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Island Hopping in Venice: Murano, Burano and Torcello at a Glance

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We all know Venice as the “Floating City”; an exquisite array of architecture, masks and romance. But what of the islands located within a stone’s throw of this remarkable city? These lesser-known islands are not to be missed during your stay in the City of Bridges.

Murano

murano

I will be the first to admit that when I see a shiny, gorgeous glass creation I have a hard time resisting the urge to buy it right then and there. Glass lovers like myself will be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the world that has a better selection of exquisite glass than Murano. In fact, this beautiful island is one of the leading locations for glassmaking and has been for hundreds of years. In 1291, Venetian glassmakers were forced to move their workshops to Murano, as there was too great a risk of fire in the mostly wooden Venice. It was on Murano that Venetian glass began to flourish and win the attention of glass lovers the world over. Murano glassmakers became known for their ability to create many different kinds of glass, including crystalline glass, aventurine (glass with threads of gold in it) and millefiori (multicoloured glass). Today, glassmakers on Murano continue to employ the ancient glassmaking techniques that their predecessors held in such high esteem. Some of the most renowned glassmaking companies are still located on Murano including Seguso, Barovier & Toso and Simone Cenedese. Also located on Murano is the Museo Vetrario or Glass Museum. Glass lovers can learn more about the history of the creation of glass and view exquisite glassworks from Ancient Egypt to today. So while in Venice, why not tour the home of Venetian glass, and pick up a piece or two while you’re at it?

Burano

In my travels, I am not sure I have come across a location that is lovelier than Burano. Burano is one of those places that must be seen to be believed, but let me try to explain anyway. Imagine a small, sleepy ”Burano" village with rows of houses leaning against one another, cobblestone streets weaving in and out and modest bridges crisscrossing sparkling canals. Now imagine each of those houses and bridges being painted a vibrant hue, no two alike. And when I say vibrant, I mean colours that could give the most beautiful bird of paradise a run for his money. This is Burano, a village painted in a riot of superb colours. While walking its streets, I couldn’t help but think I had stumbled into some sort of fairytale and that any moment the whole village would burst into joyous song, so happy was the atmosphere of that multi-coloured town. Of course, apart from its brightly painted houses and shops, Burano is also known for the exquisiteness of its lace. It would seem that there is nothing that is not beautiful on the island of Burano.

Torcello

Torcello is the oldest continuously populated region in Venice, though currently its population only consists of about 20 people. Though it once boasted the largest population in the Republic of Venice, today it is home to a slumbering, contemplative town that is as picturesque as it is petite. Despite the size of its population, or perhaps because of it, this is an island not to be missed. In fact, as I discovered, after the huge amount of people flooding Venice each day, Torcello will appear as a veritable paradise to a crowd-weary traveller. Apart from the delectable appeal of a moment in which to breathe and relax, Torcello also boasts some incredible attractions. The best known of these sights is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which was built in 639 and is home to some stunning Byzantine mosaics. There is something very earthy and innately charming about this cathedral. Perhaps it is the lingering presence of all of the souls who have travelled there to marvel at it’s beautify and antiquity. Whatever it is, the cathedral, and all of Torcello, is charming and deeply welcoming.

 

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Top 5 Things to do in Singapore

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Singapore is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, with four official languages, and 62 surrounding islands, the main island of Singapore (or Pulau Ujong) has been a top destination for residents and travelers alike. The city promotes itself for medical tourism (yup, plastic surgery), which surprisingly attracts more than 200,000 clients each year. Instead, I like to think that Singapore is better known as being the “Garden City” and has more than enough things to do on your holiday, without going under the knife.

Botanical Gardens
gardens As I said, Singapore isn’t called the Garden City for nothing. The famous Botanical Gardens are home to the some of the rarest and most beautiful plants. It’s open from 5am to midnight every day, so you can enjoy the gardens during sunrise, sunset, or all the time in between.

Having numerous different specialty gardens within, the one you cannot miss is the National Orchid Gardens. Housing more than 1,000 different species of orchids, visitors can appreciate these easily distinguished flowers. Even more spectacular is how the orchids are separated, which is by color. Separated into four different sections meant to portray the four different seasons. The golds, pinks, reds, and blues are all blended together expertly to show-off the flowers in a most unique way.

Because the gardens are developed on what they call a three-core system, there are other sections of the gardens all portraying and representing something different. The Tanglin core is to represent the history and the features that have been in the gardens the longest, including Swan Lake, Sun Garden, and many sculptures. The Central core is for impressing tourists with the Ginger Garden, Rainforest, Healing Garden, Evolution Garden, and of course the National Orchid Gardens. Finally, the Butik Timah core is meant to serve as an educational branch of the gardens, featuring bamboo, fruit trees, nut and beverage crops, herbs and spices, as well as the children’s garden.

With so much to see and do, it’s definitely a good thing the park hosts such long hours–you’ll need the whole day to explore!

