5 Great Winter Destinations

Have you recently found yourself researching flights to great winter destinations? Well, if you’re looking for a place to head for vacation this winter and haven’t yet settled on where, there are plenty of great options offering everything from snowy peaks to sand beaches. If you can’t quite make-up your mind on what best suits you, here are 5 great winter destinations that are bound to impress.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/9997823784/

Iceland

For those willing to head deeper into the winter dark, the North Atlantic country of Iceland has some wonderful natural wonders to offer, including the world-famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, a number of breathtaking volcanoes, the stunning Gulfoss waterfall, as well as Thingvellir National Park, which was once home to Viking Althing, the parliament which was first held here in 930 AD.

Greece

Greece is home to a number of important historical sites, including the Athenian Acropolis, which houses such buildings as the Parthenon, as well as the Delphi Archaeological Site, which sits on the slopes of the beautiful Mount Parnassus and holds the temple of Apollo. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, then consider heading to one of the Greek islands, where you’ll be able to enjoy life as the locals do outside of the booming tourist season.

Italy

There is never a bad time to visit Italy, and as this country attracts millions of tourists a year, heading here in the off-season will not only make your travels cheaper, but it will also cut down on queues for many of the major sites, such as the Duomo and Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and tours of the Vatican and Colosseum in Rome. Venice is also a wonderful city to visit in the winter, as the canals and narrow walkways create a whole new misty atmosphere in the cold weather.

Croatia

Croatia might be best known for its beautiful Dalmatian coast, and while there is still plenty of things to do and see along the coastline and in cities like Dubrovnik, in the northeast of the country, just outside the capital of Dubrovnik, you’ll find the wonderful Mount Sljeme, a ski resort which features offerings for all levels, from beginner to expert. If you’re stuck halfway between a winter-sports vacation and a trip to the coast, then Croatia might be the place for you.

Phuket, Thailand

Thailand

There are few countries that can match the type of winter weather that you’ll find in Thailand, where this season actually provides the country with its most comfortable and enjoyable climate. With some of the  world’s best beaches, extremely kind locals, delicious food, and luxurious resorts and hotels, if you’re looking to trade-in the cold and dark of winter for a traditional beach getaway, there is no better place to head.

Wherever you decide to go for your upcoming winter break, be sure to plan in advance to ensure you get all the best deals possible.

Images by Moyan Brenn and Jeff Gunn used under the Creative Commons license. 

Stonehenge, Repackaged

Stonehenge was a bit of a disappointment when I saw it in 2011 and for several days after, I tried to figure out why.

One thought was that Stonehenge could not compare to the inflated images I had in my head – images that had been shaped by television, stories I had read and my own very fertile imagination.

Another was that my mind was still fresh from seeing the Eiffel Tower a few days earlier. Unlike Stonehenge, I hadn’t longed to see it or created personal myths around it. It was a blank slate, and when I finally saw it up close, its size left me speechless – and that’s not easy.

The Eiffel Tower soared over the city of Paris like the centerpiece on a spread of buildings against which I could make a quick, visual comparison. I could appreciate its towering scale.

Except for a line of trees in the distance, there is no structure near Stonehenge that I could compare it to, and the flat, open plain that surrounds it makes its 50-ton stones, which are nearly 30 feet high, seem stunted.

The entrance to the monument was unremarkable. My only memory of it was seeing a drawing depicting how Stonehenge would have looked when it was intact.

The Repackaging of Stonehenge

Since my last visit, Stonehenge has had a long overdue overhaul (from some articles I read, it was nearly 30 years in the making).

A handsome new £27,000,000 ($41,000,000) Visitor Center, which echoes the design of Stonehenge’s iconic trilithons, now greets visitors. It houses a ticket office, exhibition space displaying more than 250 artifacts found at the site, a gift shop, gallery, café and restroom facilities.

Since most people never get to see Stonehenge from inside the circle, there is an audio-visual presentation that simulates the view during the summer and winter solstices. During my visit in August, there was an exhibition of postcards, guidebooks and photographs chronicling the different ways that we have experienced and interpreted Stonehenge over the years.

A recreated Neolithic village of thatched cottages occupies a prominent space just outside the Visitor Center. Appropriately, there’s a gigantic sarsen stone that visitors are invited to try to pull. Even though the stone sits atop logs – experts’ best theory of how the builders of Stonehenge moved those massive stones – it was still difficult to move it.

