Friday, March 20, 2015

Sweden is a Scandinavian surprise

Golden fields of rape surround a traditional red and white Swedish cottage  (wikipedia)

SWEDEN Sweden is a country that steps to the beat of a different drummer while keeping pace with today; a delightfully surprising nation filled with some of the world’s most unique sightseeing opportunities. 
Sweden is the largest country in Scandinavia and the fourth largest in Europe. The primary cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo are coastal communities while Kiruna, the fourth major city, is situated above the Arctic Circle.

Sweden is a country of lake with a stunning archipelago  (wikipedia)
For thousands of years the country was covered with glaciers, resulting in more than 100,000 lakes. The result is a wonderland of beauty, chiseled by time and perfected by the craftsmanship of Mother Nature herself.

The earliest settlers appeared in the third century BC. At Vitlycke, rock carvings date to the Bronze Age, while huge stone grave-markers in the area serve as reminders of man’s presence centuries ago.
Ancient rock carvings at Vitlycke date to the Bronze Age  (wikipedia)

The best remains can be seen on the long, narrow island of Oland off the southeastern coast. Here boat-shaped burial formations date to the latter part of the Iron Age in 500 BC.

Prehistoric fort at Eketorp on the island of Oland  (wikipedia)
At Eketorp, one of 15 prehistoric forts on Oland, visitors can tour an Iron Age reconstruction of a fortified village as it existed 1,500 years ago. Eketorp thrived from 400 AD through the age of the Vikings until the middle of the 13th century.

Until the early 19th century, Sweden was constantly at war with its neighbors. During the 1800s it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. The first groups of emigrants sailed to the New World in 1638, and from 1840 to 1920, more than a million Swedes left the country.

So large was the exodus that the Emigrant Institute in Vaxjo was established to tell the story of the migration. Today, the House of the Emigrants attracts genealogists and historians from all over the world to study Swedish ancestry.

Here visitors can follow the footsteps of the emigrants along the meandering back country route the Swedes traveled hundreds of years ago.

Today, Sweden is neither warlike nor downtrodden. It declared neutrality in the latter part of the 19th century and has not been involved in a war since 1814.
Cruising the Gota Canal between Stockholm and Gothenburg  (wikipedia)

Between the cities of Kalmar and Vaxjo lies the Kingdom of Crystal. The glass district of Sweden features craftsman and artisans who breathe life into red hot, molten glass. Kosta Boda and Orrefors are the largest and most famous of 16 glassworks in the region, but each factory offers its own style, tradition and personality where crystalline beauty is created from little more than a molten glow.

Eternal daylight of the midnight sun in  Sweden  (wikipedia)
In summer, another glow in northern Sweden hovers low in the sky when the midnight sun skims across tree-tops with amber serenity. Here observers can witness the birth of a new day as the sun gently glides across the tree line before rising back into the sky.

Few destinations offer a greater selection of diverse, quality museums than Sweden. Stockholm alone has more than 65 such attractions, including the Wasa Museum. The Wasa warship sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and rested at the bottom of the sea until it was rediscovered and raised in the 1960s.

The warship Wasa was raised from the Stockholm harbor and preserved almost 90% intact  (wikipedia)
Known as “Sweden in Miniature,” Skansen, the world’s first open air museum, features 150 original buildings from all over the country. Summer brings folk-dancing and music to the park with many Swedes celebrating their heritage in traditional costumes.
The stunning harbor with its collection of historic ships in Gothenburg  (wikipedia)
The Milles Outdoor Sculpture Museum, highlighting the works of Carl Milles, sits on a hillside overlooking the city.

Sweden is also famous for its archipelago filled with tiny islands where daily routines yield to more serene, meditative lifestyles.

Quaint narrow streets of Gamla Stan in Stockholm  (wikipedia)
In Malmo travelers can cruise the Paddan with its views of the maze of parks, gardens and flowers.
Gothenburg boasts a Maritime Center with numerous historic sailing vessels displayed in one area of its harbor.