Chinatown
Although Chinatowns are common in any major city, with the largest ethnic group in Singapore being Chinese, this Chinatown is unlike any other. The large neighborhood dedicated to showing off Chinese food, culture, shopping, and nightlife is divided into five different districts so you don’t have to feel like you’re wandering around aimlessly in a sea of chopsticks and sculptures of chinese dragons.

chinatown The five districts are called Telok Ayer, Bukit Pasoh, Tanjong Pagar, Kreta Ayer, and Ann Siang Hill. Over time they each became known for specializing in different areas. If you’re interested in unique bars, cafés and boutiques then Ann Siang Hill, and Telok Ayer have plenty. Telok Ayer is also known for housing many of the city’s old temples and mosques offering a bit of history to your excursion. Bukit Pasoh has mastered blending the old and the new with posh hotels and restaurants, but also history on many clans and cultural associations. A more residential area also sprinkled with traditional pubs, and karaoke bars is Tanjong Pagar. Finally to feel super-immersed in the culture, head over to Kreta Ayer for traditional trading and shopping (meaning you can bargain with vendors!), and the best cuisine.

If you stop by at night make sure to visit the Chinatown Night Market running through three of the major streets. In these old world shops you’ll find everything from food, to clothing, to opera masks! This area is especially busy during Christmas with extended shopping hours and ridiculously good sales, you might just need to buy another suitcase to fit all your purchases…

Singapore Flyer
This could easily be Singapore’s greatest tourist attraction. Standing at 165 meters tall gives it the title of the world’s tallest observation wheel. The views themselves could set some world records, as the 30 minute rides takes you high up in the air you get bird’s eye view of the city and can even catch glimpses of Malaysia and Indonesia on a clear day.

flyer Although the stunning views are the main attraction, the Singapore Flyer offers much more to complete your experience. The main terminal offers many food options on all three floors, from Subway to four star dining. There is also shopping available for Flyer memorabilia, and even a retail store specializing in leather and exotic skins. One of the most interesting additional parts of the Singapore Flyer are all the activities available for visitors. If you’re not quite ready to leave after your ride there is karaoke, racetrack rides, reflexology and fish spas all located in the main terminal. And to stay in the “flyer” spirit, there’s a flight simulator where you can view a flight through a pilot’s eyes.

The Singapore Flyer is an international icon of both engineering and appreciation of beauty. Appropriate for all ages and with a myriad of activities and things to see on the site as well, this proves to be Singapore’s hottest tourist spot for a reason.

The Singapore Zoo
zoo Like me, you might think that the concept of zoos are sometimes overdone, they’re a good idea and I love being able to see the animals, but why go all the way to Singapore for that? Well, besides the fact that 3,600 different animals, including rare and endangered species call Singapore Zoo their home, the zoo is set up in a nature-friendly way. That means that instead of looking through glass enclosures, or jail-like fences, the animals can be seen in open exhibits, being separated by hidden barriers, stone walls, and moats. Not only is this a more natural way to see the animals, but it creates a better living environment for them too, and who doesn’t want the animals to be happy?

Speaking of animals, theres tons of different areas to see all different types of mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish. From Cat Country to the Australian Outback, to the Rainforest Kidzone, there’s something for everybody. If you’re feeling brave you can go see the world’s largest snake, which can grow up to 10 meters! The Singapore Zoo is also known for housing orangoutangs, which are highly at risk of extinction, luckily they’re kept safe and sound in their new home.

Shows at the zoo are definitely one of the highlights, and with Singapore’s conservation attempts, the Rainforest Fights Back show can help you learn about the little things you can do to help, which make big differences. If you’re looking for a little more action, there’s the show with the jackass penguins, but I promise, they’re not as bad as they sound.

Finally, what would a tourist spot be without some food and shopping? The Singapore Zoo has food from snack stands, to pizza and ice cream, to even dining with the animals at a Jungle Breakfast! Don’t leave without checking out the gift shop, for adorable stuffed animals or even educational gifts. With such a wide variety of animals, shows, and ways to explore the park, Singapore Zoo is a must-see for animal lovers.

DUKw Tours
To ease up any confusion, I’ll tell you right now that it’s pronounced “duck”. Maybe it was just me who couldn’t figure out the pronunciation, but however you say it, DUKw tours are not something to miss. Originally used in World War II as a means of transporting goods and troops over land and water, this vehicle is unique in its amphibious functions.

dukw Now remove the troops, weapons, and fighting, and what would you do with the vehicle? Well of course make a one-of-a-kind tour bus! Unlike the mainstream hop-on/hop-off, or coach bus tours, switch it up and see Singapore by land and sea. Perusing through the city you can pass by all the major buildings and monuments like the new and old Parliament Houses, and City Hall. Then you can make a splash in Marina Bay and cruise through the water for even more sights of Singapore.

Whoever thought to turn a military transportation system into a fun tour bus certainly understood the benefits of recycling. So if you’re in Singapore and want an unconventional way to tour the city, DUKw Tours are both entertaining and educational.

