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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’

What’s your ‘perfect holiday’?

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Ladies and gentlemen, get excited!

TOMORROW (July 11th, 2008) marks the start of our first ever ‘PERFECT HOLIDAY’ CONTEST.

Basically, you will get the chance win a £500 isango! credit towards your dream holiday by sending us your inventive description of what, exactly, constitutes your ‘perfect holiday’.

Watch this space for more details.

***Update – 14 July 2008***

Official ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest entry site:

 

http://www.isango.com/PerfectHoliday.aspx

In the meantime, to get your creative juices flowing (because I know you’ve all been dreaming of that perfect, exotic and adventurous getaway and thus will be entering the contest), here is a sample list of some perfect, exotic and adventurous ways that you could cash in that grand prize!

isango!’s 2008 Staff Picks…

1. Diving in the Red Sea

Diego’s love of wetsuits has drawn him to the warm waters, beautiful coral reefs and colourful exotic fish of the Red Sea. A haven for divers, the Sinai Peninsula coast offers some of the world’s finest underwater excursions; the chance to explore this rich biodiversity tops many travellers ‘must do’ lists. A truly unforgettable experience!

2. Golden Triangle Tour in India

This vibrant, picturesque journey takes you to three of India’s most fascinating cities, bringing the colourful history of the country to life. Delhi’s heady mix of cultures enthrals visitors, while the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur (which matches most of Bernie’s clothing—his reason for selecting this fine tour) is thought to offer the finest examples of Hindu architecture in the world. The unquestionable highlight is, of course, the magnificent Taj Mahal.

3. Amazon River Cruise

Single and sassy, Sarah likes to make the most of her (exotic!) holidays. Aside from Brazilian men, she enjoys a fair bit of rainforest adventuring.

Covering half of Brazil, the Amazon Rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and home to over a third of the world’s species. At its heart, the lifesource of the rainforest provides the intrepid traveller with a pathway through this region’s rich ecosystems.

4. Helicopter Ride Over Grand Canyon

When he’s not lounging in his leer jet, Ranjan likes to take fancy helicopter rides across America! He reports that photos, guidebooks and superlatives cannot do justice to the overwhelming landscape of the Grand Canyon. The only way to truly appreciate the scale of this natural wonder is to soar above its cavernous depths and majestic colours on an exhilarating flight.

5. The Inca Trail: Cusco and Macchu Picchu

An anthropology geek (yes!), Carrie’s excursion of choice must be, she reports, ‘enriching’ and ‘educational’. Among millions of other culture-hungry travellers, she is enthralled by the sacred legacy of Peru’s Inca civilisation.

This fascinating journey begins in the ancient city of Cusco and continues through the most significant of Incan archaeological sites (sigh!). Its climax and undeniable highlight is the dazzling, mountain top “lost city” of Machu Picchu.

6. Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater

Ajay and Amrit are up for an African safari adventure!

Arguably the world’s finest nature reserve, the Serengeti National Park and the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater provide a refuge for a fascinating variety of wildlife. After encountering some wildebeasts, zebras, lions and elephants on a guided land excursion, take to the skies on a breathtaking hot air balloon ride! You will come to understand why the term Serengeti, meaning ‘endless plains’, is so apt.

7. Diving with the Sharks in Cape Town

This is one for the thrill seekers, like our globe-trotting Emma!

Leave behind Cape Town’s white sands, blue skies and rolling green mountains and dive deep into the ocean for an experience that is sure to stay with you forever. Nothing can prepare you for the rush of adrenaline you will feel when you come face to face with one of nature’s great predators (so we assume that she would have reported).

8. Great Barrier Reef Cruise

Like Sarah, Jess is constantly on the move. On a quest for friendly adventure (and Aussie love!), she has most recently set her sights on the coast of Queensland.

The largest single structure made by living organisms, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 2000km along the northeastern Australia. Home to an abundance of plant and marine life and blessed with year-round sunshine, the reef and nearby tropical islands attract divers, snorkelers, swimmers and cruisers from around the world (providing the perfect backdrop for some romantic dinners!).

9. Adventure Cruise in the Galapagos Islands

When Daniele is out of the office, we suspect that he is hiding on an exotic island with his blackberry. It was thus no surprise that he selected this remote archipelago off the coast of Ecuador.