Stockholm, a city built on 14 islands, is breathtaking in its scenic and architectural splendor surrounded by water.

Visitors with extra time may want to experience a cruise along the idyllic environmental treasure of the Gota Canal which connects Stockholm and Gothenburg.
Stockholm is built on 14 islands and features the best of the old with the best of the new  (wikipedia)
Sweden is a country where you can sail across the Baltic, or fly to the top of the world; a place where you are more likely to see a herd of reindeer than the Lapp people who live among them; a country where the best of the old blends gracefully with the best of the new.

Most Swedes speak some degree of English and will happily try to speak it with visitors.
Watching boats on the Gota Canal is a favorite pastime in Sweden  (wikipedia)
Ask any Swede what is best about their country and each will express in a personal way their love for its forests, woodlands, streams and archipelagos. For travelers, the nature of the land is important but so, too, is the nature of the people.

As English writer Juliette Levy once said, “Every land has its own special rhythm, and unless the traveler takes time to learn the rhythm, he or she will remain an outsider there always.”

It may look like a church but it is actually the fish market in Gothenburg  (wikipedia)
Truly Sweden does have its own special rhythm. All it takes is for the traveler to learn it and take one little turn off the main road.

You see, it’s not so bad to lose yourself in Sweden, because, in the process, you may discover yourself instead.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes: Mother Nature’s aquatic theme park

Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park where 16 lakes converge into a waterfall paradise  (wikipedia)
CROATIA Eden has been rediscovered among the lush, verdant forests of Croatia.

What happens when 16 inter-connected lakes are formed by the confluence of multiple rivers and natural dams into irregular tiers of breathtaking aquatic artistry? The answer: you get the Plitvice Lakes, the oldest national park in Southeastern Europe and the largest in Croatia.

Water, water everywhere at Plitvice Lakes  (wikipedia)
With more than a million visitors each year, Plitvice Lakes may be the most famous unknown attraction in the world for most American travelers. Situated at the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one reason for the disconnect might be due to the war that raged in the region between 1992 and 1995.
All of that is changing now, and Croatia is rapidly becoming a popular destination thanks to its old world ambiance and spectacular scenery.

Plitvice is one of those delicious places that must experienced to be fully appreciated. It is impossible to describe because every turn of the head offers a different panoramic vista that is a visual feast. This is Mother Nature at the peak of her creativity where water cascades from every direction into a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors and liquid mosaics.
Pools of rushing water converge to create liquid mosaics  (wikipedia)
Starting with a basic palette of azure, green, gray and blue, colors constantly change according to the time of day, the angle of the sunlight, cloud cover and the amount of minerals flowing in the water at any given time. No two lakes are ever the same color, making the natural phenomenon of this aquatic wonderland seem like a perpetual stained glass window on water.
The cascading magic of the Plitvice waterfalls  (wikipedia)

Divided into an upper level of 12 lakes and four more in the lower cluster, the lakes are formed by runoff from several small surface and subterranean rivers. The name Plitvice Lakes is a bit misleading because a seemingly endless array of cascading waterfalls add another dramatic dimension to this breathtaking natural aquatic tableau.

Situated within dense woodlands populated by deer, bears, wolves, rare birds and an abundant variety of unique vegetation, Plitvice has a primeval quality that creates sensations of being at the birthplace of nature.
Gateway to one of Mother Nature's greatest aquatic displays  (wikipedia)
Each of the 16 lakes has its own legends and folklore, most of which are based upon actual events. Among the traditions is an annual gathering when thousands of simultaneous weddings are conducted near a series of majestic waterfalls.

An abundance of fish at Plitvice National Park  (wikipedia)
The park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1979, making it one of the first natural UNESCO sites in the world. It is open daily throughout the year, with longer hours during summer. Entrance fees are used for the upkeep of the park and the protection of wildlife. Ticket prices are seasonal with adult tickets averaging approximately $18. Children ages seven to 18 receive a discount, while children under seven are admitted at no charge. Group rates are available for a minimum of 15 people. Two day tickets can also be purchased.

