Friday, December 26, 2014

Ten great island adventures for the New Year

Santorini, Greece at sunset is an Adriatic masterpiece  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTEDecember 26, 2014 – With a new year on the horizon, it is time to dream of summer weather, and nothing conjures those images better than an island.

Tom Hanks was a Castaway. We have all heard the story of Robinson Crusoe. We see cartoons about the joy of being marooned on a desert island. Nothing captures the desire for isolation, solitude and sunshine better than an island.

Though every island, no matter how large, possesses inherent limitations, the adventurous idea of an environment surrounded by water somehow captures the imagination.

With that in mind, here is a list of ten great island destinations to discover in 2015.
Spectacular ruins of the Greek theater in Taormina, Sicily  (Taylor)
1 – Sicily – The largest island in the Mediterranean has a little bit of everything; Greek and Roman ruins, Europe’s largest active volcano Mt. Etna and plenty of World War II history. Those elements alone are more than enough. Add in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Sicily is a ready-made classic to explore.
Breathtaking Sydney Opera House at night in Sydney Harbor, Australia  (wikipedia)
 2 – Australia – Just look at the size of a can of Foster’s beer and you understand the appeal of Australia. Australians are hardy, rugged, fun-loving people who enjoy life to the fullest. After all they live in a place filled koala bears, kangaroos, kinkajous and wombats not to mention the platypus. If those creatures alone do not capture your wanderlust spirit then nothing will. There is also the intrigue of Ayers Rock in the center of the country and when it comes to sports, nothing can top the pure mayhem of rugby.
Three faces of Iceland, a primeval world unto itself  (Taylor)
 3 – Iceland – Let’s face it, Iceland is as exotic as it gets. Situated at the point where the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans converge, where majestic fjords punctuate thousands of miles of coastline, Iceland conjures images of rugged Norse and Gaelic settlers. Perhaps most unique is the plethora of thermal activity that gives Iceland an other-wordly, eerie atmosphere for travelers to sink his teeth into.
Majestic and eerie, the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland  (Taylor)
 4 – Ireland – The magic of Ireland can be found in its lush landscape combined with the powerful, dramatic coastline and abundance of castles that permeate the island. The Irish are also horse lovers, but another sometimes thing that adds to its charm is golf. Scotland, too, features geography and medieval architecture and, while it is also the birthplace of golf, Scotland shares its island with England and Wales. For that reason the land of leprechauns and the Blarney Stone was chosen with apologies to the Scots.
Blue Footed Boobies are always a favorite in the Galapagos Islands  (wikipedia) 
 5 – Galapagos – First of all the Galapagos really are off the beaten path. They are part of Ecuador but they are famous for their exotic protected wildlife, among which are the blue-footed boobies. That name alone immediately grabs attention, especially among most male travelers. It is all very innocent, of course, since the boobies are actually birds. The idea of spending as much time as Charles Darwin did observing thousands of interesting creatures in the Galapagos is definitely appealing.
Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco is an optical illusion where escape looked easy  (wikipedia)
 6 – Alcatraz – No one would have wanted to be a prisoner at The Rock, but it does capture the imagination. And for some reason when you visit, it is almost impossible to consider the challenge of designing the foolproof means of escape.
St. Barts is the quintessential Caribbean island paradise  (wikipedia)
 7 – St Barts – This tiny spot in the Caribbean is a favorite destination for jet setters. There is virtually no night life and the one main town, Gustavia, which is delightful. St. Barts may not have the best of anything in the Caribbean, but it probably has the second best of everything. It is elegant and tiny with topless beaches and incredible French food. Why say more?
Nantuket Island near Cape Cod may be quaint but you can have a "whale" of a time  (wikimedia)
  8 – Nantucket – The cobblestone streets are charming and the quaint houses are delightful. The whaling industry that made Nantucket famous and that whaling history is what rounds out the appeal. There is a whaling museum, plenty of whaling artifacts, picturesque harbors and great seafood. Can you say, “Aaaargh!”
Lush tropical beauty of Rainbow Falls in Hawaii   (wikipedia)
 9 – Hawaii – The islands are beautiful, exotic and a favorite destination for travelers of all ages. Giant waves for surfing, erupting volcanoes and historical landmarks from the World War II sneak attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor make Hawaii unique. A luau and a little hula here and there doesn’t hurt either.
Tahiti is famous for its black sand beaches  (wikipedia)
10 – Tahiti – The Bounty (pre-mutiny), Marlon Brando and artist Paul Gauguin fell in love with French Polynesia. In fact, Gauguin was actually a “suit” who kept venturing further and further into the wilderness of this tropical paradise. He sailed to Tahiti in 1891 to escape civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” In doing so Gauguin found his own personal answer to a mid-life crisis.
The Turks & Caicos are rapidly becoming the "in" place to be in the Caribbean   (Taylor)
And just for good measure, here are five more islands that deserve honorable mentions:

