Thursday, March 27, 2014
Malta conjures up all kinds of mythical, exotic, and medieval images in the mind if you know anything about it at all. It's a country lost in time in so many ways, but modern in so many others. It gained it's independence from Britain in 1964, and didn't completely form a republic until 1974. It's a new country with an old look. It was the first European city to be laid out on a grid, which means that they had a plan. But that was back in the 1600's. Needless to say, that was a long time ago. There are only about 400,000 people on three islands (Malta, Gozo, Comino), and Comino is not inhabited at all. It is a lovely place to spend a day though.
Malta's climate is fairly warm, seeing as it's just off the coast of Sicily to the south on the way to Northern Africa. It has some of the clearest blue waters in all of the Mediterranean, and it has some really great beaches. Some of the beaches are not quite what you might be used to, but they certainly are interesting and beautiful. There are sandy beaches, out of the way beaches, city beaches and the cliff side beaches. Any and all of them are a great place to spend a day.
Valletta is the capital of Malta, and like many other cities on the island, it has walls. In medieval times, many European cities were walled (had bastions) for security against attack. Most of these walls across Europe are gone today, but in Malta they remain. The country is flooded with historical buildings, monuments, ruins, and harbors. In Valletta, there are fabulous gardens on the main bastion walls with both the upper and the lower Barracca Gardens. Not only are the gardens beautiful, but the view of the harbor is amazing. You can still walk along the walls, which provides a great view of the city as well.
The cities on Malta are old and the streets are narrow, so to this day getting around in a horse and carriage isn't all that uncommon. They are the taxis of Valletta. Tourists do love them as much as they loved the old buses, but the horse and carriages are still there. The old buses are gone, but there is some hope that they will be back in the future. We'll see.
Malta has been ruled by several religions over the centuries. There were pagans, Hebrews, Muslims, and Christians, but St. John's Cathedral is today one of the most prominent landmarks in the country. St. John was one of the most famous residents that Malta ever had, and the largely Catholic country today still honors him with celebration.
The harbor is what makes Malta. Grand Harbor is one of many harbors used by fisherman and ships around the islands and one of the largest natural harbors in the world. The painted boats of Malta are something that you won't see duplicated anywhere else. Each one is painted by hand, normally by the owner, and they are all different. It's like a floating art gallery in the middle of any given city.
Now, if you really can't get enough of modern resort life, and you want to miss out, there's the St. Julian's resort area. Here you can get all the massages, and hang out in clubs or by the pool and just take up space and sunlight. It's there. Just because it's Malta, doesn't mean that you can't do that, but why would you?
There are lots of architectural wonders from days of old to be seen and experienced in Malta. Valletta is awash with old Muslim style buildings, colonial buildings, and even ancient buildings. It's a great feast for the eyes.
Malta also has beautiful coastlines. The Blue Grotto, while not the most famous one in the world, is beautiful. There are many caves along the coast of Gozo, and there are many tours to go and see them. It's a great way to spend a day, and you get to see an amazing natural bridge too. There are many things to see and do in Malta. There are more than I could ever talk about in one blog entry. I could spend months just looking around the islands. So, why did I pick this for an adventure for anyone? You might be surprised.
It's all about the movies, baby. Malta has a great little film industry going, and has been the site for many films from Gladiator to U571. But, did you know that Popeye, the musical was filmed here in 1980? Did you know that Sweethaven, the new home that Popeye came to in that film was built at Anchor Bay in Malta? It was, and it was so popular in the area that it is now a theme park. There are rides, shows, restaurants, boat rides, water trampolines and so on. It still looks just like it did in the movie, even though it has been rebuilt a couple of times over the years due to fires and weather.
Popeye's Village is a great place to spend some family time. It's not full of roller coasters, but it is a one of a kind place. I always advocate taking the time to go and visit old movie sets. In this modern time, so many movies are just made with CGI, so take a chance to visit a set from the time when they were not. Your kids will love it.