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Brrrrr-lin in the Winter

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Berlin is certainly one of the most beautiful cities to explore, but once winter hits, you might find that walking and bike tours are more fitting for the warmer months.  Don’t rule out winter as a time to visit, as Berlin’s charm is still visible, if not accentuated by freshly fallen snow, Christmas decorations, and multiple activities reminding you that wintertime isn’t just for hibernating.

Christmas Markets

With over 50 different Christmas markets spread over the large squares and smaller allys, Berlin really captures the spirit of the holiday season wherever you run into them.  And you won’t be running into the same products over and over again, each market seems to specialize in different areas offering you a wide variety of gifts, gadgets, and goodies to browse through.

christmas-market You can go to the Gendarmenmarkt which features not only local embroidery, woodwork, stonemasonry, and food, but also there are shows which include performances by acrobatics, jugglers, musicians, and artists.  Or if you’re looking for something more low-key (relatively speaking to the glitz and glamour that can take over these markets), you can try the international Market of the Continents which supports social and structural projects from around the world.  When the native, handmade products are purchased from these traders it goes to their community to help their development.  Even better, this market is held indoors so even the snow can’t stop you.

Shows and Ballets

Outside may be snowy, dark, and cold, but what better way to capture the spirit of the holidays than a show by a world-renowned ballet, soothing orchestra, or fantastical entertainment?

candlelight-dinner I’ll be the first to admit that anything with the word “palace” sparks my interest, and this experience wouldn’t fall short of any expectations.  Enjoying a sumptuous dinner by candlelight in the Charlottenburg Palace Orangery, followed by what feels like a personal performance from the Berlin Palace Orchestra couldn’t make me feel better about escaping the cold in the warm and cozy comforts of this palace.

stage-show The Friedrichstadt Palast Stage Show is another alternative, less emphasis on the romance and instead, a complete focus on putting the audience in awe.  It’s safe to say that goal is always accomplished at the state-of-the-art theater where the stage is a show in itself.  With the addition of talented dancers, acrobatics, singers, and musicians, you’re mind will be in disbelief at what is presented in front of you.  Just call it a Christmas miracle.

Who could forget the Nutcracker?  Follow the classic story of a young girl and her doll on a Christmas Eve adventure.  Music by the infamous Tchaikovsky, and performed by the internationally acclaimed Russian National Ballet, this is one show that is sure to put you in the Christmas spirit!

Pubs

berlin-pub Finally, there is no better way to warm up than having a drink at a local pub.  With authentic taverns and numerous choices of drinks at the cocktail lounges, live music and even rooftop gardens over looking the city, there is no shortage to your options.  Berlin is filled with a wide variety of relaxing pubs and lively clubs, but they all give you a taste of the nightlife culture.

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Top 5 Things to do in Rio de Janeiro

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With a city so full of culture and a location filled with beauty, it’s hard to narrow down what you should do in Rio de Janeiro.  That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the top 5 things for you to consider on your holiday, whether you’re looking to relax, party, explore, or all three!

Ipanema
Whether you’re looking for some leisure time in the sun, or a shopping excursion, the neighborhood of Ipanema is the perfect place to unwind after a long day exploring in Rio De Janeiro. The beautiful beach unfolds displaying people enjoying the sun in all different ways. If you’re looking to nap in the sun, surf and play in the water, or have a friendly game of volleyball, you’ll have company in whatever you choose to do. The locals are known for being as beautiful as they are friendly, and with what seems like endless supplies of beer and the traditional cachaça, you might want to become a local yourself.
ipanema-beach
Once you get off the beach, there’s streets upon streets of trendy shopping, and since Ipanema is known for being one of the most expensive places to live, these stores are top of the line. If you’re a bargain hunter or looking for something more unique, fear not–on Sundays they hold a “Hippie Fair”, which is a market proudly displaying homemade crafts, clothing, and souvenirs. Also on Sundays, the roadway closest to the beach is closed to motor vehicles allowing visitors and residents alike to enjoy an open area for jogging, roller blading, skateboarding, or however else they choose to get out and enjoy the town!

Copacabana
copacabana The first thing I think of when I hear “Copacabana” is, unfortunately, the Barry Manilow song. Don’t worry though, there’s much much more to the name.  Most recognizably, the southern area of Brazil, home to a beach community that’s as beautiful as it is famous. Attracting the best looking beach-goers, Copacabana is a perfect spot for unashamedly people-watching. Although many people assume that Copacabana and Ipanema are similar, they have their distinctive features. While Ipanema is known more for being a sexy, young, lively, and high end atmosphere, Copacabana holds similar values but proves to be a little less ritzy for those who want to enjoy the local culture in a more laid-back fashion.

Another amazing feature of this area is the promenade. Spread over four kilometers and housing endless restaurants, bars, shops, and clubs, this strip has also hosted numerous concerts. One of the most noteworthy being the New Years Eve Rod Stewart concert garnering 3.5 million, making it the largest concert crowd ever.

