Sunday, December 29, 2013
I know this one may sound a little nuts, but I've been and it's a great way to spend your New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. There's something magical about the enthusiasm that the Hungarians have for New Year's. It could be that they're still thoroughly enjoying the fact that they are no longer Soviet bound. It could be that they've always been big on looking to the future. It could be that it's just a great excuse to go out and party. I don't know what it is, but Hungary is a great place to celebrate New Year's and Budapest is the zenith of it all.
In Hungary it's called Szilveszteri or Silvester's Name Day. The city of Budapest closes most of it's doors for the day at noon. There are cruises on the river, parties all around town, and fireworks at midnight. There are streets full of people. You can't find a more festive place.
Hungarians look to the future. In the older times, they used to burn a straw character to leave the old year behind them. They go and have their futures told. They eat pork for luck. I once went to a party where they came around just after midnight and had us pull a piggy's tale and make a wish for the new year. They have many traditions and many superstitions, and I loved learning them all. It's one of the best cultural experiences I ever had.
The Chamber Concert at the Danube Palace is probably the most traditional way to spend the evening in Budapest. It's the one thing that the whole city knows about and everyone goes to sometime. However, if you want to go to a party, visit any hotel, any club, half the parks, and the Fisherman's Bastion area of Castle Hill. There are parties all over the place. Just make sure you're in sight of the river skies at midnight to enjoy all the fireworks. They are spectacular.
The Hungarians celebrate Szilveszteri everywhere. They even have a bash at the Szechenyi Baths. There's pretty much no place that you can go that is not celebrating this magical night.
The great thing about Budapest is that it is a great place to visit on a regular day. Castle Hill alone is worth the trip. Cruising along the Danube is one of the greatest experiences you'll have in a city in your life. Budapest is a wonderful amazing place full of secret caves from WWII, gypsy fortune tellers, and amazing architecture and beautiful views in general. The Hungarian people are friendly and love to meet new people. And if you've never had a traditional Hungarian Goulash, you need to make a stop in this city.
I'll take more time to talk about Budapest in the future, but I didn't want to miss out on making a great New Year's recommendation. Been there, done that. Trust me, it's a great time that you'll never forget.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Here's one that I love for a last comment on Christmas for my season. The Pink Pig is a beloved tradition in Atlanta. In the parking lot at Lenox Square Mall is the Pink Pig that zooms around in a tent for all the kids to enjoy.
The Pink Pig Monorail was the first creation. It was created in 1953 and was the ride of choice for a long time. The monorail has now been retired, but it will never be forgotten. It's cars are inside the tent for everyone to remember times of old by.
Now, why on Earth would anyone come up with a pink pig monorail for Christmas? Who did this and why? Well, the Pink Pig is the brainchild of Macy's, and they've been a proud sponsor of the Pink Pig since it's inception.
The Pink Pig has become one of the most popular holiday activities in Atlanta. It runs from Thanksgiving to just after New Year's. The best part is that a part of the proceeds are donated to Children'd Healthcare of Atlanta. The proceeds have always been donated to the area's children's hospital and other pediatric facilities. That's right folks, it's all for the kids.
Most traditions for Christmas have to do with Santa, elves, or religious events. This is something truly original, and something that anyone would love. It's for a great cause. Kids are always worthy of our generosity. Christmas is a time of giving, and this is a great way to give and give back.
I work for Walmart, and we donate money to the Children's Miracle Network, which supports Children's hospitals all over the country. No matter what anyone has ever said about Walmart, they support the kids, and that's a great thing. It's that time of year when we are bombarded with charities, as is mentioned in the hilarious song, "The Twelve Pains of Christmas." So, after you've encountered the Salvation Army bell ringing people, the Toys for Tots people, the local police toy drive, the food drives at all the grocery stores, and everyone else that is asking for money this season; think it over. Take your kids out for a really good time and also support a wonderful cause.
As usual, there are trinkets that you can buy to remember your visit. There are buttons and all kinds of stuff that say "I rode the Pink Pig." It is a full blown tourist like attraction. Just remember, it's all about the kids and it's all about Christmas. It's a unique tradition that has a history of doing a world of good for children.
