March 10, 2008

TRAVEL: May 05, AU Edition

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RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT
Gary A. Warner says that if you look beyond the sleaze, Amsterdam is full of treasures

Forget the canals. Forget the coffeehouses. Forget the acres of Rembrandts and Van Goghs. Forget all that wooden shoes and tulips and silly Hans Brinker and his silver skates stuff you ever heard, read or saw.

Before you go to Amsterdam, get your brain around the other Amsterdam. The in-your-face Amsterdam.

The CBD shops that sell postcards of genitals painted to look like Santa Claus. Where delivery boys on pink bicycles deliver marijuana seeds. Where porn and prostitution flourish in the most picturesque red-light district in the world.

Get ready for it, all of it, because it is going to smack you right in the head whether you like it or not.

How you react will determine whether you see Amsterdam as the most liberal, liberating metropolis in Europe or a beautiful old jewel wrapped in an oily envelope of sleaze.

For the better part of two decades, I fell in the latter category. Four times Amsterdam was penciled in on my itinerary, and four times I found reason to get out the eraser.

But when I realized I’d been to nearly every major European city – I had been to Brussels twice – I decided it was time to give Amsterdam a shot.

I’ve always had a long list of reasons not to go. But I came away with more reasons potential visitors shouldn’t repeat my mistake of waiting so long to experience the Dutch metropolis.

Amsterdam has a great airport. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Amsterdam gets off on the right foot.

With its one terminal that has just two levels, Schiphol is the easiest, most modern airport in Europe, a dream to navigate compared with the creaking facilities of London, Paris and Rome. A high-speed train leaves every 15 minutes for the 20-minute ride from the airport to the city center.

I don’t go to a city for its airport (if I did, I’d never go back to New York City). But Amsterdam’s is nonetheless a big plus.

The morning after I arrived in Amsterdam, I was fighting jet lag. I stepped out of my canal-side hotel and wandered the quays for hours.
The trees had lost their leaves, revealing glimpses through the bare branches of old houses that line the waterways. Homes were hung with Christmas lights and garlands – even many of the 2,500 houseboats along the canals were decked out in yuletide finery.

The heart of the city is the Grachtengordel, the three concentric canals that half-ring the city center. Viewing the mansions of the Herengracht, the bridges over the Keizergracht and the houseboats fronting the artists’ lofts of the Prisengracht is one of the most popular strolls for visitors.

In all, there are 47 miles of canals in Amsterdam, and each mile seemed to offer a postcard image: A woman carrying a cello on her back as she pedaled her bicycle toward the city center. A mother singing “Jingle Bells” to her kindergartner as they skipped by. Pre-teen boys bundled up against the cold playing soccer on a canal-side strip, making moves that would fool most Australian high school teams.

When you get thirsty, watch your language. Ask for a ‘coffee shop’, and you’ll get more than a caffeine buzz – it’s the popular term for places that legally sell marijuana and hashish. If you ask for a ‘café’, you’ll likely be sent to one of the 1,000-plus bars in the city. (Do go. Drinking is a wonderful pastime in Amsterdam. Try a light-tasting Hoegaarden or a dark De Koninck beer. Or better yet, a traditional jenever, a gin-like drink often infused with fruit or herbs.)

There are the grand cafés whose luxurious interiors will seem familiar to anyone who has walked into a fancy café in Paris, Vienna or Budapest.

I prefer the old, small taverns called “brown cafés” for their stained-wood interiors and dark, drapery-blocked doorways. Press past the curtain at Hoppe near the Spui Square, and you’ll go back three centuries in time. It’s a cramped but cozy place that’s especially good in the off-season, when the hordes of summer tourists aren’t trying to elbow in for a seat.

Another good choice is ‘t Doktertje, which means ‘the little doctor’, another timeworn spot where for less than $10 you can get a drink and sit for as long as you like. I brought along my journal and enjoyed wasting a couple of hours in the corner.

Amsterdam1.jpgMy favorite of all was In De Waag, a bistro and bar inside the last remaining gatehouse of the old city. This imposing brick pile was once the weighing house for goods, and later the site of the city’s executions. I had a bowl of spliter wtensoep, the traditional stick-to-your-gut pea soup with duck rillettes, washed down with two haze-reducing cappuccinos. Between bouts of reading the International Herald Tribune, I perused my e-mail and watched a Webcast of the surf at Pipeline in Hawaii from one of the café’s computers. The total of a bill is called a ‘rekening’. I smiled at the apocalyptic-sounding word for a tab so small.

Go ahead and make your pilgrimage to the Rijksmuseum to see Vermeer’s ‘The Kitchen Maid’. Take in ‘The Sunflowers’ and ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ at the Van Gogh Museum. Just save time for some of the smaller museums around town.

I enjoyed my visit to the Amsterdams Centrum voor Fotografie on a narrow street just off Dam Square. The collections change constantly at the modernist glass-and-steel show space. One day it may be large-format photos juxtaposing cuts of meat or raw animal parts with flowers. Another day it might feature military-installation still lifes from around Europe.

If there is a must-see museum in Amsterdam, it’s Anne Frank Huis, where the young Dutch Jewish girl wrote her famous diary while hiding from the Nazi occupiers during World War II. She and her family were turned in to the police and she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just two months before the war’s end. Her diary describing her hopes while hiding has become one of the most widely translated books in the world.

One of the great charms of Amsterdam – albeit a sometimes dangerous one – is the sea of bicyclists making their way around the city. People wheel wildly around the cobblestone and brick streets as if they are invincible. There’s no headgear, and even at night there are young men and women wearing black on bicycles without lights. Lights and reflectors are just one more thing to get ripped off – Amsterdam logs more than 100,000 stolen bicycles a year.

With bikes parked outside where they are pelted by inclement weather and preyed upon by thieves, there’s little incentive to ride a fancy 10-speed or gizmo-laden mountain bike. Most are your simple one-speed models that you brake by backpedaling – not very different from what most Amsterdamers’ ancestors would have ridden.

It’s possible to rent a bicycle and make your way around the city as locals do. Just be prepared for some kidney-jarring old streets and maniac wheelers – especially during the morning and evening rush hours – who will be more than happy to run you right off the road.

Until World War II, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, and one of the great treats of a trip to Amsterdam is to enjoy a rijsttafel – “rice table” – which is made up of up to two dozen small plates presented at the same time, including fried rice with pork called nasi goreng, and satay – skewers of chicken, pork and beef with peanut dipping sauce.

Beware the spicy sambal chili sauce. Two of the best places to experience the rijsttafel are Tempo Doeloe on Utrechtsestraat and Kantjil & De Tijger on Spuistraat.

For a more domesticated taste, try patat, the local version of what we call chips. The crisp, fresh, fried potato strands are only a distant culinary cousin to the greasy slabs served up in fast-food joints. They’re served from outdoor stands scattered all around town. One of the best is Vleminckx on Voetboogstraat. Locals have it with mayonnaise – so speak up when you order unless you want your order drowned in the white stuff.

There are a number of big baroque barracks on the main plazas and a few design-oriented boutique hotels like Blakes, the local branch of Anouska Hempel’s London-based temple of trendiness. But part of the charm of a stay in Amsterdam is cozying into a canal-side hotel that’s been sewn together from neighboring town houses.

I stayed at the Pulitzer Hotel, with its sparkling gold lights outlining the roofs of the 17th-century homes that form its facade. Though it’s affiliated with the Sheraton chain, there’s none of the artificial feel of a business hotel.

A perennial favorite among travelers is the Ambassade Hotel, a small hotel made from a string of canal houses not far from Spui Square. One that’s not in a lot of the guidebooks, but that I found charming, is Hotel van Onna, a nice canal-side budget hotel. The rooms are small and Spartan, but I loved its pretty Christmas ornamentation inside and out.

Another small hotel enjoying a lot of buzz these days is ‘t Hotel, an eight-room mansion turned hotel built in 1690 that houses its own antique shop. Rooms look out either on a canal or over the pretty gardens.

I’ve already got a list of what to explore next time. Yes, there will be a next time. First, a return in the spring – I’ll put up with the crowds to experience the flowers. I’ll wander the pretty Leidsegracht canal and go see the Poezenboot – a barge filled with cats – that’s moored on the Singel. I’ll drop into the Amsterdams Historisch Museum to see if it offers better insight into how the 17th-century stolid commercial town became the free wheeling place of today.

After so long avoiding Amsterdam, I want to go back. It doesn’t intrigue like Berlin or warm like Rome. It doesn’t have the treats of Paris or the ease of London. But it deserves better than the just-passing-through Brussels treatment.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:53 PM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: Sep 05, AU Edition

hawamahal.jpgSUBCONTINENTAL DRIFT
After a whirlwind trip through India’s sights, smells and sounds, Robert Cross vows to return

AIPUR, India – ‘I was told that the first thing you’ll notice is the smell,’ said my friend Dave with a faint leer. Just a friendly word of warning to get me going on the wrong foot.

My wife, Juju, and I had been hearing a lot of secondhand and even firsthand tidbits like Dave’s almost every time we told anyone about our travel plans. Visiting India? Get ready for a shock: Pollution. Dirt. Poverty. Stifling heat. Noise. Weird behaviour. Those odors.
I’m here to testify that any negatives were far outweighed by the beauty, culture, architectural grandeur and spirituality we were privileged to sample during a brief visit to a few cities in the north.

After we cleared the jetway in New Delhi at 5:30 a.m. on an autumn Saturday, the only smell came from the universal airport brew of electric-light ozone, air conditioning and passenger scents no different from those at Sydney or Heathrow.

Instead, the first thing we noticed was the wallpaper on immigration officers’ cubicles, a darling blue-and-pink-flowered pattern of the sort that might decorate a little girl’s nursery.

The officers’ faces remained properly stern, of course, and they worked deliberately. We heard a constant thumping of rubber stamps and piped-in native music that sounded like the whining of a thousand mosquitoes, and after about 45 minutes, a man in uniform summoned Juju and me to his posy-splashed quarters, examined our documents and pounded on them with his stamps.

Still no smell when we finally carted our luggage to the parking lot. Obviously, Dave had been misinformed.

Our driver, Remish, helped with the bags, and we set off on the five-hour drive to Jaipur and the beginning of our seven-day India adventure. Dawn greeted New Delhi with a gray haze of pollution, and my chest felt heavy. Our little white van seemed to be the only passenger vehicle on a highway filled with trucks and bicycles. Huge cows, some gray, others black, lolled on the median strip.

Those trucks provided some color in the otherwise drab outskirts of the big city. Each one had been professionally painted with garlands of flowers, soaring birds, cartoonish tigers, lovable bovines and complex geometric patterns. Some bore neatly scripted slogans on their sides, like ‘I Love My India’ or ‘The Great Indian Spirit’. On the rear end of each lorry, the artists had painted a fervent plea: ‘PLEASE HONK YOUR HORN’. Remish hit the horn incessantly, sticking to the right-hand lane and passing the endless parade of freighters – India is a left-hand-drive country – while deftly avoiding wayward bikes and meandering cows.

Two hours later, as we drove into the state of Rajasthan, the roadside scene abruptly changed. Our divided highway became a two-laner, adding to our excitement the real possibility of head-on collisions.

In downtown Jaipur, Juju and I felt as if we had been dropped into the middle of a Bollywood epic. Film buffs use the term to describe Bombay’s prolific movie industry, and here we had subcontinental action in three dimensions. We entered Jaipur during rush hour, so some of the streets leading to our hotel had been temporarily declared one-way in the wrong direction, apparently an effort – largely futile – to prevent gridlock. While Remish circled the city at a crawl, trying to find a route, we suddenly were interacting with the people. A few tapped on the windows to beg for money or sell us things. But most were in cars or riding mopeds – intent on honking their way through thickets of traffic, but still taking a moment to smile and wave at Juju’s video camera.

LocalMan.jpgWe found ourselves in the middle of an enchanting old city, alive with markets and the brilliant colors of the dresses and turbans worn by residents going about their business. Pedestrians skittered between vehicles, which slowed down only when a cow or two decided to lounge in the middle of the street.

Remish at last found the hotel entrance, a discrete opening in a wall and a long driveway leading to the magnificent, cream-colored Jai Mahal Palace. The 250-year-old building had once served as a palace for one of Jaipur’s many royals. Rajasthan has had a bewildering lineup of rulers and high-ranking court figures through its long history, and we soon lost track of the lineage, despite the best efforts of our local guides. But the maharajas sure had good taste in housing.

We felt entitled to a few hours of leisure. The lawns, pools and statuary of the Jai Mahal Palace invited meditation and brought a welcome element of tranquility to soften the jet lag. A pantalooned and turbaned house musician entertained two children with an old stringed instrument while they frolicked on the grass near a pavilion where we and a few other guests ate lunch. Juju and I still felt dragged down by travel overload. A visitor to India should schedule a day of retreat every so often to avoid becoming overwhelmed by exotica and to think about the meaning of it all. Our tight schedule denied us that luxury.

The next morning, our guide, who introduced himself as G.S. Arora, joined us and Remish in the van for a tour of Jaipur. His eyes sparkled mischievously behind his glasses. We would have other guides in the days ahead – a scholarly gentleman in Agra and at the Taj Mahal; a religion expert amid the Hindu temple carvings (some quite erotic) in Khajuraho; the harried scout who showed us the sights in Delhi.

Even so, Arora was the first, and this is a story about first impressions, so the task of satisfying our basic curiosity about the Indian way of doing things fell to him.

We headed for the heart of Old Jaipur, the walled and picturesque enclave known as the Pink City. Arora explained that in 1876 the reigning maharaja, Ram Singh, ordered all buildings near the palace painted pink to celebrate a state visit from the Prince of Wales, who later would ascend to the English throne as King Edward VII. ‘Pink is the color of warmth and welcome,’ Arora informed us, and pink the old city has remained. The buildings within the wall are repainted every couple of years. ‘People can use different shades of pink, but the basic color has to be pink,’ Arora said. ‘The authorities take care of the painting.’

We paused at Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, for what Arora termed ‘a Japanese stop.’ He said that meant a stop for photographs. Although Juju is Asian, she laughed at the stereotype, one that I thought the world and its technology had obliterated. For a second, the guide’s little joke made India seem even more deliciously anachronistic.

The Palace of the Winds was pink, naturally, a beautiful 204-year-old facade about 5 stories high and dotted with tiny windows. From rooms and balconies on the other side, ladies of the court at the adjoining City Palace could discreetly peek down at the street scene.

On Tripolia Bazaar and other streets of the Pink City, merchants with open-air shops were selling everything imaginable. Although we felt the urge to get out and look at the displays of produce, spices, clothing, tools, toys and all the rest, we had a schedule to meet.
Arora did pause long enough to point out a milk market, where farmers had lined up canisters containing the morning’s output from their goats, cows, sheep and buffaloes.

The guide called our attention to a potential customer dipping his hand into a can. ‘To make the milk more profitable, a lot of water is added to this milk’, Arora said. ‘When the buyer comes in, he will put his hand in the milk, shake it out, rub the milk on his fingertips and see how much fat is in it. So the more hands that go into this can of milk, the better the milk becomes because of this added flavor. Thankfully, this is not the milk supplied to your hotel.’

That led to the subject of cows. ‘Every morning people would milk their cows and then leave them in the street to be fed by people,’ he told us. ‘The cow being a sacred animal, every household would try to feed them. After eating, they stand in the middle of the road or sit in the middle of the road and chew cud. This is good, because it slows and controls the traffic. And the cows like it, because the fumes make them feel high. In India, every animal except the husband is sacred.’

‘How do the cows know how to get home?’ Juju asked.

‘They always know. They are like homing pigeons.’

Khajuraho-India-s-Temples-o.jpgAt the Amber Palace, our next stop, we found it easy to avoid eye contact with the hawkers because the palace itself commanded our full attention. The pinkish-beige structure sprawls across the crest of an imposing, rocky hill about 7 miles north of Jaipur. Begun in 1592 and completed in 1639, it served for more than 100 years as the capital of Rajasthan. In 1727, the reigning maharaja, Jai Singh, moved the capital to Jaipur, but the royal family continues to take up residence in the Amber Palace from time to time, even though the government now owns it.

We decided to ride an elephant up the hill to the palace entrance, a popular if somewhat hokey way to get there. Jeeps were also available, and visitors can hike up the steep ramp if they wish. Juju and I climbed onto a little seat behind our elephant driver. It swayed and tilted, while the driver engaged in a long, loud argument with his supervisor. Evidently, the driver wanted two more passengers for his mount, because the seat can hold four. Juju said, ‘I don’t like this at all. It’s scary. I want to get off.’ But before we could figure out how to do that, the elephant started up the ramp.

Arora, not being a tourist, preferred the Jeep. He met us in the palace courtyard, which was crowded with visitors and the elephants they came in on. He showed us around the wonderfully carved and pearl-inlaid areas where rulers held their audiences. We peeked into the artistically decorated private chambers that housed the maharajas and their concubines. A sandstone garrison stood grimly at a higher level, and both buildings spread their ramparts far along the mountainside like a truncated version of China’s Great Wall. Such a display of power and wealth must have intimidated enemies and subjects alike.

In the days that followed, we moved on to Agra and India’s absolute must-see, the Taj Mahal. After taking in the sights of Agra, we flew to Khajuraho, a relatively tranquil village famous for its beautiful Hindu temples dating back to the Chandela dynasty, which ruled for 500 years until overrun by the Moguls early in the 16th Century. The structures were a pleasant contrast to the palaces, tombs, fortifications and congestion of Rajasthan and Agra. We beheld an array of temple towers surrounded by lawns laced with uncrowded pathways.

Our guide that afternoon introduced himself as Mr. Singh. Immediately, he began to explain at great length the Hindu religion and how the carvings on those temples – built within a 100-year period, starting in AD 950 – illustrated the complexities of Hinduism and honored its divinities in all of their forms. He said the towers had been constructed in this out-of-the-way place to protect the sandstone images from frequent rains and floods that hit the Chandela capitals.
The masterful carvings encircled the towers in rows all the way to the top. They depicted gods and goddesses, of course, but also aspects of everyday life. Animals hauled farm goods, musicians played, soldiers fought, hunters stalked, and beautiful, exaggeratedly proportioned female dancers swayed. Animals both real and figments of artisans’ imaginations cavorted – leopards, elephants, horses, boars and combinations thereof.

Most famously, human couples were shown locked in carnal embrace, striking many of the positions detailed in the Kama Sutra.
‘You know about yoga?’ Mr. Singh asked. ‘There are a hundred kinds of yoga These are the way to reach the ultimate goal of life that is the next incarnation. These poses are a part of it, specific positions. Even sex could be a part of yoga.’

We were still pondering the complexities of the Hindu religion that night, as we dined at the rooftop Blue Sky Restaurant. Below us, merchants sold souvenirs, fabrics, saris, books and miniature copies of temple carvings. Across the street, the actual temples glowed with golden light and a voice boomed in Hindi – a sound and light show. We filled up on helpings of a dish very much like fried rice but punctuated with masala, a mixture of spices that provided a delicious mosaic of flavors.

Up there on the Blue Sky, we met a young couple from France who had been traveling through India for several weeks. They described wonders we would miss, experiences we wouldn’t have. At least not now. They were merchants, buying materials for their shop in Brittany. ‘We did make a short visit one time’, the man said, ‘and it was very difficult and frustrating. Doing it this way can still be difficult and sometimes frustrating, but there is so much to see.’

