Iceland Golden Circle guide: Big attractions and hidden secrets


(CNN)With dreamy landscapes and an out-of-this-world feel, it’s not surprising that the Golden Circle tour is considered one of the best things to do in Iceland.

Better still, especially for those using the volcanic island as a brief stopover between North America and Europe, it can be done in a day as part of a bus tour or self-drive.
There’s a downside though.
That ease of access, and the ethereal allure of this geological wonderland, means the Golden Circle can get a little busy, particularly when the tour buses arrive.
Not only that, but in following that well-worn trail, visitors could be missing out on equally stunning, but somewhat more hidden marvels elsewhere in Iceland.
To help, we’ve put together a guide to the Golden Circle that offers alternatives to the big attractions for those with extra time on their hands and adventure on their minds.

Þingvellir National Park

Thingvellir, or Thingvellir as many people pronounce it, is a national park and an extraordinary first stop on the Golden Circle tour.
Here, under what looks like the solid ground of Iceland, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are splitting apart a few centimeters (an inch) each year, meaning that eventually the island will be pulled in two at this spot.
ingvellir also holds cultural and historical value for Icelanders — it’s here that the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, was established in 930 AD, making it the site of the first Viking parliament.
Sessions were held until the end of the 18th century, when the parliament moved to Reykjavik.
While it’s rugged and filled with boulders, ravines and creeks with crystal-clear water, it’s easily accessible by trails.



Skalholt Cathedral is an important structure in Icelandic history, having been a bishop’s seat since 1056, and the location of the country’s first school.

It’s also the site of the bloody ending of Catholicism in Iceland in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop was executed here along with his two sons, clearing the way for the Lutheran church.
The current Cathedral is large compared to most Icelandic churches, and its white walls and tower can be seen far away.
Visitors can stay overnight in dormitories and cottages in summer, and classical concerts take place here in July.

Nesjavellir geothermal power plant

Many streets in Reykjavik are heated in winter thanks to the geothermal fields around the city which provide a supply of hot water straight from the ground.
Some of the water comes from the foothills of the active mountain Hengill on the Golden Circle route.
The geothermal areas here are among the most powerful high-temperature fields in Iceland, and are processed by the Nesjavellir plant, which is open to visitors.
Perched in the hills, it looks more like a moon base than a power plant, and it’s equally fascinating to learn about the way the water is processed here.
That sulfur-smelling hot water in the hotel shower in Reykjavik? It’s probably also from Nesjavellir.

Secret Lagoon

A dip into the geothermal waters at the Secret Lagoon, a public pool built over natural hot springs in the small village of Fludir completes the Golden Circle loop.
The name is misleading. It’s not really that secret anymore, but it’s still a relaxing way to end a busy day.
The water here stays at 38-40 C (100-104 F) throughout year, and there’s even a small geyser visible from the pool which erupts every five minutes.
Visit in winter and there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights while bobbing in the hot water.

Beyond the Golden Circle

Northern Lights put on stunning display


After knocking off the Golden Circle classics, it’s worth livening up any Icelandic adventure with a few bonus outdoor wonders a bit farther from Reykjavik.
Here are three extra spots to add to the Nordic adventure:

Reykjanes Geopark

The Mid-Atlantic ridge comes ashore on the Reykjanes peninsula between Reykjavik and the international airport in Keflavik.
The newly opened Reykjanes Geopark is one of the only places on earth where it’s visible above water.
The park is home to breathtaking geological formations — including the geothermal area of Gunnuhver, where the ground is constantly erupting with boiling mud and hot steam wafting across silica hills.
Geology here goes back many millennia, with the last series of eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula beginning around AD 1000.
Fittingly, Gunnuhver is named after a ghost that allegedly plagued locals 400 years ago.


Ásbyrgicanyon lies in northern Iceland, about an hour’s drive east of the northern city of Hsavk.
The horseshoe-shaped depression is part of Vatnajkull National Park and, for over half of its length, the canyon is divided by a distinctive, 25-meter-high (82 feet) rock formation called Eyjan (Island), where hikers can enjoy spectacular views.
sbyrgi was formed by glacial flooding after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. The wooded canyon with steep cliffs up to 100 meters (328 feet) is popular with hikers and locals camping here in summer.
A rare wooded area on a volcanic island, visitors to sbyrgi can hike up to the cliffs or even play a round of golf on the nearby course.
From the cliffs, one might even glean the mythological origin of the canyon: according to legend the canyon was formed when Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, touched one of its feet to the ground here.


Cameras ready? Hraunfossar, near Reykholt in western Iceland, is a series of beautiful waterfalls streaming over a distance of about 900 meters (2,950 feet) out of Hallmundarhraun, a porous lava field.
The waterfalls pour into the Hvítá  river from ledges in the hardened lava, flowing dramatically out from what looks like solid ground.
Just upstream is another smaller waterfall called Barnafoss, or waterfall of children.



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Oaxaca, Mexico vivid art, joyous festivals and ant eggs fried in garlic


The fantastic cuisine, textiles and parties of the southern Mexican city stem from a resilient indigenous culture, says mezcal producer Santiago Surez Crdova

Oaxaca has some of the richest and strongest traditions in Mexico. If you go in July for the Guelaguetza festival, the whole city explodes. People from the surrounding villages come in their traditional costumes and perform dances at the Cerro del Fortn, a huge amphitheatre on a hill overlooking the city. Guelaguetza means offering and refers to the tradition still alive and strong in rural communities where if there is an event, everyone contributes, so they have these amazing parties.

Santiago Surez Crdova Mezcal is everything tequila is not. Photograph: C Lamb

Oaxacans are very creative. The area is famous for textiles. The boutique Los Baules de Juana Cata works directly with local artisans and sells beautiful huipiles (embroidered tunics). They can cost up to $1,000 but they take six months to make. There are more crafts on display at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. I also love the Centro Cultural San Pablo (, a beautiful conversion of a 16th-century convent that preserves indigenous traditions. One of Mexicos most famous artists, Francisco Toledo, is a Oaxacan, who has lent his support to several cultural projects. He designed a stained-glass panel for the San Pablo centre.

Oaxacas famed creativity extends to the food scene. The state has the most diverse and the rarest varieties of corn in the entire country and a lot of restaurants focus on traditional recipes. At Itanon, everything is made from corn. It does amazing tortillas rolled with a whole hoja santa leaf and filled with salsa and bean pure. I love La Teca, too, which is in the chefs own home. She specialises in local dishes the mole is delicious.

A show at a recent Guelaguetza at the Cerro de Fortin amphitheatre. Photograph: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

If you really want to eat like a local you have to try insects. Grasshoppers, agave worms and ants are all popular and sold everywhere, from street stalls to expensive restaurants. Chapulines (grasshoppers) have a very distinctive flavour. I love the small ones in guacamole; and the grasshopper quesadillas at La Popular restaurant are really tasty. Escamoles, or ants eggs, are a local speciality too fried in garlic and butter.

Have a tejate for breakfast and you wont be hungry for seven hours. Its the drink of the ancients, made from corn, cacao, cinnamon and mamey fruit and served in a bowl. Youll find it in any of the markets. The biggest and best-known market in town is 20 de Noviembre. Theres a long row of barbecue stands where you order meat by the kilo and they grill it for you. Then women come along and sell you tortillas or guacamole to go with it.

Fried grasshoppers for sale in Oaxaca. Photograph: Alamy

I live in Mexico City but travel to Oaxaca 12-13 times a year to visit mezcal producers. Unlike in the capital, everything in Oaxaca city is in walking distance. One of my favourite places is the Jardn Etnobotnico. All the plants are from Oaxaca and there are cactus and agave plants saved from development sites. Outside the city, the ancient Zapotec site of Mitla is a very special place thats not well-known. Its made up of rectangular buildings, not pyramids, and is famed for its intricate mosaics and stone carvings.

This nighttime shot of Oaxacas Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption captures the towns vibrant mood during the annual festival. Photograph: Getty Images

Mezcal is everything tequila is not. Tequila is industrialised. Jose Cuervo can produce up to 3 million litres a month. We sometimes have problems producing 1,500 litres a month because everything is done manually. The agave is still ground by millstones operated by horses. Tequila is made from one type of agave but mezcal uses 23 varieties, so there are many different flavours. Because its organic and the fermentation is natural, you can drink more of it without being intoxicated. One of the best places to try it is Los Amantes, the oldest mezcalara in Oaxaca city. The owner is a famous artist who used to run one of the best clubs in Oaxaca. Spend a few hours there and test the theory that mezcal gets you high, not drunk.

Santiago is the founder and ceo of artisan mezcal company Mezcal Amores


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Peru’s Andean Explorer: A luxury train journey on the roof of the world



(CNN)Long train journeys are inescapably romantic. They’re all about the journey; the destination is irrelevant and distance is an ally.



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Peer-to-peer travel agency TRVL raises $2.7M to crowd-ify travel planning

Through Lyft and Uber, the sharing economy has taken a charge at cabs. Airbnb is making hotels palpitate in their pants. If TRVL has its way, its the travel agencies turn to tremble. Armed with 2.7 million freshly minted dollars from a conglomerate of angel investors, the company is hoping to augment services like, and TripAdvisor by adding a soupon of crowd magic.

Amsterdam-based TRVL launched its product late last year, and has been busy working on improving its service and lobbying investors. The company today announced it has closed a 2.5 million ($2.7 million) round to fuel further product development and growth.

Today, when youre researching and planning a trip for yourself or the people you travel with, youre essentially doing the work of a travel agent, the companys CEO, Jochem Wijnands says. He is quick to highlight the biggest difference between you and a travel agent: You dont get rewarded for it.

TRVLs mobile-first design means you can plan your travel on the go. Which makes sense youre meant to be on holiday, and laptops dont belong on the beach!

Thats the part of the equation the company is planning to change. TRVL enables the power of the crowd to work as a travel agency. Making the booking earns the agent a commission of up to 10% on every booking made. The bookings themselves are done through more traditional booking sites such as

Think of TRVL as TripAdvisor with an earning model, Wijnands explains. We believe TRVL will change the way millions of people will book their trips online.

The company currently employs 12 people, including some heavy hitters in the industry. The companys COO isArthur Hoffman, whos best known for setting up businesses for Expedia in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India. The companys CEO Jochem Wijnands sold his previous company to Apple, before it subsequently turned the platform into Apple News, now featured on one or two iPhones around the world.

Travel continues to be a fiercely competitive space, but its one thats been relatively untouched by the sharing economys grubby paws so far. Im looking forward to seeing how that changes and how TRVL is planning to sidestep regulatory challenges in the travel industry as the company continues to gain ground.



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Mauritius: The best Africa destination you know almost nothing about




(CNN)Mauritius is a model of true democracy for every African country.

First, I want to argue on behalf of the title of this article; that this tropical island 2,000 miles off the southeast coast of Africa does indeed provide a template for a model African travel destination.

1. Mauritius: The Island

When your island is surrounded by perfect white sand beaches, themselves surrounded by the stunning blue Indian Ocean, and the center of the island contains mountains and breathtaking scenery, plus almost year-round sunshine, it’s difficult to be miserable.
I lived in Mauritius for more than three and a half years until June 2010, enjoying its scenery and also witnessing its democratic impetus firsthand.
Since gaining independence in 1968 there’s never been a coup, or military or populist uprising of any kind on this small Indian Ocean island (just more than 2,000 square kilometres in size).
The population of almost 1.3 million is 68 percent Indian, but also comprises Creole, Chinese, French, plus a smattering of English and South Africans.
Between them they speak English (the country’s official language), French, Mauritian Creole, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Hakka.
Often, the sound of the native Sega music (an Indian Ocean version of calypso) inspires dancing and laughing on the beaches all night.
Participants refresh themselves with the local ice cold Phoenix beer, the occasional Green Island rum and Coke and barbecue, freshly caught seafood like snapper, dorado, prawns, octopus and lobster.
Yet any holiday on Mauritius needn’t be a laze on the sand.
For sightseers there are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Aapravasi Ghat and Le Morne Cultural Landscape), the colonial capital of Port Louis, one of the oldest horseracing tracks in the world at Champs de Mars, one of the world’s best botanical gardens at Pamplemousses, the Blue Penny Museum (home to one of the world’s rarest stamps), the Black River Gorges National Park and the Casela Wildlife Park, where you can walk with lion cubs.
To get to any of these, or just to get around Mauritius, you can use taxis (find a good one on your first day and stick with him), hire a car or use one of the many tour companies in Mauritius like White Sands Tours ( or Mauritours (
Living on Mauritius can also be cheap, with a modest one bedroom flat costing from US$320 a month, car rental from US$350 a month and utility bills much cheaper than most countries.

2. Food

The cuisine of Mauritius is a blend of Creole, Chinese, European and Indian. It’s common for a combination of cuisines to form part of the same meal.
Strong ties with the French (who ruled the island from 1710-1810) has meant that even today French dishes such as bouillon, tuna salad, daube and coq au vin are popular, while Indian workers who migrated to Mauritius brought their cuisine with them, making curries, chutney, rougaille (tomato paste that’s popular especially when served with fish) and pickles popular especially when given a unique Mauritian flavor.
The arrival of Chinese migrants at the end of the 19th century led to rice becoming part of the staple diet of the island and noodles, both steamed and fried, became common.
Chinese appetizers such as crispy chicken and crispy squid have also become part of the Mauritian diet.
Le Chteau de Bel Ombre: Located in the south of the island this lovingly restored 19th-century colonial mansion is the best restaurant on Mauritius.
In an elegant setting, la carte fusion food is served, while on Saturday, Mauritian night, there’s the chance to try authentic island dishes.
Domaine de Bel Ombre, Southwest Mauritius; +230-266-9768;
Domaine Anna: One of my favorites when I lived close by in Flic en Flac, this spectacular Chinese restaurant is set in the midst of sugar cane fields.
At night guests are greeted with lit torches along the driveway and eat in individual gazebos set on manmade lakes within tropical gardens in this palatial restaurant.
All the vegetables are grown locally and there’s live music and dancing at weekends.
Domaine Anna Restaurant, Mdine, Flic en Flac, West Coast; +230 453 9650.

3. Activities

Land sports: Any resort hotel will also have its own people to provide you with almost any land sport you want. Otherwise, companies such as Yemaya ( provide mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and cycling.
Mauritius Horse Trails ( can take you on some wonderful horseback tours of the island.
Golf: There are seven great golf courses on the island, the best being Golf du Chateau and the Four Seasons Golf Club at Anahita, plus several nine-hole courses.
Deep sea fishing: Mauritius has some of the best deep sea fishing in the world and the Marlin World Cup ( is held here every February/March.
Best expert charters on the island are run by JP Henry Charters Ltd (
Mountain trekking: There are well more than 20 great mountains to trek up. The best people to guide you here are YANATURE (
Watersports: Any resort hotel will have its own people to provide you with any watersport you can think of.
Any village on the coast will likewise have several companies to do the same. Just ask and any Mauritian will tell you where to go.
Shopping: Local arts and crafts stores can be found in most villages, as well as designer factory outlets that sell Ralph Lauren and other brands at a fraction of European prices.
And there’s the magnificent shopping mall at Caudan Waterfront ( in Port Louis.

4. Hotels

Mauritius is filled with luxurious five-star hotels and resorts, plus plenty of budget options. For a list of accommodation on Mauritius visit Meanwhile here are a few of my favorites.
Lakaz Chamarel: Mauritius has numerous small boutique hotels well off the beaten track and, for my money, this is the best.
It’s located high in the Chamarel hills in the south of the island and has 20 luxurious guest rooms and a superb restaurant.
With rates starting at around MUR4,700 (US$160) a night it’s not cheap by island standards, but its tropical surroundings are worth it.
Piton Canot, Chamarel; +230 483 5240;
Le Touessrok: This great place is on the island’s east coast, with luxurious rooms, most with Indian Ocean views, a great golf course on its own island, regular shows at night and a wonderful selection of restaurants of which Three-Nine-Eight, serving cuisine from nine different countries, is unparalleled.
Trou d’Eau Douce, Flacq; +230 402 7400;
Villa Paul Et Virginie Hotel: Located in Flic en Flac on the west coast, the Villa Paul et Virginie is a beautiful hotel for those on a tight budget.
Just two minutes walk from the beach and serving excellent food, this 12-room hotel has an outside bar covered with a huge honeysuckle plant that provides welcome shade from the noonday sun.

