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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Nature & Wildlife’

5 Must-dos While Visiting the Italian Dolomites

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The Italian Dolomites are one of the most fantastic mountains in the world.  Their sharp pointed pinnacles and steep pale stony cliffs plunge steeply down to green valleys, creating some of the most incredible landscapes in the world.  There are eighteen summits that extend beyond 3,000 metres in height with Marmolada being the highest.

The Dolomites (meaning ‘pale mountains’) are sturdy in contrast.  Rough crags, pinnacles and towers encircle magical green meadows, multi-coloured forests, fields and lakes.  These striking contrasts are at its best in Cortina – ‘the pearl of the Dolomites’.   The whole region has been designated a UN Heritage Centre.

Dolomites article

There are many reasons to visit the area.  Here are our picks on the most satisfying things you can do while touring the Dolomites.

Adventure Activities
The Dolomites are renowned for skiing, mountain climbing, hiking, base jumping, paragliding, hang gliding and free climbing.  The Alte Vie or ‘Alpine Trails’ are world famous and, in some instances, really challenging treks. These mountains are a rock climbers’ dream with different sorts of climbs for all – novices, skilled as well as the seriously professional types.

Soar like an eagle under a parachute or glider’s wings from one of the mountains and thrill to the feeling of weightlessness – and live your dream.  You will get a view which only a few others do – above the spectacular peaks of the Dolomites.

The Dolomite region is a skier’s heaven.  Short summers and long winters make it ideal for extended skiing seasons.  The most famous and best skiing town is Cortina d’Ampezzo.  The 1956 Winter Olympics were held there.

Visit The Tunnels And Galleries In The Dolomites
In the early 20th century the border between Germany, Austria and Italy passed through the Dolomites.  During World War I, it was the frontline.  Soldiers on both sides excavated several series of tunnels in the mountains in order to fire at each other and wrest control of the heights.

Hiding places in the Dolomites (World War I)

Hiding places in the dolomites

These tunnels and galleries contain the remnants and artefacts of that period till date.  You can explore and see the still preserved barrack rooms (complete with sleeping bunks and heating stoves), storerooms, machinegun emplacements and other war relics.

Take Cable Car/Ski Lift Rides
The experience of a cable car or ski lift ride in the Dolomites is unlike any other.  They provide spectacular views unequalled in the world.  Even in this picture postcard world, some locations stand out from the others.  Just to name three – Lagazuoi near Cortina, Pass Pordoi and Mont Seuc.  The Dolomites, with the light on them constantly changing, are a photographer’s delight.  Once viewed, the scenery from the lifts will be sure to drag you back.

The ‘queen of the Dolomites,’ Marmolada is the highest peak in the Dolomites.  The entire journey in getting up to the top is an experience not to be missed.  As your gently swaying cable car lifts you towards the peak and above the clouds, you feel like you have wandered into a movie set.  The views are awe-inspiring and on a clear day you can see Venice!

Tour The lakes
If the sight of peaks of this region leave you in awe, their counterparts, the placid clear waters among the Dolomites are just as captivating.  These numerous pools of magic are flanked by golf-course like meadows and groves of trees while reflecting the pale peaks rising above them.  The picturesque little towns and villages that sit on their banks add to their allure.

Lake Auronzo di Cadore is an outstanding example.  Its fairy-tale surroundings are further enhanced in winter when the waters totally freeze up to the point where polo is played on it.  Another serene and tranquil lake is Misurina which is worth a visit.  Lake Misurina is where the speed skating events were held during the 1956 Winter Olympics (it was the last time Olympic speed skating events were held on natural ice.)  The spectacular scenery of Lake Misurina features in most photos of the area.

