Thursday, April 25, 2013

There's Some Little Things That Make Ocho Rios Worth Checking Out

Every fool in the universe knows that Jamaica is a beautiful spot in the world.  Everyone knows that the beaches are beautiful, the music is Reggae, and the food is excellent.  It is the quintessential Caribbean vacation.  We know that.  What don't we know?  That is the question.
I turn to the north side of the Island, to the area of Ocho Rios.  This is a beautiful area, complete with awesome beaches and great water activities, but there's more here than the norm.

Dunn's River Falls is one of the best known spots in the Ocho Rios area.  It's beautiful.  Everyone should stop there, because not only can you view it, photograph it, and swim in it; It's a great place to do some climbing up the rocks.  It's a unique experience, because it's not every waterfall that you can climb.  It's a beautiful place and should be on your list.

Not far away, we get into more off the beaten path attractions.  Discovery Bay isn't far from Ocho Rios.  It's in St. Ann, and it's more than just a bay with beaches and such.  This is where many locals will argue that Columbus first made landfall on this island.  There is a new park there, called Columbus Park that's full of artifacts from the time period.  They even have cannons.  Who doesn't love cannons?  Most things are out in the open where you can touch them and get a real idea of what they were.  Did Columbus really land there first?  Who knows, but it's a great little park, and since it's right on the bay, there are still great views.

Another little gem will be found just outside of Montego Bay.  They have a local Rastafari Indigenous Village that is open to the public for tours.  If you've ever wondered what the Rastafari were about, and believed that it had to have more to it than smoking pot and growing dreadlocks, then you should take the time to stop by.  They will guide you to their village, show you their lifestyle, take you to their farm and herb garden, introduce you to their music, tell you about their beliefs of how to make the world a better place, and cook their food for you.  They also have hand made arts and crafts to sell, and in general, give you a view into their world.  It's something that you won't get to do anywhere else, and it's a window to another world for anyone to look through.  It's a great experience with good food and music, and time spent with a colorful people that you won't soon forget.
Now, the village is one aspect, Columbus Park is another.  It exemplifies the diversity of this small island nation within a few miles.  Now, if you're looking for more traditional Jamaican experiences, there's always the beach.  On the other side of the island you can visit plantations and see where the pirates used to come ashore at Port Royal.  It's a beautiful island with resorts and beaches and cities and mountains.  It's something that you won't soon forget.

But, I think that bamboo rafting on the Martha Brae River is one of the most unique things that I could have hoped to see in Jamaica.  This is one of those rare experiences that everyone should make sure they get to before the leave Jamaica.
This three mile trip is normally a romantic interlude, but anyone can enjoy it.  Many Celebrities have enjoyed this trip from Queen Elizabeth II to Johnny Cash.  It only lasts about an hour, but it's so memorable.  From the moment you start at Rafter's Village where you can enjoy snacks, souvenirs and a full service bar, you will love the experience.  It's like the Jamaican gondola experience, complete with legends.
The Martha Brae legend tells of a witch who outwitted the Spanish in their search for gold.  It's a great tale, and you shouldn't miss it.  The story of how the witch pretended to take the Spaniards to where the gold was in a cave up the river, and left them there to drown.  It's quite something, but the guides will tell the story way better than me.
There are so many things to do in Jamaica.  It's not a sedentary vacation.  You can go white water rafting, zip lining, ATV riding and so much more.  You can go on a pirate cruise, you can visit Margaritaville.  It's all great.
But, when on the north side of the island, take a little time to try out the less obvious.  Check out where Columbus may have first landed.  See what it's like to be a Rastafarian.  And don't miss out on the legend of the Martha Brae and the bamboo rafting experience.  It's a great way to enjoy a wonderful island nation, and it's a great way to get out of the resort hotel for just a little while and see more than just the seafood buffet.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Where Else but Masada, Does the Desert Look Like This?

There are so many things to see and do in Israel that it could take a lifetime to see and do it all.  It's amazing that there is so much history both of the world and of religion in one tiny slice of real estate.  Nearly all of the world's major religions have deep and profound connections to this tiny country.  There are forever disputes over who has the rights to what parcel of land in this region.  There is a lot to learn about this amazing place.
Now, I suppose that it would make sense to visit Jerusalem.  Possibly Nazareth, Galilee, and Bethlehem too.  But that will be a lesson in some history and a whole lot of religious doctrine, so I thought that it would be fun to suggest looking into something a little off the beaten path.
It's called the fortress of Masada.  This is one of King Herod's monuments to paranoia and a showcase to his opulent wealth.  It comes with a whole lot of history too.