5. Seven-day itinerary

Day one: You can get over the long flight by relaxing on the beach, snorkeling in the beautiful Indian Ocean and chilling out with a few local beers and fresh-caught seafood.
Good to know: Mauritius has some of the best spas in the world at all the major resort hotels.
Day two: Sightseeing in the south. Start with the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the magnificent Le Morne mountain then head up into the Chamarel hills for lunch at one of the roadside Creole restaurants.
After lunch take in the Black River Gorges National Park before watching the sun slowly set at Le Chamarel Restaurant, which has incredible views across the south of the island, Le Morne and the Indian Ocean beyond.
Day three: Time for some sport or, for sun worshippers, some lazing on the beach or by a pool. Otherwise play golf, go deep sea fishing, mountain trekking, mountain biking or maybe take a cruise around the island.
The golf clubs will have great restaurants for lunch and the other activities will provide packed lunches.
Day four: If this is the first Saturday of your trip, Saturday is Port Louis day. You could spend the morning touring the old colonial center of town before grabbing lunch at Champ de Mars, the oldest horseracing track in the southern hemisphere.
In the evening, the huge Caudan Waterfront shopping center (home to the Blue Penny Museum) offers a chance to pick up souvenirs, enjoy street entertainers and find a good restaurant for dinner.
Day five: Sightseeing in the north. Visit Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens at Pamplemousses, one of the best botanical gardens in the world. Spend a long morning here then take a late lunch in ritzy Grand Baie, Mauritius’ main tourist spot.
After lunch explore the wild north including Grand Gaube, where the British first landed on Mauritius, before returning to Grand Baie for dinner and to enjoy the nightlife.
Day six: Shopping day. Souvenirs. The Central Plateau area around Phoenix and Curepipe is great for this with several large malls, arts and crafts markets, and the Mauritian Glass Gallery where, in addition to picking up all manner of souvenirs made entirely of glass, you can watch the glass blowers at work and tour the Glass Museum. Have lunch in one of the malls and find a really romantic restaurant for dinner on the way back to your hotel.
Day seven: It’s your last day in paradise. Go to the Casela Wildlife Park ( and walk with lion cubs if you’ve got time.
Tony Smart is a lifelong golf fanatic and journalist who’s been lucky enough to play golf all over the world. He has written for a wide variety of magazines including Golf Digest Ireland, Golf World, Golf Monthly, Golf International, The Robb Report, Asian Golf Monthly, Golf Vacations and The Peak.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2013. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.


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Hawaii travel tips: What to do — and what to avoid


(CNN)Looking to get to Hawaii without blowing your child’s college fund? Want to experience the islands but not sure when to go?

Here’s how to avoid costly and exhausting mistakes during your Hawaiian vacation.
Don’t travel to Hawaii during school holidays.
Tourists crowd Hawaii’s stunning beaches in summer and winter. During school holidays, flight and hotel rates are off the charts — between Christmas and New Years, condos and vacation rentals can run three times as much as rates in early December.
Do visit Hawaii in the off-season.
Hands down the best values on visiting Hawaii can be found in May and October. With prices reasonably low and the weather at its peak — not too hot, not too rainy — take advantage of the perks of off-season travel to jet off to the islands. Current spring and fall flight deals from the West Coast are half of July rates.
Additionally, hotels and condos generally slash their prices off-season, rewarding visitors with oceanfront accommodations that typically sell out in peak months.
Don’t blow your whole budget on a luxury resort.
While staying in a luxurious Hawaiian resort where birds flutter through the open-air lobby and fresh papaya is served at the swim-up bar is nice, it is likely to cost between $400-$600 a night in high season. Instead, fork over the cash for a lomilomi massage and gourmet seafood dinner, and make your own poolside Mai Tai at a rental condo.
Do consider staying in a condo.
Repeat visitors know to rent a condo. Kitchens, ample square footage, washing machines and privacy afford travelers a more authentic (and often less costly) vacation experience.
It’s common for numerous companies to manage individual units in the same complex, meaning one property may be decked out by a globetrotting interior decorator, while another may be awash in wicker. Be sure to see photos of the particular condo you’re interested in and get specifics on the number and configuration of beds.
Don’t try to see everything.
While each island has its own personality, it is too expensive (and exhausting) to island-hop the entire archipelago on one vacation. Inter-island flights generally run between $70-$140 each way and most travel to Oahu, so if you want to get from Kauai to the Big Island, you might have to stop in Honolulu and basically pay the equivalent of two inter-island flights each way.
Do stick to one or two islands.
Each region on each island has its own flavor. The north and east sides of the islands are more tropical, while the south and west regions offer sunnier skies and a more arid landscape.
Instead of island hopping, break your trip up by staying in a plush hotel within walking distance of a sunny south shore beach and then cozy up in a rental house near the more tropical (read: rainy) north shore. If you want to island-hop on the cheap, Maui offers ferry service to Lanai and Molokai.
Don’t fall for the luau.
Most luaus are overpriced and far from the real thing (usually family events on a beach for a first birthday). While they seem like an authentic experience, you can actually piece together the highlights of a luau yourself.
Grab a picnic of poke, lomi lomi, fresh pineapple, and poi from a local market. In the evenings at most malls on Kauai and Maui, and at sunset at Waikiki Beach, you can watch free hula shows featuring some of Hawaii’s best dancers.
Do splurge on an adventure.
Whether you fancy diving deep into the sea, soaring over waterfalls on a helicopter tour, or a kayak trip along the Na Pali Coast, treat yourself to at least one adventure. Be sure to book early in your trip in case of bad weather.
And lastly, do not forget to relax on the beach.
No need to be on a boat, or a horse, or a helicopter, or a zip line the whole time. Save time to enjoy Hawaii’s world-class beaches. From the shore, you can walk right out into the sea and snorkel with sea turtles, angelfish and monk seals basically for free.
As the sun descends over the Pacific, unwind under a coconut palm and watch the sky burst with color as surfers ride the last sunlit waves onto the white sand.
Michele Bigley is the author of “Great Destinations, Kauai” (Countryman Press) and the upcoming “Backroads and Byways of Hawaii” (Countryman Press).

This article was originally published in May 2012.

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Farm-to-hotel: 10 resorts that grow their own food



(CNN)Nestled amid the high-end shops, art galleries and traffic of Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, blueberries and raspberries will flourish in a rooftop garden come springtime.

Rosemary and sage perfume the air, while four chickens strut in a coop surrounded by a canopy of hops shading them from the midday sun.
The kitchen staff of the Crosby Street Hotel head to the rooftop to collect the eggs and tends to the habanero peppers, just a few flights from the Prince Street subway station.
In a world where farm-to-table has become a catchphrase, hotels around North America are joining the movement with their own produce-rich gardens and farms.
And it’s not just happening at hotels located near leafy pastures and fertile fields. Urban properties like Crosby Street are getting into the act with vertical, raised and rooftop gardens augmenting their kitchens’ shopping lists.
These 10 hotels are upping the freshness ante, hoping guests will appreciate the quality of house-grown vegetables and their lighter carbon footprints.

The Lodge at Woodloch, Hawley, Pennsylvania

Located in a rustic corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Lodge at Woodloch offers health-conscious cuisine accented with goods grown in its three leafy gardens. This lakeside hotel and spa hosts vegetable-focused tasting dinners in the whimsical garden shed, complete with wine pairings.
Gardening classes, greenhouse tours and workshops on composting accompany the taste of baby greens, tomatoes and just-dug radishes.
Herbs grown in the Healing Garden are blended into essential oils for the spa’s Rosemary Awakening and Lavender Garden Dream signature spa treatments, for the ultimate in natural pampering.
The Lodge at Woodloch, 109 River Birch Lane, Hawley, PA 18428; +1 800-966-3562; Starting nightly rates are $259 (midweek) and $379 (weekend)
Back-to-the-land types and celebrities alike flock to exclusive Blackberry Farm, situated on a scenic swath of countryside in the Great Smoky Mountains that has been farmed for centuries.
The resort continues traditional agricultural practices to grow a wide assortment of fruits, vegetables and herbs that appear on the James Beard Award-winning restaurant’s menu. It’s a bastion of seasonality, overflowing with tasty root vegetables and farmhouse cheeses produced on site.
Blackberry Farm, 1471 West Millers Cove Road, Walland, TN 37886; +1 865-984-8166; Starting nightly rate is $895

Crosby Street Hotel, New York

It’s hip to be green at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, which has a cool, cosmopolitan vibe and a garden on the 12th floor. The rooftop is home to a lovingly nourished urban fruit and vegetable patch.
It produces crunchy radishes for the hotel’s breakfast sandwich, spring greens as an accompaniment to the Crosby burger and Instagrammable pansies as an edible garnish for afternoon tea. The four Araucana chickens lay fairytale-pretty pale blue eggs, adding a pinch of nursery rhyme ambiance.
Crosby Street Hotel, 79 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012; +1 212-226-6400; Starting nightly rate is $675

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, Florida

The sprawling Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort is home to the Sprouting Project, an aquaponic greenhouse and expansive organic garden. It’s an Eden of spotted strawberry vines and juicy blackberry bushes, with folksy hand-written markers adorning the herb beds.
Menus at the resort’s nine dining establishments (a tenth is seasonal) reflect the day’s harvest and bright flavors, including Satsuma oranges and figs. The prolific pepper patch includes a wide variety of chili peppers, from mild to firehouse-hot, used in the chef’s hot sauce. The dessert menu is loaded with honey-laced sweets, compliments of the on-site apiary.

Congress Hall, Cape May, New Jersey

In seaside Cape May, the venerable Congress Hall operates the 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, nestled in protected wetlands over a mile from the hotel.
Visitors can bike over to marvel at the robust raised beds of produce that supply the hotel’s kitchen with pesticide-free tender spinach, zesty radishes and crisp asparagus. Tomatoes are synonymous with this corner of New Jersey and the farm’s plum variety are jarred and used in the hotel’s pizza sauce all year.
During seasonal festivals, hotel guests and the public are both welcome to assist with spinning honey out of the comb, collecting and washing eggs and digging for sweet potatoes.
Congress Hall, 200 Congress Place, Cape May, NJ 08204; +1 609-884-8421; Starting nightly rate: Spring starting rate is $119 and summer is $329

Woodstock Inn & Resort, Vermont

With a mushroom glen and recently planted fruit orchards, the Woodstock Inn & Resort’s eateries have their own holistic food supply, thanks to the resort’s 2.5-acre Kelly Way Gardens.
Located a little over a mile from the inn, master gardener Benjamin Pauly nurtures more than 200 varieties of vegetables, many of them heirloom varieties, including 65 distinct types of tomatoes. Edible flowers, including bachelor buttons and nasturtiums, may add a decorative touch to the just-picked offerings.
Pauly and executive chef Rhys Lewis work in tandem to ensure guests experience gastronomy straight from the ground. Dishes like garden tacos packed with roasted cauliflower, carrots and homemade salsa are tempting to even confirmed carnivores.
Woodstock Inn & Resort, 14 The Green, Woodstock VT 05091; +1 888-338-2745; Starting nightly rate is $249

Fairmont San Francisco, California

In cosmopolitan culinary big-shot San Francisco, an array of Mediterranean herbs and Meyer lemon trees are infusing edible energy into the old-world Fairmont San Francisco’s 1,000-square-foot garden. Hotel-grown rosemary, thyme, oregano, cilantro and lavender add panache to the bar’s cocktails and infuse the menu with seasonal flavors.
The architectural star of the garden is the wild bee hotel, a wooden structure built to provide bees with a place to nest. It ensures a plentiful production of the hotel’s prized honey, used liberally in salad dressings and as an accompaniment to the hotel’s well-established afternoon tea service.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, guests may glimpse the garden through floor-to-ceiling windows in the rooftop foyer without having to step outdoors.
Fairmont San Francisco, 950 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108; +1 415-772-5000; Starting nightly rate is $329

Chabl Resort and Spa, Chochola, Yucatan, Mexico

Located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the heart of the Mayan world, the new Chabl Resort and Spa pays homage to ancient tradition with its Mayan garden.
A rainbow of traditional Mesoamerican crops, including maize, squash and chaya leaves, are thriving. Herbs are grown in raised beds made from locally sourced wood and constructed without human-produced elements, keeping with ancient agricultural practices.
Guests are welcome to attend a traditional blessing of the bounty each morning. The resident horticulturist plants seeds in organic soil and encourages guests to participate in the gardening. Nearly all of the mouth-watering produce served in the hotel’s three eateries, including herbs for tea, is harvested daily.
Chabl Resort and Spa, Tablaje #642, Chochol, Yucatan, Mexico C.P. 97816, +52 55 4161 3085 or +1 888-424-2253 (from US/Canada); Starting nightly rate: is $1,040 (includes breakfast)

Petit St. Vincent, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Environmental stewardship permeates many aspects of life on the exclusive, low-tech Caribbean island of Petit St. Vincent. With a large organic garden just outside of the kitchen door, the resort benefits from an unbeatable variety of tropical fruit, produce and herbs.
Indonesian-born chef Andi Cahyono collaborates with chief gardener Roy Doyle to grow lemongrass, Thai basil and winged beans for Cahyono’s Asian-fusion recipes. Callaloo and Caribbean vine spinach add zing to traditional West Indian dishes.
Wake up to just-off-the-tree mango and watch the sunset with a snack of fragrant spice cake, loaded with ginger grown on the island. With 400 free-roaming chickens, the morning eggs travel from coop to plate in minutes.

Nita Lake Lodge, Whistler, British Columbia

There are a host of sustainable practices in play at Nita Lake Lodge, but the seasonal rooftop garden is the most delectable. It shows up in farro salad with pomegranates and a smattering of rooftop herbs and pan-seared ling cod with Nita’s garden oregano and raspberry vinaigrette.
Even in the depths of winter, the culinary team dreams up plant-enhanced offerings, including ethereal macaroons infused with homegrown dried lavender. The property sits on the shores of pristine Nita Lake, just a stone’s throw from Whistler’s famed skiing, so winter guests are surrounded by the region’s feathery powder as they dine.

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Zanzibar: A taste of Africa’s Spice Islands


(CNN)“Have you seen ‘The Lion King‘?”

“That’s where we are going! Hakuna Matata Spice Farm!” shouts my tour guide Aben Rehan, gripping the wheel and laughing as he repeats the Swahili phrase made famous by the 1994 Disney film.
I’ve been in Zanzibar for less than a day but have already heard “Hakuna Matata” — meaning “no worries” — yelled at me several times over.
I’ve quickly come to interpret the refrain as a local code word for, “Hey foreigner, come buy this thing.”
But as the van comes to a stop at the entrance of the spice farm, there are no crowds of tourists, no pushy souvenir sellers. I am, as far as I can tell, the only person there.
A man named Haji introduces himself and his assistant — a 15-year-old boy with a sharp knife sticking out of his back pocket.
“After this is over you will be the King…” Haji says. “The King of Spice!”

Spice trade

Spices have long been a pillar of Zanzibar’s trade-heavy economy.
Zanzibar City, with its UNESCO-listed historic center Stone Town, is the heart of this Indian Ocean archipelago, positioned 25 miles east of the Tanzanian mainland.
The Portuguese and Chinese introduced spices such as garlic, cacao and chili to the islands several centuries ago.
But it was the Omani Sultan Seyyid Said — upon moving the capital of his empire Stone Town in 1840 — who fully exploited the potential of Zanzibar’s tropical climate and incredibly fertile soil.
The Sultan mandated the establishment of clove plantations on both public and private lands and forced Zanzibar’s slave population to grow and harvest the crops, fashioning the less than 1,000-square-mile archipelago into the world’s single largest cloves producer.
Cloves were traded like gold at the time — a staple prized not only for taste but as a common method of curing and preserving meats long before the advent of the refrigerator.

Modern Zanzibar

Today, however, Zanzibar is an economy in transition.
While cloves remain the archipelago’s leading domestic product, its production numbers have been surpassed by other mega-suppliers such as Indonesia and Madagascar.
Zanzibar, as a result, has capitalized on its history as the world’s “Spice Islands” — a title also claimed by Indonesia’s Maluku archipelago — to become a popular destination for eco-tourists and food fans alike.
In a vacationer’s paradise famous for World Heritage-standard Swahili architecture, near-perfect kite surfing conditions, and a 45-seat restaurant perched on top of a sea-bound rock, spice farms like Hakuna Matata top the list of Zanzibar attractions.
And there’s a good reason for that.
Zanzibar spice tours provide an intense, detailed introduction to the region’s rich botanical and cultural heritage, as well as its dark history as the Africa Great Lakes region’s main slave-trading port.