Intrepid INDIA

Classic Rajasthan
15 days, ex Delhi
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Delhi, Taj Mahal, Ranthambhore National Park, Pushkar camel safari, Keoladeo Bird Park, Jaipur, castles
Brief: Rajasthan is home to all the colours of India. On our classic Rajasthan adventure we discover hidden forts, majestic palaces, colourful bazaars and of course enjoy a camel safari. This is the essence of Rajasthan.
Departure: Departs every Sunday from September to April and selected dates in July and August.
Price: AU$1020, plus Local Payment of US$200 per
person

Unforgettable India
15 days, ex Delhi
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Delhi, Khajuraho’s erotic temples, the River Ganges, Orchha, Chitrakoot, markets, Varanasi, Taj Mahal
Brief: India is vibrant, intoxicating, inspiring, dramatic and above all, unforgettable. From the Mughal splendour of Delhi and Agra, to the reminders of the Hindu epics in Chitrakoot and memories of prehistoric man in Chanderi, this trip offers it all. Join pilgrims as they undertake their daily rituals on the banks of the Great Mother Ganges.
Departure: Departs every Saturday from September
to April.
Price: AU$920, plus Local Payment of US$200 per person

India Unplugged
22 days Delhi to Kolkata
Trip Style: Intrepid Basix
Highlights: Delhi, Taj Mahal, desert scenery, towns lost in time, palaces, Kolkata
Brief: Chaotic and inspiring, this is the real India. India Unplugged is a far-flung adventure to one of the planet’s most exotic destinations. See towering fortresses and holy rivers, cosy up with camels, try your hand bargaining in bazaars and still have time to check out the Taj Mahal.
Departure: Departs on a Sunday.
Price: AU$1080, plus Local Payment of US$150 per person

India Family Adventure
15 days, ex Delhi
Trip Style: Intrepid Family
Highlights: Delhi, Taj Mahal, Ranthambhore National Park, Bundi, Pushkar, camel safari, Jaipur
Brief: Come and meet India’s people and let them show you their homeland. This itinerary is designed for adults and children alike. Explore some of India’s most famous sights and experience an overnight camel trip into the desert, seek wildlife at Ranthambhore and learn local crafts around Jaipur.
Departure: Departs on a Saturday.
Price: AU$1270, plus Local Payment of US$200 per person
For more information on traveling in India with Intrepid Travel, please visit www.intrepidtravel.com, free call 1300 360 887 or come and see us at 360 Bourke Street, Melbourne.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Best time of year to travel? India’s climate varies enormously from region to region and from season to season. While southern India basks in a reasonably constant tropical climate, the temperatures in the Rajasthan desert can vary from 50 degrees Celsius in July to 0 degrees Celsius at night in January. Monsoons bring torrential rain to most areas between June and August.
Religion: 81% Hindu, 12% Muslim, 2% Christian, 2% Sikh, 3% other
Language: Hindi (official) plus 12 other official languages and over 1600 dialects
Currency: Rupee (INR)
Visas: India does not offer visas on arrival - they must be applied for prior to travel. Conditions vary with country of origin and they usually take 1-2 weeks to process. In Australia, most travellers will apply for a 6 month multiple entry visa.
Electricity: 220-240V, 50 Hz
Times to avoid: Because climate changes so much within India, times to avoid certain areas will vary according to season. In addition, India is a land of festivals – best to check whether there is a festival going on in the area you want to travel to and book well in advance!


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: Mar 05, AU Edition

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PLEASURE ISLAND
Mauritius is a relatively undiscovered jewel in the Indian Ocean – so get there before everyone else does

Forget the South Pacific or Caribbean: it’s the Indian Ocean that home to some of the world’s best island hotspots. And one of the greatest of them all is the Republic of Mauritius, a uniquely multicultural African island east of Madagascar. It is so beautiful that Mark Twain wrote upon arrival: “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.”

British, Indian and French influences make this destination a multicultural dream which sets Mauritius apart from other destinations – as does its bargain-basement vacation rates, which are more than fair for a true tropical paradise.

One heads to Mauritius to relax, enjoy the beach and all it has to offer, and direct flights from Perth and Sydney make getting there a relative breeze. Even better, travelers can get by on $10 to $20 a day for food, and $40 to $80 a day for lodging. When you consider what you get (the sun, beach, and aquatic activities) this really is a steal.
There are a wide variety of hotels and resorts to stay at, including those run by Beachcomber Hotels, providing a range of quality resort hotels with locations to match. Featuring superb accommodation, high standards of service, outstanding quality, plus a host of inclusions, spending time in any of these resorts is a pleasure. One can enjoy the thrill of water-skiing or windsurfing, work off some excess energy on the tennis or volleyball court, or marvel at the spectacular underwater world from a glass-bottom boat. And for a nominal fee golfers can enjoy a round on one of the most spectacular resort courses in the world, located at the Paradis resort.

To further tantalize you and provide a taste of all this country has to offer, I’ve prepared a packed three-day itinerary, for which all you need to bring is a bathing suit, suntan lotion and a relaxed attitude.

DAY 1: Grand Baie
At Mauritius’ most popular tourist center, you’ll be visually overloaded by the white sand and blue water. Some quick orientation: Grand Baie is about 18 kilometres north of Port Louis and easily accessible by the regular, albeit slow, Mauritian bus system.

In the late morning, after a breakfast of fresh juice and fruit, cruise the sheltered bay and you’ll feel the relaxed energy that makes a visit here a must. If you’ve done your research or picked up a brochure or two from your hotel’s lobby, you will be itching to do Grand Baie’s most renowned water-related activities.

Everything from yachting and snorkeling to water-skiing and simply swimming is available. The perfect weather (it is so regularly sunny, you can set your watch by it) allows for prime conditions for all these exci-ting opportunities, which come free of charge at
many resorts.

If you want a snapshot of the beautiful reefs without getting wet, take a ride on La Nessee, a semi-submersible boat that gets up close and personal with all forms of aquatic life. Other out-of-the-ordinary activities include an undersea walk, à la a Jules Verne novel. Wearing an astronaut-like helmet and lead boots, you can explore the Mauritian waters without having to swim up to the surface for air. Deep-sea fishing is also highly popular and available in the outlying areas of Grand Baie.

After outdoing yourself for a few hours enjoying one or more of these unique experiences, hit a restaurant to quell your hunger. Just outside of the beach area, you’ll see why Grand Baie is often called the Cote d’Azur of Mauritius – the shops and eateries reflect the trendy areas around them and are not tourist traps in any sense.

Dine at Sakura Restaurant for prime Japanese fare or Lotus of the Garden for original cuisine in an Indonesian setting. For true local Creole food, you’ll have to look at smaller, more intimate places around town.

Walk off the big meal by heading down Sunset Boulevard, a fashion center with unbeatable prices. After picking up new threads, head back to the restaurant area for some crafts and boutique shops which feature native art, Asian handicrafts and cheap jewelry. Drop off the loot back at your hotel (if you’re staying in Grand Baie) and then prepare for a night out on the town.

DAY 2: Ile aux Cerfs
For only 80 Mauritian rupees (just under $4) tourists and locals alike can experience a living, breathing paradise. This is how much the 20-minute ferry ride costs for you to travel from Pointe Maurice to Ile aux Cerfs, an islet on the east coast of Mauritius.

A disclaimer: if you are staying near Port Louis in the west, you’ll have to take a long bus ride to get here. Try and arrive as early in the morning as possible, since you need the whole day to enjoy the island.

paradis_beach.jpg

Any effort to reach this slice of beauty is worth it. This will become evident once you set foot on the island’s sprawling beaches. From this vantage point, you can see the enticing lagoon waters, prime sunbathing spots and straw-roofed bars, restaurants and shops. Start out the day with what Mauritius is all about: relaxing on the beach. Pick an area (secluded spaces are available if you want to spend time looking) grab a book and just let time slip by.

The sun, sound of the surf and lazy atmosphere will make you forget about all your stress in an instant. Sleep has been known to set in for most of the sunbathers at Ile aux Cerfs.

When you do wake up from your slumber, sit back at Lor Brizan Bar with a traditional afternoon tea, or, if you want something that packs a little more punch, a Pina Colada. There is also a very convenient beach bar service as well.

Follow this up by taking a walk around the accessible section of the island’s coast (the whole walk takes 3 hours if you’re up to it) and the fact that there is heaven on earth will finally sink in – the view of the palm trees, ocean and sand is indescribable.

Grab an exotic sorbet from one of the beachside kiosks – but don’t savor it too long. The island’s last ferry ride out is at 5 p.m. and an overnight stay is prohibited.

DAY 3: Port Louis
Finish off your trip to tropical paradise with something a little different. Mauritius puts its history and many-layered culture out for all to see in the capital of Port Louis. A relatively large city, considering how small Mauritius is, a lot of interesting sight-seeing
opportunities await you here.

A good starting point is Place d’Armes in the oldest region of the city. Check out the interesting buildings here, as well as the St. James and St. Louis Cathedrals. The Port Louis Market is nearby and represents a good place to grab some lunch. It is a prime place to see Mauritians in their comfort zone, haggling for fruits, vegetables, fish, crafts, and spices.

The multiculturalism of the city is most obvious here, where people from all races and walks of life congregate daily. Remember that sellers can spot tourists a mile away and will not hesitate to quadruple prices for the souvenirs you want. To counteract this, make like locals and bargain like mad. You shouldn’t have trouble in English, since it is as widely spoken as Creole and French.

th_aerial.jpg

Return to Place d’Armes and find a bench or table to sit and munch at the exotic fruits bought back at the market. When that’s done, get more tastes of the varying cultures by visiting the Muslim quarter, centered around Muammar El Khadafi Square. Funny enough, the main mosque, Jummah, is not situated here. You’ll find it in the city’s bustling Chinatown area, another place worth taking a look at.

As evening comes along, you’ll find that most of the city closes down. The one shining star now is Le Caudan Waterfront, a bustling area with shops, restaurants and bars. If you want to drop more money on souvenirs, try Le Talipot or Macumba. As for dinner, ignore the fact that the area has become somewhat Americanized (there’s a Pizza Hut) and sit down at Grand Ocean City for Chinese or Kela Patta for Indian food. Though it rarely needs to prove itself, Mauritius is so much more than your typical island resort. You can be astounded by its beaches, beautiful people, relaxing opportunities, and diverse cultures all at once. Add to this string of pros the cheap cost of experiencing it all and there leaves little doubt that Mauritius is an ideal vacation spot. Take it all in, you won’t regret it. –AskMen.com


TRAVEL TIPS:
* Petty crime is an issue in Port Louis and the main tourists spots, so watch your wallet and valuables at all times.
* All travelers to Mauritius must already have a return ticket booked – proof of this is needed at the airport. The good news is, Australians don’t need a visa; just showing up with a passport lets you stay for thirty days.
* Don’t be limited only by the beaches mentioned here: Mauritius has many other great ones as well, including Belle Mare and Flic en Flacq.
* Tourism is increasing by 10% each year, so get on board before everyone else does!

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 08:50 PM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: Nov 05, AU Edition

GoldenTowers.jpgWHERE TRADITION RULES
Once a closed state, Carol Pucci discovers Laos is an unspoiled treat

LUANG PRABANG, Laos – At first it sounds like thunder. Then I recognize the beat of a drum and the hollow ring of a gong. It’s 4 a.m. and the neighbours across the street, the Buddhist monks of Wat Sene, are starting their day.

Two hours later, I step around the desk clerk asleep on the floor in the lobby of the Senesouk Guest House and walk outside. Lined up next to the red and gold pavilions inside the temple gate are dozens of orange-robed monks about to begin their daily ritual of collecting alms.

Barefoot young novices, some just school-age boys, follow the lead of the older monks as they walk in a single-file procession, tipping their lacquered bowls toward women kneeling along the roadside offering dollops of sticky rice.

One young monk yawns; another smiles when a woman substitutes a candy bar instead of rice. No one speaks.

The scene repeats itself every morning on nearly every street, country road and back alley in Luang Prabang, the ancient former royal capital of Laos. Thirty-two Buddhist temples housing more than 500 monks are part of a cache of historical treasures that led UNESCO to declare this the best-preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia.
Set 2,300 feet above sea level on a peninsula at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in northern Laos, the town of Luang Prabang, part of a jungle province surrounded by teak forests and limestone mountains, has always been a special place among the spiritual.

The first kingdom of Laos was established here in the 14th century. The last king to rule the country – Sisavang Vatthana – lived in the Royal Palace, now a museum, until shortly after a communist takeover following the Vietnam War.

Laos became the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975 and reopened in the late 1980s to outsiders after years of isolation. With its temples and collection of French-style mansions and shop houses, Luang Prabang was declared a World Heritage site in 1995, and began attracting Western travelers drawn to the absence of cars and crime and easy, slow pace.

Small enough to walk around in a few hours, this is a town that so far seems to have found its way onto the Southeast Asia tourist route without compromising its culture.

Along Thanon Xieng Thong, the sleepy main street lined with temples glittering with mirrored mosaic tiles, women wearing long, slim silk skirts amble by on bicycles or motorbikes, shading themselves with parasols.

Banana and palm trees shade alleyways leading to the misty Mekong. Pots boil over charcoal and wood fires at open-air breakfast restaurants. At the morning market, women crouch on low stools as they split sugar cane with machetes.

It’s possible to buy a cheeseburger, a latte or get a foot massage at a string of businesses catering to Western travelers. But there are no McDonald’s or Starbucks or high-rise hotels, and the World Heritage status is likely to quash any wholesale moves toward gentrification.
Laws ban construction of modern hotels in the historic center.

Instead, local officials encourage developers to renovate stylish old mansions, built when Laos was a French colony and European architecture thrived.

“The question is, how far do we want to go?” says Tara Gujadhur, an American hired by a Dutch organization to help local officials develop ecotourism.

The number of tourists visiting Luang Prabang grew from 67,000 in 1997 to 170,000 in 2002. “Our goal is not to become another Chiang Mai (a town in Northern Thailand that’s lost much of its charm to an influx of Western tourists) or to follow Thailand’s lead.”

Best advice: Get here soon. Rise early. Chat with a monk. Cruise the Mekong in a longtail boat. Wave at the sweet-potato and peanut farmers working the terraced hillsides.

Sit back. Sip an ice coffee at a riverside cafe at sunset.

For now at least, Luang Prabang is much like what most of Southeast Asia used to be – a slice of the world made for slowing down.

It didn’t take long for me to become a regular at the Sack Restaurant next door to my guesthouse where the bill for a banana pancake with a thin coat of honey, and a coconut shake, came to about $2.

One morning, the young owner split open a coconut for my shake, then while the pancake was cooking, took off on his motorcycle, and returned a few minutes later with his own breakfast.

“This is what Lao people eat,” he laughed, opening a packet of liver steamed in a banana leaf.

Most people speak French as well as Lao and almost everyone is anxious to practice their English.

I wandered into the temple grounds at Wat Sene one afternoon with hopes of putting a name and a face to the sea of orange robes filing by in the morning procession.

MonkGossip.jpgA young man standing outside near a giant standing Buddha figure wrapped in a silk sash introduced himself as Monk Chantha, age 20.
He dreams of one day teaching or working in computers. In the meantime, as a novice, he studies, prays and observes the many rules of Theravada Buddhism.

“No driving, no killing animals, no drinking, no eating after noon. And no swimming,” he smiles as we stand talking in the midday heat. “Only showers.”

Lao boys become monks for a day, a week, months or years, often as a way of gaining merit for their parents or a relative. Chantha, like many short-term monks, entered the temple in exchange for an education his family could not otherwise afford.

We exchanged e-mail addresses, but he warned that I might not hear from him often. “For us, it’s very expensive,” he says. I checked later at an Internet cafe. The price was about $1.50 per hour.
Westerners can travel like kings all over Southeast Asia, but Laos offers exceptional value. The currency is the kip, and with a 1,000-kip note worth about 20 cents, change for a $20 adds up to a thick wad of colorful bills.

An air-conditioned room in the eight-room Senesouk Guesthouse, with polished teak floors and modern bathrooms, costs $40; It’s possible to eat well at any of the riverside restaurants for $5-$6 a person including a large bottle of Beer Lao. There’s also a handful of upscale European-style guesthouses and bistros that cater to Western wallets, and a few are worth a splurge.

A bargain at $100 a night is a deluxe room in the Villa Santi, an elegant and graceful hotel in a mansion owned by the family of a former royal princess. Around the corner, at the French-owned L’Elephant bistro, friends and I sampled a menu of Laotian specialties for $15 each that included betel leaf soup, marinated pork and banana flower salad, marinated buffalo, and tropical fruits seasoned with pepper and lemon grass syrup.

Tourism has brightened the economic prospects for many in a country where the per capita income is $500 a year.

Longtail boats once carried only fishermen. Now they ferry tourists along the twisting Mekong. Twenty-five dollars buys a trip to the Pak Ou caves two hours upstream where grottoes carved into limestone cliffs house hundreds of Buddha statues. On the way back, the boats stop at a village where the locals make whiskey from rice and another that specializes in paper making and silk weaving.

Lim Somsy, a villager who sells paper lamps he makes from the bark of mulberry trees, explains that until five years ago, most of the 200 families living in the Mekong village of Xang Khone only farmed rice. Then tourism took off and the “whole village benefited.”

Perhaps it has to do with living under a Soviet-style government, but locals have adopted an entrepreneurial spirit that’s endearing in contrast with high-energy cities like Bangkok or Saigon, where travelers are sometimes hassled by annoying touts and scam artists.
“Lucky, lucky,” a young woman squatting on a straw mat piled with rows of silk scarves calls out as I walked by her stall at the night market. “You buy from me please.”

HmongGirl.jpgShe was among dozens of women who come in from the villages each night carrying bags filled with hand-sewn and woven textiles. “How much do you want to pay?” she asks, unfolding two or three scarves in colors that caught my eye.

In the village of Ban Aen, about a half-hour’s drive from Luang Prabang, brick and tile have replaced dried palm and thatched bamboo on some of the houses, signs of the new prosperity.

Bouncing around in the back of a tuk-tuk, an open-air truck with bench seats and a canopy, I came here to catch a boat for a 10-minute trip along the Nam Khan to the jungle waterfalls of Taat Sae.

As the driver turned into the village, I noticed two women standing on either side of the road holding a piece of string with plastic bags attached to it. As we approached, they grinned shyly and raised the string.

“The village entrance,” the driver laughs when I ask what was going on. He leaned out the window and handed one of the women two 1000 kip notes, worth 25 cents. Then they lowered the string and thanked us with big smiles and waves as we drove inside.




INTREPID LAOS
The Great Indochina Loop
29 days, ex Bangkok
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City, Temples of Angkor
Brief: Journey through the heart, the soul and the many diverse delights of Indochina. The treasures of Thailand, the locals of Laos, the vibrancy of Vietnam and charisma of Cambodia - discover it all on this awesome adventure Asia.
Departure: Departs every Wednesday
Price: AU$2030 plus a Local Payment of US$400 per person.

A Taste of Laos
5 days, Vientiane to Luang Prabang
Trip Style: Intrepid Independent
Highlights: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Mekong River, Pak Ou Caves
Brief: Experience the essence of Laos on this short but enlightening trip. Colonial mansions, tree-lined boulevards and Buddhist temples impart a unique timelessness to the charming town of Vientiane, situated on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. The former royal capital of Luang Prabang never fails to enchant visitors with its abundance of temples, faded French provincial architecture and friendly people. Visit these sites and get a memorable introduction to a fascinating country, seemingly lost in time.
Departure: Departs daily
Price: AU$625, twin share per person or AU$960, single per person

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
When is the best time of year to travel?
Just about anytime is a great time to visit Laos as most of the year is hot and humid. There are three main seasons – hot, wet and cool. The hot season is from February to May, during which temperatures can get up to 40°C and the land is dry and dusty. The wet season is from June to October and tends to have consistent rain, cloudy days with temperatures averaging around 30°C. The cool season runs between November and January with temperatures dropping as low as 15°C in the evening.
Religion: 60% Buddhist, 40% Animist & other
Language: Lao
Currency: Lao Kip (LAK)
Visas: All nationalities require a visa to enter Laos. We ask all our travellers to obtain their Laos visas in Asia, and NOT in their home country. Generally best to get it in the starting point location or on occasions at the border, depending on the current state of affairs (it varies!). Please ensure that you have 3 passport photos and US$50 cash (this may vary too) to fulfill the requirements.
Electricity: 220V AC


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TRAVEL: Feb 05

Travel_Canyon.jpgTO THE EDGE OF THE EARTH
Phil Marty charts America’s less-travelled canyons

Escalante, Utah — We were relaxing in the shade at a table outside the Trailhead Cafe and Grill here while smoke from burgers drifted away from the gas grill into a brilliant blue sky. On the road into Escalante, brilliant blue met reddish orange, compliments of otherworldly red-rock formations.