We all end up at the mall during the Christmas rush. There's no avoiding it, no matter how hard we try. Why not come on down to Lenox Square, start a family tradition, and have a little fun while you muddle through the Christmas Shopping.
Merry Christmas! Enjoy!
Monday, December 9, 2013
If you've ever wanted to get away for Christmas instead of hanging out with boring old family, then I have a spot for you. It's not cold, and it's not snowy. You won't see any evergreen trees. You also may not have a clue where Santa is coming from.
Melbourne, Australia is home to some of the most festive Christmas celebrations around the globe. Sure, Santa may be surfing instead of flying a sleigh with reindeer, but it's the amazing Christmas Festival that makes it great. There are amazing light displays all over town, and you can get a map so you can find them all. That's a convenience that I'm not used to. We normally have to drive around the get lucky to see the really good ones.
The big difference between Christmas here in the states and Christmas in Australia is the fact that winter is summer down under. The kids are on their school break like our kids are in the summer time. It's really hot there and people are spending their time at the beach and having barbecues. As a matter of fact, there is a new and different character symbolizing Christmas that is kind of catching on. They call him Swag Man. Now, my understanding of Swag Man is that he dresses for summer, drives a 4 wheel drive truck with his dingoes so that he can get around the outback. I don't know if it will catch on or take over. I think Santa is still safe.
It is somewhat custom to gather at the beach and have a seafood barbecue for Christmas. It's hot that time of year in Australia, and it's a great way to gather family, friends and whatever for the holiday. Imagine swimming and surfing for Christmas? Don't forget to bring a tree, but it probably won't be real, because it's just not customary. There also probably aren't a lot of evergreen trees in most parts of the country.
Now, let's revisit the lights. Melbourne has a light display custom designed to show on their town hall. It's a changing projection that is fascinating to watch. It's the coolest light display I've ever seen. The Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas pales in comparison to this one. It's all Christmas, with animals, and animation. It's a real treat.
The City Square is transformed into Christmas Square. It's guarded by nutcracker soldiers, has a maze in it, and you can visit Santa in this neighborhood as well. You may get a chance to see a Christmas Bush, Australia's second cousin to the Holly Bush. There are so many festive things to see and do in the city at Christmas time. It's not all about the shopping.
So, the lights are great. Santa comes on a surfboard. Many people celebrate with an outdoor barbecue of seafood. There's tons of shopping and Christmas trees. People take their kids to see Santa. There are parades to welcome in the holiday. There are many similarities, but there are many differences. I mean Swag Man is a little different, but definitely Aussie.
Here's one. It's called the Mistletoe Bridge. It's also called the Kissing Bridge. It's only called that at Christmas, but it's a very romantic place to give your sweetie a kiss. Kissing under the mistletoe is a romantic tradition around the world. In Melbourne, they've found the perfect site to put it in.
Here's the adventure for you. It's called Carols by Candlelight, and it takes place yearly at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl. Thousands of people come to this event to sing Christmas Carols and enjoy the holiday. It's a huge event every year. People come from all over the country and all over the world to see and participate in this fabulous show. Some of Australia's most noted singers perform on stage.
So, if you've had enough of ice and snow for Christmas and want to do something different without losing the holiday altogether, Melbourne is something really different, yet traditional. You can pick up all your relatives like in Home Alone, or you can run like the wind to get away from them. If you want something really different for your holiday, and you've had enough of your own family tradition, make a new one in Melbourne, Australia. It's an experience you'll never forget.
Friday, December 6, 2013
It's not often that real news touches me in a way that makes me write about it in this blog. This blog is about travel, and Lord knows that Nelson Mandela stands for way more than that. It's just that the conversion of South Africa from Apartheid to a far more free country happened within my lifetime, with the culmination of events happening at the dawn of the years when I was really paying attention. My life has been touched by music and television as anyone of my generation. We saw the birth of cable TV and MTV. We were the generation that began watching CNN so we were able to see the Berlin Wall come down. We were the generation that watched the Artists United Against Apartheid on MTV performing the song "Sun City."
