Friday, October 17, 2014

Irish eyes are smiling at Ballynahinch Castle Hotel


Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, Connemara, Galway, Ireland  (Photo: Ballynahinch Castle)
CONNEMARA, IRELAND Ballynahinch Castle Hotel in Connemara, Galway, Ireland has been described in one word which perfectly characterizes it as “poetry.”

Situated in the spiritual heart of the region, this manor castle and its 450 acre woodland estate reflects the spirit of Irish hospitality with its rich history and nostalgic location. Nestled on the shores of the Owenmore River at the foot of the 12 Bens Mountain range and just five miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the popular luxury hotel resembles a sporting estate more than it does a traditional castle.

The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland  (Photo: Taylor)
Ballynahinch, which means settlement of the island when translated from the original Irish, was built in 1684 for the Martyn family, of which one of its most famous members was Colonel Richard Martin.

Colonel Martin was a politician and well-known animal rights activist who founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). At first Martin was source of public ridicule, but eventually his reputation earned him the nickname of ‘Humanity Dick.’

Majestic Irish coastline  (Photo: Wikipedia)
Since 1946, when Ballynahinch became a hotel, the property has thrived upon the distinction of offering superb accommodations and award-winning dining in luxurious, but unpretentious, surroundings. Among the most popular activities are fly-fishing for salmon, nature walks amid pristine forests, horseback riding and golf, all of which capture the ambiance of a gentler, more relaxing day and age. 

Ballynahinch blends a Downton Abbey lifestyle with a rustic atmosphere that immediately embraces its guests by encapsulating them in a world that only seems to exist in period novels and films.

Fisherman's Pub, Ballynahinch Castle  (Photo: Ballynahinch Castle)
Much of the appeal of Ballynahinch is the opportunity to venture away from the castle for a variety of excursions before returning to open log fires and the lively old world charms of the Fisherman’s Pub.

The Ballynahinch Fishery, located on the property of the castle, is recognized throughout the world as providing some of the best salmon and sea trout fishing on earth. It’s a “riverdance” for anglers.

Several nearby fishing villages feature sea cruising and both deep sea and freshwater fishing. There are also regular outings to the Aran Islands and picturesque Inishbofin with its population of just 160 inhabitants.

Ancient ruin at Inishbofin  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Inishbofin, which means the Island of the White Cow, is primarily known for its scenic location, but it is also home to St. Colman’s Cemetery, the ruin of a 13th century church on the site of a 7th century monastery.

The 12 Bens, Connemara, Ireland  (Photo: Wikipedia)
The island is a short 30-minute ferry ride from Cleggan Pier. Noted for its delightful walks and sandy beaches, it is also a popular spot to carry a picnic lunch prepared at Ballynahinch before you set out for the day.

Shoppers enjoy the villages of Roundstone and Westport as well as the local market in Clifden. Along with its market, Clifden is the gateway to the appropriately named Sky Road which is known for its breathtaking views of the Irish coastline.

Reflections of Kylemore Abbey  (Photo: Ireland Tourism)
Another favorite day trip is a visit to Kylemore Abbey, Ireland’s oldest Benedictine Abbey. Kylemore, just a half-hour’s drive from Ballynahinch, was built in 1868 and, it has been home to the Community of Benedictine Nuns for nearly 100 years. The site features a Gothic church, Victorian gardens, walking areas in the mountains plus crafts and pottery.

Among the list of characters associated with Ballynahinch was Maharaja Ranjitsinhji who many regard as one of the greatest cricket batsmen in history. In addition to being an Indian prince, Ranji was a member of the English cricket team and played first-class cricket for Cambridge University.

His unorthodox batting style called the “leg glance” revolutionized the game by allowing quicker reaction time with the bat. One teammate tabbed him with the nickname “the midsummer night’s dream of cricket.”

Outside the cricket pitch. Ranji became the Chancellor of the Indian Chamber of Princes in 1907 and later represented his country at the League of Nations.

