Friday, January 17, 2020

How we can help Australia and its bushfires

Bushfires continue to rage in Australia, but we can help
(Courtesy: 80 trading 24 -- licensed under the Creative Commons 
Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

AUSTRALIA — When it comes to ultra-long distance travel, most Americans are hard pressed to find two more appealing destinations than New  Zealand  and Australia.

Presently Australia is battling devastating bushfires fueled by high winds and weather extremes that are expected to scorch the island continent during the summer season "down under." Environmental damage in wildlife and ecological habitats promises to be staggering.

Australians have a spirit all their own that is infectious --
View of Darling Harbour
Though large, Australia is still an island and, therefore, typically the climate is influenced by ocean currents, including the Indian Ocean Dipole and the El Nino-Southern Oscillation. These climatic patterns often correlate with periodic droughts and a seasonal tropical low-pressure system that produces cyclones in the northern region of the country.

Australians could easily be called the "Texans of Oceania." They are fiercely independent, passionately proud, highly competitive, vociferously opinionated and yet, at the same time they are magnanimously friendly, charmingly hospitable and, perhaps most admirably, dedicatedly loyal.

Australia is the largest country in Oceania and the sixth-largest country by total area in the world. Most of the population resides in coastal cities that line the perimeter of the country.

Most visits to Australia begin and/or end in Sydney, the bustling, lively capital of New South Wales with its now iconic opera being as familiar a landmark for Australians as are the Eiffel Tower to the French, Big Ben to the English and the Colosseum to Italians.

Sydney Opera House
(Courtesy: public domain pictures)
Regarded as one of the 20th century's most famous and distinctive buildings, the gleaming white layered shell-shaped Opera House Performing Arts Centre at Sydney Harbour is a multi-purpose venue that is capable of offering several different performances simultaneously.

Adjacent to Sydney's city center is Darling Harbour, a large recreational and pedestrian area situated on the western outskirts of the central business district. Originally named Long Cove, the locality extends northwards from Chinatown, along both sides of Cockle Bay to King Street Wharf 3 on the east, and to the suburb of Pyrmont on the west.

The Rocks is lively and 
Always a favorite spot, even if travelers have never heard of the district until they arrive, is The Rocks, an urban tourist precinct and historic area in  Sydney's city center near the opera house. 

The Royal Botanic Garden is the most important green space in Sydney, hosting both scientific and leisure activities.

Fifteen separate parks within the city center include Hyde ParkThe Domain and Prince Alfred Park.

The Royal Botanic Garden looks out toward the Opera House 
But these are merely appetizers which most avid travelers easily discover on their own.

Beyond Sydney, just a two hour drive west, are the Blue Mountains with their seemingly infinite stretches of eucalyptus trees. This UNESCO World Heritage area boasts of 87 miles of walking trails that include native bush-lands, impressive rock formations and underground caves.

The Blue Mountains beckon
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Here you can be entertained by stories told by local Aboriginal guides and also admire the craftsmanship of resident artisans.

Be sure to dine at Darley's Restaurant and don't forget to sample some of Australia's famous Blue Mountains wines.

Australia also has a pair of equally famous natural destinations that are more remote than the Blue Mountains but well worth the effort to make a visit: the Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock.

Uluru, more familiarly Ayers Rock, is worth a visit
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Uluru, better known as Ayers Rock, is a large sandstone rock formation in the southern part of the Northern Territory of central Australia. Situated 208 mi southwest of the nearest large town, Alice Springs, Uluru is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area.

The area around the formation is home to an abundance of springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

UNESCO's Great Barrier Reef
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system off the coast of Queensland. Composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching over 1,400 mi, the reef is located in the Coral Sea and can be seen from outer space.

It is the world's biggest single structure built by billions of tiny living organisms known as coral polyps. Selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981, CNN has labeled the Great Barrier Reef as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

If this was a normal travel story, this is where it would end, but this time the story is not typical. The places in Australia listed above are traveler's favorites, just as Australia itself is one our favorite destinations. We mentioned these locales as a reminder to us all at just how fragile our planet can oftentimes be.