Fragrant harvest

The Hakuna Matata spice farm is in Dole village, about nine miles northeast of Stone Town.
Over the next two hours Haji guides me through the farm’s thick maze of trees, bushes, and fragrant vines including vanilla, ginger, black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, lemongrass, and more.
While it’s clear the farm’s main product is tours not exports, nothing about the experience feels artificial.
Each spice comes with its own story — how it arrived on the island and an explanation of its uses, both common and uncommon.
“A lady takes this and the shyness goes away,” Haji says as he cracks a nutmeg seed and displayed the red-veined fruit inside. “Shininess?” I ask, mishearing the word.
“Shyness but just for the lady. She takes it when she wants to celebrate some way … or wants to have a big family. This is like Viagra for her,” he explains plainly. “You get it?”
“I got it.”
As the tour comes to an end, Haji presents me with a delicious traditional meal prepared with many of the spices we have seen over the course of the afternoon, including clove-infused rice, creamed spinach, and pickled onions and tomatoes topped with biryani sauce.
“Eat as much as you want,” Aben says, joining us on a plastic mat spread across the ground. “This is all for you!”
As we finish our meal, locals sit around trading jokes and fashioning hats out of bamboo leaves.
A few others further in the bush sing a song in Swahili, the only part of which I understand is the chorus line of “Hakuna Matata.”
Now, the mantra strikes me as joyous. No longer an urgent plea, its smooth rhythms meant “no worries” and nothing else.

Zanzibar: A tropical paradise with a unique identity


However, the difference between good tour companies and bad is readily apparent, says Aben Rehan, from Jambiani-based Mambo Poa Tours.
“We have big [tour] companies and they have many, many weaknesses. They choose inexperienced guides that have a lack of information but people don’t know.”
“This place is full of natural beauty, so whichever environment visitors face, they will like. Even if staff are crazy.”
In other words, it’s easy to let Zanzibar’s lush surroundings convince you you’re getting a good tour when you really aren’t.
It’s best to look for a company that’s going to provide the added history and context that will make your trip extra-special.
A private tour with Mambo Poa Tours costs $30, including transportation and lunch. The price of a shared tour is $20 per person.
Other major spice tour operators include Colors of Zanzibar, which runs outings for $35 per person and Pure Zanzibar, which is $40.

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Barbados holiday guide: the best beaches, restaurants, bars and places to stay


Barbados holiday guide:

You dont need a pop stars budget to enjoy the palm trees and sunny Caribbean sea of this popular island. Genie Austin reveals her homelands best beaches, cheap eats, rum shops and typically tropical activities


When I tell people Im from Barbados, I usually get some variation of the same response. Ooh, paradise, they say, as they conjure up coconut trees, tropical drinks, bright sunshine and foam-crested azure waves.

But on an island where holidays can come at shockingly high prices, this idea of paradise feels woefully beyond the reach of the average traveller. However, as every Bajan knows, the charms of this tiny coral island between the Caribbean and the Atlantic can be unlocked without breaking the bank at a luxury hotel or being limited by a package deal.

There are plenty of charming low-cost hotels, cheap-and-cheerful eateries and bars, under-the-radar beaches and free or low-cost fun activities to be enjoyed if you know where to look.

Barbados map


Take a hike

Barbados doesnt have soaring peaks, waterfalls, rivers or tropical rainforests like some of its neighbours. Nevertheless, it is a tropical island, and its vegetation can be lush, wild, and breathtakingly beautiful. Hike Barbados is a local organisation that conducts free hikes through less accessible areas. Its three-hour hikes run throughout the year, with morning walks starting at 6am, afternoon walks at 3.30pm, and moonlight walks at 5.30pm.

Watch the sun sunrise at Farley Hill

Old 19th-century Sugar Plantation House, Farley Hill. Photograph: Alamy

At least once during every visit to Barbados, we get up 45 minutes before dawn and drive to Farley Hill national park to watch the sunrise. Farley Hill, a ruined plantation house, is worth a visit on its own merits, but try sitting atop the hill in its grounds overlooking the Atlantic one cool morning, and watch the sky gradually lighten before the sun finally makes its dramatic appearance. All the while, blackbirds and wood doves lend their approval to this feat of nature, as the wind whistles through the large casuarina trees along the hilltops ridge. Its an unforgettable experience. And although its an isolated spot, its quite safe. On our last visit we noticed the park has added an overnight security guard at the entrance.

Catch a drive-in movie

I grew up going to open-air, drive-in cinemas, so was surprised to find theyre not the norm everywhere. Theres still one in Barbados, the Globe Drive-In in Vauxhall, and I always go when Im home because its a unique experience. Tickets are 6. If your accommodation will permit it, take blankets and pillows for a picnic under the stars while you watch your flick. Youll be almost entirely among locals, and when the film reaches a dramatic moment like the satisfying death of a villain be ready for the chorus of car horns beeping their approval.

See the Christmas parade

Photograph: Alamy

If you have the good fortune to be in Barbados in the festive season, head to Queens Park in the capital, Bridgetown, on Christmas morning, where dressed up people promenade in a ritual going back over 100 years. The park, formerly the grounds of the Commander of the British troops in the West Indies, was acquired by the government in the early 1900s. In 1907 it commissioned the Royal Barbados Police Band to hold free morning Christmas concerts to establish it as a peoples park. Youll be blown away by the colourful and outlandish outfits, sexy Santa costumes and splendid ballgowns. Walking around in 30C heat, rum punch in hand, caught up in the festivity of a tropical Christmas, sums up for me the meaning of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.


Barbados has some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean and although in recent years erosion has taken its toll, there are still many unspoilt gems. The key is to choose a beach based on what you want to do, or not do.

Paradise Beach

Photograph: Getty Images

The west coast of Barbados is fringed by the calm Caribbean, so is ideal for relaxing. I have a few favourites here, but Paradise Beach is my top pick. It gets its name from a hotel that was here until the 1980s. With its closure, and efforts to open another hotel stalled for years, its an oasis of peace, interrupted only by the occasional boat or jet ski. Most visitors have no idea the beach exists you get there by walking south from neighbouring Batts Rock Beach but its a wonderful place for relaxing, swimming and enjoying the peace.

Paynes Bay

Photograph: Hans-Peter Merten/Getty Images

My second-favourite beach on this coast is a great place to try jet skiing, sailing and waterskiing, and for finding a boat to go swimming with hawksbill and leatherback turtles. There are organised tours from 80, but the many local operators of jet skis and boats will do deals for around half that for a 30-minute excursion, including snorkelling equipment. Paynes Bay is a short walk from the Sandy Lane Hotel beach, for some discreet spotting of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts.

Pebbles Beach

For a more meditative beach experience head just south of Bridgetown. The water in this sheltered bay is quite still, making it an excellent place for standup paddleboarding (SUP). Paddle Barbados offers classes at 50 for a 90-minute group class, and SUP Yoga at 30 for a 75-minute class.


Eating out in Barbados can be very expensive, and food costs can exceed those of accommodation. Happily, though, there are plenty of good inexpensive eateries on both sides of the island.

Sand Dunes Bar and Restaurant, Windy Hill

This restaurant on the islands rugged east coast is one of my favourites. The food is simple and unpretentious but fresh and full of flavour. The menu changes daily and consists of local favourites such as breadfruit coucou (mashed with butter and milk), salt fish with gravy, and a salad or side vegetables. There may also be fried flying fish served with rice and peas, and macaroni pie. A full meal will cost around 12 a head.
Ermy Bourne Highway, Windy Hill, +1 246 422 9427

Animal Flower Cave, North Point


Aside from the delicious, if slightly pricy, food rotis from 13, salads from 10 what makes this restaurant stand out is its location on the cliffs of North Point, where between December and April humpback whales can be spotted playing in the surf. Beneath the restaurant is the islands only accessible sea cave, Animal Flower cave, known for its fascinating sea anemones (animal flowers). Guided visits adult 8, child 4.
+1 246 439 8797,

Orange Street Grocer, Speightstown


Bajans are not big coffee drinkers, but a handful of places serve really good coffee, and this beautifully designed cafe, with a large terrace overlooking the ocean, is one of them. Its a great place to start the morning or watch the sun go down in the evening. It serves salads, pizza and other light fare, but I find these a little pricey, so usually stick to coffee and one of their tasty desserts, which cost around 6.

Cuzs Fish Shack, near Pebbles Beach


Even if youre not staying on the south coast, pay a visit to this colourful and somewhat ramshackle Barbadian equivalent of a food truck. Cuz first became a favourite among divers and surfers on nearby Pebbles Beach. The cutters the local term for any sandwich made using a bun known as salt bread are filled with fried steakfish, tomato, lettuce, Bajan pepper sauce and a bit of mayo, with optional toppings of cheese or a fried egg. They cost 25 and are delicious with a cold Banks beer or a Plus, an energy drink made from sugar cane.
On Facebook


Rum shops, everywhere

John Moore Bar; one of many rum shops on the island. Photograph: Alamy

Bajans like to boast that Barbados is the birthplace of rum. Records show that the honour might actually belong to Brazil, but Barbados is the unrivalled champion of the rum shop scene in the Caribbean they have been part of our landscape for more than 300 years. They come in every shape, colour and size, and are much more than just a bar: theyre a place for friends to meet, drink, talk politics, tell jokes, and play dominoes. And they are incredibly cheap. In general, a beer costs about 1.50, a rum punch (a deliciously refreshing concoction of rum, lime juice, sugar cane syrup, a splash of Angostura Bitters and a scrape of nutmeg) is 4, and a small bottle of rum is just 2. The best approach is to simply walk into any shop that catches your fancy they are convivial places where everyone is welcomed.

One Love Bar, Holetown


On one of my return visits, I wandered into this bar with my husband Andrew. Id never been there before, but we were tired and needed a break from the heat. We ordered two bottles of Plus, and were promptly told by one of the patrons, who was already pretty plastered at 3pm, that men dont drink Plus. He then proceeded to pour Andrew some of his white rum, and there followed a pleasant afternoon of aimless, good-natured chatter and much drinking. One Love Bar is a bit of an anomaly among the expensive restaurants and swanky boutiques of the west coast, and were always relieved when we return to see it still there going strong.
1st Street, Holetown, on Facebook

Bay Tavern, Martins Bay

Bajans come from all corners to this east coast fishing village to lime (hang out) and fire a rum. Thursday afternoons are particularly popular, so stop by then as it has a real party atmosphere. It also does lunch and dinner. Local dishes, grilled marlin, rice and peas and fried plantain, say, are delicious at around 10.
On Facebook


South Gap Hotel, St Lawrence Gap

Photograph: Leslie St John

The south coast of Barbados has a party reputation, so this is the place for those whose idea of a perfect holiday involves frequent nights out. The South Gap is a modern hotel with pool, restaurant and bar in St Lawrence Gap, a lively 1.3 km stretch of road in the parish of Christ Church. A studio for two with balcony and mini kitchen costs from 100 B&B.

Beckys by the Sea, Fitts Village


Just across the road from the beach in Fitts Village on the west coast, this modern guesthouse has two en suite rooms from around 50 a night. Guests have use of living areas, several patios and kitchen. Beckys doesnt offer breakfast but promises that youll wake to freshly brewed coffee, herbal teas, local fruit and juice when in season. For more substantial fare, take a bus to Holetown, a few miles up the road, where BeannBagel cafe does a real Bajan breakfast of fried flying fish and bakes (the local version of a pancake) or a more traditional cooked breakfast.

The Stables, Little Holders House, Holetown

Photograph: Genie Austin

For 55 a night for two, this spacious, fully equipped cottage a few miles further up the west coast has a large patio, open-plan layout and a mixture of traditional and modern furniture. It offers quintessential Caribbean living.

Rostrevor Hotel, St Lawrence Gap

Photograph: Leslie St John

The most affordable approach to a Barbados family holiday is to self-cater, but to escape household chores, try the Rostrevor Hotel. This beachfront property on the south coast has doubles with small kitchens from about 94 a night room only. It also has a poolside bar-restaurant.


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World’s most stunning photo safari? Bringing Mauritius into focus

(CNN)Downtown Port Louis always feel hotter than the rest of Mauritius, maybe because this is the only place in the country where people are in a rush.

At a turn in the road, inside an 18th-century municipal building, the city’s modern life fades into a world of a tropical Jules Verne, filled with photographic equipment dating from the 19th century, including one of the world’s first photographic lenses, made in 1834 — bought by a Mauritian in Paris in 1839.
It’s called a daguerrian lens, after Louis-Jacques-Mand Daguerre who invented the process to make images on silver-plated copper, fumed with mercury vapor and then treated with liquid chemicals.
The delicate images shimmer with the illusion of a human life captured in hard metal, a sort of magic mirror into the past.

Visual record

World’s best photo safari: Mauritius in focus


Tristan Brville began collecting daguerrotypes as a boy fascinated with pictures of early Mauritius from the age of seven.
Some of those pictures are preserved in the museum. Daguerrotypes from Mauritius are the first photos taken anywhere in Africa, by a man named Jules Lger, who later moved to South Africa, where he opened that country’s first photo studio in 1846.
These early photos were taken shortly after the process was developed in France.
They’re a remarkable visual record of a time that seems impossibly distant now. Slavery in Mauritius had just ended a few years earlier. The telegraph was new technology, and the undersea cables that would link Mauritius to the world were still decades away.
Brville’s passion grew into a family affair, involving his wife and two children who now run the Photography Museum (Rues du Vieux Conseil, Churchill, Port Louis, Mauritius; +230 211 1705).

Hidden treasures

The museum door opens to a collection of imposing photo and film equipment, such as a gasoline-powered projector used around 1870, as a sort of precursor to television. Some of the 19th-century cameras are giants, from an age when creating a larger picture required a larger machine.
These are the giant wooden boxes with a red cloth draped over the back, where the photographer covered up to keep out the light. There’s also more recent cameras among the museum’s collection of 1,000, many arranged carefully on shelves for viewing. But the real treasures are hidden.
Their collection includes more than one million images, meticulously archived.
“We worked to gift our country with the most exceptional photographic archive,” Brville says.
“It’s the memory of our country.”
The museum is open to the public, and Brville organizes regular exhibitions — a challenge without any official financial support.

Preserving the past

He puzzles over the reasons that Mauritius shows so little interest in preserving its past, and worries about the future of his photo collection, which he wants to see preserved digitally with the originals kept in climate-controlled storage.
None of that is cheap. He’s proposed a plan for the government to finance the preservation of the collection and ultimately to take over the archive, but has had no response.
“Either people are jealous, or they don’t want to preserve the archive,” he says. “I don’t know whether it’s a question of leaving the past aside, the memory of French colonizers.”
Mauritius does focus on the future, whether that’s a new CyberCity in the suburbs of Port Louis or luxurious modern resorts on the island’s famed beaches.
The country is working on developing a film studio to attract international productions with top-notch facilities to support shoots in the country’s tropical island paradise scenery.

Photo safaris

After Australian photographer Joseph Manglaviti moved to Mauritius, he created a different way to experience the island with a camera, by offering photo safaris.
The concept conjures images of elephants and savanna, but here it’s a different sort of journey — to the postcard-perfect beaches and mountains, but also to the roadside motorcycle repair shops and the weekend markets that spring up in communities across the island.
He dreamed up the idea after a motorbike accident forced him to scale back work in his own studio.
While he was in Mauritius recuperating, he found lots of people casually asking for advice, and developed the concept for Clique Photo Safari Mauritius.
“Your backdrop is amazing. What better place to learn to take photos?” he says.
While more and more people are buying higher-end cameras, many still shoot in automatic mode as they did with cheaper point-and-shoot models.
Manglaviti meets with aspiring photographers, looks at what they know how to do, and then tailors instruction to help them get the most out of their equipment. Within a few hours, he’s got them understanding the basics of the camera’s mechanics, which helps people begin to experiment with their settings.
“I love it when I can share my love of photography with someone else, and then see them go from not being able to turn a camera on to shooting in manual mode in a couple of hours,” he says.

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8 challenge vacations that’ll turn you into a superhuman

(CNN)Getting in shape for vacation isn’t just about looking good in a bikini.

In fact, the only way to make hiking through the Sahara Desert in roasting heat or skiing through the Arctic Circle any tougher would be to do it in a bikini.
One thing’s for sure, competing in these events involves life-changing levels of fitness.