As if on cue, the radio, set to an oldies station somewhere bigger than Escalante (pop. 900), began to pour out Billy Joe Royal’s lament, Down in the Boondocks.

It’s not hard to consider this southern third (or maybe the whole state) of Utah to be the boondocks. After all, there aren’t many people (only 2.3 million for the whole state - a half million less than Chicago alone). Consequently, there aren’t a lot of fine-dining options.

Or high-brow cultural events.

So, yeah, this probably is the boondocks. But, man, what beautiful boondocks they are.

It was the national parks and their close proximity - five of them, each less than 250 kilometres from the next - that lured my wife, Bonnie, and me here last September. The parks - Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion - share some of the same geology. In this area “you’re getting 600 million years of Earth history with very few pages missing,” says Kevin Poe, a park ranger/naturalist at Bryce.

Most of these parks have the same buff-colored Navajo sandstone and salmon-colored Entrada sandstone. But each has its own idiosyncratic delights: Arches’ namesake weathered rock arches. Canyonlands’ aptly named Island in the Sky. Capitol Reef’s 100-mile-long rocky wrinkle called Waterpocket Fold. Bryce’s fantastically shaped and wildly colored hoodoos. Zion’s massive and (hate to be repetitive, but...) aptly named Checkerboard Mesa. Now that should be enough for any lover of sensational scenery. But there’s more. How about Kodachrome Basin State Park? It got its name from the color film, and for good reason. And guess where Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park got its name?
Impossible to ignore is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which, with 1.7 million acres of cliffs, mesas, buttes and canyons, is big enough to swallow the state of Rhode Island and still have a little room left.

Truth be told, after you look at a road atlas and see how many routes here are designated as scenic byways, you begin to wonder why all of southern Utah isn’t one big national park.

And, oh, if that isn’t enough of an enticement, it’s not much of a jog over the border into Arizona to sample the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, then meander back toward Utah through Monument Valley, whose towering buttes and mesas have been the background for many Western movies.

In short, this is one doozy of a road trip that packs a lot into only about 2,100 kilometres.

Fly to Las Vegas and rent a car or SUV. From there, it’s only about 260 km to Zion National Park and the beginning of a circle drive that will leave your jaw dropping. And because it’s a circle drive, you can, after hauling out your road atlas, route it however you like.
This is simplified, to a certain extent, because Utah, like most of the American West, doesn’t have a profusion of paved roads, owing to those pesky mountains and canyons and deserts that we want to see but that can make road-building daunting.

That mammoth Grand Staircase-Escalante, for example, has only two paved roads that skirt just a teeny bit of its edges. So if you want to explore it more in depth, you need to choose from what a brochure describes as “five secondary roads of varying character (that) traverse the monument from north to south.”

What makes the character of those roads vary? Well, the weather for one. All of these roads are dirt and/or gravel. And that means that if they’re wet, you don’t want to be on them - certainly not in a car, but probably not even in a four-wheel-drive SUV, like we were driving. Keep an eye on the weather forecast. One morning after leaving Bryce Canyon, we stopped at the Bureau of Land Management’s new visitor center in Cannonville to inquire about the state of the Cottonwood Canyon Road. It cuts 80 km through the west central part of Grand Staircase from Cannonville to U.S. Highway 89 on the monument’s southern edge, near the Arizona border. July and August are the most likely months for thunderstorms here, but it’s always best to check road conditions with the people in the know. They’re the ones, after all, who put out that aforementioned brochure that also refers to this as “a fierce and dangerous land.”

The beginning and ending sections of Cottonwood Canyon Road might make you glad you’re driving a rental vehicle. Their washboard surface will rattle your fillings whether you drive 10 km/h or 30.

Just before we got on that section of road, though, we made a stop at Kodachrome Basin State Park, which got its name in 1949 when photographers from National Geographic were so impressed by the colors that they named it after the new color slide film they were using. The park, at 4,000 acres, isn’t all that large, but it impresses with a profusion of towering reddish sandstone chimneys that change hue depending on the vagaries of the lighting. A one kilometre nature trail, one of eight in the park, does a good job of explaining the geology of the area and its flora and fauna.

Heading south, we got our fillings rattled before making a turnoff to the towering double arch known as Grosvenor Arch, for the president of the National Geographic Society at the time of that 1949 trip.

Cottonwood Canyon Road smooths out in the middle section and at a couple of locations there are minor fords across streams, but nothing a car couldn’t handle. After one of those fords, at Round Valley Draw, we topped a hill and found a large flock of roadrunners doing what they do best — running across the road.

At other places, dirt tracks meandered off to the left or right for intrepid four-wheelers.

I wish I could say the two-hour drive across Cottonwood Canyon Road was worth it, but the last 10 kms or so seemed to go on forever. I wouldn’t do it again. At least not the whole road. But certainly Kodachrome Basin and Grosvenor Arch are worth the effort.

A few days before, we had some white-knuckle views of another area of Grand Staircase as we drove Utah Highway 12 (another of those roads the atlas marks with dotted lines to show a scenic route) from Torrey, near Capitol Reef National Park, to Bryce. Just south of Boulder, about midway through the 170k drive, we cut through a small piece of Grand Staircase and found ourselves atop what’s called The Hogback. Here, the two-lane paved (thankfully) road perches on a very, very narrow ridge. So narrow, in fact, that there’s just the road ... and then nothingness on either side for at least a hundred metres down. At least that’s what I was able to see as I kept my eyes glued to the road with only a few quick, furtive glances to the side. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

It’s the out-of-the-blue surprises like The Hogback that punctuate a drive and make you say, “Whoa, did you see that?” A few others:
The landscape along Utah Highway 24 south of Interstate Highway 70, through the San Rafael Desert, is one of bluffs and mesas, sand and cactus. Then ... bang ... a sea of green, leafy trees crowds into a large area along a dry creekbed, roots reaching deep to tap into the moisture that feeds this unexpected oasis. Then as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone.

A bit farther on, the relative flatness of the scenery is suddenly interrupted by out-of-this-world red-rock formations that reach probably 30m into the air. There are no other geological oddities here. Just these spires that look like they were discarded by some massive toddler at play in this sandbox.

Along Arizona 12, south of Escalante, mile after mile of otherwise tan-colored landscape glows like gold from the yellow flowers of hundreds of rabbitbrush that blanket the ground.At Capitol Reef, as the sun dips toward the horizon, its rays bounce off orange-red cliffs and paint the waters of a gently flowing stream a lovely copper color.
At the Mossy Cave turnout in Bryce, we make the very pleasant acquaintance of Terry and Pat Norman of Surrey, England. Terry (him) and Pat (her) like the U.S. - a bunch. How much? Well, for the past nine years they’ve been coming here twice a year, two months at a time, to wander in the RV they bought and store in Orlando when they’re back in England. This trip they’d planned to tour the East Coast, but worries about hurricanes canceled that, and they ended up in southern Utah after taking the advice of a woman they met in Indiana. “I guess you have to like a place a lot to keep coming back year after year,” Terry said of our country.

And that could be said of these boondocks called southern Utah. Even a trip of nearly two weeks leaves a yearning: Just one more trail to hike...Just one more glowing sunset ...
Just one more ...
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 04:41 PM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: Mar 05

TRAVEL-ANGKORWAT-1-TB.jpgCAMBODIA’S RENAISSANCE
In Cambodia, the grandest temple of all returns from the ruins, as a nation turns its back on the troubles of the past, reports Alan Solomon

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – The first approach, no matter how you approach it, isn’t all that impressive. From the main road, the profile beyond its moat is low, like a very rough pencil sketch of Parliament along the Thames but less grand and imposing. The three visible spires, leaden in color, plump and oddly mottled at this distance, don’t inspire at all. The camera comes out because it must. Through the viewfinder, it all looks even lower and longer and like less of a wonder.

But then ... wow.

“Where are the words,” wrote French naturalist-explorer Henri Mouhot, who famously happened upon nearly forgotten Angkor Wat in 1861, “to praise a work of art that may not have its equal anywhere on the globe?”

Angkor Wat is a temple. More accurately, it was a temple, built by a Khmer king in the 1100s to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and to hold his own ashes, later rededicated to Buddha as the regional religious dynamic changed, still later a ruin, and today essentially an incense-scented museum.

It is massive. It is magnificent. But it takes a closer look to appreciate. Angkor Wat’s greatness sneaks up on you, comes at you in stages.

That it comes at you at all – that you’re welcome to visit – is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150 by Khmer King Suryavarman II, then largely abandoned after Thai armies attacked in 1431. For most of the next 400 years, the temple sat there, watched over by the occasional monk and the odd monkey, looted of its more portable riches and, slowly but literally, falling apart.

When Henri Mouhot sent back excited reports of its grandeur – and as the French (supplanting the Siamese) were establishing a colonial presence in Cambodia in the mid-1800s – more Europeans came to see for themselves.Meanwhile, French archeologists launched restoration efforts at Angkor Wat, at the shrines within nearby Angkor Thom and at others in the region.

That went on, with a few interruptions, until the onset of World War II. The Japanese weren’t much interested in public works during their period in residence. When the French tried to reassert control after the Japanese surrender, pockets of indigenous fighters resisted.
While all this internal skirmishing was going on, and even as the situation in neighboring Vietnam was turning into what it turned into, restoration by the French heroically continued until the communist Khmer Rouge finally booted them back to Paris in 1970.

Over the next 20-plus years, more grief followed for Cambodia. The legacy of two decades’ worth of bombings, coups, invasion, occupation and civil war includes memories of unimaginable suffering and killing, and millions of land mines that, even today, continue to tear limbs off children’s bodies.

Through all this, of course, tourism wasn’t exactly a burgeoning enterprise. “From 1970,” said an information officer with the tourist office in Siem Reap, “no one came to see Cambodia.”With some exceptions.

In 1986, according to government figures, a total of 565 tourists came to see Angkor Wat. Most of the visitors were from Russia and Cuba. Cambodia, at the time, was occupied uneasily by the communist Vietnamese army, which was battling the communist Khmer Rouge and other armies representing other factions.

It was not an easy time – nor an easy visit. Tourists came, when they came at all, on day trips from the capital, Phnom Penh, 250km away.
“You couldn’t spend the night,” said an American-based tour operator who has been bringing people here since 1987. “It was too dangerous.”
The only hotel in Siem Reap – the now-luxury Grand Hotel d’Angkor – “was a $10 hotel that was worth $2. You had to haul water to the rooms to flush the toilets.”

Snipers haunted the jungles on the peripheries of the temples. As recently as January 1995, a tourist from Texas and her driver were shot and killed, and the tourist’s husband wounded, by gunmen near Banteay Srei temple, 30km from Angkor Wat. That year, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had just completed an 18-month stay that the world hoped would bring a stabilizing presence in this political mess of a country. It didn’t quite – more coups and violence followed – but in 1995, the tourist count had reached 44,808.

In 1999 – a year after the death (of natural causes, maybe) of Khmer Rouge strongman Pol Pot – the total was 85,460. “After he died,” said the tourism spokesman, “we’ve seen major investment.”

What was one badly faded hotel in Siem Reap 10 years ago became, as of late last year, 56 hotels in all price ranges, including backpacker lodges but also two five-stars, for a total of 3,000 rooms. As you read this, almost certainly there are more. Hotel construction was and is ongoing and everywhere.

“It’s good to see the reputation is changing,” said Bruno L’Hoste, French-born operator of Le Tigre de Papier, one of Siem Reap’s more sophisticated watering holes. “It’s good to get out of the `war zone.’”

War zone. In a stone pillar just to the right of the West Gate of Angkor Wat: bullet holes. By the standards of today, they are old.
The moat is more than 200 metres wide and 7km around. Visitors walk a stone causeway over the water to the West Gate, the main entrance. Beyond the gate are what look to be three spires of moderate size, two flanking a central tower.

The West Gate leads to another causeway, this one 10m wide and 360m long over a grass field, the walkway bordered by a series of great carved nagas, the multiheaded snakes linked to Vishnu and found at so many sites here. Two stone libraries, in varying states of disrepair and resembling small museums, stand as sentries on either side.
Only now does the sheer size of this complex kick in. Vatican City could fit nearly five times on the 500 acres within the walls protecting the temple.

Walking along and looking ahead, you get a first good view of Angkor Wat itself. From here, the towers are commanding. And seen from an angle, it becomes clear they are five: Four lesser (relatively speaking) spires boxed around a soaring central tower.

There will be another terrace, and then yet another wall surrounding the temple – this one actually a gallery.

Along its corridors are eight bas-reliefs, carvings in that same gray stone – in all, more than kilometre’s worth – each telling epic stories: of the Battle of Kurukshetra, of the Battle of Lanka, of victories and pageantry, elephants and gods and invasions, of heaven and hell ...

The carvings weren’t always gray, just as the friezes around the Parthenon weren’t always bleached white.

“They were painted at that time,” said my guide, Sokun. “You can still see some color.”

Archeologists estimate it took 37 years to complete Angkor Wat. Its sandstone came from a quarry 40km away, hauled here by elephants and horses and humans, but that was the easy part. As much as the temple’s massiveness, it’s the carvings – in number, in detail and in quality – that boggle. Although to get here we have passed nagas, a few stone lions and not a few celestial dancers (apsaras), this is where they really start to kick in: This is the heart of the structure, the temple pyramid – three levels, each with enclosures, terraces, towers, galleries and quirks (including a “hall of echoes” activated by a firm thump of the chest, ideally your own).

It is useless to try to describe all this in words. Even when on the site, with perspective being provided by a quality guide, it’s impossible to grasp what’s here.

That said, we’re going to try.

Every surface is adorned with something carved by ancient hands – dancers, gods and goddesses, demons and kings. Thousands of them.
All that shapeless “mottle” we see from the road is, seen up close, art.The years have done what years do. The elements have softened some edges. Religious conflicts have left Buddhas damaged and Hindu lingas (ritual phalluses) shattered. Rubbings have done some harm and have left unwanted residue. Pillars are gone.

Heads are missing from torsos, most sold for profit and scattered around the world.

Does that matter? Of course.

But looking up at the central tower from the third level ...
It rises 70m above the ground, just 3m shorter than the towers of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, which was begun soon after the completion of Angkor Wat. The Wat looks higher, probably due to the pyramid arrangement. It certainly feels higher.

The climb up narrow steps to the base of the central tower is frightening to all but those with inordinately fine balance or remarkably small feet. There are four stairways up; at just one, the south stairway, has a railing has been installed to assist descent by the nervous.

Only children and fools bypass the railing.

When this was the sanctuary of Khmer kings, only they and high priests could walk on this higher ground. That we can walk here makes it no less humbling. From that highest point, all is visible.

No wonder the Khmer Rouge army held it for years during the civil war. It was its strategic position, and its emotional position. To Cambodians, there is no more powerful national symbol than this.
In 1992, the year U.N. peacekeepers came in, Angkor was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. When UNESCO speaks of Angkor, it is of an archeological park that includes not only Angkor Wat but hundreds of temples and lesser structures – with restorations in progress by the nations of the world – scattered over more than 230 square miles.
Among them: the shrines of Angkor Thom, notably Bayon, with its own bas-reliefs and its prominent heads emerging seemingly from everywhere; Ta Prohm, still in the grip of strangler figs; Banteay Srei, whose pink delicacy gives it its own charm.

Here in Greater Angkor are terraces etched with elephants and platforms guarded by stone lions, and ruins that once were temples but now are little more than piles of stone blocks in a jungle pocked with red signs warning of land mines ... and soon, perhaps, to be packed with tourists.

“Come now,” urged Canadian ex-pat Michelle Vachon, a reporter for the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. “The place is changing so fast. Come now before they Disney-ize the place.”

Is that possible?

“Our tourism is cultural and natural,” said Thy, another guide, with confidence. “We have learned from other places.”

So that is Angkor.

But here, too, are rice fields and water buffalo and fishermen and thatch houses on stilts, villages where men wear sarongs and mothers nurse as they gossip and where children play naked in the rivers – where they laugh as children laugh everywhere when there is peace and there is food.

This is the Cambodia of today along the roads not far beyond Angkor Wat.

Sometimes it is difficult to know which, truly, is the wonder.


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TRAVEL: June 05, AU Edition

june05travelart1.jpgJEWEL ON THE NILE
Ellen Creager discovers an Egypt that is both incredibly fascinating and ridiculously well-policed

GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt – Inside the Great Pyramid, Egyptologist Samid Abdalin climbed swiftly toward the king’s tomb. Right behind him, I excitedly followed the low, narrow tunnel up the steep incline, toward the pink granite room where delicious ancient secrets hid.

And right behind me? A panting bodyguard from the tourist police.
Since 1997, when extremists killed 58 Swiss and Japanese tourists in Luxor, Egypt has gone overboard to keep travelers safe. No tourist has been harmed in seven years. Egypt is the most tourist-safety-conscious country in the world.

Although it’s rare for them to follow tourists inside a pyramid, the tourist police do come in handy. They can help you cross the street in Cairo, an exuberant city of nearly 10 million without a single crosswalk or traffic light. They will push to the front of the line at the Egyptian Museum, where their friends wave them – and you – through. My first day in Cairo, one officer in suit and tie hurried after me in front of the Helnan Shepheard Hotel as I strolled toward the sunny Nile.

‘Do you need to come with me?’ I asked. He nodded. So we walked – me with my digital camera, him with his automatic weapon. When I ate, he smoked. When I went to a museum, he waited outside.

The moral of the story: If you desire to see Egypt’s treasures, don’t let fear stop you.

On the other hand, unless you speak Arabic or plan to stay for weeks, Egypt is best seen for the first time on a package tour or with a knowledgeable guide and driver.

Why? In Egypt, it’s all about whom you know. A guide with connections can smooth the way through the melee of traffic, chaotic lines, ticket windows and airport bureaucracy. A good guide who is also an Egyptologist can tell you what the hieroglyphics mean and point out what’s new or amazing among the 235,000 objects in the Egyptian Museum (The Niagara Falls Mummy! Tutankhamen’s underwear!). A guide can point you to restaurants that won’t upset your stomach, find scrupulous drivers, and give tips on haggling in the market.

Most of all, they can help you see highlights in the short time you have.

But the best things are those your guide might show you by accident. A sudden shower in Cairo sent us scurrying into a shop near the famous Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and up the stairs, where guide Wahid Moustafa Gad asked for a dessert called umm ‘ali, ‘Mother of Ali’. It arrived, steaming bread pudding with cream, raisins, coconut, pistachios and butter – hot, delicious. “Shukran – thank you,” I said, then tasted it. Eyes wide, I smiled. “Ah, shukran.”

In Egypt, visitors are jolted by how much the present and past are jumbled together. Cell phones and camels. Satellite television and rug makers.

Just outside metropolitan Cairo are villages of mud huts, rich fields plowed by oxen, and donkeys carting loads of sugar cane and fruit. In Saqqara, carpet schools teach boys such as 13-year-old Samir Ead a trade. In a big, airy room he sat hunched over a silk rug, his fingers flying and tying a pattern of threads. It takes him seven months to make a 5-by-7-foot rug that sells for thousands of dollars at the shop upstairs. How long has he been at the school? ‘Five years’, he said.
Amid the grandeur of the Medinet Habu temples in Luxor, 450 miles south of Cairo, Egyptologist Ahmed Ali Temerik pointed out one thing that wasn’t so ancient: Egyptian TV actor Hamdi, out for a holiday and surrounded by fans. At the Ramsis Coffee Shop nearby, he introduced Rede Jaher, a watercolor painter who is a fixture there.