Accommodations are rustic, but comfortable  (wikipedia)
There are 19 small villages within the region of the park, and there are also excellent accommodations available inside the part itself.
Hotel Bellevue and Hotel Plitvice are two star properties inside the park. Don’t be misled by the stars, the accommodations are clean, comfortable and reasonable ranging from about $100 to $125 a night.
Hotel Jezero is the only three star property at Plitvice, but most visitors prefer Hotel Plitvice if given a choice.
Just outside the park in Rakovica, which is two miles from the entrance, you will find rooms at the three star Hotel Degenija. Slightly further down the road, six miles away, is Hotel Mazola, another three star property located in Korenika.
Age old trees create a natural canopy as they lean over the waters of the Plitvice Lakes  (wikipedia)
There are also 86 acres of camp grounds four miles away in Korana.
Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is a majestic explosion of waterfalls that must be witnessed to comprehend its true magnitude.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Ouro Preto and the Michelangelo of Brazil

Brazil's city of hills and churches, Ouro Preto with is breathtaking Baroque architecture (wikipedia)
OURO PRETO, BRAZIL Florence, Italy had Michelangelo. And Ouro Preto, Brazil had a sculptor and architect by the name of Aleijadinho. Both were geniuses. Although Aleijadinho is largely unknown to most of the world, he was, in his own way, even more accomplished than his Italian counterpart.

Antonio Francisco Lisboa was born in Ouro Preto sometime during the 1730s. That actual date is not certain. Antonio’s mother was an African slave. His father was an immigrant carpenter from Brazil who was so skilled at his craft that he became the most highly regarded architect in the region.

Aleijadinho Pavilion in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
As an apprentice to his father, young Antonio began working as a day laborer on the Church of Our Lady of Carmel in Ouro Preto. Before long, he had achieved notoriety in his own right by designing the Chapel of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi. Not only did he create the building, Lisboa also sculpted the exterior carvings, including a bas-relief of St. Francis receiving the stigmata.

In 1777, when he was in his 40s, Antonio’s career was gradually altered by a debilitating disease from which he never recovered. Most experts believe it was leprosy, but others suggest it could have been scleroderma. Either way, Lisboa’s body deteriorated to the extent that he became disfigured and disabled. Before long the disease even cost him his fingers.

Despite his physical impairments, Antonio continued to sculpt using a hammer and chisel that were strapped to his hands by his assistants.
Sculpture of the Last Supper by "The Little Cripple" of Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Eventually the artist became increasingly despondent and reclusive. So horrified was he by his disfigurement that he worked only at night. If he did go out in public, he was carried in a covered palanquin. To the citizens of Our Preto, no longer was he Antonio Lisboa. Now he was known as Aleijadinho, “the Little Cripple.”

Aleijadinho’s home village was a thriving, prosperous community during the Golden Age of Brazil in the late 17th and much of the 18th centuries. The name Ouro Preto means “black gold” in Portuguese, and the city was created by an influx of thousands of fortune seeking soldiers who flocked to the region. Soon after came artisans and architects who created outstanding Baroque churches as well as exquisite fountains and bridges.
All roads lead to Tiradentes Square in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Situated on a series of tall hills, Ouro Preto features 13 spectacular Baroque churches that dominate the cyclorama of the city. Ultimately, all of the roads diverge into Tiradentes Square -- the cultural focal point of the city from which everything radiates. The square is surrounded by imposing public and private buildings that rise from cobblestone streets to gaze at the panoramic vistas.

Classic Baroque church in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Here, wrought iron balconies overlook steep ancient streets extending beneath the pastel colors of Baroque architecture and art. Rapidly moving clouds sweep across the hills painting a continuous array of rainbow images.