Stonehenge sarsen stone
Larsen stone – Think you can move this?
Stonehenge moving the sarsen stone
Not as easy as it looks

To provide access to the now roped-off stone circle, a trolley service ferries visitors the mile and a half trip from the Visitor Center. The monument is also wheel-chair accessible.

Rounding out the repackaging of Stonehenge, is a larger parking lot that can accommodate cars and tour buses. A minor road that ran through the site has also been closed.

These improvements make Stonehenge the first class facility it always should have been. However, I was shocked by the crass commercialization that it has embraced. To me, mead and curd fit better into the milieu they’ve created than Stonehenge water, shortbread or cheap-looking Made in China baubles.

Linking this week with Travel Photo Thursday hosted by Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox, Jan at Budget Travel Talk, Ruth at Tanama Tales and, Rachel at Rachel’s Ruminations 

Budget Travelers Sandbox
 
Also linking to Weekend Travel Inspiration hosted by Rhonda at Albom Adventures, Reflections Enroute, The Crowded Planet, Contented Traveller, Safari24, Families Go! and Malaysian Meanders. 
 
 

 

Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites, Pt II

After leaving Stonehenge, we drove through the English countryside towards Bath, arriving there just before lunch. Named  World Heritage Site in 1987, Bath is a picturesque city located on the Avon River in Southwest England, and part of the south Cotswolds. Its well-known Great Bath (Bath Spa) and historic Georgian structures attract more than 250,000 visitors annually. 

What Not to Miss in Bath:

  • The Royal Crescent – Designed by John Wood the Younger, between 1767 and 1774, the 30 Georgian style terraced houses are laid out in a crescent shape.
  • The Circus – John Wood the Elder began construction on the Circus, a group of Georgian style townhouses arranged in a circle, in 1754 but died before he could complete it. His son, John Wood the Younger, finished it in 1768
  • Bath Abbey – The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was founded in the 7th century.
  • Pulteney Bridge – Completed in 1774, the bridge is one of four in the world that have shops that span its full length on both sides.
  • Jane Austen House – the author of classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, lived in Bath from 1801 – 1806. The center on Gay Street, about a 10 minute walk from the center of town tells the story of Austen’s time in Bath. There’s also a small gift shop with Jane Austen-themed goods. A must for Austen fans!

Westbury White Horse

The Westbury White Horse was not on our itinerary but it’s hard not to miss it standing as it does against the green Westbury Hill. The horse is 180 feet tall, 170 feet wide and was carved around 1778 into the chalk soil of the area.

Westbury White Horse
Westbury White Horse

Silbury Hill

At about 5,000 years old, Silbury Hill is about 130 feet high. It is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Made primarily of clay, which is all over the area, it is still unclear why it was created.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Located near Silbury Hill – you can see the hill from the barrow – and about 2 miles from Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow is a prehistoric burial ground about 330 feet (100 meters) long. When its five chambers were excavated, the remains of about 40 adults and children who were buried around 3,600 BC were found along with grave goods, pottery and stone implements.

Avebury

I didn’t know what to expect as we headed towards Avebury from West Kennet Long Barrow. Then I noticed a few small upright stones. If this is it, I thought, I’m not impressed. But our driver kept going. Where was he going? I wondered.

As he continued, I started seeing more and more stones, planted in a row – like fence posts – and they seemed to go on and on.

Whereas the circle at Stonehenge is concentrated in a comparatively small area, Avebury’s circle and ditch are spread over nearly 30 acres.

That is impressive!

Constructed around 2600 BC, with three circles – the outer one measuring 1,088 feet, and a henge 460 feet across – Avebury is the largest stone circle in Europe. Unlike Stonehenge that is in a wide open area where you can see the circle clearly, Avebury’s circle and henge are part of the community with houses close by and a busy main road which dissects the site. 

Avebury circle and village
Part of the circle and village of Avebury

Although Avebury is free and open to the public, it wasn’t overrun by visitors as Stonehenge is. It also isn’t strictly controlled. While we were there, I saw people climbing on top of the stones, sitting on and posing for photos on them. 

If you’d like to see a real henge monument up close and without the crowds, Avebury is the place to go. 

