precarious location at the base of the imposing, air-trapping Andes subjects it to Los Angeles-caliber smog. Not an adrenalin junkie? Then stay away from the micros ("mee-crows”), or metropolitan busses. These swerving giants are commandeered by commissioned drivers who respond to their financial carrot – maximizing passengers – by weaving like the Indy 500 through rush hour traffic. (Suggestion: taxis are cheap and drivers reasonably competent and sober).

But all in all, Santiago "works”; a fact that has not gone unnoticed by multinational corporations, academia and the tourism industry. Check out Santiago’s Jumbo stores – Wal-Mart Supercenters, eat your heart out! A "Jumbo” is a colossus: a veritable city visited by 30,000-plus people a day, featuring just about anything you would ever want to buy and a whole lot of things you wouldn’t. The organizational logistics, employee professionalism and product qualities rival anything found in a North American or European shopping center – and you can even avail yourself of valet parking (if you can afford to tip the expected propina of 20¢).

Escapes from Santiago couldn’t be easier, courtesy of its advantageous central location and modern superhighways. One and a half-hours to the northwest lies the rough-and-tumble (but re-gentrifying) port town of Valparaiso, which prior to the Panama Canal, hosted for three centuries the busiest west coast port in all of the Americas. If walking the strenuous hills (think Lombard Street in San Francisco) is a bit too demanding, jump on one of 16 funiculars connecting Valparaiso’s ramshackle galleries, bars and restaurants like so many dots on a three-dimensional board game. Just be careful with that camera – the Chilean navy sits offshore and they’re a bit grumpy about being photographed.

If you prefer skiing to shoreline, a mere hour from Santiago awaits the three challenging slopes of El Colorado, Valle Nevado and La Parva. Watch your vertigo – unlike North American ski slopes, there are no trees to provide contrast, thus wreaking havoc on your visual acuity when partly cloudy days morph slope and sky into one blurring montage. A few hours farther north is the premier resort of Portillo, one of the world’s most renowned ski destinations. Be prepared to stay a week at a time because that’s how the bookings usually run. It’s well worth it, however, as Portillo boasts Utah-quality powder covering ski runs whose length rivals their counterparts in the Swiss and Austrian Alps.

Just driving to one of these recreational diversions from Santiago is a treat in itself. In the area surrounding Santiago for hundreds of miles is the country’s breadbasket – and wine casket – of Chile. This centralized district is the origin of all those fruits and vegetables we see in North American markets when it’s wintertime up our way. Hundreds of wineries, from world-renowned Concha y Toro to more modest localized companies dot the landscape in every direction north, south and west of Santiago, producing scores of vintages earning international awards.

Six hundred miles to the south, past the modern but clean-and-friendly cities of Concepción and Valdivia, is the lake country. Don’t fret about getting there; Chile’s overnight sleeper busses are modern and comfortable. Charmingly referred to as "Little Bavaria” – as much for its German, Italian and Slavic settlers as for its quaint, pristine landscape – the lake country is home to resort towns such as Pucón and Puerto Varas. These wooded getaways sit in the shadows of giant volcanoes and cater to the swimming, boating, shopping and gastronomical desires of vacationing Chileans and a growing number of international visitors. Don’t miss the pastries and strudel! I highly recommend traversing one of the world’s great border crossings, which connects Puerto Varas to the Argentinean resort town of Barriloche on the other side of the Andes. This two-day boat/bus trip on an interconnecting network of four glacial lakes and three isthmuses will convey you across the backbone of the Andes. En route you’ll cross through national parks of pristine forests, towering waterfalls and quaint lodges -- all the while straining your neck from staring up at snow-capped, jagged peaks and down at the most cerulean blue water this side of Tahiti (courtesy of the glacial silt). No worries about the border guards – you’re their meal ticket. These accommodating customs officers will be more than glad to stamp your passport.