One hill can be bathed in brilliant sunshine, while another darkens under carbon-like thunderheads and still others shimmer among a kaleidoscope of darkness and light. It is impossible to turn in any direction without witnessing the stunning beauty of Ouro Preto’s baker’s dozen of churches.

Interior of a church in Ouro Preto  (wikipedia)
Because of its mining potential and gold, Ouro Preto was once the capital of the state of Mina Gerais. Located roughly 300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, even today the city retains much of its 18th century character with horse and mule drawn wooden carts and peasant women walking the streets with bundles of laundry balanced on their heads.

This was the world of Aleijadinho who perhaps saved his crowing achievement until the end of his life though he was then at the height of his suffering. Commissioned by a wealthy businessman who built the Sanctuary of Born Jesus of Matosinhos at Congohas, the Little Cripple created a series of small sculpted scenes to honor the Twelve Prophets.
Ouro Preto is a city of hills and 13 hilltop churches  (wikipedia)
Each scene is housed in its own miniature building, six on each side of the courtyard that leads to the entrance of the church.

One of the masterpieces of Aleijadinho  (wikipedia)
Even for a healthy artist, each work would be an amazing accomplishment by itself. By this time in Aleijadinho’s life however, he had neither his hands nor his feet. Pads were strapped to his knees, enabling him to climb the ladder that reached his creations.

Ouro Preto is an undiscovered secret for many travelers, but the story of Brazil’s Little Cripple, his determination to create and the magnitude of his achievements are worth their weight in gold.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Europe’s high speed trains: Romancing the rails

A Cisalpino tilting train races through the European countryside  (wikipedia)
 EUROPE Europe’s modern high speed rail networks have forever changed the way travelers visit the continent.

Thanks to modern rail technology, traveling by train through Europe has recaptured the romance of travel that existed in a bygone era. Once again the simple act of coming from and going to is a pleasure to be enjoyed with contemporary comfort and efficiency.

Japanese Shinkansen, commonly called "The Bullet Train"  (wikipedia)
In 1964, when the hoopla of the Tokyo Olympic Games was over and the world departed, the crowded island nation waved good-bye and went back to work.  But something remained. Something had changed the world of transportation and travel, forever. 

In Japan they are called Shinkansen, but to the world they commonly became known as “bullet trains.”

With concerns about population density combined with rising costs of gasoline, countries like France and Germany quickly began developing high speed rail services of their own. 

Today, France takes national pride as a leader in conventional rail technology, establishing a world record speed of 357.2 miles per hour in April of 2007.

Double decked TGV speeds through the coast of France  (wikipedia)
Commercial high speed trains in many European countries currently reach scheduled speeds of 186-mph while some of France’s TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse) travel at 200-mph.  In larger European countries, such as France and Germany, it was feasible to design dedicated tracks which allow higher rates of speed.

Countries with less revenue for rail infrastructure or which are not large enough to support the extensive
Tilting trains make high speed possible  (wikipedia)
lengths of dedicated track necessary for high speed rail, ingeniously developed the concept of tilting trains.  While tilt trains do not travel at the super speeds of their faster cousins, they have the advantage of being able to operate on existing rail lines.

Another innovation, which has also been incorporated into modern French TGVs and German ICEs (Inter City Express), is double deck trains which offer added passenger capacity and high speeds as well.

Technological advances in conventional high speed rail travel made the long awaited dream of connecting the United Kingdom with continental Europe through a tunnel beneath the English Channel a reality.
Eurostar train exits the Channel Tunnel at 186-miles per hour  (wikipedia)
The project officially opened in May, 1994 with the 31.4 mile underwater rail tunnel linking Folkstone, Kent in England with Coquelles Pas-de-Calais in northern France.  Today, Eurostar trains make day trips between England and France or Belgium a convenient proposition for holiday travelers or businessmen.  Trains travel between London and Paris in 2 hours 15 minutes, while trips  to/from London and Brussels can be done in just under 2 hours. 