Boasting some of the world’s most unique animal species, the Galapagos were long untouched by man until made famous by Charles Darwin’s natural selection studies. And though many have followed in his pioneering footsteps to explore the islands’ unique ecosystems, the natural habitats have been well protected and preserved.

Escape the office to join Daniele, and you may encounter some giant Land Iguanas and Blue-footed Booby birds!

10. Giza Pyramids Tour

Rish’s macabre fascination with embalming fluids has made Egypt his destination of choice. His obvious starting point: the alleged tomb of King Khufu.

Travellers will delight in the mystery and legacy of the Pyramids of Giza! Surrounded by a necropolis of ancient monuments, including the world famous Sphinx statue, the Pharoah’s tombs envelop some of the world’s fascinating secrets, as preserved for over 5000 years.

Excited? Inspired?

The isango! ‘PERFECT HOLIDAY’ CONTEST starts tomorrow! Stay tuned!

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The Peacock Parade…

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Peacock Ruffled Feathers

It wasn’t until I started writing blogs that I realized just how fascinated I am with wildlife; indeed, I spend more time staring at lizards, bugs and squirrels than I do learning about important monuments and historical landmarks. 

If you’ve already read the birdwatching blog, you know just how fascinating Bowerbird courtship behavior can be (check that blog out here  here if you haven’t!). Yet sometimes animal behavior is inexplicable—it was just last week that I experienced my most surprising, amusing bird encounter of the year: I was strolling through the Fountain of Youth Park

 …when I was almost attacked by a Peacock.

While I don’t have photographic evidence of the bird’s sweeping dive towards my forehead, I did, after coming to terms with the insanity of the situation, manage to photograph his beautiful feathers from afar:

 

Peacock Feathers Fountain of Youth

The Peacock Parade…yes, indeed…it’s on display, every day, at the Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine, Florida

You should go there and check out these beauties for yourselves:

Beautiful White Peacock St Augustine

 

Peacock Open Feathers

But be sure to watch your heads!

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The Omnivore’s East African Dilemma

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A recent rabbinical revelation, which qualified giraffes as amongst those lucky, split-hoofed and cud-chewing animals deemed kosher, got me thinking about my personal meat consumption. From where I’m currently writing (in the American northeast), if I want to eat locally, I’m pretty much restricted to sheep, cows, pigs, goats, and various poultry (minus one if I’m eating kosher!). It thus seems my giraffe-eating opportunities, rabbi-sanctioned or not, are limited. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a vegetarian since the 8th grade…).

But while giraffe remains novel, I did eat zebra once. Well, not really, but I very seriously considered it. I had it on my fork, raised it to my mouth and everything. Alas, at the last second, I got cold feet and finished my meal with my vegetarianism in tact.

Where, you ask, did I have this unique opportunity to test the (narrow) limits of my gastronomical bravado? Certainly not in Philadelphia. No way. I’m afraid enterprising eaters must travel to Kenya to try such exotic and gamey culinary delights. There you must head to Nairobi to have a lunch or dinner at the world-famous restaurant The Carnivore.

While I can’t promise giraffe, you can certainly enjoy such carnal treats as crocodile and antelope. And for those of you with less adventurous palates, grilled and barbequed beef, pork, and chicken are also available.

My vegetarian experience of The Carnivore was limited to some pastry-like, lasagna-esque dish, which I shamefully ordered as my more courageous colleagues had wildebeest and ostrich shaved onto their already overflowing plates. I’m not kidding. Attentive, waistcoat-clad servers literally shaved the meat from spits using very large carving knives at the table!!! (And for the record, my veggie meal was delicious, if embarrassing to order).

After stuffing themselves with as much meat as they could handle, my co-diners surrendered to their protein-induced food comas by raising a white flag. These flags are conveniently left in the middle of the table and signal to the diligent servers/meat-carvers that their customers have had enough game and are ready to move on to dessert.

Okay, so perhaps you’re not down with eating giraffe. I don’t blame you. I prefer my blue-tongued, acacia-eating ungulates without barbeque sauce, thank you very much. If you’re like me then you might favor heading just outside Nairobi to the Ngong Hills. There you’ll find the former house (now turned museum) of Danish author Karen Blixen. Drawing a blank on this one? Think: Meryl Streep, and more importantly, Robert Redford <sigh>, in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, the movie based on Blixen’s life and work. In addition to re-living favorite moments from the academy award-winning film while touring the house and its bordering grounds, you get to visit the adjacent Giraffe Center. Here you will meet Daisy, the famous Rothschild giraffe, and also have the chance feed the center’s towering twiga, as the animals are called in Kiswahili.