The Grand Walk at Ballynahinch Castle  (Photo: Ballynahinch Castle)
For the traveler, Ballynahinch Castle represents casual elegance. Classic rooms are individually furnished in a variety of sizes that conjure images and impressions of a bygone era. Rates begin at approximately $145 per night and all classic rooms are located in the original Ballynahinch building.

The rest of the story  (Photo: Ballynahinch Castle)
At the higher end of the scale, three riverside suites occupy the full width of the luxury wing of the castle hotel. The suites feature panoramic views of the river and woodlands or the walled garden. 

Prices start at about $270 per night.

Ballynahinch is a four-star property that prides itself on traditional Irish hospitality. Sequestered within the idyllic forests of Connemara, Galway, Ballynahinch will not overwhelm you with pomp and ceremony. Rather it welcomes you with all the sensations of a genteel lifestyle where living is quiet and uncomplicated. Just the way it used to be.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Canada’s fabulous and amazing West Edmonton Mall

A world under one roof at West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada  (Wikimedia)
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada,  – If the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Canada isn’t among the “Seven Wonders of the Shopping World” it would be amazing to experience the places that can beat it.

West Edmonton Mall is the Disneyland of shopping. Though it was surpassed as the world’s biggest shopping center under one roof in 2004, it remains the largest in North America. But words like “big” and “large” and “monstrous” and “gigantic” don’t come close to describing what this mall is all about.

Ice rink at West Edmonton Mall (Wikimedia)
West Edmonton is a mall walker’s paradise. For perspective, if a visitor begins at one corner of the mall and walks non-stop to the opposite end at a steady pace, it takes a full half-hour to reach the other side.

In the process, the walker will pass more than 800 stores and 200 restaurants during the junket that covers 48 city blocks or the equivalent of 104 football fields.

The concept evolved in the late 1970s after the four Ghermezian brothers fled Iran with their father in 1959 to escape Islamic fundamentalism. Initially the family opened a Persian rug business which   resembled traditional bazaars so typical of their native culture.

Sea lion show at WEM  (Wikimedia)
Eventually the idea of combining shopping and entertainment became a reality in September of 1981 and the rest is history. The element that makes West Edmonton Mall unique is not so much the shopping, however vast though it is, but the sheer scope of entertainment that transcends the shopping experience.

For travelers, the array of attractions are the lifeblood of the mall that makes it so unique. Consider the full-sized indoor Mindbender roller coaster which is part of the amusement park. Or, how about the World Waterpark which covers nearly 5 acres with six wave pools including an 83-foot tall slide known as the Twister and Cyclone.
The Mindbender indoor roller coaster at West Edmonton Mall  (Wikimedia)
Replica of the Santa Maria  (West Edmonton Mall)
But we’ve “only just begin” as the song goes. The mall contains an indoor salt-water lake that accommodates a sea lion habitat as well as a replica of the Santa Maria, one of Christopher Columbus’ ships when he discovered the New World. The deck of the ship, by the way, can be reserved for private functions.

For those who enjoy Bumper Cars on dry-land, the Deep-Sea Derby is the aqua equivalent complete with squirt guns.

Beneath the main floor, the lagoon is home to the Deep Sea Adventure featuring an aquarium called Sea Life Adventure. Sea Lions Rock is home to Clara, Slide and Splash, three sea lions who entertain visitors throughout the day.

No facility of such magnitude in Canada would be complete without a skating rink to honor the national sport of ice hockey. Meanwhile, the original 18-hole Pebble Beach Mini Golf course has been redesigned as Professor WEM’s Adventure Golf.

Indoor Chinatown  (West Edmonton Mall)
Naturally there are movie theaters, a dinner theater and four radio stations with broadcast facilities inside the mall.

Ed’s Recreation Centre is a complex consisting of a bowling alley, pool hall, arcade, restaurant and a stage that is one of Edmonton’s major venues for musical entertainment.

