Friday, March 24, 2017

Thailand's ancient capital of Ayutthaya is a triple treat

Ancient Buddha surveys the ruins of Thailand's former capital (wikipedia)
AYUTTHAYA, THAILAND Ayutthaya may not be a household destination in most homes, but it was good enough to be the capital of Thailand on three occasions and that fact  alone gives it plenty of history. On the other hand, Burma, now known as Myanmar, is opening its doors to the world after years of isolation, and Ayutthaya was important enough to be the capital of the region on at least three occasions.
Nature finds a way
Once known as "the pearl of the east," Ayutthaya was the artistic, spiritual and military hub of Southeast Asia off and on from 1351 until 1767. In the 18th century the city was destroyed so completely by Burmese marauders that the king relocated his capital in Bangkok, 50 miles north on the Chao Phraya River rather than attempt to rebuild.
At its peak, in the 16th century, Ayutthaya was often described by foreign traders as one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the East thanks to an abundance of rice and teak.
Accounts of the 15th and 16th centuries called Ayutthaya "Siam" but other sources claim the people of the region referred to themselves as "Tai" and their kingdom was known as "Krung Tai" or "The Tai Country." Today we know it as "Thailand."
Wat Chaiwatthanaram is a must-see site in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya came to power by conquering northern kingdoms and city states in the region and along the river. Kamphaeng, Phet and Phitsanulok were among places that fell under Ayutthayan rule before the end of the 15th century.
Not long afterward, Ayutthaya attacked Angkor which was regarded as the central power in the region. When Angkor fell, Ayutthaya became the dominant power in the region controlling most of the territory along the shores of the Chao Phraya river plain.
Life along Bangkok's klongs

Even today, the best way to approach and visit Ayutthaya is along the river. Also known as the River of Kings, it meanders its way from the Northern Highlands of Thailand through the Gulf of Siam. Make no mistake, the Chao Phraya still serves today as Bangkok's lifeline.

No visit to Bangkok, or the Ayutthaya region, is complete without a cruise on the Chao Phraya aboard the Manohra Song, a lovingly restored 50-year old , 50-foot rice boat that cruises past exotic temples and the alluring klongs of the river.
Ayutthaya has been the capital three times in a thousand years
Comprised of teak and other rare woods, the Manohra Song features just four staterooms and provides outstanding culinary delights. Appointed with fabulous antiques, exquisite tapestries and weaving and stunning local crafts, the Manohra Song is considered the most luxurious craft operating on the river today.

Fortunately for the Thais, the rich food supply from the planting of rice was used to pay taxes and to support religious institutions for two hundred years between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Manohra Song is an elegant excursion on the Chao Phraya River
In northern Thailand, minimal rainfall had to be supplemented by an irrigation system that controlled water levels and flooded paddies where the rice crop was glutinous.

In the river basin region however, so-called "floating rice" had been introduced by Bengal and the thin, non-glutinous crop grew fast enough to maintain the pace of water levels in lowland fields.

Consequently, the new strain of rice produced a surplus that allowed Ayutthaya to prosper thanks to its location in the southern floodplain.

Geographically, the river delta, which was considered uninhabitable, was reclaimed for rice cultivation and the region thrived thanks to its newfound crop.
Thailand is country filled with wats, stupas and temples  (
Ayutthayan kings were monarchs with absolute as well as semi-religious status. In addition to their natural leadership they derived authority from Hinduism and Buddhism, which, under what was known as "The Cirlce of Power," or "mandala system" forced allegiance to the king even though Ayutthaya itself was not a unified state.
Ayutthaya is exotic, mysterious and alluring  (wikipedia)
While contemporary reconstruction continues to restore Ayutthaya to its once grand status, the ruins of the historic city and other associated historic towns are now listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Ancient Ayutthaya is being
rediscovered (wikipedia)
The ancient city of Ayutthaya has been refound near the old city and is, today, the capital of Ayutthaya province.
Thailand is a destination that must be explored and absorbed through the pores. Its ancient cities, temples, traditions and religions speak of cultures we can only imagine in our minds, and perhaps that is where we can truly discover "the Thais that bind."