Interior of Thalys, known as "Big Red"  (wikipedia)
Private companies have also gotten into the high speed rail marketplace.  Known as “the Big Red Train,” Thalys unites Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) with Paris.  Popular stops en route include Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.

Even a small country like Switzerland, which has no need for a high speed network of its own, has cleverly negotiated alliances with France, Germany and Italy to utilize their rapid train services between the bordering countries.  The result has been a tourism boom for all four destinations by providing easy access for visitors.

Inside the bustling railway terminal in Stockholm, Sweden  (wikipedia)
Several other countries in Europe also have extensive, growing, high speed rail services, particularly Sweden and Spain.  Competition among the countries is keen, and services vary widely depending upon the length of the journey.  Short hauls feature food carts with snack and drink services or bistro cars, while longer trips provide full-service dining cars.  Depending upon the time of day, some trains offer meal services at your seat.
A German InterCity Express (ICE) pulls into Leipzig  (wikipedia)
Ground transportation is frequently the last thing travelers consider when planning a trip.  For Americans, renting a car is often the first consideration and, indeed, at first glance a rail pass may seem expensive by comparison.  But when you calculate the high cost of gasoline in Europe, the convenience of going city-center to city-center by rail, the hassles of reading road signs and finding parking, the accessibility of food and restroom services and the opportunity to relax, read a book or paper, work at the computer, enjoy a nap or simply gaze out the window at the passing panoramas, a European rail pass is a bargain. In addition, rail passes offer many money-saving bonuses for a variety of other travel related services.

Panoramic trains glides through Switzerland  (wikipedia)
Even with supplements for some high speed rail services, the convenience of traveling between many European destinations of relatively short distances, or the ability to do day trips that were once regarded as impractical, has changed the face of travel forever. 

It is now practical, in many cases, to base yourself in a city without changing hotels every day.  Not only does it save time from packing and unpacking, it allows more opportunities for sightseeing or shopping and fewer hassles of constantly being on the move.

High speed trains combine with majestic European scenery for the best of two worlds  (wikipedia)
High speed trains reinvented travel in Europe. Using their fabulous modern “bullet trains” is a traveler’s delight. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal: Discovering a city of discoverers

Triumph Arch is the gateway to Rua Augusta, the commercial hub of Lisbon, Portugal  (wikipedia)
LISBON, PORTUGAL -- Rome has its seven hills.  Paris features wide boulevards and a tower built by Gustave Eiffel.  And San Francisco showcases the Golden Gate Bridge and its famous trolleys.  But if you want to see them all, or at least reasonable facsimiles, try Lisbon, Portugal.

Nestled upon the shores of the Tagus River, which can accommodate major cruise ships because it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon traces its roots to the ancient Phoenicians as well as a seafaring heritage where famous navigators sailed forth to explore a new world.

St. George's Castle overlooks the streets of Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Much of Lisbon is immediately captivating from the majestic Moorish stronghold of St. George’s Castle to the elegant tree-lined 300-foot wide boulevard known as Avenida da Liberdade which was built between 1879 and 1882.  No matter where you turn in Lisbon, there is something of interest including spacious squares and countless monuments such as the Padrao dos Descobrimentos honoring Portugal’s Age of Discovery.

While Lisbon is a great walking city, it does require local transportation to reach many of the places where a leisurely stroll can offer a treasure chest of rewarding surprises. Lisbon’s  seven hills are higher and more dramatic than its Roman counterpart.  In fact, the Portuguese capital features three funiculars to manipulate the ups and downs of certain districts.
April 25 Bridge looks much like the Golden Gate (wikipedia)

Begin at St. George’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) which overlooks the historic city center and the Tagus River from a dominating position at the crest of the highest hill of Lisbon.  Behind the walls of the once fortified citadel, the interior is largely filled with spacious promenades, gardens, houses, a church and countless panoramic views of the lively metropolis below.  There is also a multimedia history of Lisbon, the Castle Gallery and the Tower of Ulysses which was once the royal treasury.