However, if Ed’s doesn’t whet your appetite, there’s always the country music nightclub known as Whiskey Jack’s.

Perhaps even more impressive is the scaled down replica of New Orleans’ famed Bourbon Street featuring music clubs, restaurants and even a comedy club. For special events, Bourbon Street can be closed off from the rest of the mall to allow private openings and closings from normal mall activities.
Replica of Bourbon St. in New Orleans  (West Edmonton Mall)
Why not visit Europe or Asia as well. Europa Boulevard has sidewalk cafes and eclectic shops nestled within a typical European street-scape. Or travel even further east to enjoy the pleasures of Chinatown as well.

Try the indoor shooting range known as Wild West Shooting Centre or the 24-hour Gold’s Gym facility.

If all this grandiosity overwhelms you into a world of temptation, you can repent at the inter-denominational chapel.

Bunk down in a stage coach  (Fantasyland Hotel)
Travelers and shopaholics with serious reservations that this might not be a destination for a single visit need not fear. Fantasyland Hotel offers 235 classically decorated guest room inside the mall.

Ahh but remember, this is the West Edmonton Mall, a one-of-a-kind experience. Rather than choose a traditional room, why not select one of Fantasyland’s 120 themed rooms instead? Not sure what suits your taste? Here are some suggestions. You can journey to ancient Rome, or sleep in an igloo. Travel back to the Old West, visit the jungles of Africa, relive the Arabian nights or, if all else fails, nestle down in the back of a pick-up truck?
Sleep in a pick-up truck at the Fantasyland Hotel  (Fantasyland Hotel)
Edmonton, Canada is truly a land for all seasons where it really is a mall world after all.


Friday, October 3, 2014

European Christmas Markets rekindle the spirit of the season

Entrance to the Christmas Market in Baden Baden, Germany  (Photo: Taylor)
UPPER RHINE VALLEYEUROPE, October 3, 2014 – Two of travel’s most popular new trends are set to converge as the holiday season approaches. The first is off-season travel and the second is European Christmas Markets.

Typical European Christmas setting  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Christmas Markets rekindle the lost spirit of the season within your soul. Furthermore, a visit to the Chriskindelsmariks (markets of the Child Jesus) of Europe may be the only trip a traveler ever takes where bad weather is an asset. Be it snow, sleet, freezing rain, drizzle or plain old sub-zero temperatures, it just doesn’t matter. Nothing can dampen your enthusiasm.

When the weather is rotten hot mulled wine and sausages taste better, music is cheerier, cheeks are rosier and Christmas renews itself by reaching into forgotten recesses of childhood memories.

Gingerbread is a popular treat  (Photo: Taylor)
It really doesn’t matter which Christmas Market you choose. They are everywhere. Oddly enough, though they are all basically the same, each one is unique. Some are festivals of light. Others feature local arts and crafts. Still others focus on food and entertainment.

Many sprawl throughout a city while others center around a small main square in front of the cathedral. No matter where you go or what you choose to do, the only thing guaranteed to happen is that your spirits will soar in a personal metamorphosis that would do Ebenezer Scrooge proud.

One region especially suited for travelers during the holiday season is the Upper Rhine Valley, which includes Switzerland, France and Germany. The area is compact, making it convenient by rail, boat or car, while offering the cultural flavor of three different countries.  
Picturesque narrow streets filled with decorations  (Photo: Taylor)
There are large markets such as Strasbourg and Basel, medium sized hamlets like Baden-Baden and Freiburg and smaller towns where entire villages become a market as in Obernai. The important thing is to visit more than one because the food, music, art, crafts, lights, decorations and individual stalls vary widely from city to city and, even, from square to square.

Colorful lights in front of Strasbourg Cathedral  (Photo: Taylor)
Though not the largest, Strasbourg features the oldest market in France. It also ranks among the best known Christmas Markets in Europe dating to the year 1570. Vienna held something called a December Market during Christmas in 1294, but it was more of a traditional market than anything to do with the season. As far as Christmas is concerned, Munich may be the oldest going all the way back to 1310.