Back in the modern part of Luxor, the tourist police had curiously disappeared and I walked the street on my own. Women hurried past carrying packages on their heads. Foreign couples from cruise ships strolled arm in arm. On street corners, groups of regular police in green wool uniforms and carrying assault rifles laughed and talked. Along the river, vendors begged tourists to buy their wares, take their carriage rides or sail the Nile in their boats. (When I
ignored one pushy vendor and strode away, he actually shouted, ‘You look like European, but you walk like Egyptian!’)

Here are some more things to know: Upper Egypt, where Luxor is, is south of Lower Egypt, where Cairo is. Nobody queues except tourists. Tipping is expected everywhere for everything, but prices are incredibly low; five Egyptian pounds are worth $1. At the Mercure Hotel in Luxor, I gave a $10 tip to an excellent waiter one night and he ran after me protesting that it was too much.

In addition to having a guide and driver, I had another connection in Egypt. I saw Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt’s department of antiquities speak recently, and invited he me to visit the recently closed Nefertari’s Tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the Queens.

I thought I was special until I got to the fragile tomb and found 25 other tourists inside, all exhaling artwork-damaging breath like me.
Who were all these people?

‘Zahi has a lot of friends’, the guide explained.

Egypt has big plans to improve the tourist experience. A new museum is planned near the Giza pyramids to contain the breathtaking Tutankhamen treasures. Also on the drawing board is a new museum in Cairo that will showcase the history of Egypt. The Coptic Museum, detailing the history of Christians in this largely Muslim nation, is scheduled to reopen soon.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian resort town Sharm al-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula’s Red Sea has become a hot destination for European vacationers and divers. It’s only a one-hour flight from Luxor.
On my trip, I flew from Cairo to Luxor, Luxor to Sharm
al-Sheikh, then was driven – with the tourist police as escort – up the Sinai Peninsula, past the stark Mt. Sinai, where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments.

At Nuweiba, a small port on the Gulf of Aqaba, men sat watching an American TV movie on a tiny set in an outdoor cafe. They drank strong mint tea while goats wandered the streets. They stared at me; who could blame them, with so few foreign tourists around? I tied a scarf over my head. At a tiny restaurant, a boy grilled shish kebab on open coals and I ate it gladly, sharing morsels with a stray calico cat under the table.

In Egypt, everyone uses the Arabic word ‘inshallah’. It means ‘God willing’, as in ‘Inshallah, I will cross the street safely’, or ‘Inshallah, the sun will shine’. Before I came to the Middle East, my travel agent, Ihab Zaki, said the best way to navigate the region was ‘gracefully and gratefully’.

As I left Nuweiba on the speedy ferry headed for Aqaba, Jordan, I kept thinking that perhaps more tourists, inshallah, would
pluck up their courage and follow their dreams to see Egypt in just that way.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:03 PM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: Apr 05, AU Edition

church.jpgNORTHERN LIGHT
On a long weekend in Montreal, Carol Pucci discovers that there’s a lot more to Canada than maple syrup, cold weather, and beer

New Yorkers call it “Paris without the jet lag.” That’s the U.S. East Coast perspective. I’d been up since 4 a.m. when my flight from Seattle landed around 5:30 p.m. for the start of a four-day weekend in Montreal.

The “Paris” part seemed right as I walked through the airport noticing posters and signs in French.

The effects of a three-hour time change and eight hours of flying time were open questions.

Here was my challenge: Could I leave Seattle on a Thursday, fly across three time zones, discover the best of a city I knew little about and make it back to Seattle Sunday night?

We like Canadians, and Europe is expensive these days. Montreal feels a lot like Europe, without the Euro.

It wasn’t much past lunchtime in Seattle as my taxi crawled along in Montreal’s rush-hour traffic. The time change was working in my favour in a way I hadn’t expected. My two Delta airlines “beverage only” flights had turned the clock ahead on my appetite, and already it was time for dinner.

I used the long flights (four hours from Seattle to Cincinnati and another two hours from there to Montreal) to rough out a three-night, two-day itinerary.

Rather than frustrate myself by trying to see everything, I decided to concentrate on two areas where I could indulge my passion for eating ethnic and exploring street life: Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal), where the city began as a French colony in 1642, and the newly gentrified Plateau neighbourhood at the base of Mont-Royal, a 300-acre plus nature preserve above downtown. Midway between the two neighbourhoods, on the edge of the student-filled Latin Quarter and cafe and restaurant-packed rue Saint-Denis, was the Château de L’Argoat, a 25-room European-style hotel where I’d booked a room after reading favorable reviews from other travelers on www.tripadvisor.com.

It was a lucky choice. I’m not big on renting cars in strange cities. Everything I wanted to do was within a half-hour’s walk of the hotel or two or three stops from a subway station across the street.

East of Saint-Laurent Boulevard, once a dividing line between the city’s English and French-speaking communities, Saint-Denis, about a 10-minute walk from downtown, is lined on both sides with Thai, Tibetan, African, Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian restaurants, Parisian-style cafes and African boutiques.

A rainstorm forced me into a quick decision on dinner. I ducked into the Resto-Bar Citezen, an Asian-fusion restaurant that advertised lichee and orange blossom martinis, and settled into a leather lounge chair near the window. People darted by wearing parkas and carrying umbrellas. For a minute, I thought I was still in Seattle. Then the Japanese waiter greeted me in French, and I felt as if I’d crossed continents. I ordered a shrimp stir fry from a menu written in French with an English translation. Most Quebecois are bilingual, but French is the language of the majority and, as I learned from my waiter, it’s customary to at least begin a conversation in French.

The skies brightened as I set out Friday morning to explore Vieux Montreal and the port, a historic area of cobblestone alleys and gray-stone houses fronting on the Saint Lawrence River.

TRAVEL-MONTREAL-1.jpgAnchored by the art-filled Nôtre Dame Basilica and the waterfront, Old Montreal is a major tourist draw, and I was prepared to regret not having booked a room in one of the boutique hotels along rue Saint-Paul.

I took an hour’s boat cruise on the river for a view of the Biosphere, the giant golf ball-shaped dome designed by Buckminster Fuller that was the United States Pavilion during the 1967 World’s Fair, then settled in for a brie-and-apple crêpe at a café on Saint-Paul. But something was missing. Vieux Montreal lacked a street life. Tourists filled the quaint restaurants and galleries, but where were the locals?

After lunch, I wandered a bit, and followed lower Saint-Laurent through Chinatown and into the heart of downtown where I expected to find a lively business and shopping scene. But panhandlers seemed to outnumber shoppers, and the main drag, rue Sainte-Catherine, was mostly a run-down hodgepodge of sex shops, music stores and souvenir shops. The best stores and most of the people were below the streets and sidewalks. Twenty miles of connecting passageways link subway stations with an underground city filled with theatres, restaurants and shops, some with entrances in unexpected places. Christ Church Cathedral on Sainte-Catherine, for instance, was raised on piles to
lay the foundation for a shopping complex below.

I found the concept more interesting to think about than actually experience. Surely there had to be a real city around here somewhere. On an impulse, I scrapped dinner plans at one of Vieux Montreal’s tony restaurants and took the subway a few stops in the other direction to the Plateau.

Ragtag in parts, gentrified in others, the Plateau is everything Vieux Montreal is not – hectic, disorderly, crowded and multicultural.
Tired from a day of walking, I found M!STO, one of a handful of trendy new restaurants along avenue du Mont-Royal. A pull-down garage door was open to the sidewalk, and I people-watched while eating penne dressed with warm goat cheese and walnuts.

I was panhandled three times as I walked back to the subway station, but I also discovered French flower merchants, Jewish deli owners and Italian produce sellers. The Plateau started out as a 19th-century working-class neighbourhood of Francophones and immigrants, and in the 1960s and ’70s became popular with writers, singers, theatre people and artists.

TRAVEL-MONTREAL-2-DE.jpgShady side streets lead to renovated two and three-story town-house apartments with wrought-iron balconies and metal stairways built on the exterior to save space inside. On rue Marie-Anne, I found Au Tarot, a restaurant that listed 26 types of couscous. Across the street, Francis Torres, an artist born in Boston and raised in Nigeria, was teaching students how to craft theatre masks from recycled bits of cheesecloth, shells and animal skins.

I liked the Plateau more than any neighbourhood I had explored so far, and the next day, I went back for more.

North of avenue du Mont-Royal, the Mediterranean meets the Middle East at the Jean-Talon market in Little Italy. Stalls overflowed with yellow squash the size of bowling pins, bottles of Canadian maple syrup, fresh dates and olive oil. Many of the signs were in Arabic, but much of the chatter I overheard was in Italian.

In the late afternoon, I climbed Mont-Royal on a hiking trail that wound a mile uphill through the woods to an overlook with views of the city and river, then, with a couple of hours to spare, I used my bus and subway pass to double back downtown to the Contemporary Art Museum on rue Sainte-Catherine.

On display was a huge photo called “Naked World” which was shot four years ago by a New York photographer. When I asked about it, an attendant directed me upstairs to the library to watch a four-minute video showing how the artist rounded up hundred of people and convinced them to undress and sprawl nude on the museum’s outdoor plaza.

Saturday evening’s entertainment was a jazz concert at St. James United Church on Sainte-Catherine. As I sat in a pew listening to local blues artist Bob Walsh perform “Amazing Grace,” I thought about the best strategy for trying one of the “Apportez votre vin” (bring your own wine) restaurants I’d seen.

These restaurants don’t charge a corkage fee and seem to exist so owners and customers can avoid the high taxes on alcohol.
“If you’re a restaurant owner, you actually want to operate a place where people can bring their own wine,” one former owner told me. “It attracts a certain kind of clientele.”

After the concert, I grabbed a $6 half-bottle of Chilean Merlot at a subway kiosk and headed back to the Plateau and Au Tarot for couscous. However, I hadn’t made a reservation, all the tables were filled, so I wandered Saint-Denis again and found ChuChai, a vegetarian Thai cafe.
Not sure about the correct local etiquette for transporting wine, I had tucked my bottle in my shoulder bag. Everyone else walked in with a paper sack. A waitress opened my wine and poured a glass. “This is for you,” she said, handing me what I thought was the cork. It turned out to be a screw top. I had bought the wine in such a hurry, I hadn’t noticed.

Next time I’ll go to a liquor store for a proper bottle. I’ll make dinner reservations. I’ll practice my French.

There will be a next time because two days plus travel time wasn’t long enough to do everything. Still, I felt as if I’d been to Paris, certainly, but also Bangkok, London and Rome.
As the French would say, such is la joie de vivre, the joy of life.

IF YOU GO
INFO: Visit Tourisme Montreal at www.tourisme-montreal.org. Ask for a free copy of the Official Tourist Guide 2004-2005.
LODGING: There’s a good choice of chic but expensive boutique hotels in Vieux Montreal, downtown business hotels and moderately priced smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts in the Latin Quarter, Village and Plateau neighbourhoods. For a list, consult Tourisme Montreal or see www.bbmontreal.qc.ca. Rates at the Château de L’Argoat, 524, rue Sherbrooke East, start at $72 for a single and $82 for a double, based on the current exchange rate of $1.03 Australian to the Canadian dollar, plus a 14.5 percent tax. (Fill out a rebate form available at the airport for a refund on the federal portion, about 7 percent.) Rates include breakfast and free Internet service. Call 514-842-2046 or see www.hotel-chateau-argoat.qc.ca
TRANSPORTATION: Having a car isn’t essential. The subway and bus system cover downtown areas and neighbourhoods. A one-day pass is $7.80; a three-day pass is $15.70. Single-trip fares are $2.50.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Most signs, menus, etc. are in French and English, but some are not. Most residents are bilingual, but it’s polite to begin a conversation with a French greeting such as “Bonjour” and end with a “Merci.”

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:22 AM | Comments (0)

TRAVEL: July 05, AU Edition

mtkinabulu.jpgMONKEY BUSINESS
Close encounters with orangutans, birds, and the largest flower in the world all await in Borneo, writes Georgia Tasker

THE DANUM VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA, SABAH, Borneo – Just after daybreak, we climb the 30-metre-high canopy walk in a lowland rain forest, watching for birds. Moving in a bouncy gait along the suspension bridge, we are discussing the orchids on the trees when suddenly a blurred flurry of orange hair in a wild fluttering and bending of leaves and branches is so startling that at first we don’t know what’s going on.

Then we realize we have awakened a mother orangutan and her son in their nest a few feet below us, and they are scrambling for cover.
The youngster is 3-to-5 years old, still without the dark face and cheek pads of an adult. His hair is wispy and thin on his round head, and his eyes are brown and serious, but ever so often he offers the briefest smile. While his mother stays hidden, he perches on a branch to watch us watching him. After a few minutes, he picks up a vine and twirls it like a lasso.

We have traveled halfway around the world to experience this moment, which never can be guaranteed. But here we were, 30 metres up on a tree platform in the largest virgin rain forest on the island, thrilled to be watching an orangutan in the wild.

Asia’s only great ape tops the list of wildlife and plants that brought us here. Male orangutans can reach 140 kilograms, twice the size of females, but this youngster probably weighs around 35. He will stay with his mother until he’s seven, after which he will become what his Malay name means: a man of the forest.

Bornean forests are home to Asian elephants, leopards, sun bears, orangs, even the world’s smallest squirrel (when scampering up a tree, it looks like a windup toy). An impressive bird list includes hornbills, storks and kingfishers. Huge numbers of orchids, palms, ferns and that bizarre parasitic flower, the rafflesia, are waiting to be seen.

Temperatures in places approach 40 degrees, and humidity is 95 percent. We encounter leeches, rats in a ceiling (one dropped onto one of us at 3 a.m.) and a cave tour that leads us on a grimy boardwalk above tons of bat guano alive with uncountable roaches and poisonous centipedes.

Oil palm plantations, land clearing and timber harvesting are destroying forests in Borneo (70 to 85 per cent of the forests had been felled in the last 30 years), and we decided to see this incredible biological richness before it disappears.

Mount Kinabalu, the highest in Southeast Asia at nearly 13,500 feet, is our first stop. For orchid lovers, it is Mecca. Some 1,000 species have been found on and around these slopes, including the imperiled lady-slipper, Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, which was discovered in the 19th century. That orchid’s location was falsified by early collectors to keep the source secret and the price up. Somehow it was lost until 1970, when the slipper was rediscovered in Mount Kinabalu National Park, now a World Heritage Site.

On the way to the park, our guide Adrian Chan leads us to a species of rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. The flower’s 17 species grow only between 500 and 600 metres on Borneo, Sumatra, Java and the Philippines. It is primo sight for plant lovers.

This one is orange, rubbery and decorated with raised spots. It parasitizes a specific vine. Both vine and flower are clinging to a ravine behind a residential house in a village just off the main road. Forty-four of 83 known flowering sites on Borneo are on private property, and landowners protect the habitat while earning money from tourists eager to see flowers that may reach three feet across.

Named for Sir Stamford Raffles, British founder of Singapore, our rafflesia has been open for five days and is disintegrating slightly at the edges. Its notorious rotting-meat smell has dissipated, however, so we can look into the center bowl, where a disc with fingerlike projections glows in an eerie light. Around it on the ground are flower buds ranging in size from golf balls to volleyballs. Each bud takes 10 months to develop and open.

Mount Kinabalu, where the spirits of the Dusun and Kadazan peoples are believed to reside, was sculpted by glaciers, left naked on top and punctured by a gully a mile deep. We set out the next day before sunup for bird-watching on its slopes, then tour the park’s orchid garden after breakfast. Scores of orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants, such as the Nepenthes rajah, with liter-size burgundy traps that digest scores of insects, are displayed in the mountainous setting. We see only one orchid along a hiking trail, however, a jewel orchid, collected more for its velvety, striped leaves than its tall spike of small flowers.

wildlifespotting.jpgFrom Kota Kinabalu, known locally as KK, we fly to the city of Sandakan, on the northeast coast, and board an outboard to Selingan (Turtle) Island to overnight and watch sea turtles nest. A turtle hatchery was set up here in 1966. Every night, rangers patrol the beaches, quietly searching for green and hawksbill turtles that come ashore to lay eggs. They collect the eggs, count them, tag the mothers and move eggs to hand-dug sandy holes protected with wire cylinders.
Within swimming distance of the Philippines, Selingan is a desertlike research station so hot at midday that we retreat to our monastic room to catnap and read. Powerful black monitor lizards and rats stalk the dry forests and steal turtle eggs. Some of the rats have taken up residence in the ceiling of our room, which has a closet, small chest, twin beds and a sink. In late afternoon, it’s cool enough to snorkel, so we venture into the Sulu Sea.

After dinner, we sweat and wait for a signal that a turtle has nested. In a warm rain, we watch a three-foot green turtle squeeze out 124 eggs. She is untagged, so this is her first brood. Each of us in a group of a dozen visitors holds a small, leathery egg, then we gently place them in their new sand pit where, in two months’ time, hatchlings will fight their way to the surface.

Finally, we are allowed to hold a hatchling, feel the power of those tiny flippers, enclose it in our cupped palms before releasing it.
It is after the release of the hatchlings that sleep is undone by the falling rat. My friend’s scream jolts me awake, and I see her sitting bolt upright in her bed. The rat had fallen, probably from the window curtains, and landed, plop!, on her face. She lies awake until dawn.
From the island, we boat back to Sandakan, spend a couple of hours at the Sepilok rehabilitation center for orangutans, then board another boat on the Kinabatangan River. We disembark at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, tucked snugly in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. The next two days, we go everywhere by longboat, and it seems the height of eco-luxury to be guided (even in rain) up and down the longest river in Sabah looking for wildlife.

We gaze and peer and find purple herons, a Brahminy kite, a serpent eagle, darters, imperial pigeons, swifts, kingfishers, white-crested and black hornbills, sunbirds, and our prize, a rare and seldom-seen Storm’s stork.

From our skiff, we watch a large proboscis monkey with his wives and babies occupy an enormous tree at dawn and dusk along the river.

At the lodge, built on stilts in Malaysian style, ceiling fans and hot water run on solar power. A small library is in the main building, as is the dining room and a lounge with sofas. Over the river is a sun deck for candlelight dining or morning coffee. We wear sarongs to dinner, and leave shoes at the door.

After rain, these lowland forests are full of leeches. They attach to the ends of leaves and perform leechy belly dances trying to sense the heat of a passing mammal or even bird. We leave our little boat and confront them on our single hike in this forest. Thin as matchsticks before finding you, they inject an anesthesia at the sucking spot, and drop off when full. A rule of thumb is this: the lead hiker’s body heat alerts the leech, the second hiker gets the leech, the third hiker is free to pass untouched.

My friend, second in line, gets a leech on her arm, but cavalierly insists I take a picture of it. Didn’t feel a thing, she says, plucking it off. Later, though, she feels a tickle and a short engorged leech on her stomach, and she doesn’t wait for a photograph. She gets the guide to pull it off. Now.

Yet, in this remote and wild place, where friendships over dinner are easily struck and nature is at her fecund best, our lives seem graced indeed.

Our last stop in Borneo is Danum Valley, where we arrive by car. We stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, with enormous open-air lounge, dining room and bar on the second floor overlooking the Danum River. It is here that we see the orangutans, watch rhinoceros hornbills play tag in the morning, admire a metre-at-the-shoulder bearded pig, and climb a 1,000-metre-high hill to see red-throated barbets. On the way up, our guide shows us the way his tribe buries its dead: in caskets made of tree trunks that are hoisted by ropes to ledges of limestone cliffs. We scale a tree-limb ladder and find human remains.

orangutaneating.jpgWe drive back to KK, and spend one day getting to our next stop: Miri, a tiny coastal town. At Miri, we pare down baggage to 40 pounds, and hop into a small plane to Mulu in Sarawak, where a swamp and four caves are waiting.