One of Lisbon's famed yellow trolleys makes its way through Alfama  (wikipedia)
Outside the walls of the castle, amble through the Alfama, the oldest part of the city.  This exotic area thrived under the Moors. It is a tangle of narrow, winding streets that twist and turn past charming cafes and colorful shops.  (Tip -- Don’t be afraid to get lost.)

To reach the top take tram #28.  It’s the most interesting way to get there.  The inexpensive little yellow “Toonerville Trolleys” that bump and grind through town are usually crowded, and frequently uncomfortable, but you’ll get more than your share of local culture during the ride.  It’s all part of the adventure.

Rossio Square in  Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Lisbon is a city with many faces, each with its own personality. Baixa is perhaps the best known district. The commercial hub of Lisbon is famous for its colorful street-life on Rua AugustaThe neighborhood of this main pedestrian street with its gridded configuration was rebuilt after an earthquake leveled the city in 1755.  Now, more than 250 years later, Baixa is a rich blend of history and culture.

Another popular shopping area is Chiado which represents the primary intellectual and cultural section of Lisbon.  Like Florian in Venice and Café Greco in Rome, the A Brasilera Café was once a haven for writers and artists during the late 19th century and early part of the 20th.  Little wonder then, that Chiado would be known for its galleries, bookshops and eclectic cafes.

Praco do Municipio, the City Hall of Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Everywhere you turn in Lisbon visitors encounter huge plazas, parks and historic monuments honoring its rich and diverse history.  Even the 8,000 seat bull ring with its Moorish-style architecture is impressive.  Bullfighting was once used as a means of training Portuguese soldiers and, unlike Spain, the bull is not killed in the ring in Portugal. 

Heading north from Restauradores to Marques de Pombal Square is the lovely and elegant 19th century Avenida da Liberdade.  It is said to be patterned after the Champs Elysees in Paris, but the fountains, sidewalk cafes and historic mansions give the boulevard an ambiance that feels more like Rome’s Via VenetoHere you will find most of the upscale hotels and designer shops of the city.
Avenue of Liberty in Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Of particular interest is the pavement on the mile-long stretch with its abstract decorations made of black and white stones.  Eventually the avenue spills into the Marques de Pombal, a huge square and monument honoring the prime minister who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755.  Appropriately, the monument is also the gateway to one of the most breathtaking panoramic views in the city. 

No visit to Lisbon is complete without a visit to the waterfront along the Tagus River.  Here, too, is an area filled with museums and monuments, not the least of which is a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Inaugurated in 1966, the Bridge of 25th of April (Ponte 25 de Abril) links Lisbon with the municipality of Almada.  It was originally named the Salazar Bridge after Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the prime minister at the time of construction.

Though Salazar was no longer in power in 1974 when a coup known as the “Carnation Revolution” ousted the authoritarian regime of the New State (Estado Novo), the citizens of Lisbon quickly changed the name to Ponte 25 de Abril in honor of the date of the victory in the coup.  The Carnation Revolution refers to the fact that no shots were fired during the uprising.
Discoverer's Monument  (wikipedia)

Another impressive memorial along the shores of the Tagus is the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrao dos Descobrimentos).  Celebrating explorers who sailed from the site of the sculpture in search of new worlds and trade with India and the Orient, this poignant work of art honors 33 adventurers who brought Portugal to prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries.

For the traveler, Portugal’s capital is one of the least expensive major cities on the continent of Europe.  The sights mentioned above are but a taste of the treasures that can be found in a city that built much of its history on exploration.  Now, five hundred years later, you, too, can enjoy your own personal “Age of Discovery” in Lisbon.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

When baseball season nears, Spring is on the way

Baseball reminds us every year that Spring is just around the corner  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE  Forget about the robins. Disregard Punxatawney Phil and the buds on the trees. You know spring is just around the corner when the Red Sox equipment truck leaves Boston and heads to Florida.