Spend The Night In A Mountain Hut (Rifugio)
To round off your Dolomites adventure or make it even more memorable, you should stay at a traditional alpine hut.  You can really soak in the magical atmosphere of the mountainous landscape.  The long history of mountaineering in the Alps has seen the building of many huts (rifugios) along the trails and throughout the high Dolomite massifs.  These wonderful wooden or stone cabins are very often perched precariously on the rocks.  The vistas from here are extraordinary.  There is no greater feeling than the camaraderie of other walkers, sharing an excellent dinner, a good night’s sleep and a generous breakfast before you set off again.

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10 Things To Know About The Phi Phi Islands

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The Phi Phi Islands are the most iconic symbol of Thailand.  They are featured on nearly every poster promoting the country.  They are amazing pieces of rock with stretches of achingly beautiful white sandy beaches.  They are located just off Thailand’s western coast in the Malacca Straits and only 50kms south-east of Phuket.  For the vast majority of visitors, the islands are the main reason for going to Thailand.

Here are some interesting details about the Phi Phi (pronounced pee-pee) Islands.

  • There are six islands in all.  Most of them are just tall pieces of limestone rock sticking out of the fantastic blue waters of the sea and covered with scattered plants and shrubs.

Phi Phi Islands

Phi Phi Islands

  • The two largest islands are Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Lee. Only Phi Phi Don is inhabited.  Ko in Thai means “island.” The name Phi Phi is Malay.  An interesting derivation for the name comes from the original name “Pulao Pi ah Pi,” which translates to “Fiery Tree” and refers to the local Grey Mangrove tree.
  • The islands first came to fame in 2000.  The beach of Maya bay was the setting for the movie The Beach.
  • The waters around Ko Phi Phi are fabulous for scuba diving and snorkelling.
  • The entire Phi Phi archipelago region is a protected area and part of the Thai marine National Park set up.  This has ensured that there is an abundant and varied marine life – and you don’t have to go far too out.  You can see large schools of multi-coloured fish swimming around your legs in the shallow water.
  • Ko Phi Phi Lee has many caves, one of which is world famous.  It is known as “Viking Cave.” The caves are the source of the thriving and profitable birds nest soup industry.

Maya Bay

Maya bay

  • The Phi Phi Islands were the earliest inhabited parts of Thailand.  Communities settled here as far back as pre-historic times. The local population is a good mix of Chinese, Thai and sea gypsies.  There are also Buddhists and Muslims, which means that there is always some festival being celebrated.
  • Longtail boat races and regular boat-launching ceremonies are held frequently, which are always colourful; a great time for music and traditional dancing.
  • The Phi Phi Islands have only two seasons – hot (January to April) and rainy (May to December).  The rain showers come in short but very heavy downpours.
  • Ko Phi Phi Don was devastated by the Christmas tsunami of 2004.  The restoration since then has been tremendous with the introduction of paved roads. The great thing, though, is that no motor vehicles are allowed.  Bicycling is the most popular and rewarding mode of transport.

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Touring The Nausori Highlands, Fiji

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When you travel the length of the Fiji Islands you find that every island – inhabited or uninhabited – seems to be just as magical as the other.  Each of these 300 or so of the Fiji Islands is a jewel set in the perfect blue South Pacific Ocean. Even among so much beauty, here are some fantastically scenic places in the Fijian archipelago that, simply, stand out from the rest.

fijiwater

One of these exquisite places is the Nausori Highlands.  The Highlands are located on Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu.  The area is relatively unspoiled by modernity and development.  Here the traditions and culture of the Fijian people has not changed in millennia.  The customs and practices of the local inhabitants are untouched by the outside world.

The best, to my mind, and only way to encounter firsthand the true Fijian experience is to take a trek through one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  A walking tour is a fantastic opportunity for the casual and also the ‘I want the authentic local feel’ visitor.  The cultural and eco-tourists will also be hugely thrilled with a trek up into the Nausori Highlands.

The trek will take you high up to almost 5000 feet to the mist-shrouded mountains.  They can be surprisingly chilly during the evenings and early mornings.  So packing a warm sweater or a jacket is a good idea.  