I’m not overwhelmed with the idea of caves. On our drive from Sukau to Danum Valley, we visited the Gomantong Cave and it had been an unexpected horror. This is the most famous cave in Sabah. Three kinds of swiftlets nest here, but only those in the highest reaches build their nests of pure saliva. These are the delicacies made by the Chinese into bird’s-nest soup. A single nest may sell for $4,000 U.S. The government regulates harvesting now, but four times a year men are strapped to 100-foot ladders and raised up to remove the nests, once babies have fledged.

They’ve been doing that for 400 years. Not once has the floor of swiftlet and bat guano been cleared out, and the smell is ungodly. Little wonder the roaches are more plentiful than stars. The narrow boardwalk and handrail were slippery with guano, the roaches and giant centipedes were on the walls and the floor, and stretching my T-shirt to my nose, I was so appalled, my toes curled. Outside, all I could do was shudder. But at least, I told myself, I had seen it and now understood why those bird’s nests were so dreadfully expensive.

Mulu’s caves, however, are more rewarding. Three of four are lighted to show beautiful formations; the fourth, Deer Cave, is the world’s largest cave passage and home to millions of bats. The caves make up the world’s largest-known cave system, yet only about a third of the passages have been explored in the mountains that now are in a national park.

Perhaps the best part is the nightly emergence of the bats, which come out in waves of hundreds and stay in formation until they reach a certain altitude to disperse for nightly insect-eating. We watch a doughnut-shaped group stay perfectly in formation until it disappears.
Then we head back to the five-star Royal Mulu Resort, where dinner’s a buffet, and the rooms are air-conditioned.

Intrepid Borneo

Throughout the year, Intrepid Travel operates a number of fantastic adventures that will have you exploring Malaysian Borneo, either with a small group of like-minded travellers or independently on an arranged itinerary.

Sabah – Land Beneath the Wind
13 days ex Kota Kinabalu
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Kota Kinabalu, Mt Kinabalu climb, orangutans, Turtle Island, Malay homestay, jungle camp, Sandakan
Brief: Sabah, the land beneath the wind, is simply breathtaking. Join Intrepid as we meet orangutans and sea turtles on a trip that will have you lazing on beaches, soaking in hot springs, exploring tribal villages and climbing the mighty Mt Kinabalu.
Departure: Departs every Sunday
Price: AU$860, plus Local Payment of US$200 per person

A Taste of Sabah
6 days ex Kota Kinabalu
Trip Style: Intrepid Independent
Highlights: Mt Kinabalu climb, orangutans, Turtle Island, Sandakan
Brief: A fantastic introduction to natural Borneo, from the giant turtles to the awesome peak of Mt Kinabalu. Sabah is filled with rare and exotic wildlife and this trip takes in the very best.
Departure: Departs daily
Price: from AU$890 per person (seasonal pricing applies)
For more information on travelling in Borneo with Intrepid Travel, please visit www.intrepidtravel.com, free call 1300 360 887, or come and see us at 360 Bourke Street, Melbourne.

Know before you go

Best time of year to travel? Borneo has a typical tropical climate - generally hot and humid throughout the year. Temperatures stay in the high 20’s most of the year dropping back to the low 20’s at night. As in most tropical areas the rain falls in short heavy bursts with sunshine following. In theory, the wet season runs from November through to February, but in reality you can expect some rain at any time of the year. Sabah is famed for being below the monsoon belt and is known as the ‘Land Below the Wind’
Religion: Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Animist & other spiritual & tribal beliefs
Language: Bahasa Malaysian, Chinese & many other tribal languages and dialects
Currency: Ringgit (MYR)
Visas: A 3-month visa is free on entry into Malaysia. (Please note: If you are planning on sidestepping to Brunei, you may need to obtain a visa prior to arrival.)
Electricity: 220 - 240V, 50hz AC

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:39 AM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2007

Under the Tuscan sun: July 07 issue

Tuscan1.jpg

SLOW AND SULTRY IN TUSCANY

Take it slow: Do nothing and savour it, writes Lisa Hotchkiss

For the record, we decided to go to Tuscany months before "Under the Tuscan Sun" opened in movie theaters. Why not go to a small Italian town and hang out for two weeks - no itineraries, no museum must-sees, no plans? Nicholas and I had both already done the manic "if it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" kind of European vacation. But was two weeks of nothing except reading, eating, walking and writing, with a man who had just become my roommate, a recipe for romance or disaster?

On a whim I checked out a website for house rentals, and sent an e-mail asking for availability of small homes or apartments in the autumn. We got a reply that, indeed, Benincasa, a two-person apartment in Montepulciano, was available and would we like to reserve it?

Six months later we were standing in front of a 16th century palazzo, its door adorned with a bust of the original owner, Gian Gastone de Medici, last male heir of the Medici family.

Our apartment was at the top of the three-story palazzo. The heavy wooden door welcomed us with a loud slam as we headed up a massive well-worn stone staircase to the third floor.

There were windows everywhere, views from every angle. Large wooden beams framed the main living area. Our landlord, Piergorgio, had restored the apartment a few years earlier, so we were treated to the comforts of a dishwasher, washing machine, DVD and CD player in our 400-year-old home.

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The kitchen was small, but soon Nicholas was making me very happy to be traveling with a former chef and newspaper food editor. Fresh mozzarella with olive oil and salt, espresso, duck, polenta, gnocchi - soul food by anyone's definition.

Our bedroom was sponge-painted an ocean blue. The view looked down the hill to San Biagio, a 16th century cathedral. Bells from the various village churches rang often.

We had arrived at our Tuscan palazzo, and now we stared at 14 days of no plans. Spending two weeks in a foreign country with a relatively new love sounds terribly romantic, and it was.

However, though we'd been living together at home for three months, there's a huge difference between sharing a house and being together all day, every day, and being one another's main conversation buddy for 14 days straight.

And there was a potential conflict. Nicholas' natural state is horizontal, usually on a couch, either reading or sleeping. I confess that I'm generally not good at relaxing for long periods and like to be active. An interesting contrast of styles that needed some careful blending if we were to enjoy two weeks of intense togetherness.

So we agreed to have "Nicholas time," defined as eating, reading, playing Scrabble or cards, and napping, and "Lisa time," which included long walks and exploring, plus a little shopping.

Every day we tried to get a balance of both. Lucky for me, Montepulciano is a hilly town, and Benincasa is at the top of the hill, so anytime we set out, we had to trek back up the steep hill to our welcoming wooden door.

One of our favorite routines was to spend mornings at Caffe Poliziano, an almost Parisian-looking cafe with the best cappuccino and pastries in town. While Nicholas ordered, I would make a visit to the nearby shop to purchase an International Herald Tribune.

We'd settle at a round cafe table near the window, sip our espresso and tackle the day's crossword puzzle, as we checked out the locals and tourists passing through.

Any trip to Italy is certain to focus on eating, and traveling with a chef tilts the scale in more ways than one. With his fearless enthusiasm, Nicholas shopped at small neighborhood grocery stores and butcher shops, using an odd combination of Italian, French, Spanish and sign language to communicate.

But food is a universal language, and Nicholas filled our apartment with sumptuous smells day after day - making "Lisa hiking time" all the more necessary.

One day we walked along the busy main road to the Terme di Montepulciano Spa, about three miles outside of town. The area around Montepulciano is known for its thermal springs, the main draw being Chinchiano, a resort town that draws thousands to the healing waters and ancient Roman and Estruscan bath sites.

But the Terme di Montepulciano Spa is more convalescent hospital than resort - the guests were decades older than us. As a recent graduate of massage school, I wanted see what an Italian rub was like. Antonio, my masseur, led me down a hospital wing and into a sterile massage room. Lesson one: Italians are much less modest about covering themselves during a massage. None of those elaborate draping exercises we had practiced in massage school applied. Italians utilize a very small towel that barely covers one's torso. But when in Rome…

We took two walks to distant hill towns we could see from our apartment. Montefollonico was a six-mile hike on a mostly unpaved road through olive orchards, vineyards and terra-cotta farmhouses.

Along the way, we sampled leftover wine grapes on the vine, selected an abandoned farmhouse as our new home-to-be and very often stopped to gaze at our surroundings, laughing giddily that we were really here.

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Serendipity landed us that day at the door of La Chiusa, a famed restaurant that critics either loved or loved to hate. It was 2:30 p.m., and we were in dusty jeans and sneakers, but soon were in an almost empty dining room feasting on stuffed zucchini flowers, duck with wild fennel, rabbit and sinful desserts.

We waddled from the table up to the village proper - a near-Disney rendition of a Tuscan town - geraniums in every window box, laundry hanging outside windows, miniature Italian nonas dressed in black conversing across balconies. The sun was starting to drop, so we headed back to our little home, across rolling hills lighted by amber sunlight.

Clouds threatened another long hike, but we managed the 12-plus miles to Montechiello without a drip. We once again found our reward as we entered the village at Osteria La Porta, a cozy eatery owned by a charming woman who offered us a ride home if we chose not to walk. A dumbwaiter delivered plates of porcini mushroom carpaccio, Burratta mozzarella, rabbit and wonderful grilled lamb chops. Nicholas' Panna Cotta was terrific, but my dessert, a twist on Tiramisu, was spectacular. After that meal, I insisted we skip the car ride and walk off lunch.

Over the days, we walked every alleyway and staircase of Montepulciano, meeting residents and getting nods of recognition. The town had developed a warm familiarity for us - something one misses when passing quickly through to the next tourist destination.

Because the weather turned wintry during the second week, we were forced to spend less "Lisa time" outdoors and more "Nicholas time" reading and eating. I devoured too many wonderful calories and every book I'd brought. Fortunately, previous visitors to Benincasa had left a few books, and I soon found myself savouring Frances Mayes' "Bella Tuscany." In it, she not only describes the area we were visiting, but the Italian approach to life - dolce far niente, the sweet to-do-nothing.

It was a perfect theme for our trip - for me, learning to appreciate doing nothing - savoring a nap and not feeling like I was missing out on something, spending hours reading and playing cards, and feeling satiated.

We spent our last night in Rome and experienced a jolt as we exited the train station. Vespas whizzed by, angry drivers honked, crowds of pedestrians poured across busy intersections. In two weeks at Montepulciano, we'd been shielded from cars and ambient noise.

We found respite in a swanky sidewalk bar/cafe at the Hotel Exedra. As we sipped our pricey water cocktails (mineral water, herbs and fruit) from martini glasses, we talked about what we had learned from this trip, about each other and ourselves. Would we do another unplanned vacation? Definitely, but next time bring more books.

I brought home a clearer appreciation of "Nicholas time" - enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing - and have since spent many a Sunday afternoon napping on the couch at home with a smile on my face and my Daytimer well-hidden in my briefcase.

FOR A GREAT HOLIDAY PACKAGE, CONTACT:

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Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:09 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2007

Beautiful Dubrovnik: May 07 issue

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Back to the Balkans

Historic Dubrovnik plays to the crowds, as Robert Cross discovers

DUBROVNIK, Croatia - On my first day, thunderstorms exposed the town's true nature.
In good warm weather, Dubrovnik can feel like a museum specimen, filled with visitors eager to experience its beauty and marvel at the intricacy of its historic buildings.

Trouble is, the admirers obscure some vistas and crowd through interiors that otherwise would transport them back through the centuries. All those flip-flops, cruise-ship caps and digital cameras play havoc with the imagination and keep reminding us that the Renaissance has come and gone.

And yet here I am spending more ink on the place, drawing more attention to it. Obviously, this no longer can be considered one of Europe's delicious secrets. But it should be on everyone's must-see list, throngs or no throngs. Ideally, Dubrovnik is absorbed, savored over many days. Still, even a glimpse is better than nothing. No other city on the Continent quite compares.

The frequent whump of seaside thunder and the bouts of heavy rain made umbrellas blossom on the main street - the Stradun, or Placa. Its marble surface turned slippery, while the sudden bath revealed it as a handsome, glistening pedestrian thoroughfare with the famous Onofrio Fountain on its western end and the 15th century Orlando's Column on the east - and a handsome clock tower for punctuation.

Only a few strollers braved the downpour. Clusters of visitors found shelter under the 15th Century portico of the Rector's Palace, where the rector and his staff once reviewed parades. Now the spectators could see fellow visitors running for cover, joining them under the portico or ducking into the baroque embrace of St. Blaise Church.

Dubrovnik is an al fresco sort of town in the warm seasons and during the dry days, so the storm provided an occasion to see the interior of the Gradska Kavana, a cafe where townspeople gather for coffee early in the morning. Most customers choose to sit outside on the terrace facing Luza Square and Orlando's Column, or take a table on the harbor-side veranda, where the armory used to be.

Inside, the cafe boasts two floors of tables surrounded by handsome Art Deco paneling and murals. It's a good place to get one's bearings after a stroll from Pile (PEE la) Gate, the western opening in the massive wall that surrounds the old city, or Stari Grad.

When the weather clears, the wall is a wonderful place to gain an overall impression of Dubrovnik, no matter how thick the crowds on the streets below. Built between the 13th and 15th Centuries to repel enemy sieges, it's a wide and lofty barricade, 80 feet tall and fully intact.

It has all the turrets, forts, towers and casemates with cannons that a Hollywood scenic designer could wish for.

The wall covers slightly more than a mile, uninterrupted, with fine views - sea, harbor, the orange-tiled rooftops of dwellings within the old city and modern Dubrovnik clinging to the foothills just outside the gates.

Strolling the Dubrovnik wall has to be one of the best walks in Europe.

The wall bridges the two most distinct aspects of Stari Grad. Visitors typically come for the wonderfully preserved or restored historic sites, most of them at ground level. That's where the tour guides hold up their umbrellas and explain the palaces, the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries (built for further protection), the churches and the odd artifacts like Orlando's Column. (Sculpted in 1417, its statue of Roland, the legendary medieval knight, is a symbol denoting benevolent powers protecting the city.)

The guides never fail to mention St. Blaise, the city's patron, usually depicted holding a model of Dubrovnik as it looked before the devastating earthquake of 1667.

Up on the wall, down along its base and along the sides of V-shaped Stari Grad, visitors with time can get a look at homes and the villagers who occupy them. They represent only a small percentage of Dubrovnik's 45,000 citizens, but they serve as excellent ambassadors for all the rest. It's fascinating to see children at play and adults going about their daily chores in a place so thoroughly tied to its long history that even the satellite dishes appear ready to grow moss. No wonder the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared the Stari Grad a World Heritage site.

Tourism is the main engine driving the Dalmatian Coast economy these days, so visitors receive welcoming smiles. One morning, a member of the wait staff at the Orlando Cafe had me pegged immediately as an American. She brought me, unbidden, an International Herald Tribune someone had discarded on another table. "Something to read with your cappuccino," she said.

I was trying to build some energy for the climbing required for a walk around the wall followed by more climbing up the residential tiers on either side of the main streets.

When I did reach the wall, I heard somebody remark, "Not a lot of privacy here. I don't think I'd like thousands of people walking above my house." But residents of Stari Grad apparently have learned to humor the visitors, entertain them or make a few kuna - the Croatian dollar - by selling them things.

Atop the wall, strollers find refreshment stands and women selling their crochet work and souvenirs. Down below, pots of flowers decorate scores of front stoops, as if to enhance the enjoyment of anyone peering down at them.

Along the wall's base - which stands on a steep bluff - I saw a wooden sign, in English: "Cold Drinks With The Most Beautiful View." An arrow on the sign pointed toward an opening in the wall. I entered to find a drink stand called Cafe Buza and several tiny umbrella-shaded tables clustered on stone ledges.

The beautiful view took in blue Adriatic Sea, the greenery of Lokrum Island and passing pleasure boats. Italy was out there beyond the horizon, but on a day like that, in a place like this, the boot lost some of its allure.

Frank Sinatra serenaded the Cafe Buza patrons. As I sipped a Coke and listened to Sinatra's rendition of "The Summer Wind," it occurred to me that all over Dubrovnik and neighboring Lapad I had been hearing music from the Cold War America songbook. Sinatra in this charming little cafe, Bob Dylan in a souvenir shop, Frankie Laine at a pizza place, even the McGuire sisters in a resort-area shopping mall.

It appeared as if I'd be listening to these familiar refrains all through my stay. But then, farther along the wall, I heard a beautiful contralto coming from a church school, where someone was rehearsing for a recital or a solo in the choir.

On the Stradun one afternoon, men and women in costume paraded toward Pile Gate. Some of the men played guitars and mandolins - even a full-size bass viol. And everyone sang. The parade drew scores of spectators, of course. They squinted into their digital camera screens and at one point formed a circle around a group of singing women - all in costume.

Not everyone was a tourist. Here and there, I could see lips moving in the crowd and hear the voices of other women, softly joining in.

It wasn't clear to me which period of Dubrovnik's and Croatia's history the marchers represented. Clearly they were dressed as country folk, courtiers and wandering troubadours, not the nobility and traders of the 14th and 15th centuries, when the town still was called Ragusa.

Through the centuries the city endured many shifts in power and allegiance: Romans, Turks, Venetians, the Croatian-Hungarian kingdom, all had their moments. The 1667 earthquake leveled the city-state, which had been an important seat of Renaissance enlightenment. Citizens rebuilt, but trade declined. The artistic treasures and cultural riches were destroyed.

At the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon's forces ruled. Then came the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Croatia tried and failed to break away from its Austrian rulers. In 1867, Hungary ruled Croatia but Dalmatia, including Ragusa, stayed in Austria's grip.

Fast-forward to post World War I when an uneasy bundle of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes were gathered together as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (i.e. southern - yugo - Slav).

Around that time, Ragusa became Dubrovnik, named after the dubrava, the holm oaks, or holly trees, that grew on the hillsides. The area fell under fascist rule during most of World War II. Afterward, it was part of Tito's Yugoslavia and his independent-minded Communist regime. Tito forcefully rejected Croatia's bid for independence, but his break with Stalin in 1948 did allow for more tourism and a slightly freer spirit than in most parts of the Soviet sphere.

When Communism collapsed in the late 1980s, Croatia again declared independence and its leaders removed Serbs from public office. The Yugoslavian army stepped in, beginning in June of 1991. That fall, the city and all of the southern Dalmatian coast fell under attack by the Yugoslav army, navy and Montenegrin militia. On Dec. 6 shells pounded Dubrovnik's old town, killing 19 people and wrecking several buildings.

With the help of a shocked world community, especially the European Union, Croatia did gain its independence and gathered the strength to repair and rebuild after the siege finally ended in 1992.

The work has been done so skillfully and with such an eye for authenticity that it's hard to comprehend how extensive the damage really was.

In the Sponza Palace, which survived both the recent war and the 1667 earthquake, a room on the ground floor is devoted to the events of 1991 and `92. Walls hold photographs of the men who died resisting the attacks. A continuous film shows collapsing rooftops, doorways belching flames, plumes of smoke rising from broken windows, people running for their lives.

"So many of our friends died," a tour guide told a group just outside the door. "There was so much damage 15 years ago."

Sponza Palace once served as a customs house, a bonded warehouse and a bank. Now it holds state archives, including manuscripts dating back centuries. Most visitors prize its exquisitely carved and be-columned Renaissance-era portico and its graceful Gothic and Renaissance windows.

The Rector's Palace - the only other building to survive the earthquake - is equally ornate. Those two structures hint at what an artistic and handsome city Ragusa/Dubrovnik was.

Of course, the artisans and engineers of post-Renaissance years filled the sturdy walls with delights of their own. The exteriors along the Stradun display a sort of baroque uniformity, an eye-pleasing arrangement that's anything but austere. Just past Pile Gate, the domed, 15th century Onofrio Fountain greets visitors with a ring of water-spouting sculpted faces. A few yards away, the Church of the Holy Redeemer is a favorite venue for evening concerts.