Friday, March 17, 2017

Jerash: Jordan's sprawling secret city

Modern day Jerash spreads across Northern Jordan filled with ancient history  (wikipedia)
JERASH, JORDAN  Mention travel to the Middle East these days and most people shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As such, it would be far from honest to promote a travel destination nestled squarely in the midst of that chaos.
Petra is Jordan's other major
site  (wikipedia)
On the other hand, the ruins of Jerash in Jordan serve as a powerful reminder that man's quest for civilization has been a long and arduous task dating back many centuries before Christ.
Among the truly sad aspects of global terrorism has been the substantial loss of architecture, antiquities and other cultural treasures that could have provided contemporary researchers with greater insights into mankind's legacy and his eternal search for greater understanding of the world in which we evolved.
Oval Forum at Jerash beckons further exploration  (wikipedia)
Jerash is, today, Jordan's second largest tourist attraction. This archaeological masterpiece has been hailed by some as the best preserved Roman provincial city in the Middle East. Jerash, or Gerasa as it was known in ancient days, is framed by the hill of Gilead approximately 30 miles north of Jordan's capital city, Amman.
The Great Temple at Jerash
It was discovered in the 4th century A.D. by soldiers of Alexander the Great, and thrived as a cosmopolitan city deriving revenue from agriculture, mining and the caravan trade. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., Jerash had reached the peak of its prosperity featuring an array of no less than 15 impressive churches.
Some analysts like to call Jerash "the Pompeii of the Middle East" but that is actually a misnomer since the city was never destroyed by some cataclysmic event. As a consequence, Jerash can justifiably lay claim to the title of being one of the best preserved and most important Roman Cities in the Near East.
Uneisha Tomb at Jerash is a source of intrigue and wonder  (wikipedia)
Since the 1920s, Jerash has been under near continuous excavation and restoration. As recently at August of 2015 two human skulls dating to the Neolithic period were discovered which provide strong evidence of the inhabitance of Jordan in that period. The significance of the find lies in the rarity of the skulls with archaeologists estimating only 12 sites throughout the world that could contain similar human remains.
As with Pompeii, Jerash covers a large expanse of land and, as such, the number of significant ruins and treasures that have been unearthed to date present a living museum of the region.
Remains in the Greco-Roman Jerash include:
·        Numerous Corinthian columns
·        Hadrian's Arch
·        The circus/hippodrome
·        The two large temples (dedicated to Zeus and Artemis)
·       The nearly unique oval Forum, which is surrounded by          a fine colonnade,
·        The long colonnaded street or cardo
·    Two theatres (the Large South Theatre and smaller North Theatre)
·         Two communal baths, and a scattering of small temples
·         A large Nymphaeum fed by an aqueduct
·         An almost complete circuit of city walls
·         A water powered saw mill for cutting stone
·         Two large bridges across the nearby river

Ancient facades and cave dwellings are part of the landscape
Over the past hundred years, Jerash has continued to grow with the 
western side of the city being constantly supervised and carefully 
preserved to avoid encroachment from the modern community 
which sprawls to the east of the river. In antiquity the river once 
divided the city.

Modern day Jerash, has annexed numerous other small communities 
as part of its expansion program, but private funding from donations 
by many of the city' wealthiest families has greatly aided and 
maintained the preservation process.
Many mosaics remain intact as a source of study for researchers
One synagogue with especially superb mosaics tells the story of 
Noah in vivid detail.