So, come and visit this place. You'll never forget it. You have history, culture, beaches, bastions, resorts, great food, beautiful harbors, great grottoes, and even famous film sets. There's so much to see, that you really can't do it all in one average trip. It does cost a little more than I'm used to paying, but it's worth it. Take the time to open your eyes and see Malta.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
The end of the season is near. It's finally almost spring. What could be more fitting than to spend the end of the season with a warm ski weekend based in Denver, CO. Why do I mention this? It's always a wonder what strikes me about an area, but in the case of Denver, it is the accessibility of it all. That's right. There's not a more convenient place that I can think of to spend a weekend that could, in all reality, include skiing at several resorts.
Denver has it all figured out. They have the largest pedestrian mall in the United States in the 16th Street Mall. Here you can shop and eat til you drop with a bus that comes by every 90 seconds to give you a lift. It's one of the most convenient shopping experiences that I've ever heard of. You can find it all on this street.
If downtown isn't quite enough for you, one block west is Larimer Square. This is the oldest part of Denver. It had fallen into a rundown slum area, until the city decided to refurbish it and turn it into a great place to hang out and take a step back in time. It is the first area to be declared a historic district in the U.S. and it has all the charm of the era when the gold rush was in town.
But, irregardless of the shopping and the eating and the old time look of the wonderful city that is Denver, I am recommending a ski weekend. Denver is just a hop skip from such wonderful ski resorts as Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. And Denver has something that not a lot of cities have for this kind of activity. They have transportation. That's right. You can fly into Denver International Airport, go to your hotel in historic downtown, and go to the local ski resorts without renting a car. You can do it without wondering where to put your skis, or worrying about getting lost, or wondering where to park. Denver has a great system and you just can't beat it.
Most of the hotels in Denver are gathered in a tight little area not far from the 16th Street Mall. If you fly into Denver International Airport, you can get a shuttle to your hotel. It's easy to get around all of Denver, but especially the downtown and Larimer Square areas. If you stay at the Hyatt Regency at the convention center, and certain other hotels, the Colorado Mountain Express will come and take you to your local ski resort. That's right, put away the car rental membership and take the public transport. It's the way to go. It makes for a really easy, relaxing weekend. The CME Shuttle goes from the listed hotels to Breckingridge, Copper Mountain and more. All you have to do is bring your gear and a modest fee for the ride.
The 16th Street Mall is a great place to try out world famous eateries and clubs. They have such well known places as the Wolfgang Puck Cafe' and the movie famous Coyote Ugly Nightclub and Bar. There is world class shopping as well.
Not far is the Denver History Museum, the aquarium, the Capital Building, D & F Tower, and the City County Building. These are all great places for family visiting, and folks who are big on architecture and history, science and art. The park at the civic center and it's gardens are also well worth the time.
But, I digress. The reason that I'm plugging this location for a weekend getaway is because of the transportation. It's great. Shuttles to ski, shuttles from the airport, a bus every 90 seconds on the 16th Street Mall, and a great bus system all over town. This is a fabulous place to spend you time. What if you don't like to ski? So what? There are so many things to see and do in Denver, that you don't have to ski to have a good time. Denver's airport is a modern marvel with it's domes that represent the Rocky Mountains. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Even Buffalo Bill enjoyed Denver. That's why he lived in the Larimer Square area for a while.
There's so much to see and do in Denver that you can hardly fit it in during one weekend, but for the convenience, and the price of flights out that way, it's certainly worth a try. There's something for everyone. You don't have to ski. You don't have to worry about getting yourself around. It's just a great way to enjoy one of America's great cities.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
I have to say that sometimes I need to turn to outside sources for inspiration in the area of new ideas for travel. There are so many places in this world to visit, and there are some truly fascinating places that most people here in the USA overlook, that I have to search. Lately, when it comes to topics of travel, I have found that the internet is the place to look. There are many internet shows these days that you never get to see on television. It's a great place to go and watch, when the normal channels are showing the same old thing, or they have gone to fixing people's hotels and bars for them instead of showing travel.
So, here in America we watch the Big Bang Theory, and some travel shows about India, and everything else most of us know is about help desks being outsourced there and Bollywood. We have been trained to view India as this place where the British got into it with Gandhi and the north is at war with various pieces of Pakistan in a battle that dates back to before Gandhi. We see it as crowded, dirty, alien, and confusing. That's just not a good image to have of a wonderful country like India. Therefore, I decided to talk about some of the less cumbersome areas in India, and the one that comes to mind is Rajasthan and the amazing Aravalli Mountains. The region is full of palaces and forts, with the amazing Kumbhalgarh Fort high atop the mountains.