Of course, there’s nothing like seeing animals in the wild. And for that, Kenya’s certainly the right place! After a few nights in Nairobi, head out of the city for a safari (Kiswahili for “journey” or “travel”) in any number of the country’s National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. In the lush landscape of the Masai Mara, you can see the majestic twiga in their natural habitat, not to mention simba (lion), ndovu (elephant), and kiboko (hippo).

The memories alone are enough to whet my appetite and start me dreaming about Landrovers and acacia-dotted landscapes. Sadly, from where I’m presently sitting in Philadelphia, these exciting meals and safaris are nearly half a world away. So despite the rabbis’ green-light on the ingestion of my favorite ruminant, until my next East African adventure I guess I’ll have to satisfy my giraffe-cravings at the local zoo.

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Get your golf on…

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Tee off in Fuerteventura

Golfderdash: (n) An artful pastime that combines elements of the classic (mildly elitist, impossible to master) board game of Balderdash with the classic (mildly elitist, impossible to master) sporting activity of Golf.

The game of Golfderdash was created 18 minutes before this blog was posted, on the premise that one’s successful participation in the game of Golf (+ Balderdash) is dependent upon one’s ability to feign knowledge of obscure terminology (basically, both games involve lots of BS’ing).Please participate in the trial run of Golfderdash by posting your best answer to the following golf-related questions at the end of this blog.

1: What is an ‘Elephant Burial Ground’?

Choose from:

a. An ancient site of ritual sacrifice, several of which have are embedded beneath the fairways of golf courses near Durban, South Africa.

b. A large, mysterious mound encountered by golfers—usually on the green of a course—where good scores tend to ‘die’.

c. A sacred place where dead elephants are buried.

d. A Las Vegas Casino, known for its extensive range of golf-themed machines, in which gamblers ‘bury’ large quantities of money.

Go ahead, take a guess! Post below—all winners get virtual ‘high fives’. How about it?

2: What is a ‘Yank’?

Choose from:

Nothing. I’m leaving this one open-ended. Hit me with your best shot, below.

3: Can you eat a ‘Texas Wedge’?

…obviously not.

Folks, there’s more where that came from…

So I’ll admit it—I’m not much of a golfer. However, as a young girl I did own a fluorescent pink golf bag and a putter; I used to tag along to the 9 hole practice course with my dad and brother, who, of course, always inverted the scoring system to cater to my 28 put sinks.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking—I would like to take up this beloved pastime as a serious adult…mainly so I can meet some cute guys I mean become a well-rounded athlete/person.Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

How to become a golfer:

Step 1 – Learn lingo (check.)

Step 2 – Take a bunch of lessons (er…)

Step 3 – Exercise newfound skills on courses in exotic locales (yes, please!)

Step 4 – Become well-rounded athlete/person (on my way.)Let’s skip straight to the most crucial step, shall we?

Putting through paradise: Hot golfing destinations ’08…

1. Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria:

Sun, sand, turquoise blue…oh, and of course an enormous expanse of green for your golfing pleasure!The Fuerteventura Golf Club contains over 1,500,000 square meters of open playing space—including a state-of-the-art driving range, putting green and chipping green—making it the largest green area of the Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

Tee off in paradise as you watch the sunrise over the Atlantic; drive, chip, and put your way to the 18th green, as you admire the sparkling lakes, lush palm trees and glorious scenery; relax into the late afternoon on a peaceful catamaran cruise.Venture beyond the fairways to experience a huge range of sightseeing activities, including deep sea fishing trips, scenic bike safaris, volcano excursions, and family cruises.

2. Akaroa, New Zealand.

Mix a bit of culture—and breathtaking South Island scenery—into your golfing adventure by embarking on a trip to the historic French whaling village of Akaroa. The adjacent 18 hole Akaroa golf course (par: 67M, 70W), overlooking the Akaroa Harbor, is considered one of the most picturesque courses in Canterbury.

This sightseeing tour of Akaroa includes hotel pick up and drop off, lunch, a visit to a local cheese factory (?), and, of course, a round of golf!

End your trip with a splash by taking swim with rare dolphins in AkaroaHarbor.