I remember seeing Nelson Mandela make his first public appearance after his release from Robben Island Prison. I remember watching clips of his meetings with President F. W. DeKlerk. I remember watching him become the President of South Africa. Those are some amazing memories that you don't get to have many times in one lifetime.
Younger generations are growing up with the view of South Africa of a beautiful place with exotic wild animals that you can see on safari, gorgeous coastlines, towering mountains, Tabletop Mountain, Johannesburg, and so many other attractions. That's the way it should be. I'm glad that South Africa has left behind it's violent and racist past to become a premier destination for the exotic traveler. Sometimes I'm very glad to see the world change.
There are so many things to see in South Africa. The idea that the place was tainted with the legalized racism that was Apartheid seems all but nonsense in this day and age. With the passing of Nelson Mandela, I hope that there will be enough talk about all of the pain, suffering and sacrifice that made the place what it is today.
I will take some time now, and use this blog for what it was designed, and talk about some things that you should see if you go to South Africa. The first place that comes to mind is Robben Island. This island that lies with a view of Tabletop Mountain right off the coast has been many things over the years. It's been a hospital for people suffering from things that the masses didn't want to spread. It was used as a training defense station in World War II. Once the National Party created Apartheid, which legalized what was already going on in the country, it became a prison, and several oppositionists were housed there for a very long time. We all know that Nelson Mandela was housed there for 27 years.
Today Robben Island is open to the public. Never forget. That's the motto of this place, and well it should be. Nelson Mandela changed the world by staying there. He won. His protests worked. How many single men can we remember who changed the world without violence? I think we can all count that number on one hand. There are many things to see at Robben Island, and you will have the chance to talk to former inmates about their time in the prison, because they are the tour guides. It's a unique experience where you really learn something.
Robben Island is a half hour ferry ride from the cape. That gives it an Alcatraz effect. You can sit in the cell that Nelson Mandela lived in. You can feel the history of a divided nation coursing through your soul. I believe that we should all try and understand someone so dedicated. The resolve of Nelson Mandela is something that I can't fathom.
The Apartheid system was regarded as hostile and unjust by everyone the world over. I remember watching "The American President" with Michael Douglas as the President. I remember a line that he said in this post Apartheid movie. He said, "A system of government that so many people were against that it doesn't exist anymore." It said it all. "Sun City" was the song that brought the true sense of the conflict to the young people in America. It made many kids check into the whole thing and find out what was really going on. I didn't fully understand the scope of Apartheid until I read "Kaffir Boy", by Mark Mathabane.
Sun City was created as a luxury resort where white South Africans and others could go and bask in their own glory. There was gambling and strip clubs which were illegal in the rest of the country. The South Africans called the area Boputhuswana. It was cited by others around the world as a place where the South Africans could practice illegal activities without penalty. It was the Las Vegas of South Africa. Today the stigma has lifted and Sun City is one of the premier resorts for people from all over the world. It has massive hotels, great golf courses, Vegas style casinos, and of course the Sun City Superbowl which has headline entertainment.
The world has changed and South Africa has changed immensely. I did want to mention these two spots for your travel bucket list, because they were so tied to the fight that the world had with the white South Africans and Apartheid. With the victory of Nelson Mandela came a whole new country. In one lifetime, most of us don't get to see something like that happen. Thank you Nelson Mandela for making the amazingly beautiful country of South Africa more beautiful and far more accessible. Thank you for making us all believe that change is possible. Thank you for never giving up on your dream.
Come to Sun City, Robben Island, and the rest of this amazing country from Johannesburg, to the Drakensburg Mountains, to Tabletop Mountain, to Kruger National Park, to the Cape of Good Hope itself and see what makes this country worth fighting against the machine to protect.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
In every picture I've ever seen, it looks like a wonderful boat trip under the stars, but it's not. Waitomo is a cave wonderland just outside Rotura, New Zealand, and the reason that the boat ride through it seems to be under the stars is because of the glow worms.