New Zealand
Sanibel, Florida
Santorini, Greece
Turks & Caicos

Friday, December 19, 2014

Blessing in Bucharest: Christmas behind the former Iron Curtain

Flicker of candlelight representing a ray of hope  (wikipedia)
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA, December 19, 2014 – In the dark days of the Cold War, there was a sense of mystery and intrigue whenever you ventured into Eastern Europe.  It was a sinister feeling where everything seemed became black and white; devoid of color.     

During that time, I traveled to Romania three days after Christmas with a group of students from Wingate College, and those shadowy, ominous feelings were very much a reality in the most intensely surveilled region in Eastern Europe.

The purpose of the visit was to understand the struggles of organized religion to exist under the influence of Communism. 

The sky was overcast with a slate gray ceiling. Christmas wasn’t acknowledged by the government, but the New Year’s trees were brightly decorated, providing rare bursts of color in the otherwise bleak surroundings.
We were welcomed by Reverend Ilie Ionescu, the pastor at a small Baptist church in the eastern part of the city.   

"You must know that my members will appreciate your visit very much.  For them you represent hope.  Freedom.  They know very little about your country, but they know enough,” said the minister.

"We have more than 400 members.  For most it is quite difficult to get here so we have three services each Sunday. We have no young people in our congregation. Everyone is elderly.  We must register with the government, and they do not like it when we go to church.  They make it very hard for young people to get decent jobs if they worship.  For older people it does not matter so much. They come, and they pass along the messages to their families.  Only in the choir will you see young people.  Singing is considered a cultural program, so some young people sing because this is not counted against them.

"This is a place of hope.  Sometimes there is no heat in the church or we have no light.  There are brownouts, you see.  But we do our best.  We try very hard."

There was sadness in Reverend Ionescu's voice, but he was as open as he could be under the circumstances. 
Interior of a Romanian Orthodox Church  (wikipedia)
Then he led us into the sanctuary. Once inside, we turned to the right and walked up the stairs to the balcony to have a better view.
The sanctuary was filled with seniors. Only the choir showed any signs of youth. By American standards the service was lengthy.  Since the people had to endure extreme hardships to attend, the church made every effort to ensure the congregation was ministered to thoroughly.

The women sat on the left side of the aisle, the men to the right.  No one removed their coats despite the length of the program.  Aside from a small stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the only visible color was in the babushkas the ladies wore on their heads. 

Throughout the service members of the congregation kept turning toward the balcony. It was unusual for them to have visitors of any sort, especially so many and so young.  Americans too.  Rarely did they see Americans.
For the next couple of hours, the Romanians continuously turned and gazed toward the balcony, communicating only with their eyes as they reached out to touch the Wingate students with their hearts. 

Old church interior similar to the Bucharest church in Bucharest, Romania  (wikipedia)
When the service finished, the Wingate students walked down to the vestibule to greet the Romanians as they left the church.
Spontaneously, the students formed a semicircle from the door through the narthex, shaking hands with people and smiling as they departed. The Romanians looked tired, yet they were deeply appreciative. Somehow the mixture of languages was comprehended, though neither group spoke the other's tongue. 