The mountains are covered with luxuriant rainforests.  Numerous clear streams and rivers that flow across the landscape invite you to bathe in their cool waters.  The jungles are populated with plenty of very raucous and brightly coloured tropical birds.  Walk along trails that have been used by the local villagers for untold generations and have not changed in all that time.

The journey up into the highlands will also give you amazing views of Viti Levu‘s rural countryside and of Nadi Bay.  You will also have uninterrupted views of the Mamanuca and Yasawa Island groups stretching out into the distance.

fijiwater2

The sheer beauty of the Nausori Highlands is not the only enjoyable aspect of a trip up there.  It is also the amazing people who live here and their gentle, warm and uninhibitedly inviting ways.  You will come across a number of long-established Fijian villages and a fantastic opportunity to experience their traditional rituals and courtesies.

The people are all too willing to teach you about their unique culture.  You can get a chance to peek into the tribal ways of Fijian villages tucked away and out of sight of the world.  The greeting involves a drink of Kava, a ceremonial beverage, which is quite significant to Fijians.  Guests are invited to an open kitchen and to participate in preparing an authentic Fijian meal.

The food is cooked over a firewood stove and comprises of coconut milk, spinach or Taro leaves stuffed with fresh water prawns or beef with a sprinkle of coconut cream cooked in a green bamboo trunk.  The meal also includes yams and taro along with a drink of freshly squeezed lemon juice or “yaqona” (Fijian traditional drink made from grounded pepper roots).

No interaction with Fijians is complete without singing and on that front one is never disappointed.

The magnificent scenery, the beauty of the islands, the timeless village life and the warmth of the people will add up to an experience like no other.

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London’s Hidden Gems

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Anyone who knows anything about London is well aware of the city’s top tourist attractions: the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London. London, it turns out, is a pretty touristy place. You can’t go anywhere without running into someone carrying a giant camera around their neck, holding up a crumpled city map, and standing on a street corner looking unbearably confused. I know you all know what I’m talking about. Because we’ve all been there. This is the tourist’s right of passage. You can’t visit London – or any major city – without experiencing this at least once. It will make for great stories one day. But, in the event that you want to escape the madness, avoid tourist traps, and explore some of London’s lesser-traveled roads, here are my picks for London’s hidden gems and some of my favorite places outside the city centre.

In no particular order:

1.  Primrose Hill

watermarkprimrose

If you’ve ever wondered what London looks like to a bird, Primrose Hill is probably the closest you will get. Primrose Hill is, as the name suggests, a big hill on the edge of Regent’s Park. Now, I know that most people these days are likely to avoid hills at all costs (is there an escalator anywhere?), but you absolutely must climb this one! The view is absolutely stunning and totally unparalleled. I promise you, the climb is completely worth it (like that Miley Cyrus song from way back when). Once you make it to the top, a view of the entire city down below awaits you. You can see everything from the London Eye to Big Ben to the Shard. It’s all there. Don’t forget your camera! It makes for excellent panoramic shots. If you want to make the trip extra special, go just before sunset and bring along a bottle of wine. Who says happiness doesn’t come cheap?

2.  Brick Lane

dankunzbrick

Brick Lane is most famous for its delectable Indian food (and with good reason), but don’t leave after you eat. The East London area is the cultural hub of the city. If artsy and alternative is your thing, East London is the place for you! After indulging on the delicious food, take a walk around the Brick Lane area (just don’t get up too quickly. You might split your pants). Here, you can find markets selling even more food and any other number of things from jewelry to paintings to clothing to trinkets. Brick Lane is also famous for the murals of graffiti and street art. This isn’t the kind of graffiti you see on under overpasses and in tunnels and at train stations. It’s art. And it’s really cool. Go!

3.  Hampstead Heath

watermarkhampstead

Hampstead Heath is undoubtedly one of my favorite spots in all of London. Just 25 minutes outside of the bustling city centre, Hampstead Heath is the perfect getaway for  nature lovers. You’ll know you’ve made it when all you can hear is silence, and the sound of birds chirping has replaced the sound of honking horns. You can practically feel all of the tension escape from your body and your muscles unknot as you breathe in the fresh clean smell of nature. Everyone needs a break every once and a while.