1. Small bathhouse
2. Herod's palace-villa
3. Storerooms
4. Apartment building
5. Snake-path gate
6. Casemate-wall
7. Zealots' living quarters
8. Underground cistern
9. Southern bastion
10. western palace
11. Throne room
12. West gate
13. Synagogue
14. Large bathhouse
Masada, or citadel, which is pretty much what the word actually means, was a massive fortress built just before the time of Christ, by King Herod.  It was one of seven massive fortresses that he had built throughout his kingdom.  It was a combination of preparation to be under siege, and a show of his power and wealth.  He had Roman baths, which were controversial in the area at the time, huge storerooms to stash supplies in, and an opulent palace-villa where he lived.  It was an imposing fortress that covered the top of the plateau 1,200 feet above the desert floor, overlooking the Dead Sea.  There were several sections to the fortress which made it a self contained entity, that could survive a long time under siege.

Everything was taken into consideration.  There were towers where they raised and housed pigeons for food.

They had deep caverns to hold collected rainwater to drink.
The whole place is amazing, and it's well worth a look.  The guides are very knowledgeable and will tell you all of the amazing history of the place.  Herod was prepared for his fate.  But no one could have seen what was coming years later.
In 66 CE a group of Jewish religious Zealots, as they have been called, took refuge in the old fortress to escape the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans.  They had plenty of stored preserved food left over from Herod's time, and thought that they would be fine living there.  The problem being that a few years later, the second temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Roman's decided that it was also time to deal with Masada.
The Romans descended upon the fortress where the resistance was holed up, and prepared to enter the citadel.  Going against Jewish law, the occupants staged a mass murder/suicide to avoid being captured by the Romans.  Only a woman and five children were found alive, which is quite possibly why the story is still known today.
Now, the fortress is here for our viewing and education.  It is a place that is steeped in history and teaches us a valuable chapter in Israel's history.

Now, we know a little about the history.  What about actually going there?  Well, it's best to not go in the middle of summer or in the dead of winter.  The summer brings about such heat that they will not let you walk the paths to the fortress unless you go early in the morning.  In the winter they don't have the beautiful light show at night that goes with the historical performances in the amphitheater.  So, pick your poison there.  Also, do not be concerned if you can't make the 15-20 minute walk from one side or the hour long hike from the other.  There is a cable car to help you along the way.  There is a lot of ground to cover within the fortress itself, so there will still be walking to do.  I always say bring water.  This is the desert.  bring a hat for the sun too.  There is a gift shop where you can get a drink if you don't have enough.
Now, I did mention that Masada overlooks the Dead Sea, right?  Well, that's the other part of this one.

After wearing yourself out climbing around Masada, it's time to take a dip in the world's most salt concentrated body of water.  This baby has a higher saline concentration that the Great Salt Lake in Utah.  And here's the catch.
The Dead Sea is known for it's therapeutic effect on people.  It's a well known belief that salt helps many ailments, and this water is full of it.  People come to soak in this water because they want to feel better.  They want to ache less.  People come here and rub the black mud from the area all over their bodies, because the minerals in this earth are healing and make people feel better.  It's not unusual to see people covered in black mud around this sea.  It's what they come here for.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth, coming in at 417 feet below sea level.  The Jordan River empties into it, but so slowly that the salt collects faster than the water,  thus the high salt content.  There are no fish or other living creatures in this sea.  One end of it is an industrial collecting grounds for the salt.

One of the most endearing qualities of the Dead Sea is that anyone can just float around in it.  The high salt content makes us humans way more buoyant.  Most people lay in the water and read or watch the world go by.  It's a truly unique experience.
So, even though the Middle East is never the most placid and stable place in the world, they have so much to offer that it would be a shame to take it off your bucket list because of terrorists.  Take a chance and come to the desert world of Masada and the Dead Sea.

While you're there, if you like a lot of hiking and climbing, check out Qumran and the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls too.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Barrancas de Cobre...Welcome to Mexico's Canyons

One of the reasons that I travel is for the view.  Give me a great view, and I'm good.  Canyons provide some of the best views in the world.  Most of us have heard so much about the Grand Canyon and the Rift Valley that we sometimes overlook some other amazing canyons and gorges in the world.  There are websites totally devoted to those of us who love canyons.