Colorful  Darling Harbour
The sites and attractions mentioned above are little more in this article than scene setters to whet our wanderlust appetites and to remind us of what could be lost forever.

For those of us who have savored the beauty of Australia, it is time to ask what we can do to help. 

Contact Australian Red Cross' Disaster Relief and Recovery, or get in touch with WIRES, an organization committed to wildlife in Australia. You can also donate to local fire brigades.

To support people affected by the fires, Fast Company suggests donating to the Salvation Army’s disaster appeal or the bushfire appeal fund set up by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Koalas were struggling to survive before the fires
(Courtesy: pixabay)
The fires have made Australia's declining koala population more vulnerable than ever; consider a donation to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which rescues koalas in regions across New South Wales. 

As Executive Editor, George Stone of TRAVEL, a publication of National Geographic, so appropriately writes, "It's not enough to love a land only when the sun shines. Now is the time to care for a faraway place as if it were our own backyard."

Friday, January 10, 2020

Escape winter in one of these five (or six) great Caribbean islands

The Caribbean is a land of perpetual sunshine that is generally
far from the madding crowds of other destinations
(Courtesy: Barbados Tourism)
CARIBBEAN — Sometimes the Caribbean can be a traveler's dilemma. On one hand the stretches of white sand beaches, crystal clear water and eternal sunshine are as beguiling as any destination could be. On the other, for the most part, "if you have seen one, you've seen'm all."

Miles of beaches at the
Turks & Caicos
(Photo: Taylor)
However, as fall and winter fast approach, the allure of warmth and water becomes increasing attractive to escape the wrath of ice and snow.

So how do you decide? Which island is best? Here's a personal top five to consider.

With an abundance of cactus, Aruba is reminiscent of the
Amerian southwest. Mt Hooiberg is its highest point
(Courtest: Aruba Tourism)
Aruba: Nestled just fifteen miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is one third of the ABC islands along with Bonaire and Curacao. While Bonaire remains a haven for divers, retaining much of its pristine features, Curacao for many years was regarded as the hot spot of the three.

No longer. Aruba has long since surpassed its sister island with glitzy hotels, casinos, excellent restaurants, shopping and a variety of other amenities that make it seem a bit like the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.

Depending on your lifestyle, Aruba could just as easily be at the top of this list as the bottom.

All the beaches and main activities center around one side of the island because the opposite shores are too rough for beach lovers to enjoy. More adventurous travelers go to that side to enjoy caving.

Divi-Divi trees grow away 
from the wind
(Courtesy: pixabay)
With its steady sea breezes, one of the distinctive features of Aruba is the Divi Divi trees which grow sideways in the direction of those perpetual winds.

Aruba's Dutch heritage makes shopping in the capital city of Oranjastad almost as good as it is in the Netherlands.

Official languages are Dutch and Papiamento, but English and Spanish are also prevalent. Don't be surprised to watch a television newscast where all four languages are used interchangeably.

Curious resident
(Courtesy: Aruba Tourism)
Geographically the island resembles the American southwest with an abundance of cactus and the highest spot being Mt. Hooiberg at 541 feet.

Dining offers a plethora of restaurants with choices ranging from hotel restaurants to delightful local spots.

Aruba may just be the most active place in the Caribbean.

Barbados Parliament and Museum
(Courtesy: Barbados Tourist Board)

Barbados: As with Aruba, Barbados has done a masterful job of marketing which is noticeable from the moment you set foot on its shores.

Tracing its history to the British Commonwealth, it's not surprising that 40% of the visitors to Barbados arrive from the United Kingdom, so naturally English is the native language.

One of the most notable aspects of Barbados for first-timers is how clean it is, giving the island the feel of  Switzerland being plunked down in the middle of the Caribbean.

Flying fish are a favorite
(Courtesy: pixabay)
The national foods of Barbados are flying fish and cou-cou, also known locally as "fungi." Cou-cou, made up primarily of cornmeal and okra, can be found in any supermarket on the island and is usually served as a complement to steamed or fried flying fish.