Want a unique cultural experience? Check out the island of Chiloé, where native folklore of the Mapuchan and Chonan tribes still runs strong. For some reason, Easter-egg pastels seem to be the predominant colors for all the structures on this island, from the high-stilted tidal homes (palafitos) to the dozens of UNESCO-protected churches. Chiloé is also home to the delicious curanto dish, a stew-like concoction of salmon, langostino lobster, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and spices resembling a Spanish paia or French bouillabaisse.

No mention of Chile is complete without paying homage to Patagonia, that wild, windblown frontier straddling Chile and Argentina. Here, Marlboro Country meets the Ice Age; accented, incredibly, by a touch of Jurassic Park. Patagonia’s water and air are the cleanest in the world – for now: over the last decade the area has experienced a seven-fold increase in tourism. A shining example of Chile’s extreme contrasts can be found in Torres del Paine National Park where the geologically youngest mountains in the world jut out in twisted, preternatural formations; while below, if you undertake the seven-day trekking circuit through the park, you’ll encounter forests, giant ferns and colorful parrots. I was spellbound by this juxtaposition of tropical flora and fauna against the background of the world’s third largest "ice field,” comprised of no less than 48 glaciers. Prepare for sensory overload in Patagonia… I certainly wasn’t, when my scouting trip over an inviting ridgeline placed me smack dap upon a fresh guañaco kill (cousin to the llama and alpaca) – while dozens of Andean Condors sporting 10-12 foot wingspans took off like a 747 revving up in an airport hangar.

Dangling off the bottom of Chile is Tierra del Fuego. Ironically this "land of fire” was not named for volcanoes, but rather for the campfires of the indigenous tribes (the "Fuegians”) that the Spanish and Portuguese ships could detect from miles offshore. Unfortunately for Chile, Argentina boasts the lion’s share of Tierra del Fuego’s beauty, as the windward Chilean side is barren and virtually inhospitable. To defend their honor, however, Chilean locals are engaged in an on-going low key battle of geographical pride with their eastern neighbor to claim the distinction of most southerly point in the world (Fin del mundo – "End of the world”). No land so weirdly shaped and geographically diverse could be populated by a boring or predictable people, and the Chileans are no exception. Due to their historical isolation, they have developed their own inimitable culture that is distinctively different from the rest of South America. Chilean Spanish (Castellano), for example, continues to baffle other Latinos to this day through its garrulous blend of slurred clichés and machine-gun delivery.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Chileans are "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Consider: A country often characterized by outsiders as rural and backward has the highest literacy rate, lowest infant mortality and longest life expectancy in South America. Exhibit Two: the decidedly socialistic government of Chile has the highest per capita income and highest GDP growth rate (averaging nearly 7% throughout the 1990s) on the continent, accompanied by the lowest unemployment rate and an inflation level less than 4% – a collective feat impressive enough to earn praise from the late free-market economist sage Milton Friedman. Despite her modest size, problematic location and limited population of only 16 million, Chile is definitely a "Latin Tiger” to be reckoned with. She was almost accepted as the fourth NAFTA member and managed to cut her own deal (CELTA) with the U.S., eschewing more popular Latin trade pacts such as the Mercosur consortium of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (which she has now since joined).

The contrasts continue. Known for being the most traditionally conservative of Catholic countries, having only legalized divorce in 2002, Chile now boasts a female president. In fact, Michelle Bachelet is one of only five women to ever govern a South American nation.
With grace and cultural finesse, Chile is a country that has managed to honor a proud colonial past while aggressively promoting a "First World” outlook that seeks to balance economic robustness with social equity and diplomatic leverage. She may still be struggling to address the inequities of her campesinos; but, like her frequent earthquakes, she’s pretty good at shaking things up. And like her striking geographical anomalies and paradoxical people, she’ll probably continue to befuddle and amaze us.