A doorway cut into a virtually blank wall leads to the beautiful cloister of the Franciscan monastery, where a small group of monks prayed and lived even during the Communist era. The complex includes a working pharmacy founded in 1317, an apothecary museum, and galleries of religious artifacts and paintings.

There are other churches, a cathedral and a Dominican monastery, which stands near the eastern Ploce Gate. People tour those, too, for the fine ecclesiastical art and that ephemeral thrill of supposing how it was to live in another time.

But it's satisfying just to experience Dubrovnik simply as a community with a design for living. That climb to the tightly condensed neighborhoods on the northern side reveals cozy streets - alleys, really - lined with restaurant tables, little shops selling everyday things and baubles the visitors might like.

A hike up the terraces is rewarded with close looks at tucked-in apartments and the cozy Hotel Stari Grad, one of only two hotels within the walls. The other, the exclusive Pucic Palace, shares a terrace with the morning market, where farmers and artisans sell their goods.

The Ethnographic Museum up in the south side residential sector sits atop a former granary. Mannequins wear clothing similar to those I saw on the paraders. Artfully mounted housewares, tools and farm implements grace the rooms.

I looked out a window at the rooftops of the Stari Grad, a bowl of small wonders, and it hit me that I had scheduled far too little time.

Back down at harbor level, I walked past the Pucic Palace behind a couple taking in the sights. The woman said to the man, "You're in Dubrovnik. Why do you always have to be somewhere else? Be where you are."

When I saw her mild rebuke in my notes, I felt a blush coming on. I do that so often: "This place reminds me of ..." Just the other day, I compared Dubrovnik to a town in Tuscany.

A mistake. Dubrovnik is Dubrovnik, and that's all it needs to be.
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IF YOU GO:

GETTING AROUND:
A bus is all you really need to get from an outlying hotel to the old city. Within the walls, it's walking or bicycling only; no vehicles allowed. And biking is impractical there because of the crowds. Bus fares are 8 kuna if purchased at a kiosk or newsstand and 10 kuna when paying on the bus. The kuna at this writing is equivalent to about 17 cents U.S.

SLEEPING THERE: Only two hotels operate within the old city. At the small (eight rooms) but charming Hotel Stari Grad (Od Sigurate 4; 00-385-20-322-244; www.hotelstarigrad.com), doubles start at US$238 in summer, including breakfast. The 19-unit Pucic Palace (Ulica Od Puca 1; 00-385-20-326-222; www.thepucicpalace.com) overlooks Gundulic Square and charges for its elegance, comfort and central location with rates that start at more than $550 a night in high season.
Outside the walls, the city and its suburbs offer a wide choice of hotels and resorts. To stay within walking distance, you could book a room at the Hilton Imperial (Marijana Blazica 2; 00-385-20-320320; www.hilton.com), a totally refurbished 1897 landmark just a short walk from Pile Gate. Rates start at about $300.
In Lapad, I stayed at the plain but modern and comfortable Hotel Kompas (Setaliste Kralja Zvonimira 56; 00-385 20 352 000; www.hotel-kompas.hr), one of many resorts in the area with superb Adriatic views. Doubles start at about $240.
Also, it might be worthwhile to consider apartments and rooms rented out by families. Look for signs that say "Sobe," which indicates accommodations are available. Or ask at one of the tourist offices.
Prices quoted are subject to change and do not include tax. Always ask about discounts and specials.

EATING THERE: My personal culinary highlight was a lingering afternoon repast at Proto (00-385-020-323-234; www.esculap-teo.hr) in the heart of the old town. I chose to sit on the terrace upstairs, instead of at a street-level table. It was the perfect tranquil setting for a meal of seafood salad, fresh and lightly seasoned. It went well with the local white wine, Posip. The bill: US$28.
A sister restaurant of Proto, Atlas Club Nautika (00-385-020-442-526; www.esculap-teo.hr) has a fine reputation, but the salad I ordered there couldn't match Proto's. I was told the gourmet treasures are in the dining rooms - rather formal and dressy compared to the seaside terrace. But outside, selecting from a very limited menu, you still get to pay gourmet prices (cash only). With a glass of red wine, my tab came to US$30.
In general, seafood is almost a sure bet anywhere along the Dalmatian Coast. But the beef and pork dishes I tried in Dubrovnik tended to have sauces and gravies laid on with a heavy hand. Italian cooking is widespread - including pizza, of course - and most of it meets the Italian standard.

INFORMATION: The Dubrovnik Tourist Board, www.tzdubrovnik.hr. Republic of Croatia, www.hr/index.en.shtml. www.croatia.hr
Useful guidebooks include Frommer's Croatia by Karen Torme Olson and Sanja Bazulic Olson; Lonely Planet's Croatia by Jeanne Oliver; and the Berlitz Dubrovnik Pocket Guide by Roger Williams.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:59 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Blame it on Rio: April 07 issue

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BLAME IT ON THE RAIN

Chris Welsch discovers Samba is the heartbeat of Brazil, and manages to avoid the Carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Rain fell in sheets that battered the pavement like the waves crashing on nearby Ipanema Beach. The beat was steady and slow - whush, whush, whush, whush. The taxi pulled up, slick and yellow, and my wife and I ran out of the door of our hotel, hunched against the deluge, to meet it. Inside the cab, our Brazilian friend greeted us with apologies for the rain.

Our destination for the evening was the Rival Theatre, which occupies a cavernous basement hall with an entry on a narrow side street in the Lapa District, one of Rio's oldest, grandest neighborhoods.

Our friend, Cristina Walmsley, a carioca (native of Rio), was well-known to the doorman, who greeted her and my wife with kisses and me with a heartfelt handshake. We entered the hall, and a waitress took us to a table not far from the stage.

Shortly thereafter, Arlindo Cruz, a massive man with a tiny mandolin, sat down on a stool center stage. More than a dozen percussionists, guitarists and horn players lined up behind him and they began to play. They took up the beat of the rain and the ocean - steady, even, seductive. That was the base from which Cruz's plaintive vocals rose and fell.

At the first note, the music lifted everyone in the bar onto their feet. Men elegantly shuffled the tidy two-step of the samba. Their female dance partners matched the beat with their feet, but doubled it with their hips. There was no self-conscious hesitation; the separation between band and crowd didn't exist. Cruz sang, the crowd sang. The band members danced, we all danced. That is the spirit of samba.

We went to Brazil on a long-postponed honeymoon, but the reason we'd chosen the destination was for its music. One borrowed CD a few years ago has led to an obsession with the popular sounds of Brazil.

As human beings, we are often drawn to what is alien to us. My genes, and those of my wife, Silke Schroeder, came down from people who lived in the darker, colder parts of the world.

Samba, with its distinctive, floating downbeat, is a product of warm, sunny places. At its core, driven by percussion, samba has African roots, but like Brazil itself, samba is a stew of other places. From Portugal, samba gets its guitars, and an undertow of heartbreak. From indigenous Brazil, samba is infused with the soul of the country itself. Samba's most distinctive sound is the lilt of the cuica. If you've heard samba, you know that squeaky cry - it sounds like it's coming from a jungle bird of particularly iridescent plumage. The moment I heard samba, I felt a twitch in my hips and a strong pull toward Brazil.

We had a room at the Arpoador Inn, a hotel at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach. It was plain, clean, comfortable and right on the waterfront. We slipped into a leisurely carioca rhythm. We hit the beach during the day, the clubs at night, all the while accompanied by a steady samba beat, whether it was set by drums or waves or just a passerby, singing on the sidewalk.

Infrequently, we roused ourselves from sun-drenched torpor to explore Rio, a city of magnificent and miserable extremes. The dragon-backed mountains that ring the beaches serve as the majestic if unsteady foundation for the tumble-down slums called favelas that precariously cling to their flanks. Those who can afford it live on the low ground, near Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. There, on the sand, some of Rio's extremes meet. One group tans and swims, the other rents umbrellas and sells snacks.

We did our part, watching the surf and the passing show from under an umbrella, drinking iced coconut milk and snacking on Globo biscuits, which look like doughnuts made of styrofoam. For some reason they were saltily delicious and crunchy on the beach; when we ate them anywhere else they tasted like salted styrofoam.

We didn't want to spend our whole honeymoon in the middle of a big drunken party. So as Carnival approached, we left Rio. The sentiment was shared by some cariocas, apparently. When we told our hotel manager we were checking out for a week, he said, "Can I come with you?"

We had made reservations at a pousada (a small inn) on Ilha Grande, about 160 kilometres south of Rio. Getting there involved three hours in a private bus and another hour by ferry.

The words Ilha Grande are delicious in Portuguese - EEla GRANji, but they just mean Big Island. Until 10 years ago, it was home to a prison known as the Devil's Cauldron and a small village where the prison employees and their families lived. Now it is my idea of paradise: a car-less isle with a few hotels and restaurants, big, empty beaches, shady jungle trails and not much to do.

Silke had spent many hours on the internet finding Pousada Asalem, and all that research had paid off. It was in an isolated spot in the jungle, a half-hour walk from the island's only village, on a slope overlooking the bay.

There was a main house, with a big veranda where meals were served. The six rooms were built into the side of the hill above. The pousada's chefs served us meals of fresh fruit, eggs from the resident chickens, fish from the sea. Our suite had an airy loft, a giant yellow hammock and a palm-framed view of the bay. At night, samba from the Carnival parties in the village of Abraao drifted across the bay.

On the day of Carnival, we walked into town to catch the parade. It consisted of a marching samba band of about 20 villagers followed by a troupe of 40 children in costumes followed by another 100 people shuffling along to the pounding drums and blasting horns. It lasted about a half-hour, everyone cheered and sang, and then it was over. It was perfect.

A stage had been set up on the town square for a night of pop music and dancing for the young folk. We left before the real debauchery kicked in, although we heard music and shouting in the distance until after 3 a.m. At one point I heard what I thought might be gunfire.

At breakfast the next day, Paolo, the manager of the pousada, told us we'd missed some excitement. "I was there watching from the second story of a bar," he said. "A fight broke out. There was one police. He broke up the fight, but then the mother of one of the guys started biting him. Then that guy got mad because the police was hitting his mother. They both attacked him. Then the police pulled his gun and shot into the air, but they kept hitting on him. So he shot the guy in the foot. Then more police come and shoot pepper spray. I got some in my throat. It was a mess."

He told the story with some concern, which evaporated the minute the story ended. He never mentioned it again, and neither did anyone else.

Still, the story echoed later in the day. We went on a hike through the jungle to a tiny beach, where we met an American woman named Bobbi Oleo, her Brazilian fiance and several of their friends. They were all from Sao Paolo, and like most of the other tourists on the island, they were refugees from the big Carnival celebrations in the cities. They invited us to join their group for lunch.

"By now you've figured out that Brazilians are whimsical," Oleo said. "They change plans very easily. They say they're doing one thing and then do something else. That's probably why they're happy most of the time, even though things are difficult here. They live in the moment."

To that end she told us about the time she and her fiance were stuck in a traffic jam in Sao Paolo, on their way to a concert. A man came up to their car and robbed them at gunpoint. She was traumatized and wanted to go home, but Eduardo (the fiance) didn't see why. "He didn't want to let a little armed robbery ruin an evening of music."

Rio seemed a little tired and run-down when we returned. Pieces of paper, colorful feathers and sparkly pieces of what had been very small costumes littered the ground around the Arpoador Inn.

The beach was just as we left it, and our favorite umbrella vendor welcomed us home to our lazy post by the sea. I did feel a small ghost of regret flitting through my mind. I missed Carnival in Rio: The ultimate samba celebration. There are huge samba clubs of 4,000 to 5,000 people that spend the whole year writing and perfecting a samba, making costumes and building a float for the big contest at the Sambodrome, where more than 100,000 people will join them in song.

That night we consoled ourselves to a fine meal at a feijoada restaurant. Feijoada is one of Brazil's distinctive dishes: a hearty black-bean stew that is a staple of Carnival time. Loaded with cured beef, spareribs and sausage, it's remarkably heavy. As we were walking home, Silke pondered, "How can people eat like this and then dance?"

Not 10 minutes later, we saw a truck coming down Avenue Viera Souto, which fronts Ipanema beach. On top of the truck was a band. Twenty drummers marched behind it. A crowd of at least 200 dancers followed, doing the samba.

The band played the same song, over and over, and as the waves of sound washed over us, our feet moved, our hips shook, and we sang even though we didn't know what the words meant.

Bean stew, the heaviness, the impending trip back to a cold, hard place - none of that even came to mind.
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AN EAR FOR BRAZIL
Music pervades every aspect of life in Brazil; accordingly, the depth and breadth of recordings is rich. Here are a few starting points for an aural expedition.
Luaka Bop/ Brazil Classics
The CD series from David Byrne (former frontman of the Talking Heads) offers samples of many artists, styles and time periods. It is an irresistible invitation to the world of Brazilian music.
Martinho da Vila
This samba legend with a deep, melodic voice developed a reputation as a master composer and singer during a 40-year career.
Marisa Monte
The Brazilian pop diva dabbles in many styles. "Universo ao Meu Redor," a recent release, is a passionate study of samba, even if it is too slick to satisfy old-school samba fans.
Caetano Veloso
Veloso - one of Brazil's national treasures - has spent his remarkable career moving fluidly from one style to another with the only constant his signature, lilting voice.
Jorge Ben
Another groundbreaker, Ben merged funk and samba to create a sound all his own. "Africa Brasil" remains a classic of Brazilian popular music; my favorite Ben CD is "A Tabua de Esmeralda."
---
A traveler's checklist for Brazil
RIO DE JANEIRO
Explorer Amerigo Vespucci was better suited to naming things than he was to figuring out what they were. When the Portuguese ship he was piloting floated into Guanabara Bay on Jan. 1, 1502, Vespucci wrongly believed it was a river mouth. Thus, he dubbed the place the River of January, though there is no river. Now Rio (pronounced HEE-u in Portuguese) is home to 6 million cariocas (the preferred label for Rio-ites), with a laid-back attitude and culture that is unique even in Brazil.
CRIME
In Brazil, crushing poverty fuels crime in the big cities. Holdups and petty theft against tourists are not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro. Even well-traveled neighborhoods such as Lapa, where many of the liveliest nightclubs are found, are unsafe at night. Having a friend in Rio who knew taxi drivers and where to pick them up safely was invaluable. In daylight, tourist areas are generally safe. Nighttime requires more caution. Use taxis and avoid solo travel. The U.S. State Department consular information sheet is worth reading: travel.state.gov/travel.
TWO BOOKS
Don't head to Brazil without a good guide. Lonely Planet's Brazil guides are reliably comprehensive. If Rio is on the itinerary, read "Rio de Janeiro/Carnival Under Fire" by Ruy Castro, a true carioca. In 242 pages, he somehow manages to weave together all the disparate strands of Rio into something truly beautiful and melodic, like the city itself.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2007

Northern Queensland: March 07 issue

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The Back of Beyond

Ecotourism adventures abound in northern Australia's Queensland, writes Tim Johnson

CAPE TRIBULATION, Australia - It might have been the primeval forest noises. Or perhaps it was the tree-climbing kangaroos. It also could have been the cassowary, a flightless bird as tall as a grown man.

As we hiked out of one of the world's oldest rainforests, our older daughter put into words what we'd been sensing for several days.

"I feel like I'm visiting Jurassic Park," she said.

The northeast region of Australia - far northern Queensland - comprises an extraordinary variety of habitats. Over a few days, you can snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, hike through rainforest and visit the nearby tablelands rimming the dry Outback.

My family is currently based in Beijing, where the weather is chilly in winter, so the idea of a year-end holiday to sunny Australia seemed comforting: no struggles with a foreign language, a chance to visit some Australian friends, and plenty of familiar stores and food.

What we didn't fully expect was the stunning diversity of environments we'd see in northern Queensland, and the never-seen-before wildlife. The vacation began on the right foot with a few days in Sydney, where we soaked up the city's hilly charm, cruising in the harbor and walking the coastal trail south of Bondi Beach.

Then it was on to encounters with red-legged pademelons, bandicoots, Papuan frogmouths, assassin bugs and even a Wompoo fruit-dove, with its hallucinogenic colors.

The domestic flight landed in Cairns (pronounced "cans" in the local inflection), where you can rent a car, take a deep breath and drive north. A bright yellow dashboard sticker reminded us that the Australians drive, like the British, on the left side of the road.

Driving was a breeze. Using the turn signals was another matter. I repeatedly activated the windshield wipers when I meant to turn, drawing howls from the girls, aged 15 and 9.

An hour's drive north of Cairns is Port Douglas, a resort town that was our temporary base for explorations. To the west, cloud-shrouded mountains loomed; to the east, we gazed on the Coral Sea and the longest barrier reef in the world.

The vacation was loosely planned, and we made quick alterations. Australia was a little pricier than we expected on a $350-a-day budget for our family of four, so instead of eating out constantly we made use of the kitchenette in our rental unit. To our delight, we found that many hotels offered "self-contained units" with kitchens. Nearly all offered communal areas with facilities to barbecue, a national pastime.

Australia's northern beaches are awash in "stingers" - jellyfish - during the summer months, so the next day we headed north to Mossman River Gorge, a rainforest park. The girls delighted in the swinging bridge over a creek that cascaded over boulders, and the tangle of vines and giant ferns amid lush trees.

Walking around the Port Douglas marina in the evening, we made reservations to board the Aristocat, a double-decker catamaran, for a snorkeling visit to the outer reef, a highlight of any trip to Australia.

Among the 60 or 70 visitors the next day was a large contingent of young Japanese divers, and a smattering of Europeans and North Americans. We all donned stinger suits - lighter than wetsuits - to neutralize any encounters with jellyfish, and slid into the water.

Below were giant clams, sea cucumbers, white-tipped reef sharks, barracuda, butterfly fish and a rainbow array of other tropical fish and coral polyps.

As often happens, our girls enjoyed the wondrous sea life but they were equally amused by the sideshows on the boat: the handful of retching, seasick passengers and the group cheers that the Japanese divers gave before entering the water.

Without knowing much about the interior high plateau, known locally as the tablelands, we piled into the car the next day and climbed a thousand feet through the rainforest and into dry rolling plains and farmland. Huge termite mounds poked out of the earth. Pioneering towns with names such as Mareeba and Yungaburra dotted the map. At a fruit stand, we bought mangoes after considering the litchi nuts, passion fruit and other tropical delights.

Late that afternoon, after we'd found a simple rental cabin, my wife exclaimed as we drove along a country road: "Stop! There's a cassowary!"

Sure enough, one of the huge birds emerged from woods at the shoulder of the road. A cousin of the ostrich, the cassowary has a bulbous helmet on its head and a long blue neck, and sometimes stands more than 6 feet tall. It can be aggressive. Signs in national parks warn that the birds' sharp, powerful talons can do terrible damage to a man with a single kick to the abdomen.

Days later we learned that Australia's endangered cassowary population is only around 1,500. Wild dogs, the loss of its habitat and speeding cars have taken a toll.

A day later at the Granite Gorge, a private nature park with rock outcroppings amid scattered gum trees, we spotted our first rock wallabies, which are smaller than kangaroos but look similar. Our 9-year-old jumped with excitement when given a bag of feed and told she could lure wild wallabies from their shady lairs and hand-feed them. Hours later, sweating profusely in the midday sun, she could barely be pulled away.

A special treat awaited us that night back in the rainforest: a tour with Dr. David Rentz, an entomologist, who led us on a night walk around our cabin grounds in Kuranda. Illuminating his way by headlamp, Rentz pointed out huge nests of orange-footed scrub fowl, glow-in-the-dark fungus and assassin bugs ("They pierce other bugs with that mouth part and suck their juices out"). He also deployed an ultrasonic device that allowed us to listen to insect and bat sounds that usually are beyond the range of human hearing.