3. Selborne Estate, South Africa

Live in luxury at the exclusive Selborne Hotel, Spa and Golf Estate, as you soak in the subtropical warmth of the Indian Ocean, just 30 miles south of Durban.Their 18-hole golf course has been described by some as one of the finest in South Africa, where “wild coastal forest frames a superbly manicured course…where the only disturbance may be one of nature’s creatures” (- an elephant ghost?)

Suitable for professionals and amateurs alike, Selborne even has its own resident PGA instructor and indoor golf academy.

Selborne Estate South Africa

Should you desire to venture beyond the comforts of the estate, you may opt for a bit of local culture at the Phezulu Village or in the city of Durban.

Get your golf on.

I hope that I’ve inspired you to plan en exotic golfing adventure.

In the mean time, let’s keep the Golfderdash tradition going strong. I await your answers.

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The Mountain, Borneo

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I will start my series of blog entries with one of the most memorable (and exhausting) trips I made whilst on my journey around the world – that was to Sabah, Borneo to climb the famous Mount Kinabalu.

I have long held a fascination with Borneo – the faraway island, where my mother was born and where most of my family spent their youth – so it was with both excitement and expectation that I first set foot in Kota Kinabalu. ‘The Mountain’, as it’s known by the locals, is legend in my family. It once defeated my stubborn, ‘happy grump’ of a grand-father who, despite building roads through jungles, and surviving the infamous Bridge of the River Kwai concentration camp, failed to reach the summit… “ Bugger this”, he said, but half way to the top – “I’m going back down for a corpse reviver”, (one of the many cocktails he has invented in his life time. Other favourites include the ‘grave robber’ and the ‘brain crippler’).

How could I, an asthma-ridden, stodge-eating, city girl ever hope to achieve it? Still, I was determined to succeed, and that was enough for me…

Mount Kinabalu towers over everything surrounding it and watches protectively over KK city. It is an impressive sight, and it is little wonder that the locals believe it to have supernatural powers. Visiting the mountain and the lush, tropical national park at its base is a simple task to organise, or so I thought…”tour operator? – pah! Who needs one?” Boy, did I regret that decision!

In a pathetic bid to save a few measly pennies (literally, in Malaysia),I opted to make my own way, via local bus, to the national park. I also snubbed the plush hotels inside the compound for a miserable little ‘pension’ with an ant infested kitchen and ‘colourful’ bed sheets that attempted to mask the years they had spent on the rickety bunks, unwashed, unchanged and crawling with God knows what! It was a miracle that I arrived unscathed…and even more of a miracle that I was alive the next morning to tell the tale…

Once inside the park, I had to arrange my pass, a guide, my accommodation and countless other things before I was able to set off…I was already exhausted, and I hadn’t even started walking yet!

Then, suddenly, I was off….off to conquer the mountain, to race to the top…

Well, that dream was short lived. For ‘race’ I did not: the first day of the trek consists of 4 hours of pure uphill climbing. Not long, some might say, but it is possibly the steepest 4 hour climb I have ever undertaken – harder than the entire Machu Picchu trail put together! That, coupled with the suppressive tropical heat and the increasing altitude makes it, at times, unbearable. However, the trail was beautifully kept, with regular scenic resting stops and plenty of people to chat with along the way. We all encouraged one another up the relentless mountainside to our resting place , close to the top.

Secretly, I enjoyed every minute of it.

In the end, I made surprisingly good time and spent the late afternoon settling into my room, attempting to shower in the icy cold before meeting up with some fellow trekkers. Before long, we were firm friends and watched the stunning sunset together over a couple of beers, a game of cards and a steaming bowl of noodle soup.

I had barely closed my eyes (I had a snorer in my room, who could be heard the length of the corridor…), when I was rudely awoken with a 1 am call to get out of bed and up the mountain in order to see the sunrise. It was exhilarating; there we were on a steep granite slope in the pitch black, able only to see by torch light (now who’s glad they had a head torch!), as we clutched onto ropes to keep us from slipping off the side. Surprisingly, I found the climb much easier in the dark: unable to see the gradient of the incline, I seemed much more willing to push on (unlike the day before!) and made it to the top with my new found friends in record time.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

The cold was biting – we used anything that we could find to keep warm: towels as hats, socks as gloves…a sight to behold! And then we sat…waiting, and waiting…and waiting, until, very slowly, bit by bit, the sun started to creep up above the horizon, illuminating our surroundings and setting the sky on fire! The sight was breathtaking, spectacular; absolutely spellbinding. Never had I seen such a unique setting…the jagged hostile nature of the granite rocks surrounding us contrasted with the lush tropical forest in the valley below – making it one of the most striking views I had ever seen. I felt alive to be there, standing as if on the top of the world.