Arctic Circle Race (Greenland)

Three days, 160 kilometers and a whole load of snow.
The Arctic Circle Race, which takes place near Sisimiut on Greenland’s west coast, is colder than it sounds as it takes place 65 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
Sleeping in tents, if they survive the fierce winds, competitors must negotiate temperatures around -30 C (-22 F) and hope their clothes don’t freeze during the night.
It all starts on April 1 — but this is no April Fools.
“When you start the race then it’s exciting but along the way you use all your energy,” Nukannguaq Geisler of Greenland says on the competition’s official site.
“So you get more and more tired. So the last 10 kilometers you think you can do it, especially the last day and when you reach the goal there’s a lot of emotion.”
Sounds a bit much?
There’s the ACR 100 which covers, as the name suggests, 100 kilometers.
And there’s also a short race for children.
There’s one event that goes beyond all the others.
The Marathon des Sables, which takes place in the Moroccan Sahara Desert, is a grueling six-day trek in one of the world’s harshest climates.
The 254-kilometer ultra marathon attracts daredevils from across the world with some as old as 78 facing the 49 C heat while running up and down sand dunes.
Even the rests sound grueling.
Runners must sleep in bivouacs along with seven other competitors.
They also have to prepare and pack their own food for the entire race.
This is not an event for the halfhearted.
Organizers advise weekly runs of between 160 to 190 kilometers in the lead-up to the marathon.
If that’s not enough, wearing a practice backpack weighing between 3-10 kilograms is also recommended.
Anyone who hasn’t been training at least three times a week for months on end can forget entering this one.
And if you not dare enter the full marathon but still want a challenge there is a new half marathon that will take place in September 2017.
Half Marathon, September 25-30, 2017
Got three friends?
Think they’ll still be your friends after trekking with you through the heart of southern Chilean Patagonia?
Then this could be the ideal challenge.
In teams of four, which must be mixed sex, competitors take on a course ranging from 600 to 800 kilometers, depending on the year.
The race route is only revealed 24 hours before the start and takes in a number of different conditions including the large glaciers of the Campo de Hielo Sur (Southern Ice Fields), uninhabited forests and running rivers.
Compass, map navigation and route planning skills are crucial for any chance of victory.
All teams will have to negotiate trekking through mountains, cycling and kayaking for up to 150 kilometers.
Only half of the teams that set out typically manage to finish the course.

Iditarod Trail Invitational ultra marathon

The Iditarod Trail Invitational is so tough that in 2012, no one managed to complete its toughest event.
It claims to be the world’s longest ultra marathon by bike, foot or ski.
Staged in Alaska, it offers competitors the choice of running, riding or skiing 350 miles (563 kilometers) from Knik to McGrath, or pushing on 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to Nome.
Training is a must — the freezing winter conditions are unforgiving.
“We offer very little support, and we wanna keep it that way. It’s an adventure and these people have to be prepared,” race director Kathi Merchant told Alaska’s KSKA public radio.
“But also they’re very much on their own and they do enjoy that solitude and the experience of the wilderness of Alaska. They don’t want an aid station every 10 miles and people everywhere.”
in 2014, David Johnston broke the record for the 350-mile foot record by reaching McGrath in just over four days.
John Lackey did the business on the bike in 2015 completing the course in one day, 18 hours and 32 minutes.
Results vary on the weather.
The failure of the entire field to complete the 1,000 miles to Nome in 2012 was down to appalling conditions.
But in 2014, 16 made it to the end within the 30-day limit.
Application open April 1, 2017

Jungle Marathon

The threat of scorpions, snakes, caimans, piranhas and jaguars are scary enough without throwing a 254-kilometer race into the mix.
The Jungle Marathon takes runners through the swamps, mangroves and foliage of the Amazon rainforest.
It’s billed as the world’s toughest jungle marathon.
There’s not just the fear of being eaten alive to contend with, there’s also the 99% humidity and the 40 C heat.
That said, only 11 of the 41 who started the last race dropped out.
Those not up to the full distance can enter 127- or 42-kilometer events.

Mont Blanc ultra marathon (France, Switzerland, Italy)

Anyone wanting to enter the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc needs to do their homework.
For the 2017 race, competitors must acquire nine qualification points from three races just to get a place in the event.
There’s no room for part-timers.
Starting in Chamonix, France, the route takes in Italy and Switzerland, is 168 kilometers in length and has to be completed within 46 hours 30 minutes.
Not to be underestimated, it takes in seven valleys, 71 glaciers and 400 summits — not to mention the 9,400 meters of altitude.
But as the world’s premier 100-miler, featuring jaw-dropping views, it’s worth the effort.

Le Grand Tour (Sweden)

Just a quick glance at the race information is enough to give anyone the chills.
According to the organizers, the trekking stage will “smash your legs.”
Requiring helmets, harnesses, wetsuits and kayaks, it’s an ice-cold challenge encapsulated in 24 hours of absolute mayhem.
The seven-stage race, held in September, is usually fought out between teams of four.
Those unlucky enough to have three friends mad enough to do it can compete in pairs.
Entrants need to be pretty flexible in all disciplines to cope with the trekking, running, kayaking, yet more running — and the rope activities.

L’Etape du Tour (France)

How many armchair cyclists have watched the Tour de France on TV and thought, “I can do that?”
Well, this event lets them put their money where their mouth is.
Since 1993, the L’Etape du Tour has given amateurs the opportunity to ride a stage of Le Tour and pretend they’re Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome.
Entry for 2017’s event are already closed. Places go quickly!
Organizers lay on the full works for the riders with nine feeding stations and bananas imported from Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Last year’s ride took place through the Alps, so building endurance and being able to sustain a high level of power is key.
This year’s route promises to be just as challenging.

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New York City: Insider Travel Guide

(CNN)Trying to do the best of New York City in a few days is like announcing you plan to see Africa in a week: it minimizes just how much there is to experience and completely disregards travel times.


Mandarin Oriental New York
Located atop one of the twin sentries comprising the Time Warner Center, the five-star Mandarin enjoys unobstructed views through its floor-to-ceiling windows of the Hudson River, Central Park, Brooklyn and Portugal (at least, it feels that way).
Its best of New York City position in bustling Columbus Circle centralizes it near perfectly — just north of Midtown — with subways linking to virtually every part of the city.
Unlike in much of the rest of the United States, there’s no shame in walking in New York.
Plenty of attractions are within an easy stroll, including Lincoln Center, Broadway, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square.
Crosby Street Hotel
With high ceilings and full length windows reflective of SoHo’s history as a factory cum gallery district, Hotelier Firmdale’s only non-London property is an all-new structure built in the neighborhood’s classic style, its 86 guest rooms each receiving their own individual designs.
As charming as the cobblestone street out front, the hotel has an outdoor sculpture garden, all-day afternoon tea service with cakes and sandwiches in the bar and a 100-seat screening room with a Sunday Night Film Club open to all.
The neighborhood’s overall lower profile makes the Crosby’s upper floors all the more recommended.
The Standard, High Line
If aesthetics are a requisite, The Standard, High Line — situated directly above a stretch of old elevated railway now known as High Line Park — is a best of New York City landmark in Manhattan’s most model-intensive neighborhood.
The decor is mod and the vibe is downtown, so go ahead and pack your shiniest shirts for the clubs, bars and bistros of the surrounding Meatpacking District.
Among the property’s greatest draws are its views.
Of models, yes, but also of the Hudson River, downtown and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey.
Ensure you see as much as possible by getting a room ending in 24, which will net you two walls of windows.
The Bowery Hotel
Two hundred years ago, the Bowery was a poor man’s Broadway. By the turn of the last century, it was just poor.
But those familiar just 10 years ago with this erstwhile skid row would hardly recognize it today, and the Bowery Hotel embodies its new, loftier status.
Lying right at the intersection of hip and elegant, the hotel is appointed with luxurious old world refinements and dcor while retaining a vibe that’s lively and modern.
Factory windows offer 360-degrees of the city, while several rooms have their own terraces, complete with outdoor showers.
The Pod Hotel
The only way you can stay overnight in Manhattan for less than one of the single rooms in this Midtown budgetier is by staying with family in the area.
And if you stay at the Pod’s 51st Street location, in some cases it, too, requires you to share a bathroom with people you may not like.
But rooms at the newer Murray Hill location all feature private bathrooms, along with free Wi-Fi and an emphasis on communal space typified by the Pod 39’s rooftop lounge.
The hotel’s perks are few and the rooms are barely bigger than the beds, but if you want hip and affordable, you won’t likely do better.


Per Se
With its modern decor and swanky address at the tip of Central Park, Per Se strives to turn your dinner into “a journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten,” which would seem pretentious if that wasn’t precisely what it accomplishes with nearly every dish.
Hailed by food critics ever since its doors opened, Per Se is the brainchild of Thomas Keller, the only American chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants (including Per Se).
Per Se is the East Coast version of his flagship French Laundry in California, having since far surpassed it on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
While the chef’s tasting menu changes daily, there are mainstays, such as Keller’s well-known twist on “oysters and pearls,” which combines succulent oysters, tapioca pearls and caviar.
Keens Steakhouse
Americans tend to value massive portions; fine dining is inevitably about small but perfect items.
Keens earns best of New York City marks by seeking to combine the best of both philosophies.
While up against worthy steakhouse competitors including Peter Luger, Old Homestead and The Strip House, Keens has an edge by serving the city’s top mutton chop.
The chop comes flanked by pieces of lamb bacon.
Keens also has the edge in decor. Its ceiling is stippled with thousands of clay pipes that represent an erstwhile club membership including American icons Theodore Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and General Douglas MacArthur.
With novelty as a guiding, but not solitary, principle, chef Matthew Lightner is dazzling diners at his tiny new tasting room in Tribeca.
Foraged ingredients and innovative ideas drive a constantly changing 22-course menu that’s designed as much to stir emotions as it is taste buds, which can go unrewarded in any given moment in favor of a gastro-narrative revelation four courses later.
Modernist creations like gin-cured scallops, cedar-oil-drizzled lamb and a baguette colored with squid ink to resemble a razor clam are served on flat rocks, hay and driftwood in the naturist style pioneered in Portland, OR.
The award of two stars by Michelin isn’t doing anything to ease accessibility to an already modest space, so reservations are vital.
Osteria Morini
“New York” magazine recently called Michael White “the city’s hottest Italian chef,” and “Esquire” put his bustling new Osteria Morini on its list of best restaurants in the city.
So why shouldn’t we put it on our best of New York City list?
White has earned praise with his knack for taking home-style fare and providing a gourmet twist, like tortellini with a duck-liver cream sauce.
Of course, man cannot live on food alone, and Osteria Morini’s cocktails are also superb.
The Dutch
Dress code at The Dutch?
“This ain’t no country club, but it’s no ball game either,” states the American bar/restaurant’s website.
“This is New York. Do what you feel, but keep it fresh.”
That casual but earnest logic lies at the heart of Andrew Carmellini’s latest offering in New York.
Inspired by a mix of cafs, country inns and seaside shacks, diners get reinterpretations of American classics like the good old porterhouse steak and fried chicken served with biscuits.
Just remember to look up from your food occasionally, or else you’ll miss the celebrities meandering through the dining room.
Caf Nougatine
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the most celebrated chefs in New York.
If you want to experience his creations at reasonable prices, try the lunch deal at Jean-Georges’ Caf Nougatine in the Trump Building.
The French haute cuisine goes for around $25 every lunch hour at the acclaimed restaurant.
Miss Lily’s Cakes
While the name promises cakes, this hip diner in downtown Manhattan serves remarkable Jamaican dishes.
The most revered item at this best of New York City diner is jerk chicken.
The decor is simple, but you won’t care as you watch leggy servers carry hearty platefuls of curry goat, oxtail stew and, yes, even cakes if you so desire.
Warning to anyone looking for a relaxed island vibe: the atmosphere of Miss Lily’s tends to get clubbier and the music louder as the night goes on.
Joe’s Pizza
For a best of New York City experience, there’s no more quintessential fast food than a slice of pizza.
Joe’s modest storefront unloads exceptional slices to an uninterrupted queue of patrons nearly 20 hours of every day.
Stand in line, point, pay, apply Parmesan and chili flakes from the public shakers, fold, eat and hustle back to work.
Hey, now you’re practically a local.


Campbell Apartment
Step back in time and behold fully restored glasswork, furnishings and architectural appointments of a cavernous lounge that was once the massive private office of 1920s magnate John W. Campbell.
Now a swanky club, Campbell Apartment evokes images reminiscent of the more elegant side of “The Great Gatsby.”
(For Gatsby-esque smoking ruins, you’ll have to look elsewhere.)
Having a cocktail amid such elegance comes at a price: no jeans or sneakers allowed.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room
In the lobby of the Ace Hotel, The Breslin is separated into small rooms for eating, drinking and generally feeling good about rubbing shoulders with trendy New Yorkers.
There’s a good chance you won’t even get a table in the bar, which has dark wood, antique pendant light fixtures and the feel of a private British club — but the buzz and people scenery will make up for it.
The Breslin’s lamb burger draws raves from regulars.
The dining room is the place for pork in all its marrow and other modern guises.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, 16 W. 29th St. (between Broadway and Fifth Avenue); +1 212 679 1939
Anyone who feels every New York nightclub is the same should hit this NoLita (North of Little Italy) establishment with an interior every bit as eclectic as its playlist, which includes new wave, rap, rock and pop.
How eclectic? For one, the entire space is swathed in gold.
For another, it includes a wall studded with gilded human skulls. (That’s right, skulls.)
Be advised that while you’ll likely want to capture an evening here for posterity — it’s pricy enough that it’s less a night out than an investment — photography is not permitted.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
As at Campbell Apartment, you feel like you’re stepping back in time. McSorley’s, however, is the sort of place that would welcome those traveling steerage as warmly as those in first class.
Rough-hewn wood floors, workmanlike bartenders and assorted memorabilia said to have been in the building since 1910 make you feel like you’re in a simpler age.
There are only two options for sale here: dark beer and light beer, the latter being called “light” not for its caloric value, but because it’s not the former.
Since beers here must be ordered in pairs, try one of each.
ReVision Lounge
ReVision’s theme is reclamation, with a front room furnished in bar stools made of recycled snow skis and a countertop of shredded, outdated U.S. currency glazed to a smooth finish.
But it’s the best of New York City back room you’ll remember.
Filled with couches fashioned from old coffins, porcelain bath tubs and the back ends of 1970s American luxury cars, it’s got a DJ table formed by the front end of an old Cadillac.
If you get in early in the evening you might be able to dodge the often unbearable late crowds.
Just be sure not to show up wearing real fur. (Seriously.)


Bergdorf Goodman department store
All high-fashion roads lead to this city institution, where the merchandise, layout and presentation are first-class, the staff is renowned for obsessive courteousness and historic New York department store shopping is still a dignified experience.
Bergdorf’s offers some impressive sales, though half off a US$1,000 sweater is still 500 bucks
BG’s four on-site restaurants are surprisingly good, a find for anyone who normally wouldn’t dream of eating in a store.
Century 21
For expensive stuff cheap and cheap stuff even cheaper, there’s no more beloved and simultaneously bemoaned retailer in New York City than Century 21.
Shoppers ascend C21’s five floors, slipping through the hordes searching for deeply discounted designer fashions, mainstream basics and mall-brand overstock, as well as items including luggage, watches and handbags.
If you’re willing to brave masses of consumers, C21 probably has a version of whatever clothing item you desire at every level of the economic spectrum, whether it’s a $1,200 coat for $400 or a $25 pack of socks for $10.
B&H Photo Video
B&H does a healthy amount of Internet business, making it known to many planet-wide, but the brick-and-mortar version is a hive of retail wonderment that really must be observed offline.
Thousands of daily customers seek counsel and competitive prices from hundreds of employees on photo and video cameras, computers, audio and lighting equipment, TVs, portable media devices and all of their associated accessories.
It’s worth it alone to buy something just to watch it travel via the store’s overhead rail delivery system.
National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Finally opened on September 12, 2011, after years of legal and architectural haggling, the 9/11 Memorial replaces the footprints of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers with reflecting pools fed by gargantuan ground-level waterfalls.
While the scale is massive, the aesthetic is in many ways quite personal, making the experience imposing yet touching all at once.
As long as construction continues around the site, visits require advance reservations; go to the official site to secure your visit time.
Top of The Rock observation deck
Like Meg Ryan and King Kong, you may be filled with a yen to rush to the top of the Empire State Building.
Unfortunately, this is an impulse shared by a zillion or so other tourists.
Instead, check out the observation deck at Rockefeller Center, which offers 360-degree views that are nearly as stunning and can be seen after a fraction of the wait.
Central Park
The expanse of green in the middle of Manhattan is your chance to do everything from seeing Shakespeare in the Park (there’s also a Marionette Theater at the Swedish Cottage if your little ones aren’t ready for Titus Andronicus) to challenging old Italian men to a game of bocce on the green near Sheep’s Meadow.
In the summer, Conservatory Water is filled with model boats. For even bigger kids, rental rowboats are available.
In winter, you can ice-skate at either Wollman or Lasker Rink.