As one old woman passed the interpreter she caught the eye of a student approached her. Softly she uttered the word, "Pace."
Bewildered, the girl looked to the interpreter.  He smiled and said, “’Pace.’  In Romanian it means ‘Peace.’”
The girl turned back to the Romanian woman and repeated the word, “Pace.”

A classmate standing to the left overheard the exchange and immediately spoke to another woman in front of him.  “Pace,” he said.

An broad smile spread across the woman's face as she returned the wish saying, “Pace.”
Dreary streets of Burcharest in Romania  (wikipedia)
Soon the vestibule was filled with the gentle sounds of Romanian and American voices, all echoing the same simple word, “Pace.”  No other word was necessary. 

They repeated it over and over again, “Pace.  Pace.  Pace.”

Then in the dim light of the room, the Wingate student reached into her purse and removed a small bible she had brought from home.  She placed it in the palm of the old woman’s hand, covering it with her own.  The woman gazed intently at the girl for a long moment before looking down at the treasure she gripped within her gnarled fingers.  And then she began to cry.

As the tears made silent trails down her cheeks, the Romanian woman looked at the interpreter and said something in her native language.  He listened carefully to be sure he understood precisely what the woman was saying.  When she finished, he translated her words. 

She says, “All of my life I have dreamed of having a bible written in English.  For me it is a symbol.  Today, you have answered my prayers.”

A hush fell over the room.  Everyone stopped, spellbound by the words of a woman who had but one simple wish; to possess a book written in a language she could neither read nor understand.  Yet that book symbolized all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a life she would never know.  A book that was her bridge to a world she would never see.

But the old Romanian woman wasn't finished. The interpreter cast his eyes toward the young girl while the old woman slowly uttered her message. 

“She says, ‘I only know three words in English.’” 

Then the Romanian woman moved forward and hugged the student. When she pulled away, she smiled gently and whispered into the young girl’s ear the words, “I love you.”

Her voice was not loud, but it was enough to be heard by those close to her.  When the Romanian woman spoke, everyone nearby was overcome with emotion.
Three words.  Simple words.  The only English words the old Romanian woman knew.  “I love you.”  The message was universal.  Even in that bleak corner of the world there was indeed hope, there was faith, and yes, there was love.
A small flame of hope in a desperate place  (wikipedia)

In the span of a few spontaneous moments, we came to realize that those Romanian people had warmth enough for everyone nestled deep within their hearts.  We knew that there would always be candles to brighten the darkness, flickering with their silent flames of hope, because those elderly Romanians still believed in miracles.

Now the Wingate students understood how the Romanian people had persevered for so long under such impossible conditions.  Through it all their faith had kept them going because better than anyone else, they knew the true meaning of the word, "Pace."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Big Sky, Montana: Where winter and nature come alive

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park  (wikipedia)
BIG SKY, MONTANADecember 12, 2014 – In Big Sky, Montana all eyes peer heavenward searching for the first ambitious snowflakes of the season

Yes, Big Sky really is a place and not just a slogan. The resort was founded in 1973 by noted NBC newscaster Chet Huntley and it hasn’t been the same since. Four decades later skiers in the know are leaving the powdery slopes of their native Colorado for the “cold smoke” of Montana.

Big Sky's landmark, Lone Peak  (wikipedia)
With 25 daily flights into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) from various U.S. gateways, Big Sky is easily accessible. Upon arrival, simply drive 38 miles north on U.S. Highway 191 through scenic Gallatin Canyon until you reach Big Sky.

Part of the canyon is Ted Turner country, meandering past grazing herds of bison, elk and other assorted gifts of Mother Nature. There is a primeval quality to it all, as if you are at the midpoint of creation amid surroundings that appear much as they did when Lewis and Clark trudged through the region more than 200 years ago.

Big Sky residents like to point out, “The only rule here is that there aren’t many rules.”

Mother Nature's playground  (wikipedia)
Big Sky takes a bit of an adjustment, but once indoctrinated, it is a world unto itself. It is a place where roads are few and only take you where you need to go. A place when residents call in prescriptions 48 hours in advance so they will be ready when the pharmacy opens. A place where the post office is the most popular gathering spot in town because there is no home mail delivery.