Veiw from Mount Kinabalu

After we had had our fix of marvellous views, we tore ourselves away and began the descent: nothing could have prepared me for the pain that ensued. Walking purely downhill for 8 hours is the most excruciating task…so much so that my legs actually refused to work for the last hour, and I had to walk on my tip toes just to make it down. It was as if my limbs had become independent of my body and flapped around with a will of their own! Still, after a long and painful day, I arrived safely at the bottom with a feeling of satisfaction and elation.

There it stood: the mountain, as tall and majestic as ever…but this time I saw it differently. I had conquered it, I had stood upon its summit, and I would cherish the experience always.

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Squirrel Mania!

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Once upon a time, two naïve, young Americans resided in an isolated garden amidst thousands of Britons. For years, they cohabited peacefully, frolicking through the flowers, making the most of available resources, scavenging what they could and protecting themselves from the inclimate weather with drab, grey (yet functional) attire.

They remained blissfully unaware of their neighbouring British brethren, who, steeped in age-old tradition, upheld their distinctive, refined set of food and fashion tastes…

Then, one day, some idiot let those Americans loose.

The Yankees invade.

The Grey Squirrels have taken over— ‘those big, ugly rats’, as some of my British friends call them, are destroying the native population of beloved, beautiful Red Squirrels.

continue reading

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The Republic of Happiness.

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“We have the friendliest border police in the world,” the officer smiled as he handed me back my landing card, “you can start your story with that?”

I’m in love with Ireland. And I’m not just saying this because I still have traces of Guinness lurking in my synapses (folk ballads ringing in my ears, 40 shades of green flashing through my hazy subconscious…). I just met some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. It was their personalities—their enthusiasm for life and for those around them—that defined my travel experience. My most vivid memories of the Emerald Isle will thus linger as a series of encounters with lively locals, namely the following…

1. Michael O’Leary

Not the famed, fiery chief executive of Ryanair—or his son, as insinuated by friends (unless Mike Sr. secretly spawned at age 10)—but nonetheless a most charismatic guru of Dublin nightlife.

Mr. O’Leary’s mantra—“those who have no fear are truly free” (repeated several times, over several pints)—will never be forgotten. Amen, brother. Amen…

“The way I see it, girls,” he grandly gestured toward the window of The Bailey, a trendy, laid back Dublin watering hole—a crossroads for pub-going lads and cocktail-sipping ladies (a good place for the former to take and (attempt to) impress the latter), “is that you have two choices—two potential paths, if you will.”

We sipped our glasses of chardonnay in anticipation.

“But you must first tell me,” he leaned forward: “What is it that you truly hope for?”

In life…or from the bartender? We just wanted to know which, uh, pub we should go to next?

“You see, you have choices.

choices?

“Yes, choices. You can either walk through that door, and turn left…”

He grabbed a pen from his pocket and quickly charted a hyper-detailed route to Café en Seine, a posh French café-turned-disco, on my damp napkin.

“Or, you can go…right.”

The difference being…?

“Well, if you choose left, you choose…suits.”

French cafes and suits? You’ve gotta be kidding. We want a banjo-picking, sham-rocking hoe down. This is Ireland for G’sake…

“But if you turn right…”

He carefully folded the napkin map into my friend’s palm.

“Well, that’s for you to discover.”

Two paths diverged in a green, drunken wood…

And we obviously chose right.

2. Mary O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan was genuinely concerned with our well-being from the moment we stumbled into her Killarney Bicycle Shop—we appeared as two lost, giggling (hung over) tourists on an eager quest to “discover the Ring of Kerry” by bicycle…in four hours…right.

Mary saw how excited we were, though, and graciously offered us extra cycling time—she would come back to meet as after evening mass at 7.15pm on the dot (the shop closed at 6pm that night).

We had no idea where we were going, what to do with our bulky handbags or how to strap on our helmets. But Mary had us covered—she took care of everything. It took her 15 minutes to get us situated on our pink-trimmed town bikes, an amount of time in which, she informed us, “I can usually get 30 people out the door and on the road.” But she didn’t seem to mind mothering us—in fact, I think she really enjoyed it. She pointed out that she had good training for this type of thing, having raised 3 sons.