Barbados provides just enough to see and do with plenty of time for the beach.

Brimstone Hill Fortress is a landmark on St. Kitts
(Courtesy; Ukexpat --licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

St Kitts & Nevis: St Kitts seems like a quiet spot until you take a boat to Nevis. By comparison, St Kitts is Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.

Once a thriving region for sugar cane, St Kitts and Nevis today rely heavily on tourism for their economy. Many of the old sugar cane ruins have been renovated into beautifully quaint accommodations.

Cannons protect Brimstone
Hill, Mt Nevis in the
(Courtesy pixabay)
Most visitors are fascinated by the green monkey population which is so huge that it is said there are as many monkeys on the islands as there are people.

Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park on the northwestern coast of St Kitts is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the largest fortress ever constructed in the Eastern Caribbean, Brimstone Hill is well worth a visit.

Minutes by boat across the "Narrows", just two miles away, is the gumdrop shaped island of Nevis. With volcanic Nevis Peak in the center of the island, Nevis looks like a cone that has erupted from the middle of the sea.

Breakfast at Nisbet Plantation looking down the
Avenue of Palms
(Courtesy: Nisbet Plantation)
Nevis is a place to rest and relax. Historically the island has ties to Admiral Lord Nelson and Alexander Hamilton which make for pleasant outings when the allure of the beaches calls for a break.

St. Kitts and Nevis may be an acquired taste for some, but for those who just want to sit back and relax, this is the place.

Checking in at the Sans at Grace Bay
(Photo: peabod}
Turks & Caicos: As with Aruba and Barbados, the Turks & Caicos are awakening to the magnetism of tourism. This cluster of islands came to the game much later than her cousins, which is part of the appeal.

Da Conch Shack is a favorite
(Photo:  peabod)
The Turks retain their original rustic charm yet possess much of the infrastructure necessary to make it the best of all worlds.

As would be expected, life centers around the beaches and water activities, of which there are many. Hotels range in virtually every category with one of the best properties for location, comfort and convenience being the Sands at Grace Bay near the capital city of Providenciales.

Rum punch and conch salad
(Photo: peabod)
Conch is the culinary treat of the islands featuring conch fritters, conch salads, conch chowder and everything in between. It doesn't get any fresher than watching natives pluck a shell from the sea before having it served at your table minutes later for lunch.

Da Conch Shack is among the most popular spots for fresh conch served any way you like it. Then head back to your hotel and simply "conch out."

Pool with a view at Le Village on St Barts
(Courtesy: Le Village)
St. Barts: The only island in the Caribbean with Swedish heritage is St. Barts. Located about 18 miles from St. Maarten, this tiny jet-setters oasis probably doesn't have the best of anything in the Caribbean, but boasts the second best of everything.

St. Barts is hilly and small but thanks to its tiny harbor, it does not get as much of the massive cruise traffic as other islands.

Secluded beaches
(Photo: peabod)
Known for its cuisine which is primarily French, every type of food can be found on St. Barts.

Though a bit more expensive than some of the other island destinations, St. Barts makes up for the cost with great beaches and more than its share of character. If you spend a week at this now predominantly French paradise, don't be surprised to catch a glimpse of some well-known personality who is just "getting away from it all."

One reason celebrities like St. Barts is because they are treated like everyone else, far from the maddening paparazzi who so frequently invade their lives.

Gustavia Harbor, St Barts
Five star properties are the order of the day on St. Barts, but Le Village, the only four-star resort on the island will save you some money and provide all the amenities as its more prestigious counterparts.

Le Village is locally owned by native islanders and that makes all the difference.

Fisherman's day is done at sunset in Aruba
(Courtesy: Aruba Tourism)

There you have it. A half dozen Caribbean destinations that break the mold and offer more than just beaches, sand and sunshine.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Passport renewal just got a whole lot easier

Alexander Graham Bell would have been proud to see today's
advances in telephone technology
(Courtesy: Pixabay)

CHARLOTTE, NC – The process of obtaining your first passport or renewing your old one, though not difficult, has always been one of those "put-it-off-as-long-as-possible" hassles of the traveler's world.....until now.