To witness the pure magic of Jerash, the best time to visit is in July or August when the city becomes a pageant of festivals, music, culture, drama and other outdoor performances.
A different view of the Oval Forum in the center of Jerash
True, it may be the Middle East, but the venue will stun you and encapsulate you into a time that once only belonged to the ages.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Wittenberg is the scene where Luther posted his "95 Theses"
CHARLOTTE, NC When Martin Luther knocked on your door in the 16th century, he had a lot to say. Now five hundred years later, we celebrate the efforts of a man who changed the course of history in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. This year marks the anniversary of five centuries since Luther is said to have posted his "95 Theses" on the doors of All Saints' Church and other churches in Wittenberg, Germany.
All Saints Church, Wittenberg

Luther's protest primarily centered around the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church which could purchased for the forgiveness of sins by wealthy patrons or by anyone who could afford the tariffs.

Three years later, Luther refused Pope Leo X's request to renounce all of his writings. Thus, at the Diet of Worms in 1521 Luther was excommunicated by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and condemned as an outlaw.

In celebration of this turning point in Western religion, Magellan Travel Club is offering an 8-day tour to Wittenburg, Berlin and Dresden beginning October 8, to walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther.
Portrait of Martin Luther

Luther was more than a reformer, however. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press with moveable type about 70 years before Luther made his protest in Wittenberg, the combination of the two events created a "perfect storm" for the Protestant Reformation to get enough traction to change the world forever.

Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular rather than Latin, making it more accessible to the common man. In a sense, illiteracy virtually vanished overnight and the impact on the people, the church and the culture of Germany, was phenomenal.
The palace and grounds of Sans Soucci in Potsdam  (wikipedia)
The urban legend surrounding Luther is that he nailed his protest on the door of All Saints Church, but several scholars dispute that story. Whether he did or whether he didn't, Luther's legacy has woven itself into the fabric of mainstream history. Take the tour and decide for yourself.

Not that Martin Luther was totally pure of mind. He did possess strong anti-Semitic ideas writing that Jewish homes and synagogues should be destroyed, their money confiscated and liberty curtailed.
Symbol of German freedom, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Within a matter of months, word of Luther's controversial writings had circulated across England, France and Italy. By early 1519, thousands of students were arriving in Wittenberg to hear Luther speak.

In an odd way, understanding the world of Martin Luther in the 16th century, also brings into focus a bit more  relevance of Christianity to Islam.
Gateway to Dresden
In the Footsteps of Martin Luther is an 8-day tour featuring 9-meals (6 breakfasts, 3 dinners). Included tours are walking tours of Berlin, Wittenberg, Dresden and Eisleben with a professional local guide. There is also a sightseeing cruise on the River Elbe, a visit to Sans Soucci Palace and Gardens in Pottsdam as well as a stop at the Luther House Museum and churches of his baptism and final sermons.

Price, including air from Charlotte, NC is $3,599 per person/double occupancy.  There is a single supplement of $349.
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but part remain as a
permanent reminder  (wikipedia)
In 1517, Martin Luther changed the world of Western religion forever. Now you can walk in his footsteps just as he did a half-millennium ago to witness historic landmarks and relive this important time in world history.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Take a champagne tour to South Africa at a beer price

The King of the Jungle nestles in the warm afternoon sun at Karongwe River Lodge
SOUTH AFRICA -- Among the top "dream trips" for people who love to travel is a photo safari in Africa. Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks is the cost.. For now, at least, Charlotte tour operatior Safarais by John Lasater is offering a trip of a lifetime to South Africa and environs from May 14-24 for the unbelievably low ground price of $1,853 per person.
Karongwe Lodge (Taylor)
Air from Washington Dulles, as well as all internal South African segments, is approximately $1,350. All accommodations are rated 4 or 5 stars and many meals are included.

For most photographic safaris, the quest is to view the "Big Five" consisting of the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and the African leopard. The term was coined by big-game hunters back in the days when shooting animals with guns as trophies was preferable to shooting pictures.
Out for a stroll, an African elephant is one of the Big Five
The Big Five refers to what was said to be the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot along with the degree of danger involved to hunt them.