Horse safaris are the way to see this area--I'm not kidding. This is a great adventure that almost anyone can do. It's a little different, but you will see the difference that it makes. Rajasthan is the land of kings, literally. The region is full of forts and palaces, temples and amazing sights. The Marwari Horses are the ancient war horses of the Rajput Warriors. It's the way of the land, and if you want to get a true feeling for the area, this is the best way.
There are so few vehicles in the rural areas of Rajasthan that you will be amazed. There are carts and horses out there, camels, elephants, and bicycles. There are not a lot of cars. The people of the tiny villages do just fine without them. This makes it simple. That's why I say that the horse trip is a great idea. The landscape is rugged but the accommodations are not. The tour companies--and there are a few of them--provide wonderful accommodations for their guests. They take care of you well. They have plush tents, and also stop at some five star hotels, which are made out of some of the old forts and palaces. This is a good trip to not try on your own. Take the tour. I don't say that often, but here you will be a bit out of your comfort zone and it can't hurt to have a guide.
Kumbhalgarh Fort is one of the gems on the horse tours in the area. This is one of the biggest forts I've ever seen. It is said that the walls of this fort only fall second in length to the Great Wall of China. Imagine that. It was built by Rana Kumbha and was expanded for four centuries. It was the birthplace of Maharana Pratap, a great Mewar Warrior. This is a place that there is always more to see at. The views of it are as great as the views from it. It sits high on a peak in the Aravalli Range. It is a wonder to behold, especially in the evening when it's lighted for a brief time.
Another beauty that falls on a lot of horse tours outside of Udaipur is the Ranakpur Jain Temple. Ranakpur is a gathering of temples which are all elaborately carved and decorated. It is one of the five main holy places of the Jains. Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world. They practice tolerance and knowledge and believe in Karma and reincarnation. Ranakpur is named after Rana Kumbha whom Dharna Sah, a Jain businessman, approached when he had the vision of his great temple to ask for the land for its construction. It sits in a gorgeous valley in the Aravalli Mountains, and is still used as temples.
There are many palaces in the Rajasthan Region. Most tours of the palace region that you would take on horseback originate in Udaipur. This is a major city in the area that is a little tricky to get to if you're coming from out of the country. From the USA you may have to stop in Mumbai and Dehli to get a connection to Jaipur or Udaipur. This region is not the overcrowded India that you've heard of. Now, Udaipur has traffic, Tuk Tuks, motorbikes, and lots of horn honking, just like you would expect. Udaipur also has one of the most famous Indian palaces--the Lake Palace. Formerly known as Jag Niwas, this palace is now a very high end hotel with a view like none other. You get there by water jetty, and then you are treated like royalty. It is one of the most ornate and lavish hotels anywhere, and the people who work there are tremendously friendly and helpful. After all, you will be out of your zone in Rajasthan. This is not a place that you master on the first visit. You will want a guide or tour.
Udaipur is known as the white city and has many amazing and beautiful buildings to look at and visit. This is a great stopping off point on any tour of Rajasthan. The shopping is amazing, the hotels are great, the atmosphere is bustling and fun.
There are so many palaces and forts to see, that you simply never run out of them. You will run out of time before you run out of places to see.
Nighttime is stunning as well. A view of the city can be a view that will last in your memory for a lifetime. I always take into account the view when I plan a trip. I love a good view.
I also love a festival. If you come to Udaipur and many other cities in India in the fall, you may find yourself at the Diwali Festival. This is one of the biggest Hindu festivals in the country and is the equivalent to Christmas or New Year's here. There are parades, celebrations in the streets, activities, and lots of dancing. The Hindus celebrate Shiva the goddess of knowledge during this festival, so you will see many people with the red mark of Shiva on their foreheads. It's all part of the celebration.
There's music, dancing, lots of food and a ton of fireworks during the festival. It's one of the most amazing times of the year to be in a city like Udaipur.
There is one other thing that you only really get to do on a horse tour. The lands around Kumbhalgarh Fort have been turned into a wildlife sanctuary, and on some of the tours, you get to ride right through the areas. You can see all kinds of wildlife from tigers to elephants and of course, lots of monkeys. It's just another great aspect of making a trip like this.
