Friday, October 31, 2014

Five great creepy travel destinations for Halloween

Maya sculpture, ruins of Lamanai, Belize  (Taylor)
CHARLOTTE, NC, October 31, 2014 – If ever there was a country that epitomizes the spirit of Halloween it would have to be England.

From silhouetted castles overlooking wind-swept bluffs to mysterious mist-shrouded moors to half-timbered villages with twisting narrow cobblestoned streets, the entire country is haunted.

Just because England has an abundance of eerie surroundings however, doesn’t mean it is the only place in the world that gives Halloween a good name.

Explore the eerie streets of York with a ghost walk   (The Original Ghost Walk)
It is impossible to list every creepy destination on Earth, but here are five good ones just to get started.
For a city its size, York may have more historic attractions than any other spot in England. Part of the charm is the perfectly preserved ancient wall that still permeates the city.

York was founded by the Romans in 71 AD and during the Middle Ages, it was a major kingdom for Scandinavian invaders, and Guy Fawkes, who was instrumental in planning the Gunpowder Plot, was born and educated in York.

One of the great attractions of York are the ghost walks that take place each night. Its compact size and distinctive nooks and crannies make it the ideal location to seek out sinister characters lurking among the shadows of its amber-lit streets.

The place that captures the imagination most is the old open-air slaughterhouse and meat market street known as the "The Shambles." The overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating to the 14th century, still exist today providing a deliciously proper atmosphere for sinister tales of murder and mayhem.

Mosaic of Bones, Capuchin Crypt Rome  (wikipedia)
Next stop Rome, where along the famed Via Veneto is the church of Santa Maria della Concenzione del Cappuccini near Piazza Barberini.

Beneath the church is the Capuchin Crypt; a small area comprised of several tiny chapels containing the skeletal remains of some 3,700 Capuchin friars who were once members of the order.

As visitors enter the crypt, a sign over the door reads, "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be..."

Capuchin Crypt, Rome  (wikipedia)
What is unique about the crypt however, is the way the bones are displayed in a collection of strange human mosaics. There are a total of six rooms containing the bodies of friars who died between 1528 and 1870.

Frommer’s guidebooks describes it as "one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom", but the Catholic order believes the displays demonstrate the fragility of life and its swift passage on Earth.
The Marquis de Sade said his visit in 1775 was well worth the effort.

Later, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about the crypt in his 1860 novel “The Marble Faun“, as did Mark Twain in 1869 in "The Innocents Abroad."
Domtilla Catacomb, Rome  (wikipedia)
The Capuchin monks also contributed to the Catacombs in Rome which are man-made subterranean passages that are typically used for religious practices and burials.

Many cities have catacombs including London, Helsinki, Vienna, Odessa, Alexandria and Granada, but the best known are those in Rome and Paris.

Calixtus Catacomb, Rome  (wikipedia)
The very idea of underground hideaways captures the imagination and leads to thoughts of smugglers, secret societies and other assorted mysterious activities.

Rome has more than 40 catacombs of which the Christian burial sites are the most famous. They can be found along the Appian Way and date to the 2nd century AD as a means of dealing with overcrowding in the city and a shortage of land.

Wall of skulls, Catacomb of Paris  (wikipedia)
The Catacombs of Paris had no religious significance other than being ossuaries for human remains. Estimates say the French catacomb labyrinth contains about six million people, giving them the title as "The World’s Largest Grave."

Mention the names “Transylvania“ and “Dracula“ and they conjure frightening images all by themselves. Never mind that the Castle of Bran in Romania has no link with the real-life creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker, or with the actual person of Vlad the Impaler whom Stoker used as a model for his character.

Count Dracula's home, Castle of Bran, Romania  (Bran Castle)
Bran Castle has become a national monument on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia in Romania. 

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia lived during the mid-1400s and was called “The Impaler“ because of his practice of impaling his enemies. Known throughout Europe for his excessively bloody cruelty, there is no record, other than Bram Stoker’s imagination, that he went to the extremes of Count Dracula.

Truth or fiction matters little when you visit the Castle of Bran, however. Especially if you can go on a cold, gray overcast day in a rainstorm.
Mysteries of the Maya civilization, Lamanai, Belize  (Taylor)
Leaving Europe for the Maya civilization of Central America takes us to Lamanai which is believed to have been occupied thousands of years before Christ.

The jungle location situated near a lagoon that is part of New River gives Lamanai an eerie presence with structures like the Mask Temple, the Jaguar Temple and the High Temple.

Until the mid-1970s most of the site was unexcavated and large portions of the city  remain covered by dense jungle growth.

Mask Temple, Lamanai, Belize  (Taylor)
Like Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is home to numerous Mayan cities which continue to beckon archaeologists from all over the world.