Now, most of us perceive canyon travel to be rustic at best.  We see it as a lot of hiking, burros are involved, we have to drag along tons of water, and it's probably desert terrain and very hot.
Well, I have one that in many ways is different.  Copper Canyon, Mexico in the Chihuahua region is not your typical canyon.  It's six canyons, and if you think that you've seen it all because you were visiting it's neighbor up north in Arizona, then you are sorely mistaken.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, there are people living in the canyon besides the local native tribes people.  There are towns in there with people living, working and taking care of the tourists.  It's not several miles on foot with burros to the bottom to see a ranch.  This place has roads, although some of them are quite rudimentary.  There are cable car rides and driving routes here as well as the extensive horseback and hiking options.  There are natives here that have foregone the technological outside world and still live off the land in the area.  They are called the Tarahumara People or the Raramuri, and they have lived in the canyons for centuries.  They move about a bit, living in small cabins in the warmer months and in caves in the cooler months.  They don't really have any interest in interacting with the tourists, so if you get a chance, and find one of the tribespeople who want to meet you, don't blow it.  It's not every day that these locals find someone that they wish to interact with.

The views are amazing, and there's things there that literally have just come to the attention of the outsiders of the canyons.  For instance, there's a new waterfall.  It's not new, but it's new to all of us.  Discovered in 1996, Piedra Volada Falls are the highest in Mexico and eleventh highest in the world.  They are somewhere around 1,500 feet high in the wetter seasons.  In the dry seasons there are no falls there at all.  But, when they are running, it's spectacular.
And there are more falls in the canyons.  There are several extremely high waterfalls, as well as small and beautiful cascades.  When we think of Mexico, so often we think only of the hot arid dessert.  These mountains are full of beautiful rivers, streams, waterfalls, lakes, and hot springs.
 Recohuata Hot Springs in Canyon Mexico
Recohuata Hot Springs are only about 13 miles from Creel, a larger hub town in the area.  The springs are actually too hot for humans, but the area to get into them is a little ways down where the water from the local streams come in.  It's a wonderful place to spend a little time and just relax.
And if you like to relax while on vacation, there is the lovely Mirador Hotel which sits on the edge of the highest part of the canyon--about 8,000 feet--and is luxurious as well as having an excellent view.

There are many things to see and do in the canyons of Copper Canyon.  There are ruins from the times of the Conquistadors.  There are paintings from prehistoric times.  There are local arts and crafts, and sports activities to explore and learn about.  There are boat rides and even cable car rides within the area of this magnificent parkland.
Now, once you've taken a look around at what you wish to see, whether it's waterfalls, ruins, local people, caves, rock formations or whatever;  there is one thing that you absolutely must do.
You must check out ChePe.  That is one of the most amazing trains and train rides in the world.  This train route took almost 100 years to complete.  It only opened in the 1960's  It goes from sea level to 8,000 feet in elevation, and has some of the most stunning scenery viewable anywhere.  It has 39 bridges and 86 tunnels on it's route and runs some 390 miles.  It's a four hour ride, unless you get off to explore which is perfectly fine.  It's completely unforgettable.  This is that thing.  This is that activity that anyone can do.  This is that thing that makes anyone able to have an adventure here.
You don't have to rappel down a cliff, although you can.  You don't have to hike for miles to remote spots to see the sights, although you can.  You don't have to ride horses or use burros to camp out in the remoteness, although you can.  You can enjoy this area just by taking a trip on this train.  It stops in all the best places, so that you can meet the Raramuri, see the waterfalls, have amazing views, and shop for the local crafts.  It's an amazing way to see an amazing place.  This is one of those off the charts kind of places.  It's not the Grand Canyon, therefore it's not crowded like the Grand Canyon.

Come see something spectacular.  Meet some amazing people who still live in their traditional lifestyle.  Come see the wildlife, the waterfalls, the rock formations, and for goodness sake; ride the train.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

If You Need Something for Everyone, but Want Someting Unusual...Come to Pigeon Forge and Area

I thought is was about time that I came back to the U.S.  I do live here.  I just prefer to do my traveling in the warmer months.  I mean, you can go to Disney in the winter and take a cruise in the South and whatever, but that isn't the kind of thing that I look for.  Been there, done that.
I've always been an advocate of the something for everyone style vacation.  If you have a family, you know how hard it is to make everyone happy.  That's why I've picked out Pigeon Forge and the surrounding area.  This is one of those places.  You get the culture which is almost pure country and southern.  You get a lot of history, including a museum of the Titanic.  This is not something that I expected to see in Tennessee.
The Titanic Museum is a hands on experience.  You get a ticket that looks just like the ones that the passengers of the ill feted ship had to board.  You get to see a replica of the grand staircase and other areas of the ship.  You get to feel ice and ice water to experience what it was like for the victims.  You also get to see things that were recovered from the ship.  It's a unique museum, and it sits in Eastern Tennessee.