Perhaps this year, more than any other in recent memory, residents of the northeast and Midwest have their radar set on those delicious days of sunshine.

No other sport has anything that comes close to baseball’s Spring Training. Football begins during the dog days of summer and even the most avid fans don’t get excited until after Labor Day. Basketball is practically a year-round sport, but the entire season is played indoors.

Baseball, on the other hand, is an annual rite of spring. For six weeks, from mid-February until early April, Arizona and Florida come alive with the sounds of horsehide balls being smacked into the sky by bats made of northern white ash.

It is a time for optimism. Every team is undefeated. Games mean nothing, but competition is keen. Aging veterans may struggle to hang on to their careers for another season while youngsters in their late teens and early twenties try to unseat guys they once collected on bubble gum cards.

From the moment they lace up their cleats and hear the clackety-clack of their metal spikes upon the clubhouse floor, players feel a sense of renewal. But even that isn’t as special as that first magic step onto the field when the lush grass and the soft earth crunches beneath their feet. This is where they belong. They are home. Diamonds are a guy’s best friend.

For a truly unique holiday, there is nothing quite like Spring Training. Travelers can visit the Cactus League in Arizona or explore the Grapefruit League in Florida. Opt for tumbleweed or palm trees. Either way it’s a chance to get up close and personal with the stars and superstars of the game in a way that no other sport can offer.

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona  (wikipedia)
There are several ways for vacationers to experience Spring Training. In Arizona visitors can do day trips to the Grand Canyon or Sedona or get in some rounds of golf before taking in a game.

Florida offers deep sea fishing, the Everglades, swimming, golf and even an opportunity to visit the mouse that ate Orlando at Walt Disney World.

Games are played in the afternoon or at night and distances between parks are relatively short. With a schedule in hand and a little planning, fans can take in two games in a day and see four different teams play. It’s the ultimate doubleheader. Do that just twice and you could see 40% of the major league teams compete in just two days of baseball.

Whether you travel to Arizona or Florida, each state is home to 15 ball clubs and both leagues, American and National, have teams that train in each location. Logistically, Arizona is more compact, but Florida has the advantage of having most of its camps along both coasts.

Spring is that time of year when players are most accessible. Autographs are much easier to get than during the regular season. Most veterans only play four to six innings a game and, since Spring Training parks are small, it is convenient for fans to approach their favorite players.

In general, without the pressure of a regular season pennant races, most players tend to be more relaxed and available during Spring Training, especially if fans are polite and respectful in the knowledge that players, after all, are also working.

Baseball players are typically fun-loving people. The sport is designed that way. It suits the personalities of the men who play the game. Conscientious fans who understand the value of their role and the player’s need for personal space will be far more successful at gaining the attention of their favorite athletes than those who make obnoxious spectacles of themselves.

For a ball player Spring Training is, in many ways, a return to his roots. Games are played in parks rather than stadiums, just as they are in the minor leagues. Capacity is just a few thousand seats. Fans are frequently closer to the action than during the regular season.

Spring Training means going to the beach in March  (wikipedia)
For some, Spring Training is a perennial traveling adventure representing a new beginning. It is a time for short sleeves, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and hot dogs.

For others it can be a nostalgic link to the past. Baseball thrives on folklore and tradition like no other sport. In many ways, regardless of the generation, baseball is a time machine back to a simpler, less complicated, day when life seemed more carefree. A time when little boys dreamed of being the next big league star and dads remember their own little boy dreams.

Still, others simply savor an early escape from winter’s final blustery breaths. They follow the sun to bask in the green of the grass, the brown of the dirt, the blue of the sky and to hear the crack of the bat.

When April comes, the boys of summer head north with sun tanned faces that remind everyone else of what lies ahead.

Forget about the robins. When you see Blue Jays and Cardinals and Orioles, that’s when you know it’s spring.