Avebury and Stonehenge were co-listed, along with Durrington Walls, Woodhenge, West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill as Avebury, Stonehenge and Associated Sites, and were inscribed in 1986 to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Avebury, the Red Lion pub
Avebury, the Red Lion pub

Once you leave the site, walk over to the Red Lion  – look left, look right, then left again before you cross the road – and have a glass of wine, a pint or some fish and chips. It’s not hard to miss.

Avebury, Prince Charles portrait
Avebury, Prince Charles portrait at the Red Lion

PS: You won’t find a pub anywhere near Stonehenge!

Linking to Budget Travelers SandboxRachel’s Ruminations, and Tanama Tales.

Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites, Part I

I didn’t plan to return to Stonehenge – the Neolithic stone circle located on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. I’d been there only a few years ago, in 2011, to be exact. It was during that tour that I heard about Avebury.

If you like Stonehenge and have time, the guide said, you should visit Avebury. It’s quite impressive!

I was intrigued. I couldn’t imagine anything more impressive than Stonehenge. If Avebury is that impressive, I thought, why hadn’t I heard about it?

Disappointed because I was leaving London the following day, I promised that I would visit Avebury on my next trip. I started looking for a tour as soon as I knew I was going. Since all the tours I found included Stonehenge, I concluded that it’d be good to experience both. 

So early one morning in August, I boarded a small tour bus with our guide, Edward, an archeologist from Tours from Antiquity, and about 15 others for a day-long tour of Durrington Walls, Stonehenge, Bath, Silbury Hills and Avebury.

It’s clear now why the tours to Avebury include Stonehenge and I’m glad that I saw them both on the same day. With only a few miles separating them, seeing these sites together makes it easier to understand the context and appreciate their connection. 

Durrington Walls

Our first stop was Durrington Walls. Located about 2 miles from Stonehenge, it is the area where the builders of Stonehenge lived. They were hunter-gatherers who lived in thatched huts and moved around the landscape hunting red deer, wild boar, and aurochs (wild cattle, now extinct).

They’d gather in the thousands in the Durrington Walls area for the winter and summer solstices. Tests done on animal bones found there suggest the animals, some of which came from as far away as Scotland, were killed at about 9 months.

Woodhenge

Located in Durrington, about 1000 yards from Stonehenge, Woodhenge is a six-ring wooden circle that was discovered in 1925. It was built about the same time as Stonehenge and has a similar layout but it is still unclear how the site was used. The posts were of different sizes, with those in the largest ring up to 30 feet (9 m) high. Some of the posts were aligned to the direction of the summer sunrise and the winter sunset. A ditch enclosed the site, making it a true henge. 

The site was excavated by Maud Cunnington who discovered the remains of a 3 or 4-year old child (a cairn marks the spot), who Cunnington interpreted as having been sacrificed. However, scientists have not been able to analyze the remains as they were destroyed when the museum in which they were being held was bombed during World War II. Also found buried among the posts were pottery, tools made of flint, carved chalk objects, and other items of everyday use.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge has changed since my first visit. Now a sprawling new £27,000,000 (about $40,000,000) Visitor Center, a gift shop, a small museum and a replica of a prehistoric village, anchor the site. Visitors are ferried 1 1/2 miles by buses from the Visitor Center to the site of the circle.

The stones were straight ahead as we arrived at the drop-off point and with people already milling around, it was striking how small they looked in comparison to the size of the stones. 

Even though I’ve seen them before, the stones were impressive. I’m happy I visited when I did and that I was able to go inside the circle as access is now restricted, the site now roped off.

A few things to know:

  1. Although it’s called Stonehenge, strictly speaking, it isn’t a henge. A henge is a stone or wooden circle with a ditch on the inside. The ditch at Stonehenge is on the outside. Woodhenge and Avebury are true henges.
  2. Archeologists believe Stonehenge was created around 3000 BC.
  3. Stonehenge was a burial site.
  4. Stonehenge is made up of two circles – an inner circle of smaller bluestones, which weigh about 4 tons and came from the Preseli Hills, 150 miles away in Western Wales, and an outer circle of sarsen stones that weight approximately 50 tons.
  5. Trillithons is a structure created by two large vertical stones topped by a horizontal stone (a lintel). The lintels are secured ‘Lego-like’.
  6. Stonehenge and Avebury were named World Heritage sites in 1986.
  7. There is a £5,000 fine for trespassing.