South African banknotes from 1990 and feature a different Big Five animal on each denomination. Though no guarantee to see them all can be made, the ultimate goal for travelers to South Africa and other countries in Africa is to view the Big Five animals.
A big "hippo" yawn  (Lasater)
John Lasater, founder of Safaris by John Lasater, has spent most of his adult life traveling through Africa and working there. Thanks to numerous contacts he has made in more than 60 visits to the "Dark Continent", Lasater is able to negotiate with the same outfitters as larger tour operators but, with no middle man, he is able to make African dream safaris affordable.
The Cape Town skyline is alluring with marinas and Table
Mountain (Taylor)
The tour begins at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area in Capetown with over 450 shops, restaurants and bars near the Victoria and Alfred Hotel.
Mountains spill into the sea along the coastal road outside Cape Town  (Taylor)
Driving along the Atlantic coastal road, which has earned the title "Nature's Greatest Show", it is almost a safari in miniature with baboons, rhebok, Cape Mountain zebra, bontebok and eland visible within the scenic beauty of the Table Mountain range and views of the Twelve Apostles.
Shanty towns still exist
It wasn't so very long ago that South Africa, despite its incredible beauty, was boycotted by many travelers due to apartheid. Those scars still exist and the shanty towns are prevalent, but South Africa is a work in progress. The historical opportunities to explore the sites where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have made such important contributions are a major part of the cultural fabric of the country.

Mandela became a symbol of hope and progress
South Africa is noted for its wines, so the intermediate stop en route to finding the Big Five is a brief visit to some of the better wine making operations in the region.

The hotel on this leg of the journey is the Oude Werf Hotel nestled in the heart of the Cape Winelands. Don't worry if you cannot pronounce the name, after a couple of glasses of wine and you'll speak like a native.
South African wines are first rate  (Taylor)
The ultimate prize, of course, are the safaris themselves which operate out of Karongwe River Lodge near Kruger National Park. For the next four nights, Karongwe is home and all meals are included. Be sure to enjoy a Kudu steak at least one night during your visit.
Zebras enjoy a late afternoon cocktail party  (Lasater)
Safaris begin early in the morning and late in the day when the animals are more likely to venture forth in search of food and water.
Specially designed jeeps provide
maximum viewing (Taylor)
Specially designed tiered vehicles allow maximum viewing as two-man teams drive and scout in search of the animals. With his perch at the front of the jeep, the scout scans the road for fresh tracks and other signs of recent activity.

Karongwe prides itself on having first-rate guides with years of experience. The guides know exactly how to approach various locations without "spooking" the animals. Since several safaris are in progress at any given time, the naturalists stay in touch with each other to provide information about sightings as well as making certain they do not infringe upon the viewing of others with too many vehicles.
Viewing animals is up close and personal  (Taylor)
Be it morning or afternoon, each safari stops for a brief break for coffee, tea or soft drinks and a snack before continuing onward. Every effort is made to see as many animals as possible, but there is a special effort to make sure the Big Five can be captured on film.
Warthogs mowing the grass

The middle of the day is reserved for relaxation and enjoying the reserve. The warthogs are particularly photogenic being that they so ugly they are cute.

There are also pre or post tour options to Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls), Chobe National Park or Botswanna. Prices are available at the Premium Safaris website.
African leopard on the lookout for its next meal  (Lasater)
If the thought of a photographic safari in Africa has ever stirred your imagination, seek out the Big Five in South Africa. The price will never be better.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Luxurious cave hotel on Santorini, Greece

Sugarcube dwellings atop Santorini seem like snowcapped peaks
SANTORINI, GREECE – Santorini is arguably the most popular spot in the Greek Islands. Perhaps it is because it comes beckon the imagination with legends, history, ancient civilizations and the mythical link to the Lost City of Atlantis.