"See that?" he asked. Two eyes stared from the brush. "That's a bandicoot."

A marsupial about the size of a possum, the bandicoot scampered off. Moments later, a group of wallabies, known as red-legged pademelons, emerged from the bush.

We meandered a day later to the crocodile-infested Daintree National Park and splurged to stay at the Red Mill House, a bird lovers' bed-and-breakfast with binoculars and bird books scattered on the verandahs. Owners Andrew and Trish Forsyth handed us a bird checklist, and we quickly ticked off rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, figbirds and gerygones, all hitherto unknown to us. Some 500 species of birds inhabit or migrate through the northwest Queensland region.

At dawn during a boat excursion, we spotted an owl lookalike known as the Papuan Frogmouth, as well as snakes, butterflies and a tiny crocodile. Like most visitors, we were fixated on the crocodiles, staring at TV newscasts and reading aloud newspaper reports of multiple crocodile attacks on humans that occurred during our holiday.

Crocodile meat was on the menu at the Papaya Cafe in the Daintree Village, with this description: "ground crocodile meat and water chestnuts in crisp wonton wrappers, served with chili plum sauce." The waitress told us more about croc meat.

"It's got the texture of pork, the color of fish and the taste of chicken," she said.

We gave it a pass.

The next day, we came across a mountain lookout with a cluster of tourists pointing into a canopy of trees where two tree kangaroos nibbled on leaves. Only later, as other guides came by, did we learn that such a sighting is rare.

We'd come to expect rare things in Australia.

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IF YOU GO:
All figures given are in Aust. dollars.

AIR TRAVEL IN AUSTRALIA: We made domestic travel arrangements through www.flightcentre.com.au, which has cut-rate airfares.

WHERE TO STAY: Australia offers a huge variety of lodging, from ubiquitous and cheap backpacker hostels to hotels, motels and full resorts. We made some arrangements through www.hotel.com.au, which includes reviews of hotels from users. In Port Douglas, we liked the Mango Tree Holiday Apartments (www.mango-tree-port-douglas.com), where we paid about $175 a night for a two-room apartment. In Daintree Village, the Red Mill House (www.redmillhouse.com.au) is a delightful small B&B surrounded by towering trees. We had two adjoining rooms for which we paid $225 per night, including a hearty breakfast. In the tablelands, we found furnished cabins for $90 to $115 a night. They were generally at parks for recreational-vehicle users.

RENTAL CARS: The Cairns airport has a number of rental car companies, including all major global brands. We rented a Toyota Corolla from Hertz with unlimited mileage, negotiating a weekly rate of $299 without a reservation.

TRIPS TO GREAT BARRIER REEF: Port Douglas has a number of companies that offer high-speed catamarans for snorkeling and scuba trips to the outer reefs. We took a trip by Aristocat (www.aristocat.com.au) that cost $500 for two adults and two children, including all snorkeling gear and lunch. Calypso (www.calypsocharters.com.au) and Poseidon (www.poseidon-cruises.com.au) have trips at similar prices.

GUIDED NATURE EXCURSIONS: The highlights of our trip were outings with naturalists. In the Kuranda area, northwest of Port Douglas, Dr. David C. Rentz, an insect expert with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, led three of us on a two-hour night hike. Cost: $60. He can be reached at orthop1(at)tpg.com.au. In Daintree Village, we hooked up with Mangrove Adventures, led by Dan Irby, an Oklahoman with long years of experience in Queensland. Irby's Web site is www.mangroveadventures.com.au. He offered us a two-hour boating trip for four people for $199.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:25 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2007

Valencia: Feb 07 issue

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AMERICA’S CUP 07: ON THE SPANISH RIVIERA

Elio Leturia checks out a stopover in Barcelona, while Jay Clarke finds the Silver Whisper cruise liner is well up to the task of being an America’s Cup viewing platform

With the America’s Cup about to kick off in Valencia, Spain, this year, the big cruise lines are offering a number of packages to capitalize on what is likely to be one of the most hotly-contested and spectatored events in the Cup’s history. For the first time, the Cup is being raced in modern Europe, the hub of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The cruise liner Silver Whisper is being used as an oncourse viewing platform/hotel for the races and for the first time has been given permission to shadow the Cup racers down the course. Whisper will be departing for Valencia from its rival Mediterranean port, Barcelona on 22 June, which means if you time your flights properly there’s time for plenty of R and R in Barcelona for a few days prior.
Barcelona is a city of contrasts, especially between the medieval sites and the newer, modernista areas. It's easy to navigate and walkable, though you'd need a map in the charming and narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter.

Here are your reference points: Gran Via De Les Cortes Catalanes runs parallel to the sea and divides the old city from the modern. La Rambla in the old city divides the Gothic Quarter from El Raval. Passeig de Gracia divides the more modern Eixample neighborhoods.

Placa de Catalunya is the hub, at the end of lively La Rambla and at the beginning of chic Passeig de Gracia. It is the best place to begin after having taken a bus from the airport (around 4 euros compared to a much more expensive cab ride).

The placa, or plaza, is a big, open space where multitudes converge and move off in different directions, looking for stores to shop in, sights to see, restaurants in which to dine. In the area there are stores, good restaurants, fast food chains, business offices and a busy subway stop.

Let's begin by walking in the direction of the sea, following the famous La Rambla. It's like a carnival, busy and buzzing with tourist attractions. Magicians, mimes, musicians, exotic-animal vendors, beggars and fortune-tellers share space with tourists and strollers.

To your right is El Raval. It is the poorest area of the old city and its reputation has been one of vice and crime. It used to be known as Barcelona's Chinatown. Now, it has its share of interesting places and affordable restaurants, even if it is a bit seedier in spots than the Gothic Quarter or more modern areas.

Among Raval's spots of interest are the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, Antoni Gaudi's magnificent Guell Palace and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. But if you are looking to explore the flavor of the city and the friendly demeanor of the locals for free, visit the Mercat de la Boqueria, a "modernisme" (Barcelona's version of art nouveau) structure made of metal, where you can do your grocery shopping and choose from an extensive array of prime local ingredients and produce from seafood, breads and fruits to spices and vegetables.

There is the old Hospital de la Santa Creu, which holds the Catalunya library (3 million documents, says National Geographic's "Traveler Barcelona" book), where you can see students chatting in a building dating back more than 600 years.

On the other side of La Rambla is the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, a labyrinth of medieval streets filled with stores, bars, restaurants, hotels, churches, a breathtaking cathedral (work started in 1298) and Roman ruins.

With its dark corners, cafes and history, the Gothic Quarter showcases a unique personality. An afternoon here is spent weaving through the crowds of tourists who fill the narrow, cobblestone streets, and you could easily spend days exploring its alleys and walkways.

Next to the Gothic Quarter, you find El Born, a neighborhood that has been restored and embellished. It is home to the Picasso Museum, where you can see artwork from his early years (Picasso spent his youth in Barcelona). Be sure to walk through the 700-year-old Carrer de la Montcada, which houses grand galleries and sophisticated bars.

At the sea edge of La Rambla, south of El Born, you find the monument to Christopher Columbus, then the waterfront.

Facing the Mediterranean Sea, you notice a commercial area with numerous malls in what is called Port Vell, next to the water. Feel like shopping? This is a good place to find affordable items. You will also find the aquarium and the Maremagnum, a complex of stores, eateries, bars and discos.

Facing the port, another neighborhood called La Barceloneta is to your left. Once a group of warehouses, it harbors pricey seafood restaurants and blue-collar housing in amazingly narrow blocks. Beyond that is the beach, which bubbles with sun seekers.

On the other side of Placa de Catalunya, there is a dramatic change in the streetscape, as the view becomes that of modernist buildings and streets laid out in a grid. It's L'Eixample (the extension), a district divided by Passeig de Gracia and its elegant stores, tapas bars, cafes and restaurants.

This is a different face of Barcelona. Modernisme is the main architectural style, and it's a delight to the eye. For Barcelonians, L'Eixample can mean a place to live, a place to work, a place to enjoy the nightlife and especially, a place to shop. Unfortunately, most everything is expensive.

What can we do here on the cheap? Try walking. In just one block on Passeig de Gracia you can admire the facades of three architectural wonders: Gaudi's extraordinary Casa Batllo, with its undulating lines and balconies resembling jawbones; Puig i Cadafalch's Casa Amatller and its geometrically tiled top floor and, at the corner, Domenech i Montaner's Casa Lleo Morera, with its magnificent windows and bulging balconies.

To see what's inside these and other modernist buildings, you can buy a Ruta del Modernisme ticket that gives you access to these and other buildings, as well as other museums and attractions, at half-price within 30 days. The price is 3.61 euros for adults, 2.40 euros for students and senior citizens.

A couple of blocks away on the same street you find Casa Mila, or La Pedrera, another Gaudi marvel. It's so convoluted and striking, it's difficult to describe. But think of the movie "Star Wars." You will feel you are in outer space. Gaudi practically eliminated any straight lines in the architecture, from staircases to floors to ceilings.

Following the work of Gaudi, you have to see Sagrada Familia, a cathedral, still unfinished, more than a century in the making. Inspired by Gothic cathedrals, this church's design is unique, with its swirling towers and busy details.

Ten blocks from Casa Mila, Sagrada Familia has eight finished towers which represent the apostles (four others are to be built). Drawings show that more towers are part of the original design, with the tallest representing God as the central axis.

Work continues, but what you can see already is enough to take your breath away. It looks as if its towers were made of sand eroded by the wind. And still the overall effect remains solid and imposing.

Eight euros buys you a visit from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. during the colder months. The site is open until 8 p.m. from April through September.

If you're looking for more Gaudi at an even more reasonable price, visit Parc Guell, which is free. Originally conceived as a garden city, two homes were built in a setting supposed to hold 60. The park makes you feel as if you are in a fairyland, with its curved benches, fountains and plazas covered by colorful mosaics and sculptures of real and mythological creatures. From the park, you can stare out over the city to the Mediterranean and feel the pure and clean air.

If you're looking for a smoke-free environment, try Starbucks. There are three of them, the only smoke-free places I found in Barcelona.


On board the Silver Whisper, of course, it’s a different story again. I knew I was going to like the Whisper as soon as I stepped into our suite. Our stateroom, like all others, had a walk-in closet - a feature that instantly convinced my wife that we were truly on a classy ship. Our bathroom was equipped with double sinks as well as a tub and separate shower - notice, not EITHER a tub or shower, but BOTH.

Beyond the sitting area with its plush sofa and chairs was a veranda, a nice place to read a book or enjoy a cocktail while gazing at the restless sea. The mini-bar was pre-stocked with sodas and liquor of our choice, and canapes were delivered to our suite every day at 4 p.m. Sometimes it was hard to leave our room.

But of course we did, and found the rest of the ship just as elegant as our stateroom. Soft colors and rich woods gave the public rooms a warm feeling, and we never had to memorize fancy names for ship spaces. The decks were numbered, not named, the bar was simply The Bar, the restaurant was The Restaurant, the spa was The Spa, The Humidor was the cigar smokers' den, the Terrace Cafe had a terrace and the Panoroma Lounge indeed provided a panoramic view. Simplicity can be elegant.

It and its sister ship, the Silver Shadow, are the line's largest vessels, but with a maximum of 382 passengers they'll never threaten today's giant cruise ships, which can carry more than 3,000.

Which is how its guests like it. Luxury cruises do not come cheaply, and Silver Whisper's clientele are discriminating yet very down-to-earth people, we learned.

Such people demand a certain level of excellence, and they get it aboard the Silver Whisper.

First, they demand service that is several cuts above that on mainstream ships. Our cabin attendant, a young Italian woman, was always around with a happy smile, making sure our needs were met. Dining room waiters did their job with skill and pleasantry, even knowing that tipping is a no-no on all Silversea ships. A room service meal was just as fine as the restaurant's, and if they said it would be there in 10 minutes, it was.

We generally took a buffet breakfast in the Terrace Cafe, which transformed itself in the evening to an elegant, reservations-only alternative restaurant. We often took lunch on the pool deck, and I thought it was sort of incongruous - considering that people were in shorts or bathing suits - that waiters stood by to carry our plate of hot dogs, potato salad or whatever to our table, just as they did in the dining room. A nice touch, though.

In the evening, we took most of our meals in the dining room, where the menu was inventive, the food excellently prepared, the choices broad and the service impeccable. I was particularly impressed with a cannelloni that was delicate in taste and texture. Lifting an ordinary dish like this one to such heights was, I think, the mark of a good chef.

Complimentary wines of high quality were served with lunch and dinner, with the sommelier choosing ones to complement the entrees. But passengers could order different selections if they chose, also complimentary. Bottles of rarer wines like the grand crus, however, carried charges that ran as high as US$785 a bottle. Yes, there were people who ordered them.

In the Mandara spa, services were keyed to a high level. Businessmen breaking away from their workday gruel might go for an Executive Men's Facial to smooth out those pinstripe worries. Women could luxuriate in a Javanese Honey Steam Wrap treatment, which uses cinnamon, ginger, sea salt, coffee, honey and steam, or go for a Hot Lava Rock Massage, in which spa personnel massage client's bodies with steamed lava stones covered with a blend of rich cocoa butter. Luxury? Yes, indeed.

Onboard diversions ran along traditional lines. Books, magazines, games and movie video tapes were available in the library. Daily bridge games attracted several tables of players. Trivia quizzes, musical and otherwise, were popular, and in the evening we enjoyed pre-dinner and post-dinner shows in the two-story show lounge. Other than the fitness room and the pool, there were few activities for more active passengers. Shore excursions, too, were more geared to the older travelers the ship caters to.

On sum, Silversea gave us an experience well above what we've had on any other ship.
It doesn't get any better.

SILVER WHISPER
Gross tonnage: 28,258 tons.
Length: 186 metres.
Beam (width): 25 metres.
Passenger decks: 7.
Passenger capacity: 382.

GETTING THERE:
Lance Green at New Zealand’s Viaggio has managed to secure berths on Silver Whisper for kiwis wanting to see New Zealand win back the America’s Cup on the Mediterranean. Green, who has extensive background in the cruise industry, argues the liner’s smaller size and upmarket décor make it the perfect viewing platform for the America’s Cup, allowing guests the advantage of both watching live from the decks as the yachts duel their way past, and also the close-up action on the live TV coverage on the ship and in the suites.
“Throw in the fact that we’ve secured a package with no hidden costs, in NZ dollars, and we’re confident this is simply the best way to see the races, bar none.”
Ph 0800 100799

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2007

Curacao: Jan 07 issue

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Under the peel in Curacao: The sweet parts of an island that's not just beaches and banks


Toni Salama discovers an unspoilt Caribbean paradise

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao - The fruit of the laraha orange tastes so bad even the island's wild goats don't bother it. I really don't blame them. But the peel - ah, that's a different matter.