To begin with, many inexperienced travelers are often shocked to learn that the expiration date printed in that little blue book, in many cases, really means you must renew your passport at least six months before it expires or they will most likely be doing their trip at home.

That's because many places will not allow visitors to enter the country if their passport runs out within six months of traveling. All they will do is collect your luggage and put it and you on the next flight home.

Therefore it's critical to be aware of that little quirk and take care of it well in advance.

In the dark pre-internet days of travel, last minute passport renewals were not only hand-wringingly stressful but also extremely expensive. While the process remains costly today, much of that previous tension can be eliminated, or certainly minimized, thanks to the addition of the World Wide Web to our arsenal of recent travel innovations.

Launched in 2014, an app named Mobile Passport may one day become the travel industry's "most valuable player" because it allows absent-minded travelers and procrastinators to renew their passports within 24 hours. 

At the same time, since is an app on your telephone, the beauty is that it can be used to get you through Customs & Immigration. The popular travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler claims that Mobile Passport saves even more time than Global Entry.

Before the onset of the Mobile Passport era, typically the steps for renewal involved setting an alarm for six months before the passport's expiration date, filling out the proper paperwork, getting a new photo, mailing in the application, and then...waiting, sometimes for up to eight weeks.

If you were on the leading edge of the passport renewal cusp,  crunch time could be a nerve wracking ordeal.

Today, Mobile Passport allows users to fill out their passport and declaration information and submit it in advance of returning to the U.S., letting them skip the paperwork, long lines and interviews at customs and immigration.

As part of a partnership with RushMyPassport -- a website with the sole purpose of shortening the process of obtaining and renewing passports -- Mobile Passport has established a system that utilizes modern technology to add yet another contemporary solution to a rapidly growing list of resources that have made travel easier than ever before.

Perhaps most important, Mobile Passport will send you a notification six months before your passport expires, meaning that you no longer need to remember to do it yourself.  

Following notification, MP Provides step-by-step instructions for renewing your passport. Should you need your new passport ASAP, RushMyPassport can help expedite the process in as little as 24 hours. Keep in mind the process can be pricey, but it's probably better than the alternative of cancellation.

Fees start at the standard government price of $170 and get higher as the turnaround time gets shorter.

You still have to physically mail in the application and photo, but that's infinitely easier than driving to a passport agency, the post office or trying to figure out the instructions at the 

Mobile Passport isn't the only source for expedited renewal services, however. FedEx also offers services at more than 2,000 locations with a tiered system of time-frames ranging from 24-hour service to rush renewal that takes between 10 and 12 business days.

At $449 for 24 hour service, it is expensive, but considering the possibility of losing a trip altogether, it could also be viewed as a bargain.

For travelers, either of these passport renewal programs could very well be something that will never be used. Then again, considering the relief from the angst their availability provides by simply being aware of their existence might one day be a huge pill to swallow, but they could also be a blessing that did not even exist in the not so distant past.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

For a Christmas experience unlike any other, try Rent-A-Santa

Santa Doug makes ready for a big Christmas season

CHARLOTTE, NC – No character or personality epitomizes the spirit of Christmas better than Santa Claus. Wherever you are jolly old St Nicholas is the universal embodiment of the season regardless of what they may call him in any corner of the world. Be it Sinta Klaus or Father Frost, Kris Kringle, Papai Noel, Christkindl or just plain old Santa, the spirit of his message is the same everywhere.

In fact, some people get so caught up in the aura of Santa Claus they even go to school to learn the nuances of portraying the season's most beloved symbol.

It wasn't me -- somebody else ate the cookies
 DougEberhart, a Princeton graduate from Charlotte, NC, is also an alumnus of the C.W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan, where he learned long ago that being St. Nick involves a lot more than donning a red suit and being able to end every sentence with a hardy "Ho, ho, ho!"