Stonehenge Travel Essentials

Hours 
Mar 16 – May 31  9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Jun 1 – Aug 31  9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. 
Sept 1 – Oct 15    9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Oct 16 – Mar 15  9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
** Last admission – 2 hours before close

Admission Price: 
Adults (Free for members of English Heritage) £15.50 / $23.93
Children (5-15 years) £9.30 / $14.36
Family (2 adults, 3 children) £40.30 / $62.22

Bond in Motion at the London Film Museum

Now on view at the London Film Museum is Bond in Motion, a must-see permanent exhibition that traces the history of the franchise through the many vehicles (cars, boats, motorbikes, sleds, jets, helicopter and more) that James Bond used over the years.

I’m a huge Bond fan, but I hadn’t heard about this exhibition until I spotted an ad at a tube station in London in August, 2015. It didn’t disappoint.

As you walk into the museum, you can’t miss a helicopter hanging from the ceiling. My first thought was that it was the same one from which Major Onatopp, one of the villains in GoldenEye (1995), rappelled down to catch James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in a chokehold. But I found out that it was from Skyfall (2012).

Also on the upper mezzanine are concept art and storyboards which have never been seen before. It was exciting to see each frame of this scene in From Russia with Love (1963) one of my favorites, detailed on paper. 

Bond in Motion
Storyboard, From Russia with Love 1963
Bond in Motion Concept art, Moonraker
Concept art, Moonraker 1979

Down the stairs (you can also take an elevator) to the lower level are the vehicles – 50 of them. If you love cars, this is the place to go.

It was thrilling to see Auric Goldfinger’s classic 1937 Rolls Royce Phantom III, Goldfinger (1964). It’s as clean as a whistle as if Oddjob, his henchman or some other underling, had just finished detailing it.

Bond in Motion 1937 Rolls Royce Phantom III Goldfinger
1937 Rolls Royce Phantom III, Goldfinger 1964

Tracy (Diana Rigg) and James escaped Ernst Stavros Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, in this red Mercury in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). This is the only film that starred George Lazenby (not my favorite Bond) and the only time Bond got married. Sadly, Tracy was killed just after the wedding. 

Mercury Cougar, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969
Mercury Cougar, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969

Halle Berry (Jinx) emerging from the sea in Die Another Day referenced Ursula Andress (Honey Ryder) in Dr. No, the first Bond movie (which was filmed in Jamaica, where Ian Fleming escaped to write the Bond stories) but the cars were unmistakably modern, even a bit futuristic.  

Jaguar XKR, Die Another Day
Jaguar XKR, Die Another Day 2002

Except for Skyfall and the latest, Spectre, I’ve seen each Bond film at least 50 times – they never get old. But I felt an adrenalin rush when I saw this car, the Aston Martin that Daniel Craig (my other favorite Bond) crashed so spectacularly (the car rolled seven times!) in Casino Royale (2006). With Skyfall, Craig convinced skeptical fans who’d never seen a blond Bond, that he was Bond. 

Aston Martin, Casino Royale 2006
Aston Martin DB5, Casino Royale 2006
Casino Royale, 2006
Casino Royale, 2006 – James’ bloodied suit in the background

Some of the other vehicles you’ll see at Bond in Motion: Little Nellie, You Only Live Twice (1967), the Ford Mustang Mach I, Diamonds are Forever (1971), the AMC Hornet Hatchback, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), the Lotus Esprit S1, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) Citroen 2CV, For Your Eyes Only (1981), and the Q Boat from The World in Not Enough (1999).  

All the vehicles in Bond in Motion are originals that were used for filming. The majority of them are on loan from the EON Production archives and the Ian Fleming Foundation, which located and restored many of them.

I remember this scene at Valentin Zukovsky’s Caviar Factory in the World is Not Enough (1999). And thanks to the plaque on the model, now I know how they did it.

Bond in Motion
Miniature model of the Caviar Factory, The World is Not Enough, 1999

The Art Department created the model “so that production could work out how to construct the real set and perform the scene. It has little red dotted lines to indicate where the breakaways are for the helicopter blades.”  