Globe-trotter, story-teller and entrepreneur Stephen Banick is the author of Accidental Enlightenment: The Extraordinary Travels of a Modern-Day Gulliver; and The New Gullivers: Shaping the Mindscapes, Soulscapes and Landscapes of a New World. He is also the founder of The Gulliver Project, Inc., a program that connects people with ways of feeling better, having more and being more” in the emerging global community.

Tags:  Atacama  Chile  Chiloe  Patagonia  Santiago 

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Mexico City - Historic Downtown

Posted By Michele Joyce, Sunday, July 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
When I signed up for a class on Mexican history in my junior year of college, I had no idea that it was going to change my life. But the more I learned about Mexico, the more attracted I was to this culture. I revelled in the sounds of the few Spanish words I understood, the unique shouts of the mariachi singers whose music I bought to practice my Spanish, and the bright yellows, pinks, oranges, and greens in the Mexican dresses that my history professor wore to class.

One day, this same professor, dressed in an ankle length, bright yellow dress and long, cherry-red earrings, presented our class with a photograph of the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, taken around the turn of the 20th century.

The photo was met with a collective gasp from the students who were familiar with the Zocalo. "I can’t believe it ever looked like that!” commented my friend, Elaine. I had never actually seen the plaza, so I was more surprised by how many of the students were familiar with the place than I was by the picture itself. In that moment, I decided I would be sure to visit the Zócalo if I ever got to see Mexico City.

Not long afterward, I’d obtained a scholarship to study in Mexico City, and, at my first opportunity, I took the crowded underground metro to the "Zócalo” stop. The second I surfaced from the underground metro station, I was overcome by the feeling of being in the middle of a place with so much history! I had never seen so many historic buildings in a single space. In my hometown, a two-hundred year old building could be a historic monument and here I was surrounded by buildings that the Spanish began to build in the sixteenth century – on the ruins, and in many cases, with rocks taken from the demolished constructions of an even older society!

A Mexican flag waved in the center of this great cement square plaza, one of the largest plazas in the world, surrounded by the National Palace, the seat of Mexico’s government, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and more. It was quite different from the picture that my history teacher had shown the class: cable buses had been replaced by cars circling the plaza and tree-lined pathways were replaced with cemented-over open spaces.

During my semester abroad, when-ever I had free time, I hopped on an old metro train and headed downtown to explore a little more of the Zócalo and the neighborhood that surrounds it; the whole area is often referred to as the centro histórico, or historic center. When I came back to Mexico City, two years later, I decided to stay. For six years I lived there, and my visits to the Zócalo became even more regular, but the beauty and the history of this place continue to impress me.

It seems only natural to me now that the first time I heard about the Zócalo was in history class. The Zócalo and the whole of the downtown area is one of the most historically significant places not only of this city, but of Mexico. Not only is its rich history still apparent in its art and architecture, but it continues to be a vibrant community center that still makes history. If you want to get to know Mexico, it is one of the best possible places to start.


In the southwest corner of the Zócalo, there is an unassuming statue that relates the story of the Aztec founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan in 1325. The Aztecs were a wandering group, but according to Aztec legend, one of the gods foretold the Aztec’s arrival in this place, a place where they would not only settle but rise to greatness and create an empire. This god instructed them to settle in the place where they saw an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched on a cactus. According to Aztec legend, the Aztecs established their capital city where they saw this foretold sign, and the statue in the Zócalo depicts the scene: an eagle, holding a snake in its mouth, perched on a cactus — a reminder that Mexico City is built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec capital, and that this was its center.

Templo Mayor

The preserved ruins of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor, located on the northwest corner of the plaza are evidence that the Aztecs not only built their city on the ground where Mexico City stands today, but that today’s Zócalo was also the area at the heart of the Aztec’s capital city.

This was the largest and most important building in the Aztec capital. It was discovered and excavations began in the 1970s. Most of the objects found at the Templo Mayor were offerings to the gods. A variety of these artifacts are on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, just next door.