Seasonal attractions

Visitors might experience completely different New Yorks depending on the time of year.
Here are some seasonal suggestions.
Madison Square Garden
Hopes are high again at the Garden as the resurgent New York Knicks NBA franchise has emerged from one of the bleaker stretches in its proud history to contention for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
If you prefer your athletes with fewer teeth, the Garden is also home to the New York Rangers, one of six original members of the National Hockey League.
Citi Pond at Bryant Park
Ice-skating at Rockefeller Center may be the most iconic activity available for any winter visit to New York City.
Unfortunately, every other visitor willing to lace on skates knows this, as well.
If lines prove too horrific, consider heading south to the seasonal Citi Pond at Bryant Park.
The park also fills up in winter with holiday shops to amuse those who choose to stay off the ice.
Admission free, skate rentals US$14.
Hudson River Park
New York’s west side waterfront has undergone wholesale improvements over the last decade, including the installation of an eight-kilometer bike and walking path, tennis and basketball courts, soccer fields, batting cages, playgrounds, skate park, trapeze school, open lawns and free kayaking at Piers 96, 40 and 72nd Street.
Yes, that’s right, trapeze school.
Good burgers and beers can be found at the Frying Pan, a wartime barge turned bar and grill at 26th Street.
Yankee Stadium
From April through September, the Bronx comes alive for the most successful sports franchise in North America, which supplies New York with a good chunk of its swagger — it’s easier to call yourself “the greatest city in the world” when you’ve won 27 World Series, not to mention those two by the Mets.
Take the B, D or 4 subway trains to 161st Street for a game, including time to stroll the team’s new billion-dollar stadium.
Beware purchasing tickets from street scalpers: counterfeiters here are among the best in the world.
Brooklyn Bridge
Ironically, one of the best ways to appreciate Manhattan is to leave it.
Get off the F train at York Street in Brooklyn and enjoy the two-and-a-half kilometer walk back to the city via its most historic gateway, enjoying a remarkable view of Manhattan that will make you feel like you’re living a particularly charming moment from a Woody Allen film.
Before making the journey, spend some time in Brooklyn.
Check out Brooklyn’s bridge-side DUMBO neighborhood, which offers a waterfront view and features warehouses converted into an array of residences and businesses.
If you enjoy waiting in line for food that you eat with your hands, check out Grimaldi’s, one of New York’s best-rated brick oven pizzas.
The Cloisters
If you’re looking for a museum missed by most tourists (and a surprising number of New Yorkers), make time for the Cloisters, located in Fort Tryon Park.
A reassembled French building houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval Europe collection, but for many visitors the best part of the visit occurs when you step outside and see gardens patterned faithfully after medieval designs for landscaping and architecture.
You’ll be going far further north than most visitors, but when you witness an attraction unlike anything else in New York you’ll know it’s worth the journey.

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How To Prepare For Crazy Travel Delays

With a week of stormy weather again hitting the east coast of the United States and backing up airline operations nationwide as a result, tens of thousands of weary passengers are left stranded at airports across the country waiting for an empty seat on another flight to become available. In times like these and this past week has been particularly bad we hear stories of angry travelers yelling at gate agents, sleeping in airports, and venting about it all on social media.

But this series of storms, which seems to have been more disruptive than usual, should serve to remind travelers that it is not only a good idea, but also their responsibility, to have a reasonable backup plan prepared before embarking on itineraries that may intersect with inclement weather.

The storms that hit the southeastern U.S. this week were reported days in advance. National weather services issued alerts and warnings and diligent travelers checking weather forecasts not only in destinations but in layover cities as well could have easily predicted the disruptions to come and either altered travel plans or requested a re-routing through an unaffected connection airport.

The importance of such pro-activity in travel planning becomes self-evident when we see how many transiting passengers were caught off guard by the well publicized approaching storms. Most became frustrated with the ensuing delays and cancellations, and understandably so. But some decided to lash out and blame their air carriers and airline staff for their misfortunes, even going so far as to demand meals and accommodations during weather delays.

Some airlines did improvise to provide food to standard passengers, such as when Delta ordered several enormous pizza deliveries and passed out slices to stranded passengers in airports like Norfolk and Atlanta and even on planes that were stuck out on runways. But this example was just a generous gesture on Deltas part. The airline was by no means obligated to dip into its own pockets to feed passengers in airports while waiting for bad weather to pass.

In fact, theres little that airlines are required to do in cases of delays caused by weather or even air traffic control issues. These are situations beyond the airlines control, and such delays are commonly disclosed risks about which passengers should be well-informed and adequately prepared.

So what can one do to prepare if youre stuck transiting through a region that may get hit with weather delays? Other than the initial options mentioned above change dates or request re-routing you can also research alternate forms of transportation and make backup reservations to use in case the worst comes to pass.

As planes finally got clearance to return to the air in parts of the southeast on Thursday and passengers on canceled flights realized that they would have to be accommodated on a space-available basis as regularly scheduled flights began departing again, some started getting the idea to rent cars and drive to their final destinations. A few passengers in Atlanta took to social media to declare that they were securing one-way rentals for under $100 to make 5-10 hour drives and get home in the same day, while many more who caught wind of this strategy later were out of luck after car rental agencies quickly sold out.

But a prepared passenger, knowing bad weather was highly probable this week, could have made a refundable rental car reservation in advance just in case it might be needed. The same could be done for a hotel room, just in case youre stuck overnight. Most hotels have a refundable reservation option, even if it costs slightly more than the standard rate. By the time a late flight is canceled and a frustrated passenger realizes that the airline cannot provide accommodation because the cancellation was due to weather, hotel room capacity in major hub cities will disappear very quickly as other passengers rush to book from their smart phones before even leaving the gate.

Right now I am sitting in the SkyClub at Reagan National Airport in our nations capital and listening to countless stories of passengers around me who have been trying to get home for days. In a city like Washington, DC, here is what I would have done knowing that severe weather warnings had been issued for the area to or through which I was flying.

First, I would have checked my itinerary to make sure I was not flying into the chaos. In this past weeks case, Atlanta seems to have been hit the worse. Unfortunately thats the largest hub for Delta, which is a major carrier out of the national capital region. But Charlotte, an American Airlines hub, was also predictably affected, as well as other cities up and down the east coast.

If I could not alter my travel dates or re-route through the northeast or midwest, I would have made a hotel reservation with free cancellation near the airport in case I ended up being stuck here overnight. I would have also booked a one-way car rental reservation if my destination was within reasonable driving distance, but I would have made sure not to use a pre-paid option. That option may offer a small five or ten percent discount off of the rate, but it would not have been refundable had I decided not to use the reservation in the end.

I would have also considered booking a backup train ticket on Amtrak too, which usually allows refunds with only a very small fee deducted. This would have been ideal had I been traveling to or transiting somewhere in the northeast like New York City or Boston, and just adds another level of preparedness and options that my fellow passengers may not have if our flight were severely delayed or canceled.

As I sit for hours and hours in this crowded airport today, I watch as my weekend jet-setting plans fade farther and farther into the realm of fantasy. Good thing I thought to make a weekend car rental reservation just in case. So instead of jetting off to the Caribbean to escape the returning cool weather as I had planned, I have decided instead to bundle up and embark on a weekend road trip out to a dog-friendly northern Virginia winery.

I have never been to a winery anywhere, so now I will be able to check that off my must-do travel list. But one experience I will not be checking off my list today, thanks to some foresight and pre-planning, is camping out in an airport.



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Toronto: Insider Travel Guide

(CNN)Many in Canada complain that Torontonians have a center-of-the-universe attitude. True or not, the city can cast a shadow over the rest of the country.

It’s an economic and social powerhouse with a vibrant bar, restaurant and arts scene, not to mention major league sports teams.
It’s a city of neighborhoods — Chinatown, Little Italy, Queen West. It’s a city of festivals — the Toronto International Film Festival, Caribana, Gay Pride.
But above all, the best of Toronto is a great place to visit, a city full of promise and potential.
This hotel towers over the city’s upscale Yorkville neighborhood, with its high-end shops and reputable restaurants.
The entrance and lobby walls are lined with wood. Decorative metal dividers stretch from floor to soaring ceiling.
Art designed to look like over-sized dandelion seed heads hovers above the check-in desk.
The hotel has 259 guest rooms, including 42 suites, all done up in cool contemporary grays and whites. The spa is one of the best in Toronto, and the pool area is gorgeous.
Guests can congregate in the casual dbar or eat at Caf Boulud, with a menu designed by Michelin-starred Chef Daniel Boulud.
There’s plenty to savor, like the inventive grapefruit givr, a mixture of sorbet, grapefruit segments and Turkish delight, topped with torched sesame cracker and wisps of halvah.
With its glossy wood, big brass maple leaves, neutral earth tones and original artwork, the Ritz-Carlton is a luxurious tribute to Canadiana.
The hotel’s 263 guest rooms, all at least 41 square meters, provide views of the CN Tower and Lake Ontario.
Rooms on floors 18 to 20 have the views — if you go lower than that, condos partially block the lake.
Bathrooms are decked out in marble, with deep tubs and in-mirror TVs.
One of the Ritz-Carlton’s best of Toronto restaurants, TOCA (short for Toronto, Canada), sports a menu filled with dishes made with only local, naturally raised ingredients.
Cutting-edge cocktails mixed at the DEQ Terrace and Lounge draw all sorts of customers, who are encouraged to dabble in mixology.
The Ritz-Carlton also lays out a customized wellness program, with experts who tailor everything from facials to fitness to the needs of each guest.
There are plush loungers in the co-ed Urban Sanctuary sunroom, which has a wide selection of tea and glossy magazines.
The Royal York is the Grand Dame of Toronto’s hotel scene, an imposing stone and copper-roofed structure that’s firmly anchored in a sea of steel and glass.
It’s been a star since it officially opened in 1929, a favorite for royalty, celebrities, movie directors and regular folk who want to soak up its Old World charm.
A C$100 million renovation that finished in 1993 helped keep the property in good shape.
Rooms have an elegant, Victorian style, with antique furniture, quilted bed covers and thick curtains and valance.
The Royal York is located across the street from the grand Union Station (and connected to it via underground walkway), Toronto’s main train station, which is also built in a neoclassical, Beaux-Arts style.
SoHo Metropolitan
This contemporary hotel in a slick condominium complex is a short walk from the shops and restaurants on King West and Queen West, plus the bars and clubs in the Entertainment District.
SoHo’s 92 guest rooms (55 square meters on average) feature ultra-soft Frette linens and towels, natural down duvets and bathrooms with deep tubs and heated floors.
Lights, blinds and the “do not disturb” sign can be manipulated by remote control.
Thick windows block out sound, but guests have the option of opening them.
Big spenders can book the 370-square-meter penthouse suite, which has an in-suite glass elevator, two bedrooms, two fireplaces, a state-of-the-art kitchen, plus a rooftop terrace with a barbecue and an eight-seater hot tub.
The bakery/bar/restaurant Sen5es (get it?) is attached to the hotel, serving up baked goods and a solid menu, including a dinner deal for C$50 that provides one appetizer, one entre and one dessert.
Thompson Toronto
Travelers who have spent a night in a Thompson Hotel in cities such as New York and Chicago will feel at home in this modern property, located in the burgeoning King West Village neighborhood.
The 102 guest rooms (some with balconies) have floor-to-ceiling windows, heated bathroom floors and unique lighting features, along with plasma TVs and iHome docking stations.
Orange and red accents stand out against the dark, hardwood floors.
The hotel’s offer attributes include a 24-hour American-style diner, a rooftop bar and infinity pool, a 40-seat theater ideal for private film screenings, and the 1812 Lounge, named in cheeky commemoration of the war between the United States and Britain.
The Grand Hotel & Suites Toronto
One of the best hotels in Toronto, dollar for dollar, the Grand’s 177 suites are all done up to strike a tasteful, understated tone.
They come with fully equipped kitchenettes and all the regular features — TVs, CD and DVD players.
Guests can choose lake or city views.
When not soaking in the Grand’s rooftop whirlpools, they can unwind in the spa, where prices for treatments are all reasonable.
The property is located in a part of the city that’s enjoying better days thanks to the expansion of a university, and is walking distance to theaters, shopping and restaurants.
Drake Hotel
Here’s a home-away-from-home in Toronto’s trendy West Queen West neighborhood.
From the tiny Solo room to the extra-large Suite (and not forgetting the Crash Pads, Dens and Salons in between), the Drake Hotel is the perfect place for travelers looking for a more eclectic place to lay their heads.
But getting to bed early will be a challenge once you get a look at everything the Drake has to offer: a cool club for indie bands, DJs and film screenings; a raucous restaurant with a menu heavy on the meat, fruits de mer and comfort food options such as mac ‘n cheese; and a chill lounge, with a rotating art collection, culinary cook-offs, trivia and weekend oyster bar.
The best of Toronto rooftop Sky Yard is dubbed an “all-season space” by management (um, in Canada?), where patrons sip cocktails and roast marshmallows.