Hampstead Heath is really just a big park with sprawling green fields and ponds and forests of big tall trees and all of that naturey goodness you’ve been missing in the city. It is the perfect place for frolicking. If you go to Hampstead Heath you absolutely must frolic. It makes the experience 100 times better (that’s a proven fact). At this point in the blog, you’re probably looking at your computer screen like I’m crazy. I know what you’re thinking. Frolic, you say? Do I look like a pony? A deer? Well, I am almost 100 percent certain that you are neither. But frolic you must! When you visit Hampstead Heath, you will instantly understand this and thank me for giving you this wonderful suggestion. You are out in nature, so frolic it up! Hop, skip, jump, roll, tumble. Do whatever your heart desires. That’s what parks are for, after all! 

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Mirador Del Rio Sunsets And El Golfo Lagoon, Lanzarote

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Lanzarote is the most remarkable of all the Canary Islands.  The eastern most of the seven islands that make up the archipelago, its extraordinary landscape seems to be of another planet.  Great parts of Lanzarote are covered by ash and lava.  Lanzarote also offers a wide array of quiet beaches with fine sand unspoilt, beautiful bays and turquoise waters.  It has many spots that are undisturbed making for a serene environment.

Sunset at Mirador Del Rio

Of all the numerous scenic pleasures Lanzarote has to offer, its sunsets are the most memorable.  The island is not very large, which means that you can get a view of the glorious phenomenon from almost anywhere.  However, the most sensational views are to be had at the north of the island – at Mirador Del Rio.

Mirador Del Rio is a slight, rocky hill, which is a beautiful place to sit and watch the sun go down.  The salmon pink, orange and purple of the setting sun are complimented by other Lanzarote delights.  Sitting on the cliffs overlooking the sea, you will have fields of bluebells on one side and a panoramic view of the sea and its changing colours on the other.

The tiny island of La Graciosa, not far from the Lanzrote coast, adds further magic to the already incredible vista.

A picnic hamper with a bottle of one of Lanzarote’s many excellent wines are great accessories to accompany your viewing of the celestial special effects of the setting sun!


El Golfo Lagoon

On the opposite side from Mirador Del Rio, on the southwest, is another spectacular Lanzarote gift.  This is El Golfo.  It is the remains of a volcanic crater that has been broken into and eroded by the might of the Atlantic Ocean.  Inside this crater the lagoon – “Charco de los Clicos” – has emerged.

This semi-circular lagoon is intriguingly bright green because of the algae and minerals in the water.  This crater is one of the few and rare examples of hydro-volcanism, a phenomena produced by the interaction of magma or with salt water.  The concentration of special seaweed blossoms pretty well due to the extreme high salt content present in the lake.  This makes an oddly interesting contrast against the sand and rock formation of the crater.

The remains of the volcano are like a painter’s palette with grand brush strokes of black, red, yellow-green and russet layers of cooled lava.  The beach comprises of black volcanic pebbles interspersed with semi-precious green stones valued by jewellers.

The nearby village also called El Golfo is a lovely, small community that has restaurants where you can get some excellent seafood.  You can dine al fresco and enjoy the sunset.

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Timanfaya National Park

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The landscape of Timanfaya National Park is absolutely unreal.  In fact it is so alien that it could well be on another planet.  The Park occupies the southwestern portion of the island of Lanzarote (one of Spain’s Canary Islands).  It is a harsh and barren region formed by volcanic activity.  In that harsh alienness lies its magic and beauty.

Timanfaya National ParkTimanfaya National Park covers some 51 square kilometres (20 square miles) and the soil is entirely volcanic.  As late as 300 years ago the island was treated to some very large eruptions.  That activity continues till today as geysers of steam still spout occasionally from volcanic tubes, sometimes aided by park attendants pouring into them for the benefit of tourists and their cameras.