Rio de Janeiro has a specifically laid back lifestyle, and if you’re looking for a beach area to enjoy the sunset and a drink, no place is more appropriate than Copacabana.

Carnival
Held 46 days before Easter and traditionally being seen as a way to indulge in some crazy behavior before the start of Lent, Carnival is known as Brazil’s biggest party, and why wouldn’t you want to attend?  Carnival is four days and four nights of partying, dancing, drinking, and parades. Most importantly, the Samba parades, which feature shows and competitions of numerous Rio Samba schools. Often with preparations starting months in advance to impress the judges and spectators, this is no ordinary street parade, and definitely recommended as a must-see during Carnival. All regions are brought together for this parade, not only increasing competition but also displaying a wide variety of costumes, techniques, and design of their parade.

carnival After watching such talent through the streets, you won’t have to be just a spectator for long. Another great event of Carnival are the numerous Balls that you are able to purchase tickets to.  There is samba dancing all night, and if you’re feeling up to the challenge of meeting the high standards for Carnival costumes, you can dress up and become truly immersed in the culture.

The Balls and the Parades are just two of the many events that express the vibe of extravagant glamour, but no matter which events you choose to see, they’re guaranteed to blow you away. It is said that Carnival accounts for 70% of the annual tourism and 80% of the annual beer consumption, so if you’re looking for a good way to party like a local, Carnival is something you shouldn’t miss.

Corcovado
This mountain that lies west of the city, is so spectacular that it is still visible from miles away. However this is not just another mountain gracing Rio de Janeiro’s geography, it is also topped at the peak by a thirty-eight meter statue of Jesus, known as Cristo Rendenter. The homage to religion portrays this statue of Christ with open arms, which is a symbol of peace representing the local culture and their religious values.

corcovado The peak of the mountain and the base of the statue is accessible on a narrow path if you’re driving, or you can opt for the Corcovado Rack Railway. When you reach the top, you then need to ascend to the very top via the 223 stairs, also available are elevators and escalators if you’d rather preserve your energy.

Religious or not, this is an attraction that is popular for a reason. Whether you know it from the appearances it made in the Twilight films, or because you want to see one of the “New” seven wonders of the world, Corcovado is a moving way to appreciate natural beauty. The view from the peak looking out on the city and surrounding area is just as breathtaking as the inspirational view looking up at the statue from sea level.

Sugar Loaf Mountain
sugar-loaf-cable-car 396 meters high, Sugar Loaf mountain towers above the Atlantic Ocean on the beautiful coast of Rio de Janeiro. In history, it was seen as a landmark to travelers as the entrance to the Guanabara Bay, today however it gives tourists endless amounts of spectacular views of the surrounding city.  Although it is similar to Corcovado in how it overlooks Rio, visitors to Sugar Loaf can experience the glass enclosed cable cars which bring them to the peak of the mountain offering an even more unique aspect to this experience. At the top there are souvenir and refreshment booths so you can both relax, and browse some of the shops before returning to sea level.

For all you explorers out there, hiking is an option, but it is highly discouraged as the trails are rugged and extreme. If you do choose to hike however, it is encouraged to buy a one way ticket before you ascend so that you can take the cable cars on the way down – hiking down the steep granite exterior is more dangerous than you’re trip up.

There is no doubt that Rio de Janeiro is graced with beautiful geography.  Mountains like Sugar Loaf let you look down on the beaches you may have been laying out on the previous day, and allow you to appreciate the beauty of the city.

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Iceland: A Place of Earthly and Celestial Colour

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Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, more formally known as the Aurora Borealis, captivate the minds and spirits of all who witness them. It is impossible not to be moved by the flowing colours that move through the celestial heavens in a dance as ageless as the sky itself. In ancient Rome, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn and in Ancient Greece, Boreas is the god of the north wind. Thus, in 1621, the current of colour in the night sky was officially deemed the Aurora Borealis. In days long past, those who gazed at the lights believed that the neon colours were the souls of unborn children or the torches of ancestors long since past. Scientists as well as stargazers have been captivated by this strange aberration in the atmosphere. Today we know that the hypnotic hues of the lights are created by energetic charged particles colliding with atoms in the high atmosphere. Of course, when looking at the Northern Lights, it is just as easy to believe that it is a river of celestial spirits on their journey through the sky.

Now, as we enter into the darkest time of the year, the Northern Lights are displayed in the peak of their glory. The divine light show that dances across the evening sky is best seen between the months of November and February. One of the best locations from which to see this incredible phenomenon is in Iceland. What many do not realize is that this wild and stunning country is just as colourful and vibrant as the glowing colours that dance above its horizon.

