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 ( 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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Switzerland's Golden Pass Train (Part II)

Castle of Chillon, Montreux, Switzerland
SWITZERLAND, September 12, 2014 – Switzerland’s Golden Pass connects three rail journeys into a single trip that combines diverse scenery linking the German region of the country with the French.

The first section travels from Lucerne to Interlaken over a rack railroad that glides through forested mountains beside glacial lakes.

Golden Pass from Zweisimmen to Montreux
The middle portion of the GoldenPass passes delightful villages and farms en route from Interlaken to Zweisimmen where travelers change for the panoramic final leg.  With model train sensations, Zweisimmen is an easy place to take a stroll or enjoy a snack before completing the adventure.

Some MOB trains have special services available.  Passengers seeking a truly unique experience can reserve limited VIP seats at a picture window in the front of the train.  By placing the engineer over the first coach, travelers are able to look directly out to the tracks as the train moves through the countryside.

Another option is the “Golden Pass Classic” featuring vintage refurbished cars from the Orient Express.  Reservations for groups are required and they are highly suggested for individuals, especially during high season.  Special supplements only apply to VIP seats, and reservations for these seats are compulsory and should be attempted well in advance.

Though more difficult to obtain, the VIP panoramic seats are preferable to the vintage rail cars.  After all, Switzerland is all about scenery, and a window seat that nearly puts you on the tracks is a rare opportunity.  In a vintage coach, once you adapt to the historic ambience, it’s really just another carriage.

Gstaad, home of the rich and famous
Just 30-minutes outside of Zweisimmen, the allure of the high-society lifestyle of Gstaad beckons.  Here the course moves along a singular track through an expanse of the valley that is so vast it creates feelings of being transformed into an elaborate HO scale model train layout.  Ahead are the promise of bold new dimensions of freedom that deliver you from the repetitions of day-to-day living.
If you can afford the price tag, Gstaad is a year-round fantasy world filled with international celebrities, luxurious hotels and extravagant shopping.  This is lifestyles of the rich and famous to the extreme.  Noted entertainers, diplomats and world leaders are frequent visitors, and many luminaries such as Julie Andrews, Roger Moore, Jeanne Moreau, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor have or had part-time residences there.

Rolling Swiss countryside near Chateau d'Oex
Departing Gstaad, the MOB proceeds to Chateau-d’Oex (pronounced Chateau Day), which has become world famous as a center for hot air ballooning.  With its extensive breadth, the train hums through the valley in the silence of the surroundings.  So serene is the setting, the silence seems to have a sound of its own.
Ballooning is a year-round activity in Chateau-dO’ex, but, since 1979 it has held a balloon festival during the last week of January each year.  Enthusiasts from all over the world annually converge on the tiny village to participate.  The area has even become so popular that in March of 1999, Chateau-d’Oex was the starting point for the first hot balloon to circumnavigate the globe.

Golden Pass travels through huge vineyards near Montreux
The final stretch of the route leads to Les Avants where the train begins its descent to the Lake Geneva region and Montreux.  Traveling in this direction is preferable because the serpentine route zigs and zags its way through seemingly infinite vineyards with breathtaking views of the lake and the impressive Castle of Chillon in the distance.
The vineyards are often surprising to travelers since the country is not noted for its wine production.  The reason is simple.  Though Swiss wines are excellent, the product is not exported as the Swiss choose, selfishly or wisely, to consume the beverage themselves.
Montreux is the final stop for the MOB, but the Swiss Federal Railways have numerous fast and easy connections along the shores of Lake Geneva to Vevey, Lausanne and Geneva, including Geneva’s international airport.  For travelers with more time, there is also frequent lake steamer service between Montreux and Geneva, and the boats accept both Eurailpasses and Swiss Rail Passes at no additional cost.

Giessbach Falls near Interlaken
Though not the fastest way to get from Lucerne to the Lake of Geneva, Golden Pass trains may be the most relaxing.  Combining the diversity of landscapes with a variety of destinations and first-rate services along the way, there’s little doubt that this rail journey is a “golden” opportunity.   