If you want to be Bond for a minute, there’s a photo studio in the back of the museum where you can don the classic suit and take your photo.

Bond in Motion - Being Bond
Be Bond for a Minute

There’s also a museum shop in the back of the lower level where you can buy licensed Bond memorabilia and Bond in Motion souvenirs. 

The Cars of Spectre at Bond in Motion

Visitors to Bond in Motion will be in for a rare treat as a new exhibition, The Cars of Spectre, opens on November 18th.  This exhibition will feature never before seen vehicles, props, models and costumes from Spectre, the latest Bond movie, which opens today in US. According to the website, the exhibition will include the Hero Aston Martin DB10 and a stunt- damaged Jaguar C-X75.

Travel Essentials – Bond in Motion

Hours: Everyday 10 a.m. to 6:00 pm except Saturday 10 a.m. to 7:00 pm. The last entry an hour before closing
Tickets: Adult £14.50, Children (5-15) £12.50, Family £38.00 (includes admission to The Cars of Spectre)
Photography (no flash) allowed 

London Film Museum
45 Wellington St
Covent Gardens

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday Link-up hosted by Budget Travelers Sandbox, Budget Travel Talk, Tanama Tales, and Rachel’s Ruminations.

Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Priestess

She is the only woman among Jamaica’s seven national heroes. Her bravery and skill as a military strategist are unparalleled.

Born in the 18th century in Ghana, Queen Nanny became the spiritual leader of the Winward Maroons, the enslaved Africans who fled to the rugged mountains of Jamaica’s eastern parishes of Portland, St. Thomas, and St. Mary. It is from this her stronghold that she led her people in several decisive battles against the British army, bringing them to heel.

However, unlike her male counterparts, very little was written about Queen Nanny. The recently released documentary, Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainness, will change that.

Conceived by veteran stuntman and award-winning filmmaker (Akwantu, the Journey 2012), Roy T. Anderson, and Professor of History, Dr. Harcourt T. Fuller, both Maroon descendants, and filmed in Jamaica, Ghana, Canada and the United States, Queen Nanny shines a light on the indomitable spirit of this larger-than-life woman. It tells her story through songs, performances and reenactments, interviews with Maroons, and scholars who are experts in Caribbean history and the study of slavery.

The documentary also examines the legacy Queen Nanny has bequeathed to contemporary Jamaican women.

Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainness had its World Premier at the United Nations on October 19th, the day that is celebrated in Jamaica as National Heroes Day.

The screening was part of the UN’s 2015 Remember Slavery Programme of Activities, which included a solemn commemorative meeting of the UN General Assembly, film screenings, roundtable discussion and an exhibit. The events also draw attention to the International Decade for People of African Descent.

This year’s theme of Women and Slavery pays tribute to the many enslaved women who endured unbearable hardships, including sexual exploitation, as well as those who fought for freedom from slavery and advocated for its abolition.

Every year on 25 March, the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade offers the opportunity to honor and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system. This historic day in 2015 marked the unveiling of a Permanent Memorial to Slavery at the UN Headquarters in New York. Titled the Ark of Return, it was designed by Rodney Leon, an American architect of Haitian descent.

 

Gear Review: The Sleeper

It happens almost every time I travel. I fall asleep, wake up when my head jerks forward or rolls to one side. I look around sheepishly wondering if anyone noticed that I’d fallen asleep. Invariably, the person across the aisle is sleeping peacefully, with a pillow supporting her neck and I think, next time I’m bringing one of those. But I never do.

Recently, I received a sample of The Sleeper. Unlike the pillow that we’re used to, the Sleeper, which resembles a sleep mask with adjustable straps, is designed to hold your head in place while you sleep.

Here’s how it works: Once you get to your seat on a plane, bus or train, you tie the Sleeper to the back of your seat, tighten to your head size then you pull the mask over your eyes. You can adjust the straps to keep your head in place. 

It’s actually pretty simple to use. I got some curious stares when I used it on the bus to DC a few weeks ago. My seat mate wanted to know what it was and I had to explain to the guy sitting behind me why I needed invade his space to tie it to the back of my seat. 

Since I’ve never used a mask to sleep, I was unsure how I’d fare with the Sleeper, whether I’d want to take it off or whether I’d sleep at all. Sleep, I did and my head didn’t roll like it would have had it not have support. 