MountainsThough the name distinctly brings to mind frigid days and desolate, icy landscapes, Iceland is, in all honesty, one of the most beautiful and untouched places on earth. This is a land where fire and ice coexist in a surreal setting of vast emerald valleys, black sand beaches, volcanoes and massive glaciers. Though ‘ice’ figures in the country’s name, ice only covers 10% of the country’s land mass. Having said that, the ice that there is comprises the largest glaciers left in Europe. Iceland is located in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, thus making it a very active volcanic area. The most famous of these looming beauties is Mount Hekla, which reigns over the nearby Landmannalaugar area. This area is rich in jade stretches of land and golden mountains streaked with ashen stripes and swathed in ghostly clouds. When snow falls upon these sleeping giants, a beauty unlike any other overtakes the land and stirs the soul with a sense of magic.

Blue Lagoon
Iceland is also particularly famous for its incredible hot turquoise waters that form the Blue Lagoon. Here guests can relax and rejuvenate in what some believe to be the most restorative waters in the world. The Blue Lagoon is a natural spa with a man-made spa right next to it. You can hop from the naturally heated aquamarine lagoon into a luxurious steam bath or sauna at the spa. Visitors can also get intoxicatingly good massages while still enjoying the view of the lagoon (if they can manage to keep their eyes open). I personally think that the Blue Lagoon looks as if the Northern Lights had melted out of the sky into a massive, beautiful and deliciously warm puddle. Those who have soaked in the Blue Lagoon before will tend to agree with me.

Near Reykjavik, Iceland’s capitol, lies what is known as the Golden Circle, the best route to take in order to see some of the most exquisite earthly sites in Iceland. Trips around the Golden Circle involve seeing such things as the Gulfoss (meaning ‘golden falls’) Waterfall, Geysir Hot Spring and Þingvellir National Park. None of these are to be missed while travelling through Iceland.
golden-circle

So, if you head to Iceland to gaze at the hypnotic celestial lights of the Aurora Borealis, you are sure to find other exquisite, more earthly delights as well.

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Giants Causeway During the Winter

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There’s no question why people flock to Northern Ireland to visit Giant’s Causeway.  With the natural beauty of the basalt columns arranged in a unique hexagonal patterns, looking out over the sea and distant landscapes, this natural beauty and geological wonder has gotten international attention and praise for years.  Due to the geography, Northern Ireland is sometimes best to visit in the warmer months, to make hiking and water sports possible.  Lately though, we’ve been finding that even during these months where the nights are progressively getting colder, travelers still are wanting to visit the Causeway.  Now, we know it’s breathtakingly beautiful, but still a little thrown on the high volume of visitors we decided to take a closer look at why Giant’s Causeway is desirable all year round.

ancient-castle giants-causeway-rope-bridgeFirst, as long as you have proper apparel to keep yourself warm, most of the outdoor activities are still within reach, walking along the infamous columns, crossing over the rope bridges, exploring around ancient castles and the rocky shores.

But if you’re looking to enjoy the warm and cozy qualities of Northern Ireland and the Giant’s Causeway, you’re in luck!  With multiple different trains to take you on a scenic rail ride, you can stay out of the cold while still enjoying this spectacular stretch of land.  In addition to great and unique shopping, the area is known for having luxury spas, so if you did explore the outdoor opportunities (or just because you want to be pampered!) you can reward yourself with all natural treatments that are common in Northern Ireland.

The area offers a wide variety of museums as well, many of which are great for kids and families.  And finally, you can’t forget about the charming localities with numerous pubs that are just as delicious as they are welcoming. ireland-pub

Don’t let the weather scare you off from an area that is beautiful all year round, Giant’s Causeway has proved to become a hot-spot for tourists 365 days a year.

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The Best of Amsterdam

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amsterdam-houses1 Amsterdam, the Dutch capital is known for its fascinating history and even more intriguing present day culture. Naturally, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. Even though there is so much to see and do in the city, one of the best parts was simply walking alongside the many beautiful canals that run through Amsterdam. In addition to the natural beauty of the canals, Amsterdam is filled with unique architecture, and I was easily entertained by the charm of what residents see as mere housing.

amsterdam-bikes Another aspect that seems simple to residents but interesting to visitors (or, to me at least) is the bike culture. With such small streets that are always filled with people, many opt for bike riding as their main transportation instead. And when I say “many” I really mean 90% of the population. Every road you could turn down had tons of bike racks, but it never seemed like enough as the bikes piled up wherever there was space. One of the most interesting parts of this bike culture is the high level of theft – our tour guide told us that on a lively Friday or Saturday night, people will leave their bikes on any random street, and often, in their inebriated state will forget where they leave them and take whatever bike is next to them when they’re ready to turn in for the night. Of course their original bike will be long gone as well by the next morning, so I saw it as more of trading service.