The “Masters of the Universe” from Bay Street (Toronto’s Wall Street) love to congregate here for power lunches, surrounded by custom wood and stone, from the carved walnut chandeliers to the soapstone bar.
Canuck celebrities also dine at Canoe (Neil Young, William Shatner).
But it really doesn’t matter who you are — if you can afford the C$16-28 starters and the C$32-49 mains, you’re in.
The menu is oh-so-Canada, coast-to-coast: Great Lakes pickerel, pan-seared Quebec foie gras, Alberta lamb, a selection of domestic wines.
The atmosphere can feel hip, relaxed or stuffy depending on the day and, perhaps, the company.
The view of Lake Ontario is inspiring, the food even better.
This restaurant, with its distinctive yellow exterior, has been a staple of the city’s Yorkville neighborhood for decades.
Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Robert De Niro and a host of other celebs have hung out here.
A fire gutted Sassafraz in 2006 and the owners spent millions of dollars rebuilding.
These days, they offer French-inspired Canadian cuisine: Ontario beets, Alberta bison, Nova Scotia Digby scallops, PEI beef.
The wine list shines the spotlight on domestic offerings, but is also heavy on French and Italian varieties. Guests of the nearby Four Seasons are treated to a complimentary glass of bubbly.
Biff’s Bistro
The French-bistro feel hits you the minute you walk in the door.
It’s the dcor. It’s the lively atmosphere. It’s the escargot, steak tartare, duck confit on the menu.
Biff’s gets even livelier in the warmer months, when managers open up the sizable street-side terrace.
The menus are designed to reflect the seasons and are filled with options both common (steak frites, filet mignon) and curious (crispy pig’s ears, lamb belly confit).
The after-work crowd usually flocks here to enjoy $1 oysters, which are featured nightly from 5 p.m.
Biff’s has a dense wine list, but it’s also one of a number of restaurants in Toronto offering a bring-your-own-bottle option (corkage fee is $25 per bottle).
Edulis Restaurant
Edulis (Latin for edible) opened last year and quickly became one of the darlings of the restaurant scene, a place over which both diners and reviewers have been fawning.
“Pleasure bordering on delirium” gushed the Globe and Mail.
“A perfect little place” hailed Toronto Life magazine.
The owners “feed you wonderful food” noted former Gourmet Magazine editor in chief, Ruth Reichl.
The seafood- and vegetable-focused menu changes daily (you’ll also find duck, rabbit and other meats), and the kitchen staff work to tailor their five- and seven-course meals to the tastes of each diner, creating iterations of Nunavut wild Arctic char or sunflower hearts or king salmon.
Edulis is booked up weeks in advance, so you need to get your reservation in early.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
Toronto has been gripped by a ramen craze of late, and this downtown eatery is one of the best places in Toronto to get a steaming bowl of these Japanese noodles.
It’s a sister restaurant of the establishment of the same name in New York.
Diners balance on tall stools or plunk themselves down on benches to twirl and slurp their way through lunch or dinner.
The list of toppings includes pork belly, fish cake, egg, kale, miso, shiitake and black bean.
Momofuku also offers a large fried chicken meal for groups, complete with scallion pancakes and pickled veggies.
Osteria Ciceri e Tria
This hole-in-the-wall, rustic Italian restaurant is centered on a long communal table, with smaller satellite tables.
The menu is filled with Pugliese food (fare from Italy’s “heel of the boot” region) and it changes daily, although the orecchiette con rapini and the orecchiette de farro make regular appearances.
Run by the same group that owns the city’s trio of Terroni restaurants, this is best of Toronto Italian done right, comfort food drenched in olive oil.
The Black Hoof
A haven for carnivores and foodies who love snout-to-tail eateries, the staff at The Black Hoof have been winning praise for their self-proclaimed “off-cut meat-centric menu” since 2008 (fish and veggie options also available).
The space is tight and reservations are verboten, so when it’s busy, you’ll have to wait in line.
Dishes range from beef tongue brioche to spicy horse tartar to roasted bone marrow.
It all gets rave reviews, including, believe it or not, a carrot cake that’s topped with seared foie gras.
The owners also run the Hoof Cocktail Bar (923 Dundas St. W.; +1 416 792 7511), which serves custom cocktails (C$9-16), along with wine and cheese plates.
And they’ve opened Rhum Corner, which offers Haitian cuisine (accra, griot, bananes frites) and plenty of rum-based beverages.
Aunties and Uncles
No big city is complete without a great place to grab breakfast or brunch, and Aunties and Uncles is one a best of Toronto fave.
The former barbershop, anchored in Toronto’s Kensington Market/Chinatown neighborhood, is old-school-American-diner meets hip-thrift-store, with Formica tables, vintage posters and action figure dolls.
The cool kids love to come here, and they even line up on weekends for a spot — it’s quieter during the week.
The menu is designed to suit sweet or salty tastes, with banana oatmeal pancakes and Belgian waffles sharing top billing with omelets and breakfast tacos.
Best of all, everything is under C$10, with lattes and cappuccinos running C$3.
Aunties and Uncles doesn’t take reservations.
Fresh started out in the 1990s as a mobile juice bar and has evolved into Toronto’s premier vegetarian and vegan restaurant, with four locations to its name.
Fresh’s employees still blend up juices — fruit smoothies, power shakes, immune elixirs, you name it — but they also create Asian-inspired salads (Tangled Thai) and rice bowls (Buddha), not to mention a variety of meat-free burgers.
The sweet potato fries are a must.
Ditto the desserts, which are vegan and change daily (you should hope for a carrot cake day — no foie gras here).
Salad King
Cherished by university students and working stiffs, Salad King is a Thai food-lovers paradise.
The layout is cafeteria style, with friends and strangers rubbing elbows at long tables.
The food is fast and fresh.
The menu is simple enough to memorize.
Everyone has their favorite dishes — ours include the green chicken curry and the golden tofu curry.
Word of warning: the spice quotient ranges from mild (a bit spicy) to 20 chilies (could set some stomachs aflame).
Jet Fuel
Locals flock to Jet Fuel for good coffee, fresh pastries and a healthy dose of attitude.
This caf, located in the Cabbagetown neighborhood, is a favorite hangout for musicians, actors, dancers and bike couriers.
The music can be loud. The seating can be limited. But the coffee is always strong and reasonably priced.


Product Nightclub
This club in the heart of the entertainment district is located inside an old factory building and offers what the designer calls an “art collector’s residence-meets-nightlife.”
There’s a towering chandelier, a fireplace, outlandish paintings and murals, with the odd mannequin kicking around for good measure (Clockwork Orange tribute).
Product has all the requirements of your standard nightclub: DJs (some famous, some not-so-famous), great sound, frenetic lights, plenty of room to dance, bottle service, and a dress code to keep out those who prefer to wear t-shirts, baseball hats and sneakers. Go late, stay late.
Fly Toronto
Just steps away from Church Street, the backbone of Toronto’s gay village, Fly is an institution known for a range of weekly, monthly and special event nights.
Expect a mix of fit urban professionals grinding to Donna Summer numbers alongside an otherwise rather more varied crowd.
Fly Toronto, 8 Gloucester St.; +1 416 410 5426
The Roof Lounge
Showcasing best of Toronto views, the Park Hyatt’s iconic Roof Lounge has been luring patrons to its perch above the city for decades.
It’s a favorite all year round, but is especially crowded during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Leather chairs, dark suede walls and a fireplace help reinforce the 1940s/1950s feel. Drinks are pricey. Space is limited.
The Horseshoe Tavern
Toronto has a vibrant music scene and the legendary Shoe’s been one of the best venues to catch a live show since 1947.
The bar is at the front. The stage is at the back. The decor (old wood, stickers from various bands) feels like an afterthought — the Horseshoe’s got too much cred to care.
Some of the best Canadian bands have jammed here. So have The Rolling Stones. It’s a can’t-miss stop on a music-lover’s tour of Toronto.
Victory Cafe
An English-style pub that matches a tasty menu (burgers, fries, curries, pastas) with an even tastier drinks’ list, filled with craft beer favorites.
Where else in the city can you get a pint of Flying Monkey Smashbomb Atomic IPA?
Victory Cafe is on a quiet, tree-lined street on the western edge of Toronto’s Annex neighborhood.
It’s simple, yet warm atmosphere provides the perfect location for friends to get together, catch up and share some laughs.
7 West Cafe
This cafe/restaurant/lounge (open 24 hours a day, seven days a week) has been a funky after-hours staple for 20 years.
Wooden tables, chairs and benches are spread over a few several floors inside a narrow old house that drips with character.
Exposed brick, stained glass, chandeliers and heavy curtains help reinforce the late-night feel, with clouds painted on the ceiling to take the edge off.
The menu is filled with salads, sandwiches, pastas and appetizers, but it’s probably most popular for its pies and cakes.


The people at Made offer independent Canadian designers a place to sell their creations.
The shop is the place for those interested in custom crafts or anyone on the hunt for an original gift.
Ceramics include porcelain creamers cast to resemble milk cartons and a light fixture formed by a stack of vintage china.
Then there’s the felt stool spool, the mouth-blown gray glass shades and the inside-out shadow clock.
The list goes on.
Made, 867 Dundas St. W.; +1 416 607 6384
Eaton Centre
This downtown mall, which occupies two full city blocks, lures 50 million visitors a year.
The more than 230 stores and restaurants are spread out over five floors, including a sprawling basement food court.
Designers modeled the glass dome that runs the length of the center after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade in Milan.
A large mobile of Canada geese helps provide a sense of place.
Mall management added a more modern piece of art in 2011. Slipstream is a 135-meter LED installation that changes based on the movement of the sun and meteorological factors.
Eaton Centre is easily accessible by transit (TTC) — streetcars, subways and buses stop here.
It also has an entrance facing Yonge-Dundas Square, the Times Square of Toronto.
A short walk north from the Eaton Centre, you’ll find one of Toronto’s toniest shopping and dining districts.
Bloor-Yorkville has been going through a period of revitalization in recent years, with new buildings going up, parking lots turning into parks and sidewalks being beautified.
Visitors will have no trouble finding their fine fashion favorites, including Prada, Hugo Boss and Chanel, along with lower-cost options such as Banana Republic and Club Monaco.
They can also wander the back streets to discover small boutiques, art dealers, galleries and heritage buildings, stopping along the way to grab a coffee or eat in the many cafs and restaurants.
Bloor-Yorkville BIA (Business Improvement Area), bordered by Bloor Street West, Avenue Road, Davenport Road and Yonge Street; app available on iTunes
Queen West
Hundreds of retail outlets, restaurants, cafs and bars line Queen Street West.
This neighborhood, between Simcoe and Bathurst Streets, once epitomized hip.
It’s still a cool place to stroll, shop and eat, but big brands such as H&M and Zara have moved in and changed the landscape.
The smaller boutique and fashion scene has moved west, spawning a neighborhood between Bathurst and Gladstone Avenue called West Queen West (home to one of our hotel picks, the Drake).
Shoppers heading here will stumble on gems such as bag and accessory maker Zane, the recycled vintage fabric fashions of preloved and the mid-century modern furniture and design store Atomic Design.
Kensington Market
The Canadian government designated Kensington Market a National Historic Site in 2006, calling it a “microcosm of Canada’s ethnic mosaic.”
People of all stripes have been coming to this neighborhood since the first wave of immigrants settled here in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Kensington is filled with eclectic shops, bakeries, restaurants of all flavors (Latin American, Jamaican, French, Thai) and grocery stores selling fruit, veggies, meat and spices.
Shoppers often drop by this neighborhood’s vintage clothing stores to try on old jeans, retro T-shirts and the odd fur coat.
Favorite haunts include Courage my Love (14 Kensington Ave.) and Exile (22 Kensington Ave.).


CN Tower
This 553-meter-high communications and observation tower has been marveled at and mocked since it opened in 1976.
For years, it was the world’s tallest freestanding structure (finally bested by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) and the world’s tallest tower (beaten by the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China).
Its views of Toronto and Lake Ontario are still a draw.
It takes 58 seconds to zip up the 346-meter LookOut level (adults C$23.99, seniors C$21.99, children C$15.99). An extra C$10 will get you to the 447-meter SkyPod.
The CN Tower also gives visitors a chance to walk on the roof of its restaurant, which is 356 meters above the ground.
EdgeWalk tickets cost C$175 and include videos, photos and access to the rest of the tower.
St. Lawrence Market
Part food market, part flea market, the St. Lawrence Market is one of Toronto’s most treasured landmarks and institutions.
It opened in 1803 and has evolved from a wooden structure to a brick building, been rebuilt after fire, renovated and re-imagined.
Today, the market consists of three buildings: the South Market, the North Market and St. Lawrence Hall.
More than 120 vendors occupy the main floor and lower level of the South Market, selling fresh produce, meat and cheese, along with baked goods, coffee, clothes, jewelry, accessories and much more.
The North Market hosts a Farmers’ Market on Saturday, featuring seasonal produce from Southern Ontario.
On Sunday, more than 80 antique dealers set up shop in the North Market and surrounding plaza.
Toronto’s sports scene is solid, with a number of pro teams.
The Toronto Argonauts have been around the longest, one of eight clubs in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Their home is the Rogers Centre, which has a retractable roof (the building was formerly called the SkyDome). The CFL season runs from June until November.
The Toronto Blue Jays share the Rogers Centre with the Argos. The former back-to-back World Series champs play their regular Major League Baseball season from April until October.
This being Canada, you’ll find most sports fans are more interested in hockey.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been chasing pucks around since 1917, although they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
They play at the Air Canada Centre (regular season October-April), sharing the space with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors (regular season October-April) and the Toronto Rock lacrosse team (regular season January-May).
The latest addition to the city’s sports scene is the Toronto FC, which plays Major League Soccer at the BMO Field (season runs March to October).
Toronto has lots of green space, from the small to the sprawling.
High Park is the city’s largest public park.
It’s located on 1873 Bloor St. and easily accessed by subway, streetcar and bus.
Along with trees and trails, it has a pond, sports facilities (tennis, baseball, soccer), picnic areas and a dog run.
During the summer, a Shakespeare play is staged in its amphitheater.
Dufferin Grove Park (Dufferin Street between College and Bloor) feels like a true neighborhood green space and is well loved by locals.
It’s easy to spend a day checking out its play structures and wading pool, baking pizza or bread in one of the public wood-fired brick ovens or picking up produce at the farmers’ market (Thursday).
Another favorite for outdoor activities are the Toronto Islands in Lake Ontario, a short ferry ride from the harbor front.
Centre Island is the biggest in the chain, boasting the largest urban car-free community in North America.
The Toronto Islands have parks, picnic areas, beaches (Hanlan’s Point is clothing-optional), an amusement park and more spread out over some 240 hectares.


Toronto’s former leaders and officials have taken a lot of flak for allowing developers to do doing away with some of its architectural heritage.
The building boom of the 1950s and ’60s led to the destruction of many 19th-century buildings.
In the decades before that, two great fires (1849 and 1904) burned up big chunks of downtown.
In these days of condo creep, city planners are stricter about saving heritage buildings.
They’ve also approved projects to renovate old sites or allowed new projects to go ahead, leading to yet another building boom.
The Old
Toronto is a relatively young city, so its heritage buildings were constructed in the 1800s and 1900s.
One of the oldest areas is the Fork York National Historic Site. The British built the fort in 1793 and rebuilt it after the Americans torched the place during the War of 1812.
Visitors can tour the fort’s eight historic structures, and see musket and music demonstrations (250 Fort York Blvd.; +1 416 392 6907).
Toronto is home to a number of Victorian-style buildings, and many of them can be found in the neighborhood of Cabbagetown.
Residents developed the area in the late 1800s.
You can walk it on your own, or link up with Heritage Toronto for a free walking tour.
You can get to Cabbagetown by taking the TTC 506 streetcar, which leaves College Station and runs along Carlton Street.
The University of Toronto contains a number of historic structures designed in Romanesque or Gothic Revival styles.
University College, Soldiers’ Tower and Convocation Hall are three worth checking out.
Wandering amid the buildings and grounds of Trinity College, you may feel like you’re at Cambridge or Oxford.
The Trinity College Chapel is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in North America.
Casa Loma was once considered the most creative buildings on the continent.
Some men want their home to be a castle, and Canadian millionaire Sir Henry Pellatt spent a fortune, and eventually went bust, turning his vision into reality.
Casa Loma merges elements of Norman, Gothic and Romanesque-style architecture.
The City of Toronto owns the property.

The Restored

The Distillery District started out as the Gooderham & Worts distillery in the 1830s.
It produced millions of gallons of whiskey and spirits in its more than 150-year history, surviving a fire and a brief period of prohibition before shutting down in 1990.
After a stint in the 1990s as the top film location in Canada, developers renovated the complex and reopened it in 2003, giving new life to the largest and best-preserved collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.
Its car-free, brick-lined streets and restored buildings are home to galleries, boutiques, cafs, restaurants, dance studios, a craft beer brewery and a sake brewery.
The people who run Steamwhistle Brewery started fermenting their award-winning craft pilsner in 2000 in the historic John Street Roundhouse.
The building, just south of the CN Tower, opened in 1929 as a steam locomotive repair facility.
The environmentally friendly brewery runs tours and hosts events.
The Evergreen Brick Works is Canada’s first large-scale community and environmental center.
The development is built on the site of the former Don Valley Brick Works.
National Geographic named the Brick Works one of the top 10 geotourism destinations in the world in 2010.
Visitors flock here to take part in interactive workshops (Bike Repair 101, urban gardening, cooking), tour the farmers’ market and watch environmental documentaries.

The New

Toronto’s landscape has been transformed over the past decade, with new buildings popping up and older ones getting facelifts.
One of the first buildings to open, in 2004, was the stunning Sharp Centre for Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, a table-top structure with “black-and-white pixelated skin.”
Another addition to the cityscape is the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, with its sweeping glass-and-brick facade. Inside, more glass and plenty of wood enhance acoustics.
The FSC was built specifically for opera and ballet and is home to the Canadian Opera Company and The National Ballet of Canada.
Two of the world’s best architects gave two of Toronto’s best-loved museums makeovers in recent years.
Daniel Libeskind re-imagined the exterior of the Royal Ontario Museum, home to dinosaur skeletons, armor, statues and a host of other exhibits.
Libeskind merged the old ROM building with what’s called the Michael-Lee Chin Crystal (named after the guy who donated C$30 million to the museum’s renaissance project).
The interlocking structure, made of 25% glass and 75% extruded-brushed, aluminum-cladding strips, has transformed the museum and the street corner it occupies.
Not to be outdone, management at the Art Gallery of Ontario hired Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, the mastermind behind the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, to redesign their building.
The AGO’s new facade is made of gently curving glass and Douglas fir.
Other touches include an impressive sculptural spiral staircase in the new south wing.
The Toronto International Film Festival has been around since 1976, but it only got a home befitting its global stature in 2010.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is part cinematic culture center and part condo tower, home to five state-of-the-art cinemas, two galleries, three learning studios, retail space and restaurants.
The Toronto Society of Architects runs tours showcasing the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the ROM, the AGO and a number of other buildings in Toronto.

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Croatia’s Dubrovnik gives other rivieras a run for the money

(CNN)For those who can afford them, the French and Italian rivieras have always been unbeatable destinations for anyone in search of sun, sea, sand and style. Or have they?