Santorini is the southernmost island in the Cyclades of Greece. From the water, it appears to be a snowcapped mountain ridge in the center of the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea. Closer inspection however, reveals a breathtaking skyline of brilliant white "sugarcube houses" nestled atop the largest island of a circular archipelago that is the remnant of a volcanic caldera.
Fira as seen from above

On Santorini you quickly discover what captured the imagination of the ancient Greeks and their myriad of mystical legends.

Rising from the watery remains of a once powerful volcano are majestic caldera cliffs that reach heights of 1,000 feet to create some of the most stunning views and dramatic sunsets in Europe.
The beguiling Aegean caresses Santorini's shores (wikipedia)
Picture in your mind skyblue domes perched upon white bleached stone that stares out to the infinite horizon of a vast ocean of blue that defies description. Then imagine sipping a glass of Greek wine by the pool of an elegant boutique hotel that has literally been carved into caves nestled upon the highest point of the island and you have a recipe for heaven on earth.
A blue-white dreamscape at Iconoic Santorini
(Iconic Santorini)
The  village of  Imerovigli is just such a place, for it is home to a distinctly unique boutique hotel called Iconic Santorini. With its extraordinary multi-level setting at the crest of Santorini's mountainous spine, Iconic Santorini has been awarded the honor of "Greece's leading boutique hotel" for three years running.
Minataur, Greek legend

Featuring 19 residences and rooftop decks with balconies and terraces that emerge from hideaway caves, guests shed their cares surrounded by the awesome serenity of some of the most idyllic scenery in the world.

In a sense it is the best of two worlds, as visitors can still get their "Greek on" with authentic cuisine, architecture and culture while savoring all the luxuries of 21st century living including private routers for hi-speed wi-fi and COCO-MAT bedding.

The setting is so all encompassing guests often feel as though they have died and gone "Hellenic."
All the comforts of home, even in a cave  (Iconic Santorini)
Santorini has been the site of a dozen or more eruptions over the ages, and it also claims to be the site of one of the largest volcanic explosions in recorded history. The Minoan Eruption, which happened roughly 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization, is believed to have been a cause for the decline of the Minoans on the island of Crete some 68 miles to the south. Many experts believe a massive tsunami resulted from the Santorini eruption.
North Portico, Knossos on
Crete  (wikipedia)
Another popular legend is that the volcanic activity on Santorini is the source of the stories surrounding the mythical lost city of Atlantis.

Today, Santorini is basically the ruin of what was once a single island that became a large rectangular lagoon stretching approximately 7.5 miles in length and 4.3 miles in width. Santorini is surrounded on three sides by cliffs which dramatically slope down to the Aegean.
Never enough wine or pistachios on Santorini  (Iconic Santorini)
Visitors to the island can arrive by motorized vehicles, but many cruise passengers prefer to ride to the top on a donkey or take the cable car.
No Santorini sunset ever goes unforgotten  (Iconic Santorini)
Four of the 12 volcanic eruptions were large enough to  form caldera, but the most devastating was the one in Thira which was the most famous single event in the Aegean region before the fall of Troy.
Iconic Santorini, where serenity and tranquility go for a vacation
(Iconic Santorini
In modern times, cruise ships sail into the caldera providing the stunning "snowy" appearance at the crest of Santorini, but the caldera was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when the center of the circular island collapsed into the sea.
Room with a view
(Iconic Santorini)
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Santorini is the quality of shopping in its hilltop villages. Shop-aholics will have no trouble locating just about all the finest stores, shops and boutiques that are available in New York, London, Paris, Rome and Hong Kong.

Santorini is alluring because it is so distinctive. After a long day of shopping, exploring ancient villages, riding donkeys or just plain old soaking up the sun, return to Iconic Santorini for a glass of wine and the best pistachios in the world.
Sunrise at Iconic Santorini  (Iconic Santorini)
Savor a breathtaking sunset where omnipotent hands use the entire sky for a canvas. And finally, relish an elegant candlelight meal before heading into your cave to hibernate in anticipation of another day in Atlantis.