The Sleeper did let a bit of light in at the nose area and that was a bit distracting but on the whole, I think it’s a great sleep aid.

Speaking of seat, the Sleeper’s strap (1.5m x 2cm) is suitable for seat backs that are 35 inches (90 cm) or more wide.  

The outer side of the Sleeper is made of hypoallergenic material that is suitable for those with sensitive skin, the inner side of fleece. The mask itself measures 10.6″ x 4.3″ (or 270 x 110mm). The whole thing fits into a little pouch so you can have it handy whenever you travel. And its bright orange color makes it hard to miss.

The Sleeper was invented by Lana Dey, a self-described travel addict, who on a road trip took a belt and tied her head to the headrest of a car. (The Sleeper is a better idea, Lana.) A recently closed Indiegogo campaign raised some of the funds Lana and her team need to begin mass production of the Sleeper.

 

 

 

Above the Trees in a Hot Air Balloon

Would you like to ride in a beautiful hot air balloon?  

Well, I wanted to and after many years of thinking about it, I finally did when friends and I attended the Adirondack Balloon Festival at the Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport in Glens Falls, New York. Glens Falls, a small town of about 15,000, is located in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, north of Saratoga Springs and the Hudson River.

The festival was started 43 years ago to attract visitors to this beautiful area of Warren County. Held initially at the local community college, it moved to the airport to accommodate the estimated 30,000 who attend each day of the four-day event. 

With that many people going, we were advised to get the site before 5:00 a.m. to meet our pilot. We left our hotel by 4:15 and by the time we drove the 10 minutes to the airport turnoff, there was already a line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot. 

Gigantic spot lights bathed much of the tarmac and the surrounding field and the  area was buzzing with activity. We followed the crowd towards the hangar where a line of people, about a half mile long, some in T-shirts and shorts, some wrapped head to toe in blankets, was waiting in the cool morning for the Big Breakfast that was scheduled to start at 5:00 a.m.

Nearby, on the fringes of the hangar, balloonists were picking out their launch spots and vendors were setting up stalls for the craft fair that takes place after the ascension. 

Night receded slowly, revealing a persistent fog that covered the area like a blanket, and making us wonder whether we’d be able to go up.

At about 5:30, we made our way to a pre-arranged place to meet our pilot, Pete Griswold of Balloon Rides, LLC, and his brother, Scott of All Above Balloon Rides. Pete drove us to a wide open, grassy lot where he and his assistant, Bryan, unloaded the balloon and the basket that we’d ride in. 

While Pete and Bryan unfurled and spread the 75 foot long, 250 pound balloon (also called an envelope) on the ground, I watched another ballooner as he blew air into his balloon, the first part of the process of getting the balloon aloft.

Pete asked one of my friends to hold the mouth of the balloon open then turned on a large fan that blasted up to 90,000 cubic feet of air into the envelope. It took about 30 minutes for it to be fully extended.

Pete did a flight check. Landings, he said, can be bumpy so we should squat or bend our knees so as not to injure ourselves.

Once the balloon was full of air, he lit the propane tank, righted the basket (or gondola) and told us to climb in. It’s about a 3 feet high step over the lower edge of the gondola – you can’t be dainty about it and if you’re a woman, it’s better to wear pants. Running or flat shoes are also preferable.

As we slowly – it almost didn’t feel like we were moving – and noiselessly left the ground, Pete told us that hot air ballooning started in France in 1783 when Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes piloted the first manned craft. Ten years later, in Philadelphia, Jean-Pierre Blanchard flew the first balloon in the U.S. Today, there are balloon festivals in nearly every state.

About 80 balloonists participated in this year’s Adirondack Balloon Festival among them, some specially shaped ones with distinctive names: Snobird Penguin, Humpty, Betty Jean Butterfly, Joelly the Baby Bee, Sunny Boy, Pandy, Stinky, the Purple People Eater and Pig Headed. 

As the balloons climbed above the tarmac, the bluest of skies turned all colors of the rainbow. The sun was brilliant, the winds no more than 8 mph – perfect for flying. We glided leisurely over the airport, drifting noiselessly down, rising again as Pete lit the burner to heat the air inside the envelope, then up again. As we passed over a tree, Pete brought the balloon down so we should pick a leaf then bringing it close to another balloon for a “kiss” (bumping another balloon mid-air). 