With 260 days of sunshine and one of the most eye-catching coastlines in the Med, this chic stretch of Adriatic shoreline is justifiably pulling in ever-greater visitor numbers each year.
The 20-kilometer riviera is a silhouette of dramatic emerald mountains that tumble down to inviting bays overlooking royal blue seas.
Coupled with Dubrovnik Old Town, one of the world’s most photographed medieval walled cities, the region offers an alluring beach and city combo.
Here are 12 reasons to go:

1. Medieval Dubrovnik

The largest and best preserved in Europe, Dubrovnik’s 14th-century city walls are nearly two kilometers long and 22 meters high.
A circumnavigation of the chunky walls offers photogenic views across the terracotta tops of the Old Town.
Jutting out on a fortified island, suspended at sea, the historic Dubrovnik Old Town is one of the most recognizable sights in Croatia.
Within it, baroque churches rub shoulders with centuries-old monasteries and palazzo.
A sea of red roofs shrouds whitewashed buildings, fringed by the azure Adriatic.

2. Mount Srd cable car

Arguably the best view on the Dubrovnik Riviera.
A short revolving cable car ride to Mount Srd reaches an elevation of 412 meters over Dubrovnik, which can be seen below, laid out like a map.
On a clear day, the hills of neighboring Montenegro and silhouettes of surrounding islands are visible.
The clifftop Napoleonic Imperial Fort museum showcases footage of the siege of the city during the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The views are never better than at sunset.

3. Dubrovnik Carnival and Summer Festival

Each July and August, outdoor piazzas become open-air platforms for the Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
The oldest cultural festival in Croatia is a mix of theater, ballet, classical music, opera and dancing in the streets.
In February, Dubrovnik mirrors Venice with a five-week medieval carnival that transforms marble streets into a parade of masked balls.
There’s also a wine and jazz festival during the more tranquil month of September.

4. Scenic coastline

One of Europe’s most attractive drives is the 20-kilometer Dubrovnik to Cavtat coastal route.
The mountaintop route wends through vineyards and quaint waterfront villages. Antique churches, forested headlands, beach boats and cafes are all part of the scenery.
There are coastal resorts at Cavtat, Mlini and Srebreno, away from the bustle of Dubrovnik.
Mlini offers isolated beaches and dense greenery.
Cavtat is charmingly Croatian and sometimes sprinkled with famous faces said to include Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

5. ‘Game of Thrones‘ tour

Dubrovnik’s walled city is riddled with filming locations used in “Game of Thrones.”
It served as the setting of King’s Landing, capital of the Seven Kingdoms.
A three-hour walking tour takes in highlights such as the scene of battles such as Stannis Baratheon‘s Battle of the Blackwater.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s still a fun alternative tour that mixes fact with fiction.

6. Killer villas

Boutique villas are to Dubrovnik what riads are to Marrakech.
Often converted private residences, the luxury whitewashed villas blend into the landscape
Among them is Villa Dubrovnik, a spa with suites equipped with hot tubs overlooking the Adriatic.
Recently upgraded, the Leading Hotels of the World property has sensational views of the Old Town from its rooftop Prosciutto & Wine bar.
It also has a stylish vaporetto speedboat for transfers to the Old Town.

7. Croatian wines

Croatia may not be a name synonymous with wine, but it should be.
With wine-producing history dating back to around 2200 B.C., the industry flourished under the Greeks but was disrupted by the Ottoman invasion.
Things picked up again in 2010 with the creation of the Association of Croatian Wineries.
There are some 64 indigenous grape varieties producing Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1,000 or so wineries that scatter rural Croatia.
“Posip is the famous white wine from Korcula Island,” says Tonci Nola, a manager at Villa Dubrovnik.
“A heavier option is the strong and bold-flavored Kuca Glavic from this Dubrovnik Riviera. Red-wine lovers should opt for Tribidrag, from the far north, for its powerful, full-bodied finish.”
Fall is when the vineyards come alive and can be visited.

8. Food with a view

There’s no shortage of restaurants with stellar views along the riviera, but only a few have food to match.
Among the best are Nautika’s outlets — a distinctly Croatian group of waterfront and clifftop eateries.
Panorama is an intimate casual affair atop Mount Srd, reachable by the cable car, where local cheesecakes and sauteed fish can be enjoyed alongside views of the Old Town.
Flagship Nautika, regularly named among the world’s most romantic restaurants, sits on a waterfront cliff edging the Dubrovnik’s ancient fortifications.
Here, chef Mario Bunda serves Mediterranean flavors including lobster from the Dalmatian island of Vis and shrimp from the Adriatic.
Further along the Riviera, in Cavtat, there’s a lineup of harbor front restaurants serving typically Croatian lamb chops and baked octopus.

9. Island hopping

With more than a thousand Croatian islands, the question is where?
And how — travelers can cross the Adriatic waters aboard anything from kayaks to sailboats.
Lokrum Island is easily accessed from Dubrovnik and is known for its Dead Sea-style salty lake, 12th-century Benedictine monastery and resident peacocks.
There are spotless beaches and picturesque harbors bordered by rolling hills and hidden coves on Korcula.
Mljet, accessible by boat from Dubrovnik harbor, promises adventure.
The Mljet National Park spans 3,100 hectares, with lakes and indigenous forests filled with hiking trails. Offshore are wreck sites for divers.

10. Betina Cave Beach

Betina Cave Beach is only accessible by swimming from a boat, kayak, or from land.
In the heat of summer, this beautiful spot provides a cool shelter, with pebble sands lapped by turquoise Mediterranean waters.

11. Cliff bars

Clinging to a cliff and suspended over the sea, Buza Bar is a legendary location on the Dubrovnik Riviera.
It’s a great spot to mingle with locals while watching magnificent sunsets. There are no signs, so finding the spot is half the fun.

12. Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina

The fjords and mountains of Montenegro are a stone’s throw from Dubrovnik Riviera. A coastal road leads straight to the Bay of Kotor UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dotted with tiny stone fishing villages and ornate homes, churches and islands, this is an unforgettable day trip.
The border of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies inland, but can also be explored in a day’s outing.
Popular day trips include Mostar, for the iconic Stari Most, a 14th-century bridge.
There’s a cobbled bazaar, ornate wooden balconies and towering mosque minarets that offer 360-degree city views.

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Going to Peru? 10 things to know before your trip

(CNN)With a climate that ranges from desert dry to tropical lush to freeze-your-North-Face-off in the Andes, Peru packs a ton of diversity between its sea level elevation Pacific beaches and the 22,204 foot top of its highest mountain, Nevado Huascaran.

There’s pisco. There’s ceviche. And, yes, there’s that famous trail.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to all of those. First some things you may not already know.

1. Lima is worth seeing

While most international travelers land in Peru’s current capital, many immediately continue on to the country’s former capital, Cuzco, in their rush to get to Machu Picchu.
That’s a mistake.
Lima is Peru’s largest city by far. It’s home to more than a quarter of Peru’s roughly 30 million people, has wonderful food, the beautiful Miraflores district (where you can drink while overlooking beaches lined with small rocks that form eye-catching patterns each time the tide rolls out) and excellent museums.
The Museo Larco and its Erotic Gallery is devoted to sculptures from more than a thousand years ago celebrating sexual congress in all of its least procreative forms. Reproductions of these works pop up all over Peru, notably in the form of a bottle of pisco shaped like a fellow in an extremely good mood.

2. You’re gonna love the ceviche

Fresh, raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with chili peppers and sometimes other tongue-tingling spices, ceviche is Peru’s most popular dish, a must-try for any visitor.
In Lima, internationally famed La Mar is a great place to try it, but ceviche is prepared differently throughout the country, from humble street stalls to elegant restaurants.

3. There’s more to Peru than Incas

Most tourists come to Peru to see Machu Picchu or other Inca ruins, with maybe a few Catholic churches thrown in for balance. This makes it easy to conclude, “There were the Incas, then the Spanish came, which brings us to where we are now.”
In fact, the Inca were a bit like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital: They had a knack for taking control of long-established things and making them their own. The Incan state didn’t emerge until the 1200s. It became an empire in the 1400s, and its final sovereign emperor died in 1533, officially ending the period of constructing the buildings and roads that lure visitors to this day.
That said, the Norte Chico people of Peru built a civilization 5,000 years ago and the centuries that followed saw the emergence of other significant cultures, such as the Paracas and the Moche.
Was the Incan era a highlight of Peruvian history? Unquestionably.
But when Peruvian museums boast artifacts from before Christ, focusing exclusively on Atahualpa and his predecessors is akin to being so impressed by books that you conclude world history began with the Gutenberg press.

4. Pisco rules

Peru’s beverage of choice is pisco, a brandy made from grapes. It’s also adored in Chile, inspiring an epic rivalry over which nation is its true birthplace.
Available in numerous brands at varying prices, pisco is usually consumed in cocktail form, meaning other ingredients largely hide its nuances, which can be a good thing for novices unaccustomed to pisco’s blowtorch nuances.
The most famous cocktail is the pisco sour, consisting of lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, ice and Angostura bitters. There are assorted variations, such as the coca sour for those who feel the pisco sour requires more bitterness.
If you’d rather just have a beer, you’re in luck — the local brews are good, with Cusquea being a particularly refreshing option.

5. Cash is king, ideally in small bills

Travelers in less trafficked areas of the world often find businesses that won’t take MasterCard or Visa, much less American Express. Peru offers an extra twist: occasionally shops refuse these cards despite displaying signs advertising them.
In general, Peruvians like their soles (the currency is the nuevo sol) in small denominations: a fifty (roughly $20) is OK, but denominations of twenty and under are better to ensure merchants can make change.
That noted, Peruvians tend to put great stock in U.S. dollars, so even if an establishment doesn’t take credit cards and you don’t see an ATM, you may still be able to buy dinner or souvenirs. Make sure your U.S. and other foreign currency is in pristine shape — many merchants and hotels will reject torn or overly worn bills.

6. Altitude adjustment amounts to common sense

Peru is a mountainous land, and you have to handle heights if you’re going to Cuzco, Machu Picchu and other landmarks of Incan culture.
How to prepare? The easiest method is drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep and ease off the booze — just imagine how your mother would like you to conduct your life at every elevation and you’ll be fine.
You can also consume stimulating coca leafs, whether in tea or by chewing them.

7. The plumbing requires some TLC

Expect to see trashcans in bathrooms next to the toilet.
While Peruvian plumbing handles your waste, it doesn’t do toilet paper, which must be put in the bin next to the bowl.
Some bathrooms have signs stating this rule, others assume you know: remember and spare yourself begging for a plunger in broken Spanish.

8. The Inca Trail is genuinely difficult

Along the famed trail you’ll often be reminded of the Peruvian proverb: “When the road is long, even slippers feel tight.”
The Inca Trail largely consists of stone stairs — often steep ones — and those stone stairs weren’t meant to be covered by mortals. The result is that the steps feel quite high for those who don’t answer to “Kobe” or “LeBron.”
If just reading this makes your knees swell, you may be in trouble.
In addition, while altitude sickness tends to be exaggerated, there’ll come a moment when you’re going up a hill and find that your lungs have betrayed you.
Throw in the chance of heavy rains — test your “waterproof” gear pretrek to make sure it’s just that — and the trail can feel less like vacation than boot camp.

9. There are ways to ease your Inca pain

Depending on the company guiding you on the Trail, it’s possible to get porters to carry your tent, sleeping bag, food and … well, they’ll essentially carry everything, including you, should your body completely fall to pieces.
Porters race ahead to the night’s camp and assemble everything before parties arrive, then cook and serve multiple-course meals, in certain cases on white linen table clothes. The result after a hard day’s walk is that you feel like you’ve stepped out of “Deliverance” and into “Howard’s End.” Speaking of porters …

10. Porters are the toughest guys in the country

Whether you’re on your own or traveling like an English lord in the colonies, you’ll encounter porters on the Inca Trail. These men tend to be farmers or laborers looking to earn extra money.
They carry up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of gear — the weight limit is a recent development, they used to handle positively spine-shattering loads — and they carry it fast. Some actually run along the trail, somehow avoiding shredded ankles as they navigate uneven, wet stones just to ensure all’s ready before the tourists stagger into camp.
If you feel like racing your fellow hikers, great. Do not test the porters: They’re pros, and you’re at best a promising amateur.
This story originally published in 2013.

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Airline pricing secrets: How carriers come up with fares




Playing the points game: Airmiles explained


But how does the airline know who the higher-value passengers are and how much to charge them?
Stuart Barwood, founder of Travercial, an airline consultancy firm, says airlines can make a number of reasonable assumptions about the profile of traffic on a certain route and then adjust their prices accordingly.
“The London to Majorca route, for example, has a marked leisure profile. This has implications not only for fare levels but also for the way pricing changes over time.
“If the airline assumes that leisure passengers will tend to book relatively early, months before their holidays, it may be tempted to start pricing seats on that route relatively high. It would then adjust them according to the market response.
“Meanwhile on a typical business route — let’s say London to Frankfurt — the airline may start with low prices to fill a minimum of capacity, then raise prices steeply for business travelers that book at the last minute.”
In fact, those last-minute high-value passengers are so precious that some airlines go the extra mile to make room for them.
For example, a service developed by Barcelona-based company Caravelo helps airlines identify those passengers most likely to accept a flight swap in exchange for compensation, such as vouchers or frequent flier miles, and offers to rebook them on a later flight.
With space then cleared, the high-fare passengers are then booked onto the previously full flight.

Towards total customization

You might think of fare classes in terms of economy, business and first class, but the reality is airlines have dozens of subdivisions.
The airline will adjust the number of seats allocated to each fare class. When one class has been sold, the sale price will leap to the next one.
This is how most fares are currently set, but it’s still some way off from the ultimate goal: Airlines want to know their clients so well they’re able to offer fully personalized pricing.
Loyalty programs, registered users and cookie tracking can give airlines some valuable clues, but even when an airline has gathered a lot of data about its passengers they still might not be putting it to profitable use.

Adding up the extras

“In reality, it is quite common for passenger data to be scattered throughout several functional areas within an airline, kept in data silos where it is of little use to the revenue management department,” says Barwood.
Airlines might be lagging behind the likes of Amazon when it comes to personalized marketing, but Barwood says many are getting up to speed with data management and this is already being felt in pricing and marketing.
Revenue management systems will increasingly take into account not only the air fare itself, but the total value a passenger can generate for the airline, including ancillary revenue.
That’s all the extras that can be added to your base fare, and it’s a growing source of profit.
Using seat choice as an example, many airlines now charge for the privilege of picking your seats in advance.
This could, in theory, be managed dynamically. Why not base seat prices on the occupancy of a given flight? Or charge less to members of your loyalty program?
This kind of profiling might be beneficial to the loyalty program customer in this instance, but what about when a frequent business traveler is then consistently shown higher fares when they’re trying to book a family vacation?
It could well prompt a backlash among the sort of high value customers that every airline hopes to retain.

Protecting the brand


The loophole letting passengers fly on the cheap


And while airlines may have good reasons not to overcharge their best customers, they also have to be careful not to undercharge the other classes of client.
The temptation is to aggressively lower prices when there are still empty seats left before a flight departs — but if this becomes the norm there’s a serious risk of undermining the brand and alienating higher-value passengers.
A number of companies, such as Bidflyer, Plusgrade and SeatFrog, have come up with applications that allow airlines to sell upgrades to the highest bidder through an auction mechanism — an efficient but anonymous way to get passengers to tell the airline how much they’re willing to pay for premium services.

Back to basics

The apparent randomness of airfares makes for an excellent conversation topic with friends and colleagues, but it can also be a source of anxiety for many travelers.
Perceptions that prices are immensely variable can add to the fear that customers may be overcharged for any extras they inadvertently purchase, or the worry that they might not be getting the best deal out there.
Which is why many airlines have opted for a different approach: go back to basics and offer branded fares — a bundle of services for a closed price.
This shouldn’t be confused with the rigid fare system that prevailed when the first low-cost airlines hit the scene.
This is more like an evolution of the low-cost fare system which lets customers choose the extras they want to add to the base fare.
This approach means rebundling a bunch of services — from checked-in luggage to a wider, more spacious seat — into a number of fare package options of varying complexity, all selling for a set price.
Think of it as like the menu options at a fast food joint.

The airfare arms race

Airlines might have a whole battery of tools to help them extract the most revenue from their passengers, but travelers can also call on their own arsenal of technological countermeasures.
Companies such as Skyscanner and Kayak have introduced fare alerts which allow you to monitor fares for specific flights and get automated alerts the moment they change.
Some companies are also developing fare prediction technology that promises to help travelers book their flights at the optimal moment, when the fare is likely to be lower.
In order to do this they rely on their own algorithms, plus a heap of historical data on air fares.
California-based FLYR uses its own proprietary fare prediction technology to offer fare lock-in insurance in partnership with TripAdvisor.
This service is similar to buying a financial option where you pay a relatively small premium in advance, to make sure you won’t pay more than a certain amount at a later date.
It also works with travel agents and other distribution partners to optimize bookings.