Don’t be misled, however. Big Sky is destination of rustic elegance featuring spas, galleries, entertainment and all the contemporary facilities modern day sports enthusiasts require. The community may be small, and growing, but the mountains and amenities are larger than life.

Big Sky's majestic slopes with 5,800 acres for skiing  (Taylor)
Skiing, of course, is the anchor activity. Thanks to three interconnected mountains in Big Sky, there are more than 5,800 skiable acres make it the biggest skiing region in America (Vail comes in second at 5,200). Lone Peak has the highest elevation at 11,166 feet. 

Big Sky features a  wide range of accommodations to suit any budget and lifestyle with a favorite for skiers being the “ski in, ski out” facilities.

Rustic charm of 320 Ranch  (Taylor)
For a wilderness-style experience, 320 Guest Ranch, just a few miles down the road from Big Sky, conjures images of the Old West with log home accommodations nestled within the serenity of flowing streams and mountainous vistas. The ranch, which features the best breakfast buffet in Montana, derives its name from two 160-acre properties that merged into a single nature lover’s getaway.

Visitors to Big Sky will find cuisine to suit any taste, but remember, this is Montana where the bacon is crunchy, the steaks are charred and the burgers are bison.

The magic of Big Sky is the extensive range of activities available for non-skiers. Among the favorites are snowmobiling, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, dog sledding. snowcoach tours through Yellowstone Park, backcountry skiing, fishing and, even, big game hunting.

Dog sledding is a favorite activity in Big Sky  (Taylor)
Outfitters abound in Big Sky offering any activity imaginable. Spirit of the North dog sled adventures is a unique experience that allows guests to work with the huskies and participate in rigging the sleds before heading into a picturesque winter wonderland. Half day tours glide through pristine wilderness with only the sounds of the runners on the snow and the enthusiastic barking of the dog teams.

Don’t expect elaborate facilities. Prepare to meet your guides at a crossroads in the snow and take off from there. After all, that’s the way a snow adventure should be, pristine, unadorned and natural.

Snowmobiling into pristine wilderness  (Taylor)
Another popular outing is a trip into Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone in winter is paradise without people. It is a natural wonderland filled with streams, waterfalls, wildlife and geysers where thermal steam blends with cold smoke to create an ethereal beginning-of-the-world atmosphere.

Bombardier ready for action  (Taylor)
Snowmobiles are probably the favorite way to visit Yellowstone, but the big, red “Bombardier” vehicles of Yellowstone Alpen Guides offer accessibility to Mother Nature plus protection from the elements. With capacity for only eight passengers, a Bombardier excursion also gives visitors access to a driver/guide naturalist with encyclopedic knowledge of the park and environs.

Big Sky Montana is paradise found. It is a year-round destination where the golf course will open the 2015 summer season with a full 18-hole track.

An all American symbol  (wikipedia)
Outdoor lovers seeking something new and unique will be captivated by Chet Huntley’s dream where the Big Sky is the limit.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Discovering Angel Falls on “Devil Mountain”

Spectacular Angel Falls, world's longest waterfall, Canaima, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
CANAIMA, VENEZUELADecember 5, 2014 – If ever there was an ideal made-for-Hollywood adventure it would be the discovery of Angel Falls in Venezuela. The blur between reality and myth in the life of Jimmie Angel is a screenwriter’s nirvana that would do Indiana Jones proud.

Born in Missouri in 1899, Jimmie Angel was an adventure lover with a passion for flying. Following World War I, he contemplated the idea of becoming a commercial airline pilot but decided the job would be too confining to suit his personality.

Canaima, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
For a while, he worked as a barnstormer, test pilot, stunt pilot and flight instructor before heading south to Mexico, Central America and South America in the 1920s. Intrigued by the idea of exploring remote, unexplored territories, Angel became especially fond of Venezuela.