When it was time to land, Pete looked for a large cloth spread on the ground – a sign that the home owner is inviting balloons to land on his property.  Each balloonist rewards the owner for his kindness with a bottle of champagne.

Once we landed, Pete and Bryan packed up the balloon and the basket, loaded them onto the truck and drove us back to the festival grounds. There, Scott, his brother opened a bottle of champagne and toasted the ride with the Balloonist Prayer.

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

The next Adirondack Balloon Festival will be September 22-25, 2016. Visit the site for a schedule of balloon events around the US.

Resources –

  • CNY Balloon Rides, LLC Peter Griswold, pilot 315-263.6124 
  • Above All Balloon Rides, Scott Griswold, pilot 315-263-0385

 

 

 

 

London: A gateway to the UK’s other cities

The majority of people that travel to the UK seem to settle for just seeing London. It’s a shame, because the UK has a lot more to offer than just the business capital of the world. One thing London can be extremely useful for is it can act as a gateway for extensive travel if you wish to venture out of the urban metropolis that is London.

London, Manchester
Manchester

With direct bus routes and trains to practically everywhere in England, Wales and Scotland there are so many places that are attainable to visit – even if it’s only for a day trip. In England alone, the options available are boundless with cities like Oxford, Cambridge and York steeped in tradition. However, when it comes to recent cultural significance, Manchester could potentially be one of the most interesting options to consider.

Manchester has a vibrant nightlife, a bevvy of world-renowned restaurants ran by some of Europe’s most ambitious and creative executive chefs as well as a bustling music scene. It’s a cauldron of artsy types that have been making waves since the 80s when it was arguably the city’s most creative period.

The music scene…

Back in the 80s, Manchester was the home to the acid-house movement as well as producing some of the indie world’s most successful bands. The majority of which got their start as the famous Hacienda which was ran by Factory Records and indie band New Order. Unfortunately the site has now been turned into flats, but you can still walk round the region and take in what was the birthplace of many iconic British bands. Joy Division, New Order and Stone Roses all got their start at the Hacienda among others.

The Universities…

Manchester Metropolitan and the University of Manchester all add to the live entertainment offerings of the city. Built into the University of Manchester campus the various Manchester Academies host some of the best in new music and are worth checking out. In total there are 4 venues, which differ in size and host clubs nights as well that are open to tourists, locals and students.

Art Galleries…

Manchester has a significant amount of well-respected art houses that regularly put on exhibitions. Among the most visited is Manchester Art Gallery, which is located just off Princess Street in the centre of Manchester. It’s open 7-days a week between the hours of 10am-5pm.

The rich sporting history of Manchester…

Aside from its recognisable cricket ground, Old Trafford which regularly holds England test matches, the city is also home to two of English football’s most famous teams. Manchester City and Manchester United have an illustrious past with the latter being one of the most successful clubs in world football. Manchester United’s stadium holds 70,000 people and is a fantastic sight if you get chance to pass by the area.

Accessing Manchester from London…

There are direct trains and buses that run straight from London. If you are to get a train, these run throughout the day from London’s Kings Cross. However, this can be quite an expensive form of travel especially if you’re booking tickets last minute or during rush hour periods.

For alternative travel you could look at considering flying from London to Manchester. Many low budget airlines fly out of Heathrow and Gatwick directly to Manchester International Airport, which is considered one of the busiest airports in the UK. If you can find a cheap flight, this is probably the most efficient option as the airport is only a stones through from the city centre.

Up Close to Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano

Windmills seemed to sprout out of the Nicaraguan countryside, their blades turning lazily as we moved quickly from the border of Costa Rica towards the historic town of Granada. Seeing them made me smile and I pulled out my camera to capture a few shots as we passed but the tops of familiar-looking trees kept getting in the way.

Six Hours in Granada Nicaragua
Mombacho Volcano, Nicaragua

I don’t now remember which I saw first – the water or the volcano. Each added a new and exciting dimension to the view. I was sure we were looking at the Pacific Ocean but Eric, our tour guide, said it was Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in the country. It seemed to follow us for miles.