Seizing the moment

FLYR’s founder, Dutch entrepreneur Alexander Mans, says that outside a 30-day window of a flight’s date of departure, there is a 60 to 70% chance that a specific air fare will drop in price at some point.
“It is practically impossible for someone to monitor this manually, but with our computing resources we can predict pretty accurately the chances of a fare coming down and advise on the best course of action.
“If we think a fare is going to be lower in the future, we recommend waiting, before hitting the ‘book’ button.”
Hopper is another company specializing in the field of airfare prediction. Its mobile app, which has been downloaded more than eight million times, uses big data technology to predict fares as much as 12 months in advance.
“Our system looks at six to eight billion air fares every day. Our database has five years of historical fares, that means trillions of prices!” Frederic Lalonde, Hopper’s founder and CEO, declares proudly.
He claims their algorithms are capable of accurately predicting an airfare within $5, up to six months before departure.
“We are confident enough in our system to predict actual figures and to tell our customers whether they are getting a good fare or not.
“We have tracked our accuracy to 95%. Whether people later follow our advice or not is another story…”
With this amount of computing power being thrown into the field of airline pricing and the expectation that artificial intelligence technology will go mainstream, it might ultimately be up to the robots to fight the airfare war.
This isn’t necessarily bad news — it may result in better choices and more efficient booking processes.
With virtually millions of different air fares — as many as the number of passengers airlines carry every year — what seems assured is that airline fares will continue to be a topic of conversation by the office cooler for years to come.

Remote islands: 7 of the world’s hardest-to-reach outposts

Idiotic TV shows and all the latest apps bumming you out on the 21st century? Ready for some “me time” on the world’s remotest islands?

Forget golden sands and swaying palms — the reality of solitude is different as these distant landfalls demonstrate.
1,750 miles from South Africa
The British island group of Tristan da Cunha stands profoundly alone in the South Atlantic. The nearest landfall is South Africa, 1,750 miles east, and to the west, South America is more than 2,000 miles.
It’s the world’s most remote inhabited island chain — so precariously occupied that when a volcanic vent erupted in 1961, the whole population was evacuated to England.
Reaching Tristan da Cunha: This is no easygoing excursion.
To quote the official website, “There are no package tours for independent travelers, no hotels, no airport, no holiday reps, no night clubs, no restaurants, no jet skis nor safe sea swimming.”
All visitors need to clear their arrivals in advance through the Island Council, and they also need to obtain a police certificate. (A 40-day wait is typical.)
There are around 10 sailings a year from Cape Town, South Africa, and Namibia, each taking five to six days to reach the islands; it costs $800-$1,500 for a round trip. A list of available ships can be found on the official website:
400 miles off Europe’s north coast
Bjornoya, better known as Bear Island, is the southernmost island in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, 400 miles north of mainland Europe — but only on paper, given that it’s almost 150 miles south of the Norwegian island chainwith which it’s lumped.
It’s been a nature reserve since 2002 and has a lively history of failed occupation — hard to believe for a place of barren cliffs, near-zero precipitation and risk of leaks of radioactive material from the nearby wreck of a nuclear submarine.
Reaching Bear Island: Getting to the heart of Svalbard is a relatively simple matter — there are daily flights from Oslo and Tromso to Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, on the west coast of Spitsbergen.
Now it gets tricky. Research vessels infrequently call on Bear Island (the Norwegian Polar Institute makes an occasional appearance), while individually chartered boats and the occasional adventure cruise (such as this one from Polar Quest) haul in the remaining visitors.

3. Bouvet

1,000 miles from Antarctica
Tristan da Cunha is the remotest inhabited island in the world — now, welcome to its uninhabited, far bleaker counterpart.
Its cliffs are sheer. It’s almost entirely covered by a glacier. In winter, its seas are pack ice.
And its nearest neighbor is Antarctica, 1,000 miles to the south. In short, idyllic.
Reaching Bouvet: The entire island is a nature reserve — so unless you can make a compelling case for visiting, you’ll be blocked by Norwegian authorities.
Get permission, and it’s now a simple matter of finding a research vessel, quickly mastering a valuable skill such as arctic geological surveying or marine biology and then getting someone to land you via helicopter. (There are no ports or harbors.)
If all else fails, try becoming an amateur radio enthusiast: In 1990, a multinational expedition of operators spent 16 days on the island.
30 miles from England
Regarded by Guinness as the world’s smallest island with a building on it, Bishop Rock stands at the end of Britain’s Isles of Scilly, where coastal waters give way to the fury of the Atlantic.
In 1847, engineers started building an iron lighthouse there — and it washed away in a storm. Its extraordinary successor, first lit in 1858, stands to this day.
Reaching Bishop Rock: Visiting the most southwesterly point in Britain is surprisingly easy — the St. Mary’s Boatsmen’s Association runs day trips.
But as Martin Hesp notes, even on a “calm” day you’re in for serious chop.

5. Boreray

60 miles off mainland Scotland
Love the Scottish islands, but want something with a little more bite? Head west of the Outer Hebrides, and you’ll find the archipelago of St. Kilda, 40 miles into the Atlantic.
It’s one of Scotland’s five World Heritage sites, with a main island that was abandoned in the 1930s when crops failed. Imagine the surprise of archaeologists when they found that one of the least hospitable islands, Boreray, was occupied in prehistoric times.
Reaching Boreray: Since Boreray comes under the protection of the National Trust for Scotland, you need its permission to visit.
Then? Lots of time and lots of luck — with a rugged shoreline and savage sea swell, this isn’t an island built for landings.
According to one guide, more people have reached the summit of Everest than have landed at Boreray since the National Trust took ownership in 1957.

6. North Sentinel Island

400 miles from Myanmar
North Sentinel is one of the 572 islands making up the Andaman chain in the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal.
It’s surrounded by dangerous reefs, but North Sentinel is intimidating because of its inhabitants. The Sentinelese want nothing to do with the modern world and have repeatedly rebuffed attempts to make peaceful contact.
Reaching North Sentinel Island: You’re kidding, right? If the above description didn’t put you off, this article about a pair of fishermen who strayed onto the island certainly should.

7. Rockall

270 miles from Ireland
If you think Boreray sounds forbidding, try sailing 187 miles west of it. Rockall is the tip of an extinct volcano reaching 20 meters (about 65 feet) above sea level, in seas with waves recorded as high as 29 meters (95 feet).
In 1955, the British Empire, in its final territorial acquisition, seized Rockall– allegedly due to fears the Soviets would build a missile battery on it.
Reaching Rockall: In the words of the recently minted Rockall Club, “visiting Rockall is difficult, completely weather dependent and not cheap.”
Your best bet is contacting Kilda Cruises and arranging a tailor-made excursion. Or you could sail there, lash yourself to the rock and claim it as your very own micronation — but you wouldn’t be the first.




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Northern Lights: 11 best places to see the aurora borealis

(CNN)A photo of an epic proposal under the Northern Lights went viral this week, proving once again that the shimmering natural phenomenon has the power to make any experience monumental.

They’re unpredictable though, so anyone hoping to catch a glimpse needs to head to aurora hotspots to increase their chances of viewing them.
And keep their fingers crossed.
The regions where you have the most chance of seeing the Northern Lights are at a latitude of 66 to 69 degrees north — a sliver of the world that includes northern Alaska and Canada and bits of Greenland, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia.
“The vast majority of auroras occur in a band known as the Auroral Zone,” says Alistair McLean, founder of a similarly named tour agency — the Aurora Zone — that specializes in Northern Lights trips.
“This band can expand when solar activity is high.”
Before venturing into any of these freezing wildernesses, it’s worth checking out the kp index, a measure of electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere. A reading of two or higher is considered good for Northern Lights spotting.
You can also head south, for the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), lighting up from around March onwards.
Here are some of the places auroras show up.

Jokulsarlon, Iceland


Best spot: A cabin in the Lapland wilderness.
If you need convincing about Muonio‘s stunning northern light displays, check out the Instagram of Antti Pietikainen, an aurora photographer and guide from Muonio.
The village itself isn’t much of a tourist destination.
However, its location in Fell Lapland, the western region of Lapland known for its moor-covered hills, makes Muonio a great stop for exploring the nearby fells including Olos, Levi and Pallas.
The Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park, a skiing and trekking destination, is only a 25-minute drive away and provides a spectacular backdrop for a Northern Lights show.

Southern hemisphere

Best spot: At the end of a continent.
Antarctica’s the best place to view the aurora australis — the Southern Lights — but it’s also the most inaccessible, unless you’re a scientist or a supporting person (cook, doctor, pilot and so on) on a research expedition.
However, you can still see the lights from the southern tips of South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
New Zealand’s Stewart Island (“Rakiura” in Maori, meaning the land of glowing skies) is a good option. It has only 400 inhabitants and is covered with great wildlife and natural scenery.
This story was updated in March 2017



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10 of the last great wildernesses in the world — from Scotland to Australia

Computers, cell phones and Aeron chairs will only get you so far in life.

Great outdoors satisfaction still reigns supreme, especially at this collection of wild spaces, some of the world’s last great wildernesses:

1. Tarkine Rainforest, Tasmania

A rarely visited, ancient and pristine forest wilderness, the Tarkine calls to mind myth and legend.
It’s in the northwest corner of Tasmania and is often referred to as the “forgotten wilderness.”
It’s not entirely that. It’s a wonderland of wild rivers, secret waterfalls, giant tree ferns, rare birds and the near-extinct Tasmanian devil (the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial). Hikers who make it here leave enchanted.
How to do it: Tasmanian Expeditions offers a five-night walk on the Tarkine Rainforest Track, the only multiday rainforest trek of its kind.
You’ll be led by professional guides and spend nights camping in haunting and beautiful surroundings.
U.S. $1,916 per person, excluding flights; +61 (0)3 6331 9000;

2. Knoydart Peninsula, Scotland

Rugged, isolated and beautiful Knoydart Peninsula is often described as Scotland’s last wilderness. Tucked in the Highlands, it’s accessible only by boat or on foot.
The journey is worth the effort: There are exhilarating mountain passes to cross and sandy inlets to explore.
Whether they have soaked in epic sunsets or caught glimpses of the whales, dolphins and porpoises that live in its waters, visitors usually leave feeling spiritually restored.
How to do it: Wilderness Scotland offers extended guided trips.
U.S. $1,712 per person, including seven nights full board in a wilderness lodge, guided daily walks, boat trips to access remote walks and transfers; +44 (0)1479 420 020;

3. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The stunning, lunar-like salt flats in the southwest of Bolivia are the largest in the world, covering 3,860 square miles.
June and July are arguably the best months, when the whole area appears blindingly white. After the rains, the salt “desert” resembles a giant mirror. It is beautifully barren and straight out of sci-fi central casting. You would be hard-pressed to find a more meditative escape.
At more than 11,400 feet above sea level, you’ll need to be able to handle high altitudes.
How to do it: A 10-night Bolivia itinerary taking in the Salar de Uyuni operated by UK-based Sunvil.
U.S. $2,985 per person, including all transport and transfers, mixed-board accommodation in comfortable hotels and all excursions and permits.; +44 (0)20 8758 4774;

4. Sossusvlei, Namibia

Few sights are as nourishing as the apricot-colored dunes at Sossusvlei, in the southern part of the Namib desert.
So much of Namibia is a natural paradise seemingly drawn by eco-genies. Highlights include the white salt pans of Etosha National Park, the stark beaches of Skeleton Coast, the remote, little-visited wilderness of Kaokoland in the northwest and the lush Kunene River.
How to do it: Wilderness Safaris’ Great Namibian Journey is an 11-night adventure that captures the best of this astonishing land.
From U.S. $6,629 per person, including accommodation, all meals, activities and park fees; +27 11 807 1800;
Never heard of it? All the more reason to visit.
The Great Bear might fly under the radar, but this is one of the largest remaining tracks of temperate rainforest left in the world.
Stretching along British Columbia’s island-dotted coastline, its marvels include ancient red cedar cathedrals (some of the trees are more than a thousand years old) and other towering trees, glacier-fed fjords and wooded islands.
Estuaries and rocky beaches are “guarded” by brown and black bears, gray wolves and cougars.
Eagles soar overhead and humpback whales put in an appearance in summer, joining orcas, dolphins and seabirds.
How to do it: Great Bear is remote, so the best way to access it is from the water. Nature Trek offers a seven-night, full-board “Cruising the Great Bear Rainforest” trip, which includes daily shore excursions to explore the forests, estuaries and coastlines on foot.
U.S. $5,752 includes one-night B&B stay in Vancouver and all guiding, excursions and permits, but excludes international flights; +44 (0)1962 733051;
The untamed Outback, wild and beautiful, is arguably nowhere more picturesque than in Kakadu, the largest national park in Australia.
The park’s aboriginal owners have spent centuries amid its rock art, wetlands, gorges and stunning escarpment scenery.
How to do it: Audley Travel offers a seven-night “Top End Explorer” package from U.S. $2,990 per person, excluding flights.
The trip starts in the Northern Territories’ capital of Darwin, where guests are picked up in a hired car and taken to the Outback.
Small group walks and boat trips are among the highlights at various stopping points; +44 (0) 1993 838 800;

7. The Bohusln coast, West Sweden

If you’ve ever fantasized about gliding silently through the water on a kayak, camping on deserted beaches, enjoying the midnight sun, spotting seals and soaking up the spirit of the sea, you’ll find no shortage of experiences here.
This sublime stretch of coastline extends to the border with Norway and is dotted with an archipelago of some 8,000 islands and islets.
How to do it: Nature Travels offers self-guided kayaking adventures around the scenic islands of Orust and Tjorn, a sheltered area on the rocky coast. Maps, drop-offs and pick-ups and induction lesson included.
From U.S. $427 per person for a three-day trip, exclusive of flights; +44 01929 503 080;

8. Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan

The largest nature reserve in Jordan is a protected region about 120 miles to the south of Amman. It’s an Aladdin’s trove of hills, canyons, gorges and deserts, wildlife (including the rarely spotted Nubian Ibex) and plant species.
It’s perfect for hikers, nature lovers and those seeking a slice of serenity.
How to do it: Base yourself at the award-winning Feynan Ecolodge on the western border of the Dana Biosphere Reserve. This is no ordinary guest house: set up by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, it’s entirely solar powered and has won awards for its ethical practices.
You can hike, ride mountain bikes, stargaze, visit Bedouin homes, sip mint tea or unwind in serene courtyards.
Travel the Unknown offers week-long tours, including a four-night stay at the lodge, hikes and bikes.
From U.S. $1,347 per person; +1 347 329 5524;

9. The Isles of Scilly, United Kingdom

For wannabe castaways, little compares with what’s probably the most beautiful spot in the UK, a tranquil sun and windswept archipelago 28 miles off the Cornish coast.
Bryher Island, with a population of around 80 (all trusting locals who leave their doors unlocked) offers coastal walks, sandy coves, wildflower-strewn bays and rocky outcrops for a wind lashing by Atlantic breakers.
Further away from it all still is the uninhabited Samson Island, an easy boat ride away.
How to do it: Isles of Scilly Holidays offers a package that includes half-board at the magical Hell Bay Hotel and accommodation on neighboring island Tresco, as well as helicopter flights from Penzance to Tresco and boat transfers.
U.S. $1,838 per person, based on double occupancy; +44 (0)1720 423 239;

10. Uttarakhand, Himalayas, India

Uttarakhand state forms a part of the Himalayas, but one that’s often overlooked by tourists.
Yet two of India’s greatest rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna originate in the glaciers here.
Glittering peaks and vivid landscapes create an environment that can calm the most unsettled of hearts.
The region is home to some of the holiest of Hindu shrines, rare species of plants and animals and the quixotically named Valley of Flowers National Park.
How to do it: Full local immersion is available at the gentle Dunagiri retreat, an accommodation constructed by villagers with entirely local materials.
From here you can embark on wilderness hikes and treks, village walks, practice yoga, learn to paint a mural with a local artist, take a cookery lesson, meditate, deepen your spiritual practice (or acquire one) and learn about local medicinal herbs.
From U.S. $117 per night based on double occupancy and full-board, including transfers and tours; +44 1924 280808;

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