First, you use a wooden knife to cut the peel away and slice it into sections. It has to be wood; a metal knife would ruin things. You dry the peels in jute bags. Then, in a small copper still, you cook them until a clear liquid condenses. Color it, bottle it, seal it - everything's done by hand - and you've got the real thing, a liqueur that can only be made on Curacao, the original "Curacao of Curacao," so named to shame all pretenders.
Its old-fashioned bottles look better suited to sailors' grog: a long neck tapering up from a canteen-shaped bowl. They've gone around the world, these bottles have, each one an ambassador of this small Caribbean island, every sip an invitation: "Come and see us. Come and see us."
Curacao (kur-a-SOW) is an odd cobble of contrasts where bright Caribbean colors splash across stalwart Dutch row houses, and Venezuelan farmers hawk the fruit of their labors in a floating market next to a plaza where Afro-Caribe artists sell their wares. It's a place of stray goats and oil refineries, cactus forests and synagogues, secluded beaches and international banks. It's crawling with lizards, croaking with frogs, brimming with smiles, dripping with history and comes to a standstill during Saturday night traffic jams.
You wouldn't think so, but you can learn some lifelong lessons from a place like this. The distillery is as good a spot as any to start.
LESSON 1: If life hands you larahas, make a liqueur
The Spaniards arrived on Curacao in 1499, and their plans for the island soon included planting groves of oranges, sweet Valencias, in fact. But Curacao's desert climate and stubborn soil transformed the foreign fruit into a bitter mess. It took a Frenchman to unlock the potential of what had come to be called the laraha orange. Later, the Senor family, now Senor & Co., entered the picture with a closely guarded liqueur recipe and an 1896 copper still, both of which the company uses to this day.
The entire distillation process takes only five or six days and is carried out in a space no bigger than a two-stall garage, at the back of what once was the manor house Chobolobo. I happened to drop by on my own just as a shore excursion of Americans from the Princess Star arrived. We watched a laraha-cutting demonstration and were then given free reign to sample the 31-proof end product from little plastic cups. You can taste for yourself that there's no flavor variation among the shocking red, electric green, hypnotic gold or crystal clear permutations of this drink. Close your eyes, and they all taste just like the original, spicy orange with a satin finish, colored an irresistible Caribbean blue.
Even so, it's hard to spend more than half an hour here, no matter how many samples you try.
LESSON 2: Any day you don't have to eat an iguana is a good day
Manor houses, a.k.a. plantation houses or landhuizen in the island's official Dutch, are from another of Curacao's passing eras. Like the Spaniards' orange trees, they've survived, but not as originally intended. I counted 27 of them scattered around the island, though there are bound to be more. The easiest to find, as long as you're doing the driving, are between the capital city of Willemstad and Westpunt, the westernmost tip of the island.
I wish I could give you a highway number. But Curacao is only 40 miles long and 10 miles wide. The locals, population 135,000, don't need numbers; and foreigners can just follow the signs. The best I can tell you is that the two-lane pavement rides the island's spine.
The back story on Landhuis Daniel is that it was built by a shipwrecked Englishman in 1650 or so. Things didn't work out - the things being farming and ranching - so the place was abandoned to the cactus and the trade winds. Its current owner, a Dutch biologist-turned-innkeeper/chef, restored the place in 1997. He transformed the plantation house and slave quarters into a complex of yellow ochre facades, white trim and terra cotta roof tiles.
There's lodging in the main building or in the former slave quarters, swimming in the pool and dining on the terrace, all in a setting very much the-middle-of-nowhere.
Farther along the road to Westpunt, the former plantation house of Dokterstuin, restored in 1996, is now a restaurant that serves authentic Curacao cuisine. Like most of its kind, the plantation house was built on a hilltop to catch the breeze and keep an eye on its neighbors and on the plantation itself, meaning its slaves. After emancipation in 1863, the former slaves leased the farm plots - long since overgrown - from the government.
Most people you'll encounter on Curacao will speak English, but the open-air restaurant on a shaded back porch is an inconspicuous spot to eavesdrop as the servers talk among themselves in Papiamentu, a rhythmic "stew" of a language derived from the melding of several African and European tongues.
Dokterstuin's menu is truly Curacaoan: cabbage, squash, cucumbers, papaya, spinach and plantain, served alone or in concert, vegetarian style or with pork tail, or as a side to stewed goat meat. These stick-to-your-ribs dishes come accompanied by a sizable mound of funchi, a cornmeal staple. They were out of yuana stoba, stewed iguana, when I was there.
Keep following the road to Westpunt and you'll discover that the route works out to be a scenic loop that eventually reconnects to itself near Landhuis Daniel. You can head back to Willemstad from the intersection. But before that, you should spend some time in nature exploring the western end of the island.
LESSON 3: You don't have to climb every mountain ...
Driving on Curacao is an adventure. You can count on dodging a herd or two of stray goats, perhaps half a dozen iguanas and innumerable whiptail lizards of varying sizes. But at least you don't have to worry about hurricanes. Curacao is so far south and west, so close to South America (on a clear day you can see the mountains of Venezuela) that most tropical storms figure it's not worth the bother. Consequently, the weather here is the active traveler's best friend.
Rugged outdoorsmen can tackle Christoffel National Park. Several companies run jeep tours or you can drive it yourself and stop at any of eight trails for hikes and nature walks. Those who get an early start can make the estimated two- to three-hour climb to the island's highest point, 1,230-foot Mt. Christoffel, before the day gets too hot.
The park was once a group of several plantations, and ruins from those days remain. Along the hikes you also might see petroglyphs, mahogany trees, sabal palms and wild orchids - rare things all. There's even a place from which you can spy on the Curacao white-tailed deer (some 250 of them), believed to have been brought here from South America centuries ago by the Arawaks, the same pre-Western-contact Indian tribe that left the petroglyphs.
Travelers saving their best efforts for the beach will be satisfied with a couple of low-impact land treks: the Hato Caves, which have formed natural pools and waterfalls, and/or Shete Boka Park. A short walk at Shete Boka leads to a damp and slippery sea cave where runaway slaves once hid. There's also an area where you can feed the iguanas.
The bottom part of that scenic loop I mentioned includes the short drive between Westpunt and Soto. It runs through a landscape worthy of "The X Files," a bizarre forest of multi-branched cactus, whose gray-tinted limbs rise eerily above a deep green tangle of tropical-looking vegetation. This drive also puts you on the southern coast of the island, the entire length of which is set with small beaches, some of which have facilities and rent palapas, beach furniture, floats and snorkel gear.
All this stuff is west of Willemstad. That means there is also a part of Curacao that is east of Willemstad. But with the exception of the area round Jan Sofat, the eastern end of the island is best left to those who live there.
You're better off spending the rest of your time in Willemstad.
LESSON 4: If your building gives you a migraine, paint it blue
Willemstad is a city divided. The local population probably wouldn't make this comparison, but, like Paris, Willemstad has a Left and a Right Bank. They've just given them Dutch names: Otrobanda on the left, Punda on the right and the long channel of St. Annabaai between them.
It's Punda's St. Annabaai waterfront that you see on all the postcards: a chorus line of respectable Dutch row houses flaunting a fruit-cocktail of colors. The buildings got their paint jobs, so the story goes, after the sun glaring off the once-white surfaces gave his lordship the governor a headache. Turns out the old dude held stock in a paint company.
By day, there's shopping: duty-free and local crafts and tacky souvenirs and Venezuelan produce right at the boat. By night, when the buildings are outlined with lights, there's music, a world beat of styles that flow from the open-air bars and karaoke cafes.
The whole area is a historic treasure - officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site - compact and easily explored on foot. In no time, you'll find Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. Founded in 1732, its interior is flush with mahogany furnishings, appearing all the richer in the wonderful golden light that streams through renovated windows. The Jewish Historical & Cultural Museum is right next door in another historic building, where a mikvah, or ritual bath, was uncovered after years of disuse. Who knew that at one time half the white population here was Jewish? Some of the items displayed in the museum are even older than the synagogue itself: a Torah scroll that may have left Spain in 1492, a silver spice box from 1704. You can buy locally made mezuzas in the gift shop.
Compared to Mikve Israel, nearby Fort Church is a Johnny-come-lately, having been built only in 1769, though its Dutch Protestant congregation began meeting more than 100 years earlier. This, the oldest church on Curacao, is no slouch in the mahogany and silver-vessel departments, either, and has the further recommendation of being part of a real fort, Ft. Amsterdam.
This town has fortifications all over the place. Also in Punda, a structure called the Waterfront Arches, part of Water Fort, built in 1634 and replaced in 1827, now houses bars and eateries. Following St. Annabaai inland, you'll find Ft. Nassau, built in 1797 on a peninsula in Schottegat Bay. Except for the restaurant and bar, which afford grand views in all directions, this coral stone fort hasn't changed much in the intervening years. It even has its original toilets - square holes cut in an overhang. Don't worry. Nobody is expecting you to use them.
When you are ready to cross over to Otrobanda, you can drive across the modern Ring Road bridge, board a free passenger ferry or hoof it across the 700-foot-long Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, reputedly the largest floating pedestrian bridge in the world.
Otrobanda's 1828 Riffort, yet another fort, rises at the foot of the pontoon bridge. Far from intimidating people, Riffort now is home to shops, a radio station and a small French/Swiss restaurant, Bistro Le Clochard, with barrel vaulted ceilings, rustic chandeliers and a waiter who sheepishly apologized to me that the catch of the day was "only" red snapper steamed in a banana leaf.
LESSON 5: If you ever get locked in a museum at closing time, enjoy the sculpture garden till help arrives
It's hard to imagine any place upstaging a bunch of old forts. But you never imagined any place like Hotel Kura Hulanda. This is a restored neighborhood, in fact another of Curacao's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It's also a hotel, one that takes the form of a village where you can walk the original lanes and alleys, relax in open courtyards and stay in rooms or suites that would have been shops and homes a couple of hundred years ago. It's also a complex of some of the island's finest and most expensive restaurants. And it's home to the largest African history museum in the Caribbean.
I spent four nights at Kura Hulanda. The room was spacious and air-conditioned, the bed comfortable, the bath large, the television already tuned to "Law & Order." And I scarcely slept a wink because of the frogs. I never actually saw the frogs. They made their presence known by their infernal, diabolical, incessant croaking through the night.
You'd have thought the frogs were problem enough. But then I got locked in the African History Museum because I underestimated the time it would take to see all the exhibits. The woman there tried to tell me that I should come back in the morning, but I wouldn't hear of it. All she could do was shake her head as I paid the admission. How was I to know that this tiny island, and this neighborhood within a neighborhood, could fill 15 buildings and 16,000 square feet with artifacts and displays? It turned out to be one of the finest small museums I've ever visited.
Exhibits trace African history beginning with ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia and Egypt all the way through 19th century wood and bronze sculptures from a rainbow of West African nations. I especially remember a bust from Benin. Special displays follow the trans-Atlantic slave trade from captures in Africa to sales in the New World, and the museum doesn't gloss over Curacao's grim role as one of the Caribbean's largest, if not the largest, slave markets.
In fact, the museum sits on the site of a former slave yard, and one of its most wrenching exhibits is a reconstruction of two pillars where slaves newly arrived from Africa would have been sold, and where any who objected to their lot would have been whipped.
I think the place must have closed for the day while I was either going down inside the re-created hold of a Middle Passage slave ship or when I was fitting my wrists into rusty slave manacles in another display.
The irony of my situation grew even stronger as I peered through sturdy iron fencing asking passersby to send for help. As I waited, I was just glad that the admissions woman couldn't see me. She's probably still shaking her head.
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IF YOU GO:
High season rates generally prevail mid-December through mid-April.
GETTING AROUND: Curacao is well suited to exploring on your own, so rent a car. Road signs are in English, and Curacao drivers are extremely patient and courteous. But stray goat herds may take over the roads at any time, even in populated areas.
A four-day Alamo compact on Curacao cost me US$132 last November. You may pay more in high season. When you are ready for a rugged outing, you can join one of several four-wheel-drive tours that operate here. Most cost less than US$50/person.
CURRENCY: U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
STAYING THERE: Travelers who enjoy "collecting" hotels will find great variety here. Hotel Kura Hulanda (www.kurahulanda.com), in Willemstad's Otrobanda district, is a member of Leading Small Hotels of the World and offers unique lodging in the buildings of a restored historic district, from US$240 in high season (I got a standard room for nearly half that in low season). It's within walking distance of all the historic sites of Willemstad. There's a sister property, Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club (same contact info), on the far western tip of the island at Westpunt. Set apart from the rest of Westpunt, it's a rather new, breezy resort with a small beach and rates from $225 in high season.
You can have your history and a picture-perfect secluded beach at Avila Beach Hotel (www .avilahotel.com), on the less pedestrian end of Willemstad. Rooms in the historic main building start at US$120 in high season (there's a catch: modern plumbing but no hot water). Completely modern rooms in other parts of the resort start at $260 in high season.
Landhuis Daniel Country Inn & Restaurant (daniellh@cura.net; www.landhuisdaniel.com) is one of the island's oldest plantation houses. Its eight rooms have private baths and start at $35 with fan and $45 with air conditioning. Add $6/person for breakfast or $25/person for half-board (breakfast and dinner).
Larger chain hotels include Hilton, Howard Johnson and Marriott. Other small - to midsize properties cater to scuba divers. And there are several B&Bs and vacation rentals.
Expect to pay 19 percent in lodging taxes at most places.
MORE INFORMATION: Curacao Tourism Corporation, www.curacao.com

Posted by Ian Wishart at 03:09 PM | Comments (0)

July 26, 2006

Lost in the Amazon: Dec 05 issue

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Amazon immersion

Richard Scheinin visits a treetop eco-lodge as he explores the untamed river

ON THE RIO NEGRO, BRAZIL - I was fortunate while in the Amazon to have Michael Kartwright as my guide. Ex-gold miner, ex-diver, and ex-cowboy - a "legendary Third World fixer," I’d been told, a man who would open doors, take me anywhere I wanted to go, and, best of all, educate me about what I was seeing. I envisioned Kartwright as some kind of wild man.

But here he was aboard a small ferryboat chugging from Manaus, the Amazonian metropolis of two million, toward a distant portion of jungle, and he was instead the epitome of erudition and charm. He was 51, a spark plug of a man. Born in Guyana to parents of East Indian descent, he spoke in a clipped staccato rush that reminded me of rapid rhythms coaxed from a tabla drum by a master musician.

Crossing the Rio Negro, which seemed wide as an ocean, he held forth on Amazonia's geologic history, on tectonic plates and tributary sources, on indigenous tribes, dolphins, reptiles and fish, including the 500 types of catfish that swim the rivers here. Cracking open a couple beers and handing me one, he said cheerily that the largest catfish is the piraiba, which can grow to more than six feet and has been known to drag swimming children to the bottoms of rivers and swallow them whole. Kartwright also explained why I wasn't being consumed by mosquitoes: The Rio Negro's waters, dark as leather, are loaded with decaying vegetative matter and tannic acid, which makes it hard for the bugs to survive.

This absence of bugs was delighting me as was the temperature - a righteous heat, cleansing but not killing - as we passed through the Rio Negro's narrowest strait and approached our destination. There it was, straight ahead: the Ariau Amazon Towers, a treetop hotel rising from the jungle canopy.

It was about the strangest thing I'd ever seen: five circular towers that resemble lopsided wedding cakes, topped with tin roofs painted in tropical blues and greens, all linked by long, narrow wooden catwalks that swayed slightly as the swelling river's waters lapped beneath them. The place brought to mind a primitive space station, and all the visitors who had accompanied us on our 60km ride from Manaus grew silent as the ferry glided through the shady creeks that crisscross the miles of hotel property. We slid past a soccer field that floats on pontoons and a 20-metre reinforced, wooden tower that guests must climb to reach "Tarzan's House" - Ariau's version of a penthouse suite. I'd spent the previous two weeks in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, big cities with generic big-city hotels, and I was immediately charmed by the fact that Ariau (pronounced AH-ree-ah-OO) was pleasingly out-of-kilter, almost jerry-built, it seemed, yet somehow durable and waiting to give me an adventure.

The "eco-lodge" was designed in the mid-`80s by an influential lawyer and financier in Manaus, Francisco Ritta Bernardino, who is also a remarkable and quirky artist and architect. In 1982, the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau had told Bernardino that he would capture a lucrative market with a hotel such as this, built from strong-as-iron tropical woods, and drawing water for its showers and swimming pools from artesian wells. The hotel does its best to enhance the jungle; garbage is still burned to ashes and used as fertilizer or fed to pigs at a farm upriver. There is almost no visible concrete or plastic.

Kartwright was hired several years ago to direct a staff of 15 guides at Ariau. Even before I had a chance to wash up, he wanted to show me a few things. There was the thatched, open-air "cultural center" where Olivia Newton-John once led a couple hundred guests in song. There was the floating menagerie - actually, an animal rescue operation for indigenous birds, cats and monkeys - that had fascinated actress Susan Sarandon a few months earlier. (Kartwright, naturally, was her guide.)

I couldn't help noticing that the catwalks were crawling with monkeys - gray woolly monkeys, each about two feet tall, leaping about like squirrels to the delight of arriving children. I had been warned that these monkeys like to open unlocked doors and destroy the possessions of guests. Kartwright called them "happy, but mischievous." He also pointed out a couple of small, skinny spider monkeys, and told me that they are fertile only two months a year ("Man should be like that; we'd have a whale of a time!"). He led me to the dining hall for a massive buffet lunch of catfish stew, salads, beans, chicken dishes and coconut flan. Then he sent me to my room, where I found that the air conditioning wasn't working, turned on a fan, peeled off my clothes, checked out the jungle vistas and plopped down on my bed for a nap. Above my head, I spotted a piece of paper tacked to the wall. On it were printed 11 "Rules for Hotel." I concentrated on No. 7: "Do not swim or play in the water close to the hotel; there are big caimans around."

After my nap, I dodged the monkeys and hurried to meet Kartwright in the breezy lobby. I'm a religion writer and, in a series of e-mails a few weeks earlier, I had asked him if he might arrange a meeting with a local Indian shaman of the Tariano tribe. I was particularly interested in learning about the indigenous tradition of using a natural hallucinogen called ayahuasca as a means to access the spirit world for divination and healing. I thought this was a fairly exotic request, but Kartwright wrote back, "No problem!" And now we were about to go meet the shaman.

We headed up the Ariau River - a tributary of the Rio Negro - in a small outboard, passing miles of flooded forest, waving to families who live in tiny cabins perched on stilts. After about an hour, Kartwright pulled our river taxi onto a small beach of orange-brown clay and there he was, the shaman, hands stuffed shyly into the pockets of his shorts. He shook our hands, then motioned for us to sit on a couple of tree stumps. I should feel free to ask any questions I wanted, he told Kartwright, who translated. The shaman called himself Caree. He broke off a branch from a nearby bush; this was the caapi vine, from which the hallucinogenic tea is derived. It is ritually pounded and ground to form the basis for the brew, which is extraordinarily powerful and was used ceremonially in the village where he grew up, hundreds of kilometers upriver. Here, near Ariau, he lives with only a few family members and feels very distant from tribal rituals like those involving the caapi vine. In fact, many Indians along the river have become evangelical Christians, abandoning ayahuasca and much else.

We were sitting in front of a thatch-roofed, dirt-floored house. On the planks of its outer walls there were swirling patterns painted with thick clay-based pigments of pink, black and ocher. The patterns practically vibrated. Caree said they were representations of the demonic visions one sometimes sees under the influence of ayahuasca. Entranced as a young man, he once saw waves of blood rolling toward him. He struggled to pass through the blood - and then met his father, dead 15 years, who calmed his fears and recited the tenets of right living to his son. Caree wasn't sad or dramatic as he told his stories. He smiled easily, fine lines creasing his copper skin. It occurred to me that the shaman, 65 years old, was happy to be distracted by strangers on this quiet, drizzly afternoon.

We talked for about an hour, thanked him, and headed back down river. It was almost dusk and I noticed that the remaining light was playing on the water in funny ways. It was setting off patterns of undulating shadows in the dark moving waters - rocking, spiraling patterns that looked a lot like the ones painted on Caree's house.

There was a similar surreal quality to many of our outings. One night at 11, we boarded the outboard and headed out under a full moon into the flooded forest. Kartwright brought along two young guides to help him lasso the crocodile-like caimans that he hoped to catch.

We putt-putted through narrow forest passageways, brushing against hanging branches of massive trees, and listened to the night sounds of the jungle. No one spoke. One guide sat in the back of the boat, navigating, while the other, named Levi, stood silhouetted beneath the moon at the front of the craft. He held up a flashlight, which he planned on using to blind the caimans.

Then we emerged from the forest into a large lake. We listened to a frog song - high-pitched chirping that sounded like the squeaky sounds of samba drums. The moon and a million stars illuminated the lake. Floating hyacinths abounded. Levi's light accented the outlines of denuded trees, their branches poking out akimbo above the surface of the water. It was eerie, a midnight theme park in the middle of nowhere.

We approached the banks of the lake now, making plenty of noise to scare up a caiman or two. Levi leaned precariously over the edge of the boat, peering into the waters.

"Stay there!" Mike shouted at me. He leaped to Levi's side with a rope in his hand and, before I knew it, was trying to get the lasso around a caiman's neck. There was a lot of splashing and thrashing. Kartwright was laughing; he shouted that the critter was "only" two metres. But it got away.

This happened two or three times. The caimans were wily tonight. Finally, we settled for a baby - less than two feet long and looking a bit frightened, it thrashed about in Kartwright's grip, then settled down. My guide explained that its tail was "good eating." Then he held forth, alternating English and Portuguese, on the animal's metabolism. It has a variable heart rate that it controls "like a yoga master." This white caiman - which Kartwright released into the water a few minutes later - can live to an age of 65 or 70 years and grow to nine feet in length, he said. The more formidable black caimans can live a century and reach six metres.

"Last year," he said, "one came up slowly behind a fisherman on the bank, knocked him in the water with its tail, and killed him."

Earlier that day, Kartwright had told me that he enjoys swimming in this lake, because caimans "rarely attack." We all take risks, I suppose. I rode the New York City subways for years.

But I grew a little uneasy one morning when Kartwright told me quietly that an anaconda had slithered out of the water somewhere on the hotel grounds and coiled itself around a gray woolly monkey. "Sank the monkey, drowned the monkey, ate the monkey."

Still, as my visit went on, I wondered if some of these Amazonian risks I'd been hearing about were mere titillation for tourists. After all, I was in the hands of pros. Ariau wasn't going to let me get hurt. I was having an orchestrated adventure, and that was fine with me.

I spent much of my time like the other guests, benignly soaking up the heat and the astonishingly glorious surroundings. Kartwright took me miles out into the middle of the Rio Negro at sunrise, where we were quickly surrounded by a school of leaping, gray dolphins. He took me for a walk in the rain forest, hacking and scraping at vines so that he could deliver a walking lecture on ethnobotany. This vine cures menstrual cramps. That one relieves drunkenness.

One morning, toucans shot past us on the river as we headed toward a local village. Kartwright was telling a story about Bill Gates - he stayed at Ariau a couple years ago, arriving in a private yacht with a security contingent - when he spotted something high up in a towering tree. He pulled the boat to the river bank, pointed way up into the branches at a basking iguana, and started slamming the water with a paddle. The ruckus startled the animal, big as a dog, so that it divebombed from 20 metres up, disappearing into the water with a great splash.

These were good times.

I grew to particularly love the trips through the winding passages of the flooded forest. Kartwright knew them inside out.

He knew where to fish for piranhas.

We stopped one afternoon, deep in the forest, in a passage where the water was ink-black and motionless. We could hear a pack of howler monkeys in the distance, thrashing and hooting through the treetops.

One minute, the flooded forest was noisy like that. The next, it was totally silent. Kartwright handed me a bamboo pole with a string and hook attached to it. He handed one to Levi, who accompanied us on most expeditions, then took one for himself.

Fishing for piranhas turned out to be easy, and I'm no fisherman. All you do is attach a piece of gizzard to the hook, flick the string into the jet-black water and - bam! bam! bam! - the piranhas hit.

I quickly pulled in one of the mean little suckers. It was surprisingly small - maybe five inches long - for a fish that inspires so much dread. Levi and Kartwright pulled them in one after another. Pretty soon we had a pile of piranhas on the bottom of the boat.

That night in the dining room, I had a surprise.
As we sat down to dinner, the chef arrived at our table with a large, steaming bowl of soup. Half a dozen red-bellied beasts floated on the surface.
They were piranhas.
I blanched.
Kartwright looked me straight in the eyes.
"Lovely eating," he said with a smile. "Dig in."

Posted by Ian Wishart at 09:25 PM | Comments (0)