Santa Doug has been bringing his alter ego alive for over 40 years using his love of people and his contagious personal charisma to entertain and visit both children and adults. All of his equipment is professional and custom made. Santa Doug visits schools, hospitals, homes, parties and apartment complexes.

Kids love house visits
Among Santa Doug's most popular specialties is house visits where Santa arrives before Christmas to the delight of children of all ages, including adults who are easily the most impressed members of any group.

Visits are a cooperative effort between Santa and the organizer(s) to make everything perfect. In advance, Santa Doug obtains the names of the children who will be present and a fact or two about each child such as their favorite color, a teacher they like, a special interest or a recent accomplishment. Anything that will help personalize the visit.

All of this is wrapped into the spontaneous conversations that evolve during the visit. If small gifts are involved they should be wrapped with a clearly printed label. The packages are all transferred to Santa's Toy Bag before he greets the kids.

During the holidays, anywhere there's a need for Santa, Doug is ready including schools, groups and corporate meetings and outings.

Custom-made costumes

As a true professional, Santa Doug dons the traditional red and white Santa suit with various styles and furs. His beard is real hair, hand tied and custom fitted for him.

Each costume is unique and custom made. Additionally, he has over five vintage Santa suits that are unlike any on the market which have been immaculately created from pictures and postcards from the late 1800’s of Jolly ole St. Nick.

Santa Doug even provides tips on his website to ensure the best possible "Santa Experience."

Two front teeth will be just fine with me
7 Tips for a Good Santa Visit

1. Have the room temperature no higher than 68 degrees.

2. Have a place for me to sit that is sturdy, no lazy boy chairs, and please not near a roaring fire.

3. Try to keep the kids away from me for a few feet, especially if I am bringing in presents.

4. If you have provided presents for me to pick up, let me know where you have placed them and have the names CLEARLY PRINTED on each package.

5. The tags should be taped securely and NO GIFT BAGS as things fall out easily.

6. If you have kids at a home visit, please have them INSIDE during the time I arrive and not outside playing, as I don’t want kids to see me getting out of my sleigh.

7. Take as many pics as you wish but if your baby or child is screaming, it is NOT a good time for the child or for me.

Makin' a list, checkin' it twice

Despite the traditional happiness of the season however, every now and then a serendipitous moment occurs that serves as a poignant reminder to Doug that he, too, can be on the receiving end of the Santa Claus experience:

"Yesterday I picked up a gig at an orthodontic clinic where a Santa had to cancel due to an illness. I had two of God’s beautiful non-verbal special needs girls ages 9 and 12 visit me.
 "The mom was great. She lifted the lighter child out of her wheelchair and placed her on my lap. The younger girl was so excited to have some time with Santa that I could feel her smile next to my face as I held her and looked at the camera. 

Joy and happiness are what it's all about
  "And then the pictures began. (Click. Flash! Click. Spontaneous joy. Flash! Ear to ear smiles. Silent contagious laughter. Click. Flash!) 
 "The older girl smiled and thrashed in her chair with excitement. I was so blessed to have picked up this gig and to meet these two wonderful children, for this is what being Santa Claus is all about.
The gift of Santa Claus is universal
"It's times like these that make me realize WHY I put on the red suit. This isn’t a job. This isn’t a hobby. This is a calling and I am insurmountably blessed that I answered it. We are the magic makers. We are beacons of hope for children of all ages and to those who believe." 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Irish eyes are smiling at Christmas markets in Dublin and Belfast

The Emerald Isle lights up in Dublin and Belfast at Christmas
(Courtesy: Ardfem -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)
IRELAND — For anyone traveling to the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland for the holidays, the "Emerald Island" has spruced up and added millions of lights along with plenty of red to compliment its traditional Irish green.

Sparkling with twinkling lights, replete with delicious food and drink and brimming with great gift ideas, Christmas markets are the perfect places to discover a little festive magic, and the two biggest cities on the island of Ireland, Dublin and Belfast, have more than a few seasonal venues that are just bursting with Yuletide cheer.