Timanfaya volcano is still an active one and is the highlight of some amazing volcanic features.  The blue-black lava fields (known as the malpais – meaning badlands), craters, lava tunnels, lava lakes and multi-coloured volcanic cones make for spectacular viewing.

This bleak and awesome landscape is however, thanks to Mother Nature, showing signs of life.  There are some rare plants growing among the volcanic rock.  There are over 200 lichen species and some very ancient fig trees growing, incredibly, among the volcanic cones.  So valuable and rare is the environment of Lanzarote that in 1993, UNESCO designated the entire island a Biosphere Reserve.  The heart of the reserve is Timanfaya National Park.  

camels in timanfayaTo protect and preserve the delicate ecology and rare flora and fauna, getting into Timanfaya National Park is very tightly regulated.  Private vehicles are not allowed into the park and one can tour it by coaches.  The care for the region extends to treks and walks too.  You can only take a trek in the company of authorised guides and even that is via one or two footpaths.  There are also camel safaris through the park.

One of the highlights of a visit to the park is having a meal at the El Diablo restaurant near the Timanfaya crater.  It has a natural oven where food is cooked on a grill by the heat arising out of a vent.  It can be quite a sight to watch chicken legs and potatoes being cooked by the underground heat.  The heat comes from superheated magna some 4 kilometres below the surface!

A trek or a coach ride through the amazing and awesome Timanfaya National Park will leave you with a lasting memory and experience that is like no other you have had or will have.

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Whooping It Up At Rancho Texas In Lanzarote

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Lanzarote is one of the largest Canary Islands and closest to the Spanish mainland.  Without meaning to give a geography lesson, it is interesting to note that it was created by volcanic activity way back when.  The results are huge tracts of solidified lava fields, rugged, craggy mountains, fantastically shaped rock formations and the El Jable sand dune desert.

In fact the ancient name of the island was Titerro(y) gatra meaning “red mountains.”  All these physical features are very reminiscent of the rocky badlands and deserts of the American southwest.  So to have a theme park called Rancho Texas on an island in the Atlantic Ocean just off Europe doesn’t seem so incongruous.

What is not widely known is that folk from Lanzarote had immigrated to the US many, many years ago and settled in the ‘southwest’ of that nation giving it a Spanish flavour.  So that is another connection!

In addition to nature’s handiwork the Rancho Texas has created a setting, including Cowboys, Cowgirls and Indians redolent of the old west adding some modern touches.  It has plenty for small and older children and adults to do.  You can spend the whole day enjoying its pleasures and in the evening some energetic entertainment.

Rancho Texas has compact, beautiful and carefully maintained promenades, flower-filled gardens, terraces, mini waterfalls and outdoor spaces.  The animal and bird areas are kept meticulously clean and as natural as possible.

Rancho TexasThe park houses snakes, boa constrictors, pythons, sea lions along with rabbits, donkeys, goats, small pigs and hens.  There are free-flying eagles, vultures, falcons and a giant condor hovering around, sometimes just over your head.  The bird section has smart and cheeky parrots and cockatoos that perform and show off their skills with panache. They guarantee everyone a good hearty laugh.

The California sea lions are not far behind when it comes to displaying intelligence, talent, fun, frolic and entertainment.  They are noisy, playful and relish the attention and contact with people.  Visitors can swim and interact with them too.  Then there are the big guys!  Rancho Texas Park’s animal section features rare white tigers, pumas, buffaloes and Nile crocodiles.

There are pretty little ponies for children to ride on. The Rancho Texas has a water feature section called ‘El Corral del Agua.’ It has a splash pool with play area for children, this has buffaloes standing in the water, a play house, slides, a canoeing facility and water jets everywhere.  There is also a swimming pool that provides relief from the Lanzarote heat.

The park also has an Indian Village, which is a trifle kitschy but forgivable.  In keeping with the western theme Mister Dakota is a lasso and whip wielding cowboy who puts on a daily and regular display.