Although there are more than enough museums to fill your trip, my favorite by far was the Anne Frank museum. Both moving and informational, I was able to walk through the very rooms that the Frank family resided in. In many rooms they were able to preserve original parts of the house, like wall paper, or even the pencil lines on the wall to mark the heights of the children over the years. Despite the sadness that can overwhelm you by visiting a part of history like this, it is truly a once in a life time experience, and something you shouldn’t miss.

coffee-shops On a lighter note, two of Amsterdam’s most notorious attractions lived up to all their expectations – the Red Light District, and the city’s many “coffee” shops. The Red Light District, located through a network of back alleys and roads, are filled with Amsterdam’s working girls. Even though most of the people walking through were only there to say they had walked through the infamous District, we learned there was a surprisingly high amount of business that comes along with the legalization of prostitution. Next, the coffee shops. One of Amsterdam’s oldest traditions surprised us all by the laid-back nature of their business (or should I be surprised everybody was so relaxed?). Despite popular belief that Amsterdam will be shutting it’s coffee shop doors to tourists, we were told that it was very unlikely that the legislation would be passed as it brings in a large amount of the city’s tourism.  I think this pretty much goes without saying, but both of these activities are more suited for adults, so if you’re traveling with small children I’d highly recommend skipping this part.

clog-making windmills After spending time in the center of the lively city, I was able to go to the outskirts and visit a traditional Dutch town, Zaanse Schans. This town was the definition of charm, with the windmills, small shops, farms, and once again with the adorable housing, I almost considered joining the Dutch-life. However, my experiences in Zannse Schans was the next best thing. They had a cheese making demonstration, and then you could visit the shop with endless amounts of cheese and chocolate for you to sample. Next they shared all their secrets of the traditional wooden clog with a clog-making demonstration.

Overall, the combination of the dynamic city and the charm of the small town proved to be the ultimate experience in Amsterdam, hopefully you too can have a trip that’s just as enjoyable!

canals1

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By Land, Sea and Air: The Best Things to do in Cairns, Australia

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CairnsCairns, Australia is a magnificent fusion of sea, land and air. Its close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest make it a fantastic destination for travellers from all over the world. There are plenty of things to do and after travelling to Cairns and being swept off my feet by its beauty, I’ve realised that the best way to get the most out of your trip to Cairns is by designating time for activities on land, in water and in the air.

Land

Cairns is nearby some of the most majestic rainforests in the world. Daintree Rainforest is the world’s oldest surviving rainforest and the largest continuous stretch of rainforest in Australia. Having said that, it only takes up about 0.1% of Australia’s land mass, yet is home to 30% of the country’s frog, reptile and marsupial population. Daintree is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, in particular because some of the oldest species of plants grow here including 7 families of ancient fern. Daintree is also unique in that its dense tropic forest ends on the very edge of white sandy beaches leading to crystalline sea water. If you are interested in exploring this exotic and ancient rainforest, we offer a Cape Tribulation & Daintree Rainforest Tour From Cairns that takes visitors on a life changing trip through the primordial forest.

For those animal lovers out there, a trip to Cairns offers several opportunities to come into close contact with some of the strangest creatures in the world. The Cairns Zoo presents the unique opportunity to explore the zoo at night and meet its nocturnal residents. Late-night visitors are treated to a true Aussie barbeque and then led by torch through the dark zoo. It’s a spooky adventure that I would do again in a heartbeat. I even got to pet a koala, which made my night.

Petting a Koala

For those who want to see animals in the daylight, there are plenty of ways to do that too. The Rainforestation Nature Park is an excellent option because it combines exploration of the rainforest with Australia’s largest Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary. Rainforestation is part of a 100 acre World Heritage Park and offers visitors truly unique activities such as riding an army duck through murky rivers under the canopy of one of the most beautiful rainforests in the world. While I was there I held a koala, threw a boomerang (I ran away instead of trying to catch it when it came hurtling back at me) and tried my best to play the didgeridoo.

If you happen to have an unappeasable desire to see some crocodiles up close and personal, then head over to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure. At Hartley’s, you get the opportunity to see the terrifying head shake and death roll of some of the largest crocodiles you’ll ever see. You also get the chance to hold a crocodile (I opted to take a picture kissing the nose of a baby croc…of course, his mouth was rubber banded shut so it wasn’t the scary ordeal that it sounds like it could be.) You can also go to the Snake Show and discover some of the most deadly snakes in the world, including the Australian Brown Snake, one of which slithered by my foot while hiking in the outback on a separate trip to Australia. I highly recommend seeing one at the Snake Show instead… Crocodile

Sea

Underwater World
Of course, what Cairns is best known for is its location right on the Great Barrier Reef. Visitors from all over the world come to swim with the thousands of tropical fish, explore the islands just off the coast from Cairns and cultivate their tan in the hot Australian sun. The number one thing to do, at least in my opinion, is to explore the aquamarine depths of the reef. It is an entirely foreign aquatic world down there, just waiting to be explored. There are plenty of ways to get to the reef, one of which is by a Quicksilver Catamaran which boasts an impressive Underwater Observatory and acts a platform from which you can go snorkelling. The observatory is perfect for those wanting to see all of the brightly-coloured fish without getting wet (some of my friends staying on the boat and actually watched us swim up to the window of the observatory).