Palaces, forts, mountains, wildlife, culture, festivals, and general beauty are what await you in Rajasthan. This won't be the last time I talk about this place, because it's so amazing and there are so many things to see and do there. It's a piece of India that almost seems untouched by time. It's a place where people have time to breathe and be a part of your experience. You can see some amazing things, you can learn a wealth of history and culture, and you won't soon forget any of it. Let yourself go, and try something different. The food is not the only unique thing in India. You'll see that if you let yourself take that fabulous trip on horseback through part of Rajasthan.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
I think the one of the mos famous skylines in the world probably belongs to Abu Dhabi in the UAE. The Burj al Arab Hotel probably heads the list of famous buildings in the city, even though there have been many amazing places built since that one hit headlines all over the world. There are so many things that we don't know about Dubai, but one of the things that we do know is that they have money there, and it's an opulent place to be. I remember when Michael Jackson moved there and so did many other huge stars from around the world. Why Dubai?
Dubai is one of the most interesting spots on Earth. When they felt that they'd run out of room, they started building islands. That's right, islands. They didn't build any old islands either. They built the Palm Island, one of the most talked about projects ever. The idea of bringing in tons and tons of sand and Earth from the ocean to spray into the shape of a palm tree seemed outrageous to the rest of the world, but fascinating nevertheless. But Palm Island wasn't to be alone. There are more than one of those out there and then came along the idea of bringing the world to Dubai. The latest set of islands is The World. It's a world map made out of islands, and for a price--several million dollars--you can live in your own little island country. What a crazy idea that just goes to show that if you want something, you can find a way.
The Burj Khalifa was at one point the tallest building in the world. I think that the current title belongs to a building in Taipei. Etihad Towers has the best observation deck in town called the Observation Deck at 300. The 300 refers to the number of meters you are up at that time.
But that's Dubai. It's always under construction. They're always looking for that next project that will amaze the world. That's how they fly in Dubai, because they are one of the richest nations in the world. They have it all there, and they want to share it with the world. Bordering on Oman and being right in the thick of things with all the nations that many Americans are trying to avoid, because of terrorism and such, Dubai has had it's battles with it's image. They will tell you there that they want nothing to do with the problems that plague much of the Middle East. They want nothing to do with all the extremists and Al Qaeda and anyone that ever pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. They have advertised many times over the years that they will fly you around that terror zone when they fly you into their country. They want to protect you and show you a really good time. I like the spirit that runs this country. It makes it beautiful, even though it's just another desert covered country in the Middle East.
There are many places in Dubai that qualify as an adventure for anyone. Ski Dubai was the solution to a problem, just like a lot of things in this desert country. They wanted a place to ski. So, they built one. This is the world's foremost indoor ski resort. It's right at the mall. It has everything that a regular ski resort has to offer. They have a lift, slopes, bars, restaurants, ski outfitters, lessons, and you can stay the night if you like. It's all real homemade snow from the finest machines, it's cold so you have to wear gloves, and it's a lot of fun all year round.
You can go out to Yas Island and go racing. That's right. That's an adventure for anyone. The Yas Marina Circuit is built for Formula 1 racing, but you can go and have a driving experience. There are several options that you can choose from. All of them will get you out on that track going really fast. The best part is that if you don't want to drive, they'll take you out as a passenger. There are several car types to choose from and you can't beat being able to go out and race around the track yourself.
Do you like a good day at the track? Do you like to watch the ponies? Well you can do that in Dubai, but if you want a real hoot, you should check out the camel races. I'm not joking. It's a cultural activity in the Middle East and they have a few places around Abu Dhabi that hold camel races.
Let's not forget that Dubai is an Arab country. There are thousands of Muslims in the area and they go to mosques a lot. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the largest Mosques in the world. It can hold up to 40,000 visitors. It has 82 domes. It has over 1,000 columns. It houses the world's largest knotted carpet and one of the world's largest chandeliers. It has 24 carat gold chandeliers around the interior. It's a magnificent wonder in gold and white and well worth a visit, no matter what your beliefs are.