Food at the Park is basically burgers, pizzas, chips and salads.  Servings are large but very reasonably priced.

To keep the grownups involved and interested there is evening entertainment.  In case you may have missed the point of the park’s theme, it is billed as Country & Western Night.

The ambience involves Cowboys and Indians on horseback and saloon girls.  The entertainment is made up of comedy sketches, dance demonstrations, and Mister Dakota’s whip and lasso show.  The interactive parts involving the guests are a western style all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet, free flowing beer, sangrias and soft drinks.  There is a live band playing popular old and new country tunes.  You can get up and join in the line dancing.

Rancho Texas Park is genuinely one for the whole family where both the kids and parents can come away very happy.

The Park is open daily 9.30 am to 5.30 pm.

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Tuscany – A Many Faceted Jewel

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What do you say about the Tuscany region of Italy that has not already been said, written, painted, photographed or filmed?  As a visitor it is impossible to decide what to see and what to skip – and you don’t want to miss any of it.  There is so much embedded in the place that you could spend an entire summer exploring just one facet of this fascinating part of Italy.  It is not an area that you can cross off your bucket list with a casual ‘been there, done that.’

Tuscany is located in the west-central region of Italy with a coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea.  It is crisscrossed by several mountain chains including the Apennines.  The mountains and hills make up more than 65% of the region and that distinguishes and defines Tuscany.  Its achingly beautiful multi-hued rolling hills capture your heart like no other.  It also partly explains why it is the most visited part of Italy.

Even the diversity of the climate seems made for your pleasure.  The coastal region is fair and mild; blessed with wonderful beaches and magical coastlines.  Away from the coast, among the mountains, it can get very cold in winter.  This fluctuation in temperatures and weather cycles combined with its soil and agricultural output once made Tuscany the main food source for Ancient Rome.  Today it is also probably the vineyard of the country.

Tuscany has many famous and notable towns but the large and important cities have grown and developed on the banks of the River Arno.  Their names – Florence (aka Firenze), Empoli, Pisa, Siena, Livorno, Viareggio – roll off the tongue like poetry (even if your Italian isn’t good) and conjure up images of splendour.

The region had a civilization and culture long before that of Rome.  Known as the Etruscans (from where the name Tuscany is probably derived) they developed an enduring cultural (and language) identity that survives till this day.  This long, rich and vibrant history has turned the whole region into a veritable museum and storehouse of extraordinary art – whether it is architecture, painting or sculpture – all masterpieces.

So numerous, wondrous and well-preserved are the historical, artistic and cultural legacies that UNESCO has designated seven whole areas as World Heritate Sites! They are the Historic Centre of Florence; the Historical Centre of Siena; the Cathedral of Pisa and the Piazza dei miracoli (square of miracles); the Historical centre of San Gimignano (a hilltop village with 14 fantastic towers); the Historical centre of Pienza; the Val d'Orcia and the Medici Villas and Gardens.
 
One could go on and on about Tuscany’s churches, palaces, villages and piazzas.  The region has an incredible number of amazing towns like Pisa and its leaning Tower and Cathedral Square and the renowned Uffizi Gallery and Museum but the two shining jewels in this glittering land are Florence and Siena.  

Florence is the birthplace of Renaissance and two incredible men – Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  These three factors alone would have made many other renowned cities culturally rich.  However, Florence is also the beneficiary of the wealth, power and extraordinary legacy of the Medici family.  Without them Florence would not be what it is. Their efforts and patronage either directly or indirectly spawned the Florentine School of art with such alumni as Fra Angelico, Botticelli and a host of others.

TuscanySiena is another great treasure chest.  Its rich artistic tradition generated the Sienese School.  It’s well-preserved art and architecture date from the medieval period.  An outstanding example of the city’s artistic richness is its huge and beautiful shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, the Cathedral and the Palazzo Pubblico.