This temple, dedicated to the Aztec gods of rain and war, this was the center of Aztec religious life – and the site of the famous Aztec human sacrifices.

The National Palace

After conquering the Aztecs in 1521, the Spaniards decided to locate the seat of their government in what had been center of the Aztec’s capital city. The National Palace, on the west side of the plaza, is the center of national government, and was built directly on top of the ruins of palace of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma. The conqueror Cortés began built this building, although it has been modified several times.

The liberty bell that hangs from the center of the palace is the bell that Father Hidalgo rang to call his parishioners to fight for freedom, thus beginning the Independence movement that ended in 1821.

Diego Rivera’s great mural, Epic of the Mexican People..., painted between 1929 and 1945, runs along the staircase and walls of the palace’s second floor. It murals tell the story of the political life of the country from the time of the conquest (which is shown as the destruction of an idealized Aztec way of life) to the future (here, Marx is shown pointing the way toward a better future). These murals are a must-see for any visitor to Mexico City.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

Not only did the Spanish set up their government in the middle of their conquered people’s capital city, but they established religious control here as well. The churrigueresque cathedral that was built on the northern side of the Zócalo is the largest in Latin America. While construction began in the 1573, the building project went on for nearly 300 years, and you can see several artistic styles represented in its structure, paintings, statues, altars, and more.


Parties and Protests

Every year, late in the evening of September 15th, the Zócalo is the place to be for the most popular celebration of Mexico’s Indepen-dence Day. The plaza fills up with party seekers who, looking for a good time, toot noise makers, spray silly string, and randomly smash confetti-filled egg shells on passersby (especially on those who stand out a little – like tourists!). The government provides enter-tainment as well, including popular Mexican singers who often show up in traditional dress to sing time-honored Mexican tunes. The high-light of the evening comes as the president emerges from inside the palace and stands on a central balcony overlooking the plaza. He gives a speech about celebrating independence, national heroes, and the culture and values of the country. While each president adapts the speech to the concerns of his time and his own agendas, he weaves through the speech the several national heroes and values. With the mention of each hero -- ¡Viva Zapata! – or values -- ¡Viva la patria! ¡Viva México! – the president yells and the crowd shouts back ¡Viva! in unison. At the end of his speech, the president rings the bell that was originally rung by Father Hidalgo when he incited the movement for Independence, and fireworks ring out in the plaza as well as other parts of the city.

The Independence Day tradition is a special time to visit the Zócalo, yet you may find crowds gathered here at other times too. It is a favorite location for protests and sit-ins. In June of 2004, some 250,000 locals, most dressed in white, walked silently down the Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s principal thoroughfares, toward the Zócalo, eventually filling the plaza.

The plaza also filled after the 2006 presidential elections. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had lost the election, made the plaza inaccessible for travellers as his protesters (in the tradition of Mexican politicians, many, local newspapers reported, were paid for their presence) claimed he was the legitimate president of Mexico.

Art in the Zócalo

More recently, on el 5 de mayo, 2007 the plaza was again filled, but this time it was full of volunteers interested in helping to make art. A crowd that any politician would be proud of assembling – an estimated 20,000 — came out on a chilly May morning to take off their clothes and pose nude for Stephen Tunick’s latest photographs. The photos included scenes of the crowd saluting the great flag in the center of the plaza and laying in fetal positions in front of the cathedral.

For thousands of years, the Zocalo has been the center of community life in Mexico City. Holidays, elections, protests, artmaking — this is the place to be in Mexico City, the place where history continues to be made.

Where to Stay

Hotel Majestic
Ave. Madero 73, Col. Centro,

It doesn’t get any closer to the Zócalo than Hotel Majestic where individual rooms have balconies overlooking the plaza and the restaurant on the hotel’s top floor has some of the best views of the plaza you can find. Rates go up for Independence Day and reservations are booked far in advance. So, if you are planning to be in town in September, call ahead.