High angle view of the colorful Christmas market in Galway

For starters a new Christmas market brings all things festive to Dublin Castle this year where the grounds will be transformed into a "magical new experience" from December 12th until December 22nd.

Christmas spirit is everywhere
Over 30 traditional alpine stalls from artisan producers will be present at the event held in the courtyard of the impressive castle.

Dubbed "Christmas At The Castle," local crafts-people will be selling unique decorative gifts and food throughout the day, while evening activities include carol singing and horse-drawn carriage rides around the castle grounds.

Adding to the ancient atmosphere, visitors are also invited to explore the castle’s stunning interiors with complimentary access to the State Apartments from 6.00 pm to 8.00 pm.

At St Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin another winter wonderland called the Christmas Market on the Green will open each Sunday until December 22nd to sell everything from vintage and sustainable clothing to vinyl, art and jewelry.

There's an alternative market too
(Courtesy: pxfuel)
Travelers looking for something less traditional with a unique twist, may find the perfect quirky gift for the person who has everything at the Alternative Christmas Market on December 15th at the Grand Social on Liffey Street Lower. Here you’ll find all things weird and wonderful from medieval crafts to gothic clothes.

Goth fashion is a clothing style marked by conspicuously dark, mysterious, antiquated and homogeneous features. It is worn by members of the Goth subculture. A dark, sometimes ghastly fashion and style of dress, typical gothic fashion includes dyed black hair, dark lipstick and dark clothing. Both male and female goths can wear dark eyeliner and dark nail polish - most often black. In other words it's the "Morticia look" for contemporary fashion.

The pub scene is always lively in Dublin
(Courtesy: good free photos)
Still searching? Why not take a trip to the harbor town of Dún Laoghaire just 30 minutes from Dublin to enjoy the Dún Laoghaire Christmas Festival on weekends until December 23rd?

This year's theme celebrates all things retro. Alongside the Christmas market filled with handmade gifts and mouth-watering treats, there will also be a 50s-style Ferris wheel, which was featured in the movie Grease, vintage chair-o-planes used in the TV series Into the Badlands, colorful hobby horses and an old-fashioned rollercoaster.

Christmas lights in Donegall Place in Belfast
(Courtesy: Albert Bridge --  licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license)
In recent years, Northern Ireland has become a trendy destination, and Belfast is not to be outdone. The Christmas Market on the grounds of the spectacularly lit City Hall are thec focal point of the city’s Yuletide celebrations right up until the 22nd of December.

With an eclectic array of international traders in beautiful wooden chalets offering incredible food and delightful gift ideas, this is the perfect spot for immersing yourself in Belfast’s buzzing Christmas spirit.

Spicy hot Gluhwein is the
drink of choice
(Photo: Peabod)
Food favorites include French crêpes, Belgian chocolates, Dutch pancakes, and everything from kangaroo burgers and hog roast to specialty cheeses and as well as hot glühwein. All the delicious foods are served alongside quality produce from local artisan food and craft producers.

Looking for an unusual Christmas gift? You might find it here among the handcrafted selection of leather goods, jewelry and crafts.

Elsewhere in Belfast, the famous St George’s Market joyously filled with twinkling lights, festive food and drink and an abundance of locally crafted and made Christmas gifts for all the family.

Scattered throughout the rustic market stalls is a dazzling line-up of local musicians, including school and community choirs that add an extra touch of magic on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in December.

The always spectacular ever-changing Cliffs of Moher

These are but a few of the holiday treasures taking place during the Yuletide season in Ireland. However, while this story has only a brief shelf-life and appeals largely to those who are already planning to visit Ireland between now and Christmas, the Magellan Travel Club is offering a tour of both countries from July 13th to July 25th, 2020 (including air). A ground-only package is also available.

Ireland is a year-round destination that lives up to its reputation for legendary friendliness and hospitality regardless of when you visit. Yes, the home of the River Dance truly is a "land for all seasons."