Tuscany however, is not all art and architecture.  The other face to the region is its natural side.  Travel across the rolling hills with their quilt patchwork of olive groves and vineyards; the changing colours of the fields and forests; the fairy tale houses of the small towns and villages and past the picturesque gardens of the villas and you will feel that you are imbibing the Tuscan essence through every sense.

Tuscany has over 120 protected nature reserves and parks.  They are home to some of Europe’s oldest forests.  One of the most beautiful is Pinocchio’s Park.  Carlo Collodi, the creator of The Adventures of Pinocchio, took his pen name from his mother’s village – Collodi.  The Park has lovely winding pathways that are populated with statues of characters from the story.

There are other things you can do and experience in Tuscany.  You can indulge in gastronomic tours and sample (or gorge on) the fabulous food.  Each district seems to cook things their own way, producing their own distinct flavours.  Then you could get well and truly happy by signing up for a wine tasting tour.  This is after all, Chianti country.  The region boasts over 30 wines!  Don’t get me started on this aspect of Tuscany.  I could spend a whole summer just doing wine tours!

No matter what you do, where you go or what you see, one thread binds all of Tuscany – stunning beauty!

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Kanchanaburi – Beyond The Bridge On The River Kwai

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Kanchanaburi is the provincial capital and location of the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai.  Many feel that the town would not be what it is were it not for the bridge and the tragic history behind its construction.

Sitting close to the Myanmar (Burmese) border Kanchanaburi was initially established as a defensive outpost by Thai King Rama I in the mid 1800s.  It is located on a mountain range, which makes it much cooler than many other Thai regions.  This adds to its attraction for European tourists.  

The main attractions at Kanchanaburi itself are the Bridge over the River Kwai (pronounced as in air); the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum; the JEATH (acronym for Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland – the nationalities of those involved in the building) Museum and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.  The dreaded Hellfire Pass is some distance away though.  All these are related to or inspired by the history of the Death Railway.

There is an annual River Kwai Bridge Festival to mark the Allied bombing on November 28, 1944. A spectacular light and sound show is the highlight of the festival with some fireworks thrown in.

Kanchanaburi is situated at the confluence of the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai rivers that flow into the River Mae Klong.  Most of the town sits on the northern banks and is rather easy to navigate, though a little too large to comfortably walk around.  The town runs north-south with the main Saeng Chuto Road running its length, connecting the Bridge on the River Kwai, the bus station and the railway station.

Close to the river is a thriving and rather hedonistic community that has become an increasingly attractive destination for the backpacking species.

Kanchanaburi, today however, is much more than a World War II pilgrimage and a remembrance place.  For a start, the region has an abundance of natural wonders all soul satisfying, visually stunning and a paradise for nature lovers.  There are mountains, rivers, caves, waterfalls, streams, lush jungles and temples, which make it one of the most beautiful provinces in Thailand.  All the attractions are in fairly close proximity and a day excursion of the town.  Every one of them is worth a visit and exploration.

There are several notable and beautiful temples such as the Don Chedi (an archaeological site), Giant Tree temple, Kuan Yum, Wat Ban Tham, Wat Tham Sua, Wat Tham Mungkornthong and Wat Tham Khao Noi.  The Wat Tham Khaopoon is a cave complex, 5 km outside the town (past Chongkai War Cemetery), with Buddha images.  

One of the most popular and interesting temples is Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua or Tiger Temple, which is the biggest tourist attraction of the region.  Here you can see tigers lounging around a canyon, surrounded by minders.  There are also water buffaloes and deer roaming around the place.

KanchanaburiThere is no dearth of dazzling and incredibly beautiful waterfalls around Kanchanaburi.  There are the spectacular seven-tiered Erawan Falls.  All the tiers are great for swimming and extremely beautiful.  You need to watch out for the monkeys scavenging for food that oft times make off with tourists’ possessions.  Erawan can become very crowded with package and group tourists.

The Sai Yok National Park includes the Sai Yok Noi Falls, the Phra That Falls and Hin Dat Hot Springs.  There are also numerous limestone caves and hot springs as well.  It is relatively quiet as not many tourists come here.