Sheraton Centro Histórico
Av. Juarez 70, Col. Centro,
(+52) 555-5130-525

No hotel in the downtown area offers more luxury than this. There are spas, gyms, and a pool. Rooms and hallways are decorated with historic images of the downtown area.

Tags:  Mexico  Mexico City  Templo Mayor  Zócalo 

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Posted By Nicole Barton, Sunday, July 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

As the largest country in the world, Russia proves to be a unique destination that can cater to many different tastes. Its expansive land allows for extreme diversity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tourism has grown rapidly. Its turbulent past and rich culture attracts visitors from all over the world. The most popular tourist destinations are the 2 largest cities- Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both offer stunning architecture, eclectic museums, art galleries and chic hotels.

A Taste of Russian Culture

The biggest challenge facing visitors is the language barrier. While the English language uses the Latin alphabet, the Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes understanding the written word difficult when reading signs, maps, etc. It’s best to study basic phrases before visiting. You will find that the younger generation is more likely than the older generation to speak English.

The currency in Russia is the Ruble or Rouble. Changing US Dollars or Traveler’s Checks can be done at most banks or bureau de change. Most banks have the same rates but it may be worth shopping around if you have the time. Most places do accept credit cards as well, with Visa and Mastercard being the most common. Some places will ask to see your passport so do be sure to bring it with you.

The food in Russia varies from very basic to extravagant. In the larger cities it is easy to find high-quality cuisine from around the world. Some of the trendier restaurants can be quite expensive so be sure to check the pricing ahead of time. The tap water in most areas in not drinkable and visitors should drink bottled water only to avoid bacteria and giardia, a parasite.

Driving can be difficult, especially in larger cities. Rather than renting a car, consider using buses, trams or trolleys, which are all inexpensive and efficient. The Metro system is by far the most popular way of getting around. It’s a good idea to learn the metro routes before visiting. Taxis can be overpriced and honestly, a bit scary. Many tour companies do offer excursions that include transportation, making it much easier. Hotel concierges can be extremely accommodating in helping you plan your transportation.

There are plenty of souvenir shops to choose from and it’s fun to bring a bit of Russia home with you. Some of the must have souvenirs are hand-painted Russian nesting dolls, authentic lacquer boxes, artwork and the world-famous Russian vodka. Hotels and airports will typically be more expensive than other shops.

St. Petersburg

Peter the Great created St. Petersburg in 1703 to be his "window to Europe”. Since then the city has seen its share of change mainly due to government and war. Fortunately it is now peaceful, and provides a great look at Russian history and culture.

Being the second largest city in Russia, St. Petersburg offers everything a visitor could ask for. There are an unlimited number of sites to see including the Kazan Cathedral, Michael’s Castle, Peter and Paul Fortress and Kanal Griboedova. There really is something here for everyone.

Due to the numerous waterways and canals, St. Petersburg is often referred to as the "Venice of the North”. One especially popular tour is a boat tour through the city’s many canals and rivers. The city is situated on over 40 islands with more than 70 canals and rivers. Its bridges, over 450, are considered by some to be the most beautiful in the world. A boat tour provides a very unique view of how the city is situated and where it came from.

A trip to St. Petersburg would not be complete without a visit to The Mariinsky Theatre, also known as the Kirov Ballet. It was originally built in 1860 as an opera house but 2 decades later ballet was added to its repertoire. Michel Fokine, a past choreographer at the Mariinsky is considered by some to have been the creator of modern ballet. Many believe that it has produced some of best singers, dancers and composers in the world. Due to its popularity it’s best to get tickets well ahead of time.

An interesting phenomenon that occurs here is something called the White Nights (Beliye Nochi.) From mid-May thru early June the nights do not get dark at all, resulting in 24 hours of daylight. The brightest period is typically from June 11th thru July 2nd. This occurs due to the city’s high latitude and northern location. This occurrence is celebrated greatly throughout the city with various festivals and tours.