Friday, September 5, 2014

Switzerland’s Golden Pass: Three train trips in one (Part 1)

Golden Pass departs Montreux, Switzerland  
SWITZERLAND, September 5, 2014 – The Golden Pass route from Lucerne to Montreux is designated as one of the five classic rail journeys in Switzerland.  It combines three diverse routes that connect mountains, woodlands, lakes, vineyards and even castles with several of Switzerland’s most popular destinations.  Best of all, Eurailpasses and Swiss Rail Passes are accepted for travel along the entire route.

Lake steamer, Lucerne, Switzerland
Heading from the lovely resort village of Lucerne, the first leg of the journey travels through the Brunig Pass to Meiringen and then on to Interlaken.  Though the distance is relatively short in terms of miles, and the pass is only about 3,000 feet high, the rapid increase in elevation combined with the logistical maneuvering of the train requires additional time for the rack-and-pinion system to negotiate the terrain. 
Depending on which train you choose, the journey takes between 75 and 90 minutes through cool, densely forested hills.  Three small lakes, Alpnach, Sarnen and Lungern, are a visual treat for riders as the train glides past mountainside villages and sheep graze at the base of the heavens. 

Sherlock Holmes statue, Meiringen

If time permits, Meiringen is great place for a brief visit, especially if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes.  It was in Meiringen that the great, fictional British sleuth chased down his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarity.   Eventually the two adversaries engaged in hand-to-hand combat before falling to their deaths at nearby Reichenbach Falls.  Enthusiasts were so upset by the demise of their beloved detective that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was later obliged to revive his character for future mysteries.

If you bother to get off the train, there can be no doubt about the influence Sherlock has had on the community.  The railway station features a full-sized mock up of Holmes flat at 221-B Baker Street in London.  There is also a statue honoring the illustrious consulting detective that features clues from each of the Holmes novels and short stories.

Replica of Holmes residence at 221B Baker St.
A hotel and pub bearing Holmes name are all the proof you need to know this was the site of The Final Problem.  Ambitious travelers may want to hike to the top of Reichenbach Falls, but for the less hardy there is a seasonal funicular that takes visitors to the summit.

From Meiringen, the delightful woodcarver’s village of Brienz is just a 20-minute train ride.  Tucked between the mountainside and the northern shores of the Lake of Brienz, this picturesque town is the home of Lötscher, the only authentic Swiss cuckoo clock maker in the world today.

If they choose, rail pass holders can take advantage of another bonus in Brienz.  Lake steamers make frequent cruises between Brienz to Interlaken, including a stop near the spectacular Giessbach waterfall which spills dramatically into the lake.  As a side note, the train to the top of the falls, the Giessbach-Bahn, is the oldest funicular in Europe.
Overlooking the Lake of Brienz near Interlaken, Switzerland
The steamer pier is just a short walk across the tracks in Brienz.  Boat trips take about an hour, and travelers can reconnect for their onward journey on the Golden Pass in Interlaken.  Passengers with less time, or no desire to sail, can continue by rail around the perimeter of the lake.

In most places, the segment of the Golden Pass between Interlaken and Zweisimmen would be considered a premier rail journey.  In Switzerland, it is more of a pleasant diversion between the perpendicular upheavals of rock in the Alps and the gentle carpet-like progression of rolling farmland.  This leg of the route is one of those in-between places where intoxicating images whisper tales of discovery.  Sit back.  Relax.  Enjoy the ride.

The tiny village of Zweisimmen, Switzerland
Zweisimmen is the terminus of the BLS rail line and the starting point for the third portion of the Golden Pass, the MOB train, which travels to Montreux.  The chalet-filled toy-like village is also the gateway to the world famous jet-setting resort of Gstaad just down the tracks.

Nestled in the heart of a wide valley floor, Zweisimmen lies at the center of a popular ski region, but it is difficult to believe when you are there.  In Zweisimmen the Alps do not swallow the sky as they do in other sections of Switzerland.  Winter is for skiing, but the summer season brings a profusion of flowers and fantastic hiking and walking trails.
While waiting to change trains, Zweisimmen is a great place for some last minute shopping, a relaxing stroll, a refreshing glass of beer or a cup of hot chocolate.  Montreux, on the banks of Lake Geneva, is just an hour and a half away.
Rolling countryside of the Golden Pass route in Switzerland
Prepare yourself for vast expanses of rolling countryside before concluding your journey along serpentine ribbons of steel through tiers of neatly manicured vineyards.

Making tracks through Switzerland from Lucerne to Montreux, or vice-versa, is a "golden" opportunity.