Another great attraction of Kanchanaburi is the elephant camps, the largest of which is Taweechai Elephant Camp.  It houses about 30 elephants and you can ride, bathe and take training courses with them.  Another camp is the Elephant's World, a charity based elephant camp, situated 32Km from Kanchanaburi town.   The camp cares for abused and retired elephants and offers visitors the chance to help the staff in caring for the giant creatures with one day visits and overnight stays.

Transportation to and from local attractions is fitful, often slow and erratic.  Within Kanchanaburi, songthaews (orange pickups) act as local shuttle services and connect the train and bus stations with the bridge. Motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks are also available.

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Montserrat – A Rocky Ensemble

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Montserrat monastery

There are many reasons to visit Montserrat. It could be religious, musical, architectural, historical, ‘must see; must do,’ discovery, hiking, rock climbing, or just good old fashioned sightseeing. Whatever your compulsion you will be gratified and probably get more than you expected.

Montserrat in Catalan literally means "saw (serrated as the teeth of a handsaw) mountain."  They are the handy work of nature’s sculptural efforts over millions of years. The multiple peaks rearing up to its highest 1,236 metres (4,055 feet) at Sant Jeroni are simply spectacular.

This rocky ensemble is just 50 kilometres (31 miles) northwest of Barcelona. The trip takes about an hour by train or ninety minutes by road. The route takes you through some truly beautiful Catalan landscape and along the Llobregat River.

Once you get to Montserrat itself there are a number of ways you can get up to the various delights that the place has to offer. You could drive up; take the cable car or the rack railway.

The Aeri de Montserrat cable car is a dizzying 5 minute ride. Since these are always full you could wind up squashed in the middle and miss out on the stunning views as the car crawls up to the halfway stage. The Montserrat Rack Railway is a 15 minute joyride taking you back to child-like thrills. Or you could take the road – bus or car.
 
The first phase of your rise up to the Montserrat experience ends at the roughly halfway mark. This is where the 1,000 something year old Montserrat Monastery (Benedictine Abbey) and the Montserrat Basilica home of “La Morenta,” the black-faced Madonna have been built.

Viewing the Madonna can be a bit of a chore. It has been placed in a tiny alcove reached by a narrow corridor and up a staircase on the right side of the Monastery. You may have to inch your way forwards for more than an hour. More than two million people visit the shrine every year and you only get a few seconds in front of it before you are forced to move by the visitors behind. If you can get there by 9am then there are not many people around.

The Basilica is where the Montserrat Boy’s Choir (l’Escolania) sing every day at 1pm.  Their musical performance is enough to fill your soul to overflowing. Across the Basilica and underground is an extraordinary museum with a superb collection of paintings by the likes of El Greco, Caravaggio, Sisley, Picasso and Dalí. It also houses valuable artefacts and items from ancient Egypt.

From the plaza in front of the Monastery you can go to the top of the mountain via the Funicular de Sant Joan. This is a veritable archaeologist’s delight. The mountain face is pockmarked with the caves of hermit monks who once populated the place. There are also several chapels, stairs and pathways.

The Funicular de Santa Cova is another rack railway that takes you down to the cave, which is the original location of “La Morenta. This grotto is where visitations by the Virgin Mary were first reported back in 880 AD.

If hiking is your thing, then the slopes of the Montserrat hills will be a joy for you. There are six recognised hikes with the longest one to Sant Jeroni. The walk starting from either the mountain base of the top of the Sant Joan Funicular will reveal breathtaking views of the surrounding plains and the Pyrenees.

There are interesting features for nature lovers because of the geology and plants along the way. All of the trails offer amazing views and the locals boast that on a really clear day you can see Mallorca.

Just so you are prepared keep in mind that the funicular railways don’t run in March and carrying a coat is advisable. Montserrat often has strong and chilly winds.

For me the trip to Montserrat was the highlight of my visit.

 

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