Be warned, there is an air of danger as you walk down the streets of St. Petersburg. Though the danger is not apparent, there is a colder feeling that most people aren’t used to. Most of the locals seem like they’re in a hurry to get to where they’re going, similar to New York City. However there are plenty of friendly people and some do speak English. A wonderful way to see

St. Petersburg is by foot, but do use extreme caution because ped-estrians definitely do not have the right of way. Most drivers are a bit reckless and also seem to be in a hurry. It’s best to cross with large crowds and avoid taking any risks.

Pick pocketing and petty theft are both common in St. Petersburg. It’s a good idea to keep money in your inner pockets, don’t leave bags unattended and try not to appear as though you have money. With basic precautions you will be safe but it’s better to prepare yourself ahead of time.

The State Hermitage Museum

Situated on the River Neva in the city of St. Petersburg and encompassing 6 buildings lies the State Hermitage Museum. The Hermitage opened in 1764 when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of Western European paintings. The Hermitage is home to more than 3,000,000 works of art, ranging from the Stone Age to the 20th century. Its collected works are so numerous that it would take years to view everything. Some highlights include works from European painters Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Even those not interested in art will appreciate the eclectic collection of works that the Hermitage holds. Due to its size visitors may want to consider a few short trips rather than one extremely long day. Guided tours are offered or you can walk through on your own at your own pace. If you are interested in taking photos a special pass can be purchased for a nominal fee.


Located on the Moskva River lies Moscow, the capital of Russia. With a population of approximately 10 million people, it is the most populated city in all of Europe. It is the most important center of Russia for business, transportation and politics.

Interestingly, you will notice the Soviet past colliding with the capitalist future. For instance Lenin’s Mausoleum now faces a de-partment store. Run-down Soviet buildings lie next to fancy shops. It’s a mix of 2 completely different worlds. These unlikely contrasts are what make Moscow so fascinating and rare.

One of the most popular sites in all of Russia is Red Square. It is an extremely impressive space located next to the Kremlin and is a vital stop for anyone visiting Moscow. While in Red Square be sure to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. Designed in 1924 by Alexei Shchusev, it is now the resting place for Lenin, the founder of the Soviet State. Its black labradorite symbolizes mourning and the red granite symbolizes Communism. Another must see is St. Basil’s Cathedral. You can’t miss its colorful arches, towers, domes and unique pattern. It was originally built in the 1550’s to honor Ivan the Terrible’s capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan.

Located in the core of the city is the Kremlin, which means "fortified town”. The Kremlin contains armories, churches and palaces. Over the centuries rulers have added their own special touches, creating quite a mix of styles. Some of the most striking structures are the Cathedral of the Assumption and The Arsenal. Because the Kremlin palace is an official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, you can only visit part of the Kremlin territory. However, there are many sites to see so be sure to allow for plenty of time.

Russians have always been known for taking pride in their military. Moscow is a great location to view military museums and learn more about the powerful Russian military. Some of the most popular museums to visit are The Red Army Choir, Armed Forces Museum and Stalin’s Bunker.

In the former Soviet Union, statues of Stalin, Lenin and Marx covered the town. Today many signs of the Communist time are still spread throughout Moscow. Sites not to be missed are the Lubyanka and The Metro.

With its incredible style and proud people, Russia is a country well worth a visit. There is a feeling in Russia that you can’t quite put your finger on but it is very unique and mysterious. It is unlike any other place in the world and that individuality attracts many. With basic precautions and an open mind you are sure to leave Russia with memories to last a lifetime.

Photos by Nicole Barton and Shutterstock.
Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Barton.

Nicole Barton is a freelance writer and photographer from Southern California. She enjoys traveling to remote locations throughout the world to photograph nature and wildlife.

Tags:  Moscow  Russia  St. Petersburg 

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