Music is part of the atmosphere  (Photo: Taylor)
Despite that, Strasbourg places so much emphasis on illumination that it calls itself (at least during Christmas) “the City of Light” while proudly proclaiming the title “Capital of Christmas” thanks to its role in the evolution of the Christmas Market story.

Historically, the traditional day for gifts and handing out candy in Europe was December 6th to honor the day the patron saint of Lorraine, Saint Nicholas, died in the late 4th century. Many places in Europe still observe December 6th as the day of giving.

In 1570 a protestant preacher in Strasbourg named Johannes Flinner became upset that Catholics were venerating a saint. He convinced local authorities to do away with the St. Nicholas Market. What took its place was a Christmas Market later in the month of December.

Manger scene with live animals  (Photo: Taylor)
At first the market was only a three-day event held in front of the cathedral just before Christmas. Over the centuries there were several changes of venue until the market took permanent residence at Place Broglie, one of the main squares in the city. Today the market spreads throughout Strasbourg where its primary theme of light is ever-present.

In Germany, the hot mulled wine is called gluhwein while in France it is simply vin chaud, or hot wine. It is arguably the drink of choice at virtually any market, but be forewarned, especially in Germany where inhaling the spices too quickly can take your breath away until you learn to sip properly.

Hot mulled Gluhwein or Vin Chaud will warm your spirit  (Photo: Taylor)
Nativity scenes are also mood inspiring because they usually include live sheep, goats and other animals calmly grazing on hay covered floors in front of a crèche. Though Europeans long ago abandoned church-going on a regular basis, there remains a sense of serenity about live animals in a manger scene where nobody gets upset over political correctness.  Somehow tradition wins out and that adds to the ambience of the surroundings.

Stroll and mingle  (Photo: Taylor)
Savor the aromas of the season while strolling from booth to booth. Spices, cinnamon, perfumes, scented candles, hot doughnuts and pretzels permeate the frigid air and lull you into a realm of long- lost sensations.

Church bells ring out. Choirs sing in the distance. Sleigh bells jingle.

Mingle with locals. Stroll among half-timbered buildings and colorful wooden stalls. Inhale deeply and take in Christmas as you never have before. 


“Oh, come all ye faithful” for the European Christmas markets are truly a “joy to the world.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 7 Wonders plus 929 more

The majestic Taj Mahal, Agra, India  (Photo: Taylor)
CHARLOTTE, September 26, 2014 – Thanks to UNESCO, modern explorers can access an ever-expanding list of sites throughout the world that can enrich almost any travel experience.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which consists of 193 member states and 7 associate states, “works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly share values.”

The World Heritage List, which is one of many UNESCO projects, is a compilation of 936 properties that are natural, cultural or both.

Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal  (Photo: Estoril Tourism)
For travelers, this list is an invaluable resource of places that are “must see” destinations.  Currently it includes 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 mixed properties around the planet.

As UNESCO states, “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.  Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.  What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application.  World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

Mont St. Michel, Normandy, France  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Mark Twain, the famed American writer, was an avid traveler.  During one of his many adventures he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” 

In a sense, UNESCO’s World Heritage project is a living example of Twain’s words, for it is difficult, if not impossible, to visit these sites without being profoundly affected by the diversity and magnitude of their global impact throughout the centuries. 

Many of UNESCO’s locations are ancient sites that are familiar to everyone, like the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt or the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.  Others are more contemporary, but equally recognizable such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India or, even, the city of Venice and its lagoon.

Not all UNESCO sites are located in exotic foreign destinations either.  The United States has many that most Americans, as well as travelers from other countries, will recognize, like the Grand Canyon, Monticello and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Massive Fortress of Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Others are largely unknown to many, but every bit as fascinating like the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia, the Fortress of Suomenlinna in Finland and Brimstone Hill on the island of St. Kitts.