Over time, the celebrated folklore surrounding Jimmie Angel made it difficult to separate myth from reality. Unverified stories that he taught himself fly when he was 14, that he was a Royal British Flying Corps Ace in World War I, that he created an air force for a Chinese warlord in the Gobi Desert or that he worked as an aviation scout for Lawrence of Arabia all became part of the legend.

Among the accounts, which intensifies the mystery, involves an American geologist known only as McCracken who met Angel in a smoke-filled bar in Panama in the early 1920s. For a fee of $5,000,  a hefty sum at that time, Angel agreed to fly McCracken to a river of gold flowing through an unknown tepui (plateau) in the Gran Sabana of southeastern Venezuela

Orinoco Delta in Venezeula  (wikipedia)
Some say that part of McCracken’s deal did not allow Angel to use instruments so the pilot could not return by himself later. Using only hand signals, the mysterious stranger directed Angel to the river where they removed as much gold as possible and still be able to take-off.

McCracken never returned to Venezuela. He died in the United States and Angel spent the remainder of his life searching for the lost river of gold. It is uncertain whether the story is true, but Angel told it often and his obsessive search for the river may have been an indication of its validity.

In November 1933, while flying a solo flight in the canyons of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana, Angel claimed to have sighted a “mile high waterfall.” Understandably, with other “tales” from Jimmie’s past, there were serious doubts about its authenticity.

Panoramic view of Angel Falls  (wikipedia)
One reason for the skepticism was the seasonal nature of many waterfalls, and the Auyántepui rising from the neighboring Kamarata Valley was uncharted at the time. It was believed that the indigenous Kamarakotos Pemón tribe knew of it, but regarded the tepui as an evil spirit so they feared talking about it.
Finally, in the spring of 1935, Angel convinced three other explorers to fly an expedition into the canyon to verify his claim and take pictures.

L.P. Dennison published the adventure in 1942 in a book titled Devil Mountain.

 Wrote Dennison, “’Now I will show you my waterfall!’ shouted Jimmie with glee!”

When he spotted the falls himself, Dennison was in awe. “I could only stare in amazement. It looked like an immense rope hanging over the canyon wall, and it fell for all of 3,000 feet, possibly more, without interruption until it spread out into a billowy cloud of fine, fluffy mist.

El Rio Caroni, the historic plane of Jimmie Angel in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
Now vindicated, Angel and his wife, Marie, flew his beloved Flamingo airplane, named El Rio Caroni, returned to the falls on several occasions between 1935 and 1937. The Caroni River was the primary visual navigational tool Angel used to find his way back to the waterfall.

Still seeking his “golden river” in 1937, Angel intended to land on Auyántepui for some exploration on foot. Though the landing went smoothly at first, El Rio Caroni hit soft ground and nose dived into a layer of mud causing a broken fuel line.

Fortunately, in anticipation of problems, Angel had parachuted supplies to the area before attempting the landing. Despite being well equipped, the trip back to civilization required an arduous 11-day trek by the four-person expedition.

Canaima Lagoon, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
Jimmie Angel died in 1956 at the age of 57 from a cerebral hemorrhage resulting from the complications of a head injury when loose cargo struck him while landing earlier in the year.

Seven years earlier, in 1949, World War II correspondent and photojournalist, Ruth Robertson led the first successful land expedition to Angel Falls. The falls were then declared the tallest in the world at 3,212 feet and Robertson’s story is documented in the November 1949 edition of National Geographic titled “Jungle Journey to the World’s Highest Waterfall.”

Travelers interested in retracing the steps of Ruth Robertson can do just that on a special tour from June 27 to July 4, 2014. The program is being handled by Angel Ecotours.  

Front view of El Rio Caroni  (wikipedia)
In 1964, the Venezuelan government declared El Rio Caroni a national monument. It was dismantled by the Venezuelan Air Force in 1970 and partially restored and reassembled by the Aviation Museum in Maracay.

Though the airport in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela is small, it is the gateway for excursions to view Jimmie Angel’s magnificent waterfall. Meanwhile, tiny El Rio Caroni sits proudly on the lawn in front of the terminal paying homage to the Devil Mountain discovered by an Angel.