Since I hadn’t done my homework on Nicaragua, I was surprised to learn that the country has 19 volcanoes. Mombacho, the volcano that had come into view, is dormant, erupting last in 1570. At about 4,500 feet, with its classic cone, it towers over Lake Nicaragua and Granada. Though we didn’t visit Mombacho, Eric said it has a nature preserve with endemic flora and fauna, a cloud forest, and at least two hiking trails.

Unlike Mombacho, which hasn’t erupted in centuries, Masaya continues to send plumes of sulfur into the atmosphere. Located in the Masaya Volcano National Park, Masaya is a drive-up volcano – the only one, Eric said, proudly, in the Western Hemisphere.

On the way up, he pointed to the black, lumpy moist-looking soil near the volcano and the lush vegetation around. He also showed us a fragile and lonely-looking wooden cross atop Masaya. 

NIC Masaya cross
Masaya Cross of Bobadilla

Believing that the gods’ unhappiness with them caused the volcano to erupt, the indigenous people sacrificed young women and children to appease them and quiet the mountain. In the 16th century, a Spanish priest (the Spanish called Masaya El Boca del Infierno, the Mouth of Hell) no doubt outraged by this ritual, felt a cross (La Cruz de Bobadilla – Cross of Bobadilla) near the crater would stop the eruptions. Eric didn’t say how many times the cross has been replaced.

As the bus groaned to a stop near Masaya’s crater and the driver opened the door, the acrid smell of sulfur hit us square in the face. Because of this, Eric said we could spend only 15 minutes. (Looking at my photos now, one sign said 5 minutes.)

To my surprise, several cars were parked near the rim of the volcano and people were walking around casually, like they were out for a Sunday stroll. I recognized a family I had seen in the craft market we had visited earlier, and there was a group wearing what looked like traditional dress performing as a photographer took their photos. It was all so matter of fact.

NIC Masaya Volcano cross
Masaya Volcano
NIC Masaya Volcano crater
Masaya Volcano
Masaya Volcano
Masaya Volcano
NIC Volcan Masaya, Granada
Near Masaya Volcano
NIC Masaya plumes
Masaya Volcano

Masaya is not only a drive-up volcano you can walk right up to the low wall near the crater. There are signs warning visitors not to smoke or drink alcohol – the volcano is constantly belching gas making it difficult to see much inside. But it was weirdly cool to be so close to an active volcano.

While it’s dangerous for us, Masaya has a hardy lot of parrots that thrive on its noxious gases. We could definitely hear them and did see a few as they flew out. 

Asked if there had been any deaths at Masaya, Eric told us of a man who jumped to his death in 2010. Not surprisingly, his body was never recovered.

NIC Masaya dancers
Performers at Masaya

Our next stop was the Apoyo Lagoon, the largest of three volcanic lagoons in Nicaragua – the surprise Eric had been hinting at as we were leaving Masaya. We ooohed, aaahed and clapped when we saw it, framed by the red and yellow rays of the setting sun – the perfect end to a full day of activities.

Apoyo has over 500 species of plants and trees, including black rosewood and mahogany, Capucin monkeys, anteaters and other animals, and more than 200 species of birds. It’s also a popular water sports destination.

There is a large craft market as well as a restaurant and, on one side of the lagoon, several benches for people to sit and enjoy the view.

Apoyo Lagoon
Apoyo Lagoon
Apoyo Lagoon
Apoyo Lagoon

Apoyo was our last stop in Nicaragua. We had covered a lot of territory in one day. I was tired but elated, pleased with my decision to take the one-day tour, which, back in August cost US$160.

The tour included the colonial city of Granada, a boat tour Lake Nicaragua’s Monkey Island, shopping at the craft market, Masaya Volcano National Park, Apoyo Lagoon, and lunch. I made arrangements for this tour with Claudia at LEP Costa Rica – 506-8377 5701 or concierge@lepcostarica.com

Nicaragua Maracas
Nicaragua Maracas

As we took our seats on the bus for the journey back to Guanacaste, Eric announced that he had one more surprise. He stuck his hand into a large, black plastic bag and called my name. To my surprise, he handed me a maracas with my name engraved in it. No, I wasn’t singled out for special treatment. Everyone received one too. While we were touring Granada, a carver had been busy creating these personalized mementos for each of us. It was a lovely treat, a beautiful reminder of Granada, Eric and the tour.