For those wanting to dive a bit deeper into the good ol’ ocean blue, diving expeditions are the ways to go. Whether you are diving at night, diving with sharks or just plain old diving, the experience is sure to be one you will never forget. Inky blue water below, turquoise water above and thousands of fish all around comprise the traditional dive. If you want to stay out on the water for longer than an afternoon, 3 and 4-day Diving and Marine Life Cruises are available. They are essentially aquatic hotels that allow you to get the most out what is sure to be a surreal diving experience. Boat

If you are simply looking for a romantic and relaxed time on the water, Cairns is the perfect place to be. There are a number of Evening Dinner Cruises that are perfect for a dreamy night with your beloved. Gaze at the mangroves that line the water as you sip on champagne, let the delicious food and gentle rocking of the boat lull you into contentment and gaze at the stars in the arms of your sweetie on the deck. It certainly will be a delightful evening not soon forgotten.

Of course, not all of the things to do in Cairns are stress-free. Thrill seekers can get their adrenaline pumping on a Tully River Rafting Excursion. The tour takes you on an incredibly fun white water rafting excursion through the rainforest. It’s led by expert guides and concludes with a delicious meal cooked on the ‘barbie’.

Air

Who doesn’t dream about flying every once in awhile? To be honest, I can’t imagine a prettier place to fly over than the emerald jungles and hypnotic turquoise waters of Cairns.

Plane

Now, there are two main ways of seeing Cairns from above. The first is with a Scenic Flight that takes you from the wild rainforests to the white cays and aquamarine ocean. The flight will take you over the Great Dividing Range in the rainforest near Cairns. You may feel like you are flying through a scene from Jurassic Park (I know I did). The rainforests really do look as ancient as they are. From the sky above the rainforest, you will travel to the coast. It is a surreal experience, looking out at the reef from your plane and seeing the shimmering colours of the coral refracted by the water above them. For those who, after seeing the water, need to be in the water, there are also flights that will then stop and allow you to go Snorkelling at Sandy Cay.

Another, more leisurely way to explore the sky space above Cairns is via Hot Air Balloon . Of course, in true Aussie fashion, the balloon flight isn’t entirely relaxed. While up in the balloon, you will get to experience a balloon chase, which is essentially exactly what it sounds like: Your balloon will chase another balloon across wide open country and vice versa. It’s a very fun time and not stressful in the slightest, but it does add a bit of pace to the otherwise lovely, leisurely and scenic flight.

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The Perfection of the Piazza Del Duomo

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Looking back on my week long, mid-semester break to Italy I simply can’t shake the feeling I got at the top of the Piazza del Duomo, so I thought I’d share, and hopefully inspire some other travelers.

First, I should probably mention that I was traveling with my four other friends, and it was our last day of our five day Italian extravaganza. Nobody wanted to leave Italy, the land of pasta, pizza, wine, and gelato (four things that will never taste the same to me again), the place where people relax and enjoy simple pleasures like coffee, which we normally find more of a necessity than an indulgence.  Where real leather was as common as the authentic Venetian masks.  But enough of my Italian tangents, the point is just when we thought it couldn’t get any better we came across the infamous Duomo.  The entire week we were running around Italy we had been so focused on seeing everything that the cities had to offer, I realized we rarely took a moment to stand back and take in everything that was around us.

Piazza del Duomo proved to be the exception. duomo

Totalling 463 steps to the top, we were surprised that the staircases were windy, narrow, and very dark, not exactly user friendly.  About half way to the top you find yourself on a walkway, inside the church walking around the circumference of the dome giving us an up close view of the painted dome.  And if anybody’s wondering, looking from the top tier down onto the inside of the church was just as stunning as standing on the floor of the church and looking up.  After the brief break on a flat surface we continued climbing.  If we thought the stairs before were cramped, it only became tighter!  With a large school group in front of us, and other visitors squeezing by to get back down, I would give up your values of personal space for a couple minutes while you wait to get to the top.

And just as quickly as I felt bombarded by people, I felt overwhelmed by the sweeping views as we stepped out of the stairs into the open air on top of the Duomo.  It’s a small area, but you can walk around in a complete circle getting the full 360º of Florence.  It’s weird how at only 90 meters high, we were able to overlook all of the city, from the people below us at the market, slowly stretching out to the rolling hills and mountains in the countryside.

duomo 2 After getting our pictures from all sides, and constantly repeating how we were never leaving, the exhaustion from a week of walking, combined with a whole lot of stairs seemed to hit us all at once.  If you find yourself in the same position, we found there’s no better place to regain your strength than on top of the Duomo.  We sat down by the fences on the perimeter and watched as the sun set over the city–another suggestion I would make would be to go at this time because watching the sun set on the infamous Italian terracotta houses was truly breathtaking.

duomo32

The Piazza del Duomo was the perfect ending to our perfect trip, and I hope that you have an experience that’s just as memorable.  Happy traveling!

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London Nightlife: Top 5

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“Nightlife” can hold multiple meanings, from clubs and bars to scary night walks, we wanted to share five of our favorite ways to spend our nights in London.