The most famous thing about Pigeon Forge is Dolly Parton and her Smokey Mountain theme park, Dollywood.  This place is one of those wonderful spots that has all the action of thrill rides and water parks, but is in a beautiful setting.  It's not Disney, but it's really cool.  Not to mention, if you get there on opening day, which is tomorrow, you might just get to see Dolly, herself.  She goes to every opening day in person, to greet the new season's visitors.  Dollywood's creators add new attractions every year and try to keep the park at one with it's surroundings, so you won't see the normal gaudy displays that you see at other amusement parks.  You'll still see beautiful woodland buildings and lots of gardens.
In Pigeon Forge, you can stop by the old mill and buy tickets to any of the shows in town.  You can see just about anything.  They have magic, comedy, murder mystery, gospel, country, bluegrass, dinner show, and even the Hatfields and McCoys.  That's right, there's a Hatfields and McCoys Dinner Theater.  It's a comedy show that includes the feud, and some really great fried chicken and pulled pork.  So, if you have a family that's hard to please, pick out a show.  There has to be something that everyone can agree on.

Oh yeah, if the Hatfields and McCoys feud isn't enough thrill for you, you could always check out the Feuding Lumberjack show.

Then there's Wonderworks.  It's a little unusual.  It's one of the best interactive children's museums I've ever seen.  This place has climbing walls, virtual rides, and the place is upside down.  You can't dislike that.  Kids get to make giant bubbles, sit in space capsules, try on space suits, and lie down on a bed of nails.  There are many things inside this place to keep everyone busy from simulated earthquakes to laser tag.  It's a lot of fun and a lot of activity for children.

If you get tired of Pigeon Forge and Dollywood, even though I can't imagine how, there's always Gatlinburg right up the road.  This is a picturesque laid back area where you can concentrate on shopping for the local crafts, and plenty of restaurants that serve wonderful southern food.  If the pace of Pigeon Forge gets a little fast for you, take a side trip to Gatlinburg.  In Gatlinburg, you'll find a lot of touristy stuff, but it's fun.  You can also take a gondola or skylift ride up the mountains.  There are shows to see if you want, but it's easier to just kick back and relax.

Now, if the shopping and the shows aren't enough of a thrill for you, Sweetwater has something a little different.  The Redneck Resort is the place to go mud bogging.  And this is why I picked this vacation for the blog.  This place has mud bogging and rock crawling events.  You can come on over and watch, or if you're real adventurous, you can join in.  They do ATV's, 4WD's, and many other kind of vehicle competitions.  It's a lot of fun, it's loud, and it's dirty.  If you ever wondered what good ole boys and their families do for fun, here you go.  This is a place that for a fee, will allow you to try out mud bogging.  That's right, you can ride along with a bogger, or you can try the bog yourself.  There aren't many places around that are set up for the public like this one, so you should check it out.  The fees are reasonable, and the waivers are ready to be signed.  Just don't wear anything that's hard to clean.  If you like, you can camp in the dry part of this resort as well.
And my last idea for this little road trip is to visit the Cherokee Nation.  Cherokee, North Carolina isn't far from Pigeon Forge, but if you're that close and you don't go, don't blame anyone but yourself.  This is an amazing town.  Yes, they have a casino, but it's so much more.
Cherokee is in a narrow valley in the Smokey Mountains.  It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  The village is always bustling with activity.  In the summer they have festivals and pow wows.  It's wonderful to see the crafts, and learn the dances.  Most of the time in the warmer months there are dancers in full dress doing the dances on the streets and teaching people about the significance of each dance.  The kids always get to try out the dances and join in.  It's a lot of fun.
The Cherokee Indians were driven from their home in the 1830's by the Indian Removal Act.  The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is the group that now lives in Cherokee.  Thousands of Cherokee were removed from the area, and thousands of them died on the forced walk to Oklahoma.  That's why it's called the trail of tears.  The few that stayed behind lived on the private land of a man who had been adopted by them, but was a white man.  It preserved the nation in the east and today, it's become a wonderful area where their culture will never die out.

High in the hills above Cherokee is an amphitheater built into the mountainside.  The acoustics of this place are amazing.  They don't need any speaker system.  You can hear them whisper.  This is where on most evenings in the warmer months you can go to hear them tell their story of the trail of tears.  It's very moving, and should not be missed.
Cherokee is a great place to see beautiful sights, learn about an amazing culture and spend some time watching your kids absorb some history without even knowing that they're learning.  I cannot stress enough that whenever you travel, you should spend as much time as possible learning about the local culture and traditions.
The United States is a big place, and this Smokey Mountain area is only a tiny part of it.  I've noticed that other peoples around the world have been trying to classify Americans as a single entity.  That's simply not possible.  There are so many different cultures and people in this country that it takes a lifetime to experience it all.  You cannot pigeon hole Americans into a single culture--we are many.
One of the best places in the country to learn that is in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.