Thousands of the tiny glow worms live in these caves. The caves were discovered well over 100 years ago, and are the largest concentration of these creatures in the world. It is so unique that it was featured on the show, "Planet Earth." The caves are completely lighted by the glow worms and it takes about 20 minutes to adjust to their light for the average visitor. Both the walking and the boat tours are something that you will never forget.
The Spellbound Gloworm Cave and the Cave of the Spirit are the two caves featured on these tours. There are several companies that run tours out of Rotura, and most of them are good. So, any tour you book is probably a fun one. The tours can take up to three hours, and give you a great chance to see these mystical little creatures in all their glory. Now, if you're already a cavern enthusiast, there are all the stalactites and stalagmites that you would normally see in a cave system, so you won't be disappointed on either front.
Now, if Waitomo Caves isn't enough subterranean fun for you, then right in the area is something that you won't want to miss. Ruakuri Cave is the longest underground tour in the country, and it was just reopened in 2005 after some major renovations for the clients' safety and convenience. There is one of the longest entry ramps in the world in this place now, and it is wheelchair accessible. That's always a plus.
Ruakuri has it all. This place has fascinating formations, enormous caverns, winding passageways, colorful stone, and waterfalls. That's right, there are subterranean waterfalls in this one. That's always a plus for me. It takes around two hours just to tour this one cavern area. That's a big one.
Here's a great side spot. There are bridges over crevices in this cave. They are over the Huhunui River, which is a water rafting site. That's right, you can go water rafting right through the cave. Try that in a lot of other places.
Now, the caves are the draw in this particular area, but there is a Ruakuri Bushwalk too, and it's a beautiful walk. Once again, you will be crossing little river bridges, giving you yet another chance to see the adventurers below. This gives you a nice experience with rain forest and is a great walk if the 1.6 kilometers in Ruakuri wasn't quite enough for you.
If you're still looking for adventure, there's Aranui Cave. It's cavernous and beautiful like the others, but a little smaller than the rest of the group. For the avid cave adventurer, it does round out the trip quite nicely.
For the true adventurer, there is a trip with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company. They have several different spelunking and black water rafting trips through these caves. It's a one of a kind experience to go into a cave to go rafting, and it's well worth the money that they charge. It's not something that's only for the experienced adrenaline junkie. It's an adventure for anyone.
So, whether it's Southern Edge, Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, or someone else that you decided to hook up with, the adventure of the Waitomo Caves System is great. It's an adventure for anyone, by any standards with the wheelchair accessibility, and the expert guides for water rafting. There are several caves to see and even a rainforest walk. It's hard to beat.
Oh yeah, it's on the north island close to Hobbiton, so if you love the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings movies, you're in the right neighborhood.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
It's that time again. It's that time when most of us are going over the river and through the woods to gramother's house for Thanksgiving. It's that time of year that the retail world has turned into a total fiasco so that Walmart, Target, and Kmart can have a war over who will get the most sales for the Christmas rush known as Black Friday.
As a veteran of the retail world, I would just like to say that for once Walmart is not responsible for the war that took Black Friday now into Thanksgiving evening. Walmart did not start the opening of retail stores on Thanksgiving. That was started by the whiners who are now complaining about being open for 41 straight hours over at Kmart. Some years ago, while the Walmart folks were on their way to their families house to have turkey, they noticed that Kmart had opened it's doors from noon until 8 pm. So, all you whiners over at Kmart can suck it up and go to work like all of us other retailers, because you started the ball rolling. You have no one but yourselves to blame.
For anyone else who is whining about the current state of affairs in the shopping world at Thanksgiving, you can blame Target for the sales bumping up to Thanksgiving night. Target took the idea of being open on Thanksgiving and decided to head start everyone with a midnight sale. The rest just followed suit. Don't blame the obvious life sucking Walmart for all the holiday woes. Take a look at the history folks. It is what it is. Now we all shop at 6 pm on Thanksgiving and miss that last football game. Gone are the days of seeing a great episode of Punkin' Chunkin' or the Peanuts Thanksgiving Special. It is what it is, so let's move on to other parts of Thanksgiving as it is still one of America's most beloved family holidays.