“Sorry, all married!” She responded…before I could even ask…while fastening my helmet (for the second time). Damn, she was good.

I should note that our cycling tour of Killarney National Park—a topic for another blog—was the unquestionable highlight of our trip to Ireland. Despite a *tiny* setback (we got lost and had to backtrack 15km to a vaguely familiar cow pasture, from which we miraculously navigated our ways back to the main road and into the city center), we had an amazing, scenic, and exhilarating journey through the enormous park and surrounds.

We even managed to make it back to Mary’s shop on time; actually, we were early. Mary informed us that our good fortune was a result of the prayer she said for us at mass.

Honestly, what would we have done without her? Mary O’Sullivan = our saviour.

3. Crazy Tom

Crazy Tom was the acoustic guitarist that stole our hearts with his country ballads and quirky cover selections at that little pub on College Street in downtown Killarney. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes doing crafty Google searches, trying to track down the name of the rustic little venue in which Tom’s musical magic transpired on the evening of May 25th, 2008. But I have failed miserably. Sorry kids—I just don’t remember where I was. But I remember the music…promise.

Fortunately, Killarney is the type of town where you could go door to door and say something like: “Do you know where I can find Tom, the crazy old, guitarist with the crazy hair? He’s incredibly talented and really nice to tourists? He sometimes plays Bob Marley…” And you would probably figure out a way to catch one of Tom’s gigs in less than an hour.

But if you can’t manage to track down Tom, fear not: the Killarney nightlife scene is live music. Just stroll through the city center on a weekend evening—you are bound to encounter tons of traditional/folk + country + rock cover bands in various little pubs and bars. I’ve never seen so many banjos in one weekend. Greatness.

We listened to Tom play for nearly three hours—he dedicated a song to us. We love Crazy Tom. And Irish music. And Killarney. And Ireland. And life…

Your turn

These are just a few of the many wonderful people that I met on a weekend trip to Ireland. I am still shrouded in a happy, boozy haze; I vow to return to the friendliest, leafiest little land in Europe as soon as I possibly can.

‘Tis the perfect season for an Irish jaunt. Get involved!

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Dating Advice from Birdman

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It’s springtime, and love is in the air…

My undergraduate biology professor was, I recall fondly, the most eager ornithologist alive; I’ve never, ever experienced a person with such passion for his field. His descriptions, slideshows and enactments of Bowerbird courtship nesting rituals were more animated than the dances of a Broadway ‘Simba’ on acid. I just wish I could remember his name….let’s call him Birdman.

“He’s a bird watcheeer…he’s a bird watcher…watchin’ birds go by: my, my, myyyy…”

I learned a thing or two from Birdman; first of all, that, if all men behaved like Bowerbirds, the world would truly be a better place—meaning that women would constantly be showered with attention, affection and personalized, heartfelt gifts (sigh!). The elaborate nest-constructing rituals of the Bowerbird are like none other on the planet.

Picture this scenario:

It’s a warm, bright spring afternoon on beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, and romance is in the air. Benny, the blue Satin continue reading

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Exploring THE HEATH

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It’s difficult to imagine, as you are pinned against the window of a stuffy underground car at 8:30 am on a Wednesday, your nose embedded in a strange man’s cheap, polyester pinstripes, that vast, wide open spaces, full of oxygen and trees actually exist in this world.

It’s also easy to forget, while you are charging through a rush hour umbrella war, what all the rain actually does (besides ruin our ‘dos) in the first place. It keeps things GREEN.

London is actually one of the greenest cities that I have seen (in leafy terms), especially in comparison to New York and Paris. Most famous for its Royal parks—Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park, etc.—it also boasts a range of commons, greens, greenways, and, perhaps most significantly, Hampstead Heath—a 791 acre (3.2 km²) expanse of woodlands, ponds, sports grounds, rolling meadows, sandy ridges and untamed foliage—all nestled just a few tube stops away from central London.

Now, with bits of spring (summer?) sunshine teasing the damp crowns of 6 million Londoners, the tubes are getting stuffier, the beer gardens are overflowing, and the green spaces are becoming increasingly…pink.

I’d been hearing so much buzz about ‘The Heath’ ever since moving to London, that I had to go up (yesterday) before the beautiful weather streak ended (today)…though tourists often find their ways to Hampstead (Parliament Hill) to catch a famous, stunning panoramic view of the city, it seems that only Londoners and extended-stay visitors (one in the same?) find the time to fully experience The Heath.