Ice Bar London

If you’re looking for a new way to go out in London, look no further than Ice Bar.  It’s perfect for a special night out since it is completely out of the ordinary.  How is it different? Well, yes, it’s exactly what the name indicates, everything is made out of ice.  moulin-rouge-by-torfo
You might be a little confused as to how exactly that is possible, as I was, but in a temperature controlled room below ground level, the typical London pubs are put to shame as the walls, tables, glasses, and even the bar are made out of ice. Even the clear floors give the illusion that they too are made out of ice, but don’t worry it’s completely slip free surface.

Don’t worry about being cold, as soon as you step inside they have people throwing heavy, insulated, and super warm hooded capes over your head. ice-bar-2 When you’re downstairs you have 40 minutes to take in this spectacular bar before the next group is ushered in.  40 minutes didn’t sound like a lot, but it turned out to be the perfect amount of time to take tons of pictures with friends, and you get a complimentary drink with your ticket!

Going to Ice Bar was definitely one of the coolest London experiences I’ve had since I’ve been here and I would definitely encourage both visitors and residents of London to head over to Mayfair and have the chance to look around the eclectic and one of a kind bar.

Medieval Banquet

Nothing says unique nightlife than a Medieval Banquet.  This is meant to make you feel like you’re having dinner with King Henry VIII, and is a really great option for adults and families alike.  the-medieval-banquet
As soon you enter the torch-lit banquet hall, you’ll realize this isn’t your typical dinner party.  Your four course meal is served alongside Medieval entertainment, also known as the Royal Court Show as history is reenacted featuring street performers, knights, and even wenches!

If jousting knights, Tudor-esque performances and medieval songs and dancing don’t sound like your sort of thing, don’t worry because you’re provided with unlimited wine and beer with your meal.  Also, the two hours of theater entertainment is followed by live music, dancing for the guests, and the open bar continues so it’s a guaranteed fun experience for everybody.

Now, with Christmas approaching, you also have the option to attend the Christmas Banquet option, which includes an even bigger meal and much more dancing and entertainment.

Jack The Ripper Tour

I have a love/hate relationship with scary movies, it’s almost like I can’t not look.  I had the same feeling when I saw the Jack the Ripper tour–I knew it would be terrifying, especially since it’s based on real events, but I just had to do it anyway.  So on a cold, dark night I went out and learned about the gruesome details of the infamous Jack the Ripper.

jack-the-ripper_13297_1 Walking down the old alleyways, seeing a haunted pub, and learning about the murders from autumn of 1888, was actually less frightening and more intriguing than I thought.  Our tour guide had such an extensive amount of knowledge of the topic and could answer any questions we had.

So if you’re looking for a thrilling but entertaining way to learn about London’s notorious Jack the Ripper, I highly suggest going on this tour for an easy way to switch up your evenings.

Ministry of Sound

The Ministry of Sound, London’s number one club for house and trance music, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Ministry, commonly known as MoS, was ranked fourth on DJ Magazine’s top 100 Clubs Poll in 2010. There is good reason for this commendable ranking; MoS is as extensive as it is loud. mos1

Within the Ministry there are five main areas: The Box, the Baby Box, the Bar, the Loft and the VIP. The Box is the club’s most famous room, boasting a sprung floor, which allows clubbers to dance on into the night without getting tired, and a specially-built ceiling constructed to contain sound. Dancers are rocked with the beat that pounds out through the numerous speakers positioned around the room. The music is amplified by the psychedelic laser lighting that seems to ricochet off of every surface, creating an almost dream-like effect in the darkly lit Box.

The Ministry of Sound has become one of the leading clubs in global dance music and some consider it to be the only venue that has hosted every famous DJ to date. Every Friday and Saturday night, world-renowned trance and hard house DJs come to spin the night away. The club also hosts disco, funky garage and chill techno.

So come out to the Ministry of Sound some night and discover what the rage has been all about. MoS won’t disappoint.

London Pub Tours

Any visit to London would be incomplete without visiting one of the hundreds of pubs located around the city. Each pub has its own unique feel; whether you are looking for a cosy place to sip on a drink on a cold day or socialise with the locals, the pubs of London are the places to be.

london-pub In his writings, Samuel Pepys describes the pub system as the ‘heart of England’. Indeed, pubs have been the focal points of British society for hundreds of years and continue to hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Britain. The name pub comes from public houses, which are drinking establishments that are most often owned by a brewery. Pubs offer a wide selection of beer, wine, cider and spirits. Pubs are most often used as places to unwind after a long day of work, catch up with friends and sip on one of the local beers served on tap.

Pubs generally have regulars who, as the terms suggests, go to the pub frequently, generally because it is close proximity to their home or it is a designated meeting spot for friends. While in London, feel like a regular by taking a tour of three of the city’s most famous pubs. Sample London’s famous fish and chips and unwind with one of our expert tour guides. When your trip is over, go home knowing you have thoroughly experienced what it means to be a part of the pub culture of London.

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