So, speaking of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts special, I wanted to talk about some really amazing things to do on Thanksgiving. The Macy's Day Parade is the most famous of all the Thanksgiving Parades in the country. There are about three million people who go to see the parade each year in New York City, and it's a great time. The thing is, you don't have to go this one alone. There are tour companies out there that love to set you up for a great time in the Big Apple over the holiday. They also include fabulous hotels, and a trip to Radio City Music Hall in most of the standard tours. Take the time and have a ball in New York on Thanksgiving.
If you want a traditional style Thanksgiving, Plymouth, MA has it all. They have the Plimouth Plantation's traditional Thanksgiving for the meal and the history and everything. They also have a fabulous parade and all the fixins for a great day.
St. Louis, MO is the location of another of the country's favorite parades. This town gets all decked out to welcome Santa to town for the holiday season. St. Louis has tons of stuff planned for the visitor between Thanksgiving and Christmas and is one of the most festive locations in the country.
Hello Houston, TX and one of the most popular parades in the country. The Thanksgiving Day Parade in Houston is labeled the H E B Thanksgiving Day Parade, just in case you're trying to look it up. Now, Houston has tons of holiday stuff, plus it has one thing that most of the other popular destinations don't have. It's not as cold there. It's a great place to go if you want to get out of the cold for the holidays.
It's got it all, even the balloons. It's the McDonald's Chicago Thanksgiving Day Parade. Thousands upon Thousands of people line the streets of downtown Chicago for this event, and they are never disappointed. It's a great family treat.
Charlotte, NC is more of a holiday parade than a Thanksgiving one. It takes place around Thanksgiving instead of on it, so you get a little time with the family. The Carousel Parade is a tradition in the Carolinas and is also a supplier of scholarships for students in those states. So, a lot of fun and a purpose too.
That's right, Detroit, MI. These poor folks have seen their beautiful and bustling city crumble virtually to it's foundations, but that does not keep them from loading up and going out to celebrate Thanksgiving. America's Thanksgiving Parade is a huge event, with visitors from all over coming to take in the splendor that is downtown Detroit. We all should take a trip out that way and show those folks some support. They've had it tough lately. Besides, Thanksgiving is football day in Detroit with the Lions hosting a game there every single Thanksgiving.
And last but not least, Philidelphia, PA. It's the oldest and one of the grandest of all the Thanksgiving Day Parades. Hundreds of Thousands of people come out for this one. It's got it all, and of course it has Santa at the end. It's a great time for the family, and can be combined with a trip full of culture and history as well. This great City of Brotherly Love was once the seat of government in this country and it's a great place to spend some quality time.
So, those are the parades. They are spectacular and fun for everyone. It's a great way to spend the holiday if you don't have relatives waiting for you through the woods.
Just one more little thing to add. In San Francisco and New York, there are dinner cruises for Thanksgiving. This is a scenic way to spend your Thanksgiving Dinner. It's worth a look. It makes a great holiday even more memorable.
So, enjoy your Thanksgiving. Most of us will be eating some turkey and running off to work nowadays, but if you don't have to do all of that, there are some fabulous options to be explored.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
I'm writing this, because I've been all over, and I've seen a lot of things. I like Europe. That's a fact. I like mountains. I like small towns. I like a good view. This entry is about the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Alps in Switzerland. This is the most beautiful place on Earth. You may want to contact me and tell me how wrong I am. If you haven't been there, then you might be wrong. The above picture is the view that I got to wake up to every morning from Hotel Staubbach where we stayed while we were inside of this amazing postcard.
This is the town of Lauterbrunnen. The name means many fountains, which is accurate. All it has to do is sprinkle, and there are dozens of ephemeral waterfalls all up and down the valley. Even when it's dry there are three notable waterfalls in the valley. There is the falls by the gondola that goes to Gimmelwald and the Schilthorn. There is Staubbach Falls, which is the glory of the town of Lauterbrunnen. Then there is Trummelbach Falls.