Some entire cities are UNESCO sites.  The list contains more than twenty such designations including the Swiss capital of Bern, Quito in Ecuador, Vatican City, and Budapest.

Ayutthaha, Thailand  (Photo: Wikimedia)
As my travels have broadened, whenever I am near a place that features a UNESCO site, I make every effort to go there because I know that I am sure to be rewarded with something new, exciting and educational.  Three personal favorites are Petra in Jordan, the Alhambra in Spain and the excavations of Delphi in Greece.

While the Parthenon in Athens may be better known to most travelers, Delphi’s dramatic hillside setting leaves little doubt about the mystical wonder it held for the ancients.  You will also be awed by the life-size bronze statue of the Charioteer that was discovered in 1896 at the Sanctuary of Apollo.  In a sense, it is the Greek equivalent of Michelangelo’s David.

Granada’s Alhambra is a stunning Moorish castle and fortress complex that was constructed in the mid-14th century.  Built for Spain’s last Muslim emirs, the elaborate buildings and carvings have been described by Moorish poets as "a pearl set in emeralds."

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Jordan’s “rose-red” city of Petra is equally spectacular combining natural beauty with man-made architecture and sculpture.  With its hidden location within majestic canyon walls and a narrow entrance, Petra was largely lost to the world until the end of the 19th century.  Today it remains relatively unknown to mass tourism but for those who do discover it, the impressions are lasting.

It’s simply a matter of knowing that when you travel if you see or hear the words UNESCO World Heritage Site, you are in for an experience that is most assuredly guaranteed to amaze, surprise or educate you in some unique way.

For myself, here are the Top Ten sites I have visited in alphabetical order.  Attempting to give them an order of preference or as a favorite would be little more than an exercise in futility.  Besides, it’s a fragile alliance at best, which means that the list could very easily change when something equally worthy pops up to replace one of the current members. 

Top Ten Favorite Personal UNESCO Sites

             1 – ALHAMBRA  (Spain)
             2 – AYUTTHAYA (Thailand)
             3 – DELPHI EXCAVATIONS  (Greece)
             4 – GRAND CANYON (United States)
             5 – MASADA (Israel)
             6 – PETRA (Jordan)
             7 – PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK (Croatia)
             8 – POMPEII (Italy)
             9 -- SINTRA (Portugal)
           10 – TAJ MAHAL (India)

Five Honorable Mention UNESCO Sites
             1 – CHICHEN ITZA (Mexico)
             2 – OLD CITY OF DUBROVNIK (Croatia)
             3 – FORTRESS OF SUOMENLINNA (Finland)
             4 – MONT ST. MICHEL (France)
             5 – PRAGUE (Czech Republic)

The UNESCO list is long and the choices are many.  It is possible, as the UNESCO selection committee has done, to define the list according to man-made or natural sites.  By choosing your favorites in separate categories, the list takes on an entirely different perspective. 
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Check it out for yourself.  You might be surprised at how many places you have already seen or you might even discover bold new worlds of interest.  UNESCO’s “wonders of the world” are truly magnificent sites for sore eyes.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Charlotte’s tour companies are diverse, abundant and visit every continent



African lion rests in the sun of South Africa  (Photo: John Lasater)
CHARLOTTE, September 19, 2014 – If you love to travel, Charlotte has an abundance of top notch tour operators that can take to places beyond your wildest imagination.

Once you have conquered the traditional destinations of Rome, Paris and London, Charlotte’s travel experts are ready to elevate your expertise to new levels of traveling experience which include every continent on the planet.

Nada Vergili among Italian sunflowers  (Photo: Nada's Italy)
Nada Vergili returned to the United States from her native home in Florence, Italy after living several years in Florida as a child. Today, Vergili’s tour company Nada’sItaly recently celebrated its tenth anniversary featuring more than 30 Italian tours each year.