Even if you are on a short visit to London, I definitely, definitely recommend spending at least a day exploring this gorgeous expanse of green, which offers, truly, ‘something for everyone’—from pond swimming and picnicking…to lido lounging and garden dining…to cycling, kite flying and even bird watching (a skill that I am now ‘quite keen’ to master—they even offer educational sessions for beginners on some weekends).

I should quickly emphasize that the region commonly recognized as ‘The Heath’ actually contains several sub-areas and parks, each with its own ‘personality’.

Most prominent is the private, English Heritage site of Kenwood, which, with its stately mansion, intricately-manicured flower gardens, immaculately-trimmed lawns, sparkling ponds and upscale garden cafés, poses a lovely contrast to the untamed wilderness of the surrounding Heath. The Kenwood Estate and Gardens tends to attract older visitors (and nearby residents) seeking a picturesque spot for an afternoon tea and stroll. (I couldn’t help but notice that it would be a fantastic spot for a wedding. Sound good, Harry? xx).

Right…

Also worth a visit is Golders Hill Park, which, with its deer park, animal enclosures, playground equipment and huge picnicking lawns, is the perfect place for a family day out.

But, the best way to fully discover The Heath, in my opinion, is to grab a little map from the park office by the Parliament Café (southeast corner, accessible from Kentish Town Tube station) and embark on a quasi-aimless trek; the park office even has a few trails mapped out—I chose the 6 mile (9.7 km) route and inevitably strayed from the red dotted line about halfway through. But getting a bit ‘lost’, in my opinion, allows you to really experience and appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the wooded areas—to observe the lively movements of the squirrels and (as cheesy as it may sound) to listen to the songs of the birds.

Within thirty minutes, you will find it hard to believe that, just a few kilometers down the road, thousands of passengers are crammed into a stuffy, dark underground tunnel…

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A Lake I LOVE

2

I’m an eternal beach girl. Give me a list of vacation choices, and I’ll always opt for sun, sand and turquoise blue over the mountain cabin or the big city jaunt.

And lakes? Who needs ‘em. They’re always murky, always still—lakes are perfect hiding places for sneaky snakes and nasty crocodiles, as far as I’m concerned. And the ones that are clean/clear are usually freezing 11.5 months a year.

What can you even do in a lake? Ok, watersports, fine. Again, there is the lurking creature issue. Sunbathe? Sometimes, if you find a nice muddy patch or a big, hard rock to sit on.

Soft, fine sand + warm sunshine + gentle, crashing waves = my idea of relaxation.This had always been my rationale until just over 3 years ago, when my friends convinced me to take a weekend trip to Lake Como on the northern border of Italy. I wasn’t really into it—I wanted to go to Amalfi. “But Carrie, George Clooney has a house by Lake Como!” Oh, well why didn’t you say something sooner? Sadly, I was sold.

I was in love upon arrival, and not just with George. The Lake Como region is, by far, one of the most beautiful patches of natural scenery in Italy. My experience there remains one of the most serene and invigorating that I have ever had.

Lake Como and flowers

I was traveling with 5 girls—that’s usually a recipe for disaster! But, I don’t know, maybe it was something in the mountain air; we had one amazing adventure.

Not only is the shimmering lake simply stunning, but it is surrounded by quaint, romantic, colorful little villages—we visited Varenna, Menaggio and Bellagio—which are set off by magnificent views of the Swiss Alps.We spent our time hiking:

Hiking in Lake Como

Exploring:

Hiking in Lake Como

Rock gathering (there were some amazing pieces of worn, smooth and colorful glass nestled in the pebbly beaches):

Managgio, Lake Como, Italy

Discovering the charming little towns (here is Varenna):

 

Varenna, Italy on coast of Lake Como

And we even went kayaking:

Kayaking at dusk on Lake Como

No lake monsters, but the water was, indeed, freezing.So we obviously had to warm ourselves up on a lakeside village bar crawl (I’ll withhold the photographic evidence…)

So maybe the entire trip wasn’t exactly “serene,” per se. But overall, it was an active, relaxing, and, importantly, affordable weekend. (If you do decide to travel with a group, I recommend the Ostello Menaggio. Great rates and cheap kayak rentals.)

In conclusion, Il Lago di Como é piú bello di George Clooney.

Ciao, grazie! :)

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