Trummelbach Falls is a marvel. It starts hundreds of meters up inside the cliff that borders the valley. It's a tourist attraction and has been made so that people can get a good look at all of it. When you arrive, you go up inside the cliff on a lift. When you get out, you are almost at the top of the falls. You walk up a little bit, inside of the mountain. Then you start seeing all the amazing sections of this raging waterfall. The upper half is inside of the mountain. The lower half you can see from the outside. There are nice safe steps and railings everywhere, so it's family friendly. It is a beautiful waterfall, and for 10 chf per person it's a bargain.
So, the view is great. But there are several other things going on around Lauterbrunnen. For example, I've written about going up the Schilthorn and seeing the views, walking through Murren, and playing around in James Bond World. It's a great day trip while you're there. The thing that amazed me was that there were so many little towns in that valley. Most of them were up on the edges of the cliffs.
Kleine Scheidegg is that halfway point on the cog railway ride up to the top of the 12,000 foot high Jungfrau. I'll write another entry to cover that. This place should be deserted most of the year, but it's not. It's a fully functioning town with restaurants, stores and hotels. It's also a popular spot with the ski crews in the winter months, because there are a few resorts up there at around 8,000 feet. It is the only way to the top of the mountain, so they always have people buzzing through and around this tiny little upper Alpine village.
Another one of these amazing towns is Wengen. It is the first stop on the way to Jungfraujoch, and it is a very popular tourist destination. It's a fully functioning town with no vehicles, save for a couple of utility vehicles that never leave this beautiful little village. There are hotels, stores, restaurants and all kinds of tourist things all over this little burg to keep the locals and the tourists occupied. The people who actually live in this tiny town, keep there cars in garages at the train stations in Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen.
On the opposite side of the valley we have the town of Murren, and it's claim to fame as being the birthplace of Alpine skiing. Is it? Who knows, but it is an extremely popular winter spot with skiers and other winter enthusiasts. This place also has some of the best views I've ever seen. It hangs over the valley in just the right place to get the best views of all that the valley has to offer. Once again, there are only a couple of vehicles floating around this town, so the only way there is by gondola on this side of the valley. The Wengen side has trains and the Murren side has gondolas. They all operate on a Swiss rail pass, so it's good.
A short walk or a short gondola ride from Murren is Gimmelwald. Once again the town is tiny, the view is amazing, there are no real vehicles. There are farms in Gimmelwald. There are cows and goats and fields of grass for the animals. There was even a field of what looked like potatoes up there. This is also the place for anyone who wants to para sail. These guys pack up there chutes, take their Swiss Pass and catch the gondola in Stechelberg, and jump right off the cliff by Gimmelwald. I said that it rained people in that valley, because there was always someone para sailing off of that cliff.
Here's the one that no one will tell you about. This is Isenfluh. This place is on the other end of Lauterbrunnen straight up a cliff. There is a separate gondola on that end of town that will take you up the cliff to this tiny village. There are also walking paths that can take you all the way to Murren and Gimmelwald on the other end of the cliff. But Isenfluh is different. There is a road up there and you can drive there. You have to go through a windy long tunnel that takes you up inside the cliff, but it's up there and it's beautiful. They have all the great views of the valley, hotels, restaurants, stores and cars. It's the best of it all.
But what's the allure of Lauterbrunnen? Maybe it's the grand old Hotel Staubbach that we stayed in.
Maybe it's the fact that everything is small town and beautiful, even the cemetery.
Maybe it's the quiet of the town, or the restaurants with their great food, or the shops where you can buy just about anything, or the local attractions that are all a must see, or the way that they even wish you well when you leave. The place and mostly the people are something that you won't encounter anywhere else. I met a woman named Katrin. She worked at our hotel and she was one of the most amazing people I had ever met. She was from Estonia, and she decided that she never wanted to leave this valley after she'd visited. Now she lives there and she loves it. People from all over the world visit this place whether they wish to hike, ski, jump off a cliff, or just look at the amazing views that are the valley and the mountains around. I would have liked to have stayed longer. I could have stayed forever. Lauterbrunnen is the most beautiful place in the world, and everyone should not only see it, but experience it. I don't recommend many places with this energy. I don't tell many of my favorites at all.