One of the best ways to see the city of Abu Dhabi is to do it on a Dhow. This traditional form of transportation will land you on the water and give you an amazing view of the city. There are a lot of dinner tours that take you out in the evening and provide a wonderful meal of local cuisine. This is one of the more relaxing ways to view the city which has one of the most amazing skylines in the world.
But, as you all know, I'm not looking to spend my time in a place because of something so predictable as tall buildings and dinner cruises. It's true that skiing inside is interesting, but if you've ever watched the Travel Channel, you've seen that. Camel racing is interesting, but it's fairly predictable too, and even the car racing is done in various venues around the world. There are some other things that I look for and one of them is a great drive. Being in that top section for great drives in the world, with a great view from the top really gets my juices flowing and that's what you get with the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road. This road spans 7.3 miles and goes up a mountain that's 1,219 meters high. That's 4,022 feet for you Americans. That's quite a drive. It's ranked as one of the most beautiful drives in the world with 21 corners for a challenge.
The view is amazing too.
It's all great. It's well worth the trip to the United Arab Emirates. But the thing that got me was the idea of going out into the desert and having a Bedouin experience. There are a few places that will take you out for a night or two of camel riding and sleeping in authentic Bedouin tents. It's a great way to learn about the culture and the food and the lifestyle of the people who have inhabited this land possibly longer than anyone else in the neighborhood. But, there's one place that I could not ignore and that was the Arabian Nights Village.
At the Arabian Nights Village you can stay in a tent or you can stay in a luxury suite. The choice is yours. This is the only place that you will be experiencing ancient Emirate culture. This is the spot that tells you what it used to be like in the old days before the skyscrapers and oil.
You can learn about falconry at the village, as well as go sand boarding, camel riding, ATV riding, or dune bashing. There are many things to do at this beautiful oasis in the desert.
You can even take a dip in the pool. This is an oasis in the desert, so it is lush and surrounded by the harshness of the desert. It's a lot of fun.
And finally, for the avid adventurer that wants to do that something that is unique and a lot of fun, I have the hokey, yet fantastic once in a lifetime thing for you to see and it is just outside of Abu Dhabi.
Sheikhs often have more money than they know what to do with as was the case with Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan or the Rainbow Sheikh. He loved cars so that he collected over 200 of them and it is now the Emirate National Auto Museum. It's housed in a pyramid and has some very unusual things. One of them is a hand built Dodge truck that is a monster in every way. It is the biggest truck in the world and you can actually drive it, but I don't know why you would.
Another attraction at the museum is the collection of Mercedes. There's one for every color of the rainbow, which is in part how the Rainbow Sheikh got his name.
There's the world's largest RV. and so much more. There are dune buggy Volkswagon Beetles, and exotic kit cars. There are high cost antiques and muscle cars all over. It's a treasure trove for anyone who likes cars. There are even some ATV's and motorbikes in there. It has it all and it's fun for anyone. Even the boys from Top Gear UK have stopped by for a visit.
Anybody want to head out for a trip in a giant Willy's Jeep?
So, whether you're headed to Ferrari World to ride the world's fastest roller coaster, or you're just there for the overall experience, Abu Dhabi and the surrounding area have it all. There are so many one of a kind experiences there that I can't mention them all. It's a place of all the wonder that money can buy and they want to share all of their toys with the rest of the world. The surprise is that you can visit without being a millionaire. The prices are very competitive with activities of the same kind around the world, and the hotel prices aren't bad. It's worth looking into.
I have a few cautions about this one though. Do your homework before visiting an Arab country. Are they bad places...no. But, if you are going to go to a country with such a vastly different culture than our own here in America, you must learn how to behave. It's important that you go out of your way not to offend your hosts. Remember, they still somewhat favor men. the UAE is fairly liberal for the neighborhood that it's in. There are some places where men and women are separated, like the mosques. Be very respectful of the mosques. If you enter any of them remember to learn the rules and follow them all. Also, alcohol is available at the resorts and so forth, but you won't find it where the locals go. It is strictly forbidden in Muslim culture. There are rules here, so learn them before you go and follow them while you're there. It will make your visit much more fun. Also, watch out for the summer heat as it is much better to travel here in the fall and spring months. As always check for alerts with the State Department before booking and register your trip with them before you go. It's just good practice in a tense world and a very tense area of it.