In Maya "lamanai" means "submerged crocodile." The reptiles play a significant role in the ecosystem surrounding the ruins and add to the "Jungle Jim" ambiance of the location.

You see Halloween is always lurking somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of our imagination. For curious travelers however, it can also be a source of discovery that thrives within the realm of reality itself.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The London Dungeon: Halloween fun all year long

Ghoulish scene from the London Dungeon where Halloween is a year-round event  (

LONDON, October 24, 2014 In a city that has had more than its share of dungeons over the centuries, London’s newest incarnation is a year-round Halloween celebration
In January of 2013, the London Dungeon closed its doors after 39 years at Tooley Street near London Bridge and re-opened in March on the South Bank of the Thames next to the London Eye.

Everyone has skeletons in their closet  (
In its new haunt, the London Dungeon also radically changed its focus in an effort to attract greater numbers of tourists and to make it considerably more family friendly. The changes are markedly different, dramatic and, yes, touristy, but given England’s notorious past, they are also a rollicking good time.

The new dungeon is an indoor theme park complete with 18 mini-shows, 20 performers and three rides where visitors journey through ten centuries of English history to encounter the likes of Henry VIII, Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, the plague, Guy Fawkes and other creepy characters and incidents from the past.

Sweeney Todd's "scrumptious" meat pies  (
Each mini-venue briefly tells the story of events such as the Gunpowder Plot, the Black Death or the macabre Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Several vignettes are interactive and guests are encouraged to play along with the actors as they journey through history.

Rides include a “drop ride to doom“ where visitors encounter a free-fall in which they are victims of a public hanging. There is also a surprising boat ride in dimly lit surroundings where unsuspecting guests are splashed with water...some considerably more than others. 

While the new dungeon attraction is a fun-filled romp through some of England’s darkest moments, it is also an interesting bit of history with tongue-in-cheek twists that appeal to visitors of all ages.
The London Dungeon is a proper museum of fright  (
Today’s dungeon however, is nothing like its older sister which opened in 1975 as a gory museum that showcased the bleakest moments in British history.

The original setting on Tooley Street had a dank, sinister presence that made visitors cringe with its foreboding models of torture and animatronic horrors. Its maze of properly musty corridors was, at times, gruesomely realistic making the cool, inky black atmosphere frequently frightening for its patrons.

A haunting we will go  (
Eventually the Tooley Street Dungeon added a boat ride on the Thames called “Judgment Day: Sentence to Death“ which introduced interactive scenes in 1997.

Guests were tried and sentenced to death. Then they would board boats and cruise down the Thames to Traitor’s Gate where they were raised by a vertical lift system to encounter a firing squad. The ride ended with the boat plummeting backwards amid the screams and shouts of its startled passengers.

Three years later the Dungeon opened the “Great Fire of London“ with a re-creation of the burning streets of the city in the 17th century complete with a spinning tunnel that led visitors to the exit.

Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett  (
So popular did the interactive sequences become that the original grotesque torture chamber environment led to the contemporary version of the attraction which is more fun, less terrifying  and highly entertaining complete with a bit of historical background added.

The dungeon experience has become so popular that there are now eight different attractions scattered throughout Europe; Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, Hamburg, York, Warwick Castle and Blackpool, England. A ninth, and newest, dungeon is now open in San Francisco at Fisherman’s Wharf.

As might be expected, lines can sometimes be long. The necessity of limited occupancy for the various re-enacted scenes throughout the venue can create human traffic jams at the entrance. The dungeons are also popular for groups can also add to occasional delays.

Combined with the large numbers of people the London Eye in the same location, it is wise to plan accordingly.

Always be sure to write home to mummy  (
Some critics have called the London Dungeon a glorified haunted house, but given its location and the appeal of its historical mysteries, the experience is a happy diversion, even if it is a bit on the touristy side.

Halloween and New Year’s are particularly ghoulish at the London Dungeon when it goes all out to awaken the Octoberfest spirit of ghosts and goblins. But regardless of when you visit, the London Dungeon and its relatives can be enjoyed any time of  year.

Hanging around the London Dungeon is fun where no noose is good noose  (

Tickets for the London Dungeon are not inexpensive. Save money by purchasing online at approximately $28 for adults and $25 for children ages 4 to 16. Add about $12 to an adult ticket at the door and $5 or so more for children.

Why not enjoy a Bloody Mary?  (
If you plan in advance, the cost to enter is not quite so hair raising. After all, you don’t visit London every day.

As one writer once said about they mysteries of the United Kingdom, “The past is no ghost at this banquet, rather it sits at the head of the table.“

The London Dungeon is a year-round Halloween festival of fun and a feast of fright. 

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.”