Nada’s approach to travel is the same as her business slogan, “Tours for people who don’t go on tours.“
Using her personal knowledge of the birthplace of the Renaissance, Nada limits her groups to a maximum of 12 participants with an emphasis on opening a window to the traditions and lifestyles of the Italian people.

The Duomo of Florence  (Photo: Nada's Italy)
Vergili’s infectious personality combined with her genuine love of her homeland brings Italy alive in ways that are uniquely personal and unlike any visit you have ever encountered in Europe’s sunniest destination.

Many travel experts believe that when the merger between US Airways and American Airlines is complete Charlotte’s airfares will skyrocket. Perhaps, but one benefit of the union will be added international access, especially to South and Central America.

Enter Raffaele Beltram of Beltram Travel. Raffaele has been sending visitors to our neighboring southern continent for decades, and he is knowledgeable about all things South America including Antarctica.

Guess who's coming to dinner  (Photo: Facundo Santan/Antarpply Expeditions)
The silver haired, white mustachioed tour operator loves to talk about the heritage and traditions of Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and other latin lands. In addition, he offers expeditions to explore the wildlife and vegetation of the world’s last frontier in Antarctica with cruises sailing from Ushuaia, Chile.

A whale of a tale  (Photo: Antarpply Expeditions)
Though Beltram’s expertise is South America, he also occasionally offers tours to Europe including his current program to visit the Christmas Markets of Prague in December of this year.

With Europe, South America and Antarctica covered, why not visit Asia? Francis Tsai (frantsai@gmail.com) is a veteran of the hospitality industry with nearly 5 decades of experience.
Breathtaking Hanging Temple Monastery
Tsai is a native of China with personal travel credentials and skills to offer tours to Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.


Tsai’s destination list includes some of the most exotic spots in the world. In addition, enough time has elapsed since the war in Vietnam that many veterans of that era now have a desire to return much like D-Day veterans go back to the beaches of Normandy.

The Great Wall
During the early years of his travel career, Tsai worked with Pan American Airlines, Eastern Airlines, Lufthansa, Carnival Cruise Lines and the Hong Kong Tourist Association among others which give him a broad, diverse background in the tourism business.

Turkey is the only country in the world situated on two continents and Istanbul is the only city with “dual continent“ status.

Sam Crane of Crane Travel Tours worked in NATO headquarters in Izmir, Turkey as Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff. He is fluent in the Turkish language and, thanks to his years of working in the Adriatic region of the world, Sam has compiled a encyclopedic knowledge of Turkey and environs.
Crane’s tour company has been active for nearly 20 years with specialized tours to one of the best kept secrets in the tourism business.
Istanbul's Hagia Sophia  (Photo: Crane Travel Tours)
Crane’s tours emphasize Turkey’s historical heritage as ancient Asia Minor which was “the cradle of Western civilization.“

Magnificent Cappadocia  (Photo: Crane Travel Tours)
From the covered bazaar and mosques of Istanbul to the Greek ruins of the Mediteranean and beyond, Crane Travel Tours takes you into the past through the crossroads of Western culture.

Africa completes Charlotte’s list of continental knowledge and Safaris by John Lasater is all you need to know. 

When it comes to photo safaris, John Lasater is one of the best. Over the past quarter century Lasater has visited the “dark continent” nearly 60 times.

Rare sighting of a leopard in a tree  (Photo: John Lasater)
For more than 13 years Lasater has been personally customizing tours to Africa. Best of all, Lasater’s prices are frequently comparable to what most people pay for a trip to Europe. Many tours, which include accommodations, game viewing, tours, guides, meals and air, can be done for less than $5,000.

Jumbo out for an afternoon stroll  (Photo: John Lasater)
As a consultant for South African Airways for more than a decade, Lasater developed a passion for Africa that carries over to the detailed personalized attention he incorporates in each of his itineraries. Our tours are “customized to your requirements,” he says while adding the caveat, “If you come back unhappy it’s your own fault.”


And there you have it. Five tour operators and six continents all available through local Charlotte experts who have seen the world and will gladly share it with you.