Friday, June 26, 2015

Berlin more than 25 years after the fall of the wall (Part I)

Berlin's majestic Brandenburg gate is a symbol of a unified Germany  (wikipedia)
BERLIN, GERMANY Difficult as it may be to believe the Berlin Wall came crashing to the ground more than a quarter of a century ago, yet it is the sort of historical moment that appeals to travelers who enjoy immersing themselves into the living past that had significance during their lifetimes.

Alexanderplatz is one of Berlin's gathering spots  (Berlin tourism)
If ever there was a destination to capture the collective cultural imaginations of travelers it would have to be Berlin. Here visitors can experience luxurious shopping, vibrant nightlife, eclectic architecture, centuries of history, countless museums and exquisite dining in just a few days or an extended holiday. Either way it is impossible to completely satisfy a curiosity seeker’s appetite.

No other city in the world can claim three thoroughfares as prestigious as Berlin with Unter den Linden, Kurfurstendamm and Friedrichstrasse. Add the River Spree as the primary water route through the city, and it is easy to see why Berlin is unique.
The River Spree adds a peaceful ambiance to Berlin  (wikipedia)

The Kurfurstndamm, or Ku’damm as locals call it, has long been one of the great shopping avenues of Europe as well as Germany. The snaggle-toothed steeple of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is a symbol of the city and World War II at the eastern end of the street, while the Rathous Schoneberg where President John F. Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech is located in Tempelhof-Schoneberg.

Unter den Linden, which means “under the lime trees,” was once Berlin’s premier promenade. The long east-west avenue sits in the heart of the historic area of the city, which includes the Brandenburg Gate and the former Berlin Statehouse. It also crosses Friedrichstrasse and the river.
Interior of the famous Pergamon Museum in a city filled with spectacular artistic exhibitions  (wikipedia)
The two-mile north-south route of Friedrichstrasse gained notoriety during the Roaring Twenties, but it was October of 1961 that focused the eyes of the world when American and Soviet tanks faced each other at the dividing line between West and East Berlin known as Checkpoint Charlie. Some observers say that Friedrichstrasse represents the character of Berlin in a nutshell.
Remnants of Checkpoint Charlie are not as menacing as the days of the wall, but they convey the sensation  (wikipedia)
For travelers with only a little time, a tour along these three streets alone will arouse more curiosity and history than can be found in the entirety of many cities.

Visitors to Berlin can spend several days focusing exclusively on World War II and the Cold War and barely scratch the surface of the city’s attractions.

Remnants of Checkpoint Charlie remain intact enough to provide at least a semblance of the aura that once existed at that notorious landmark. To round out the visit, spend some time at the nearby Checkpoint Charlie Museum exploring the fascinating photos and multitude of ingenious ways people created to breach the wall into the West.

Interior scene of Berlin's fabulous Egyptian Museum  (wikipedia)
At Brandenburg Gate, President Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, in a speech in 1987 honoring the 750th anniversary of Berlin when he boldly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A year and a half later the wall did, indeed, come down.

East Side Gallery reminds us of the ominous Berlin Wall (wikipedia)
Other remains of the era include the East Side Gallery which, at roughly a mile in length, is said to be the world's largest outdoor open air gallery. When unveiled in 1990 with depictions by more than 100 artists from around the world, it was hailed as an international memorial to freedom.

Since that time, the “gallery” has been the victim of graffiti and vandalism, but enough has survived as a poignant reminder of the euphoria of the time as well as humanity’s never-ending desire for freedom.
The Reichstag was once NAZI headquarters  (wikipedia)

Just beyond Brandenburg Gate, in East Berlin, is the Reichstag Building which opened in 1894. It housed the German parliament, or Diet, until it was severely damaged by fire in 1933. The building was renovated following the reunification of Germany and is now, once again, the home of  parliament. During NAZI rule from 1933 to 1945 there were no parliamentary sessions.

As a city still undergoing the metamorphosis of reunification, Berlin continues to adapt, fascinate and beckon. Great squares such as Alexanderplatz and the Gendarmenmarkt and Potsdammer Platz add to its vibrancy. Historic churches abound and Museum Island in the center of the River Spree is not to be missed.
Another of Berlin's great squares is the Gendarmenmarkt in the heart of the city  (wilipedia)

Berlin is a destination unto itself. Or as the Germans would say it’s “Wunderbar!”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Environmental paradise in paradise at the Lodge at Chaa Creek in Belize

Thatched roof luxury amid the jungle surroundings of Belize at Chaa Creek Resort  (Taylor)
BELIZE Chaa Creek Resort in Belize bills itself as “wildly civilized.” And rightly so.  But it hasn’t always been that way. Wild? Yes. Civilized? Not so much.

The Fleming's river route to the market  (Taylor)
It began in 1977 when two young globetrotters arrived in Central America with little more than the clothes on their backs and an adventurous spirit. Soon after, Mick and Lucy Fleming met the owner of a dilapidated 140 acre farm located on the western edge of Belize about four miles from the border of Guatemala. In true entrepreneurial style, the Flemings figured a way to purchase the property and the rest is history.

Before long Mick and Lucy were living in a thatched roof house in the middle of the jungle. While the land was producing milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs, the Flemings were producing two children.
Belize is filled with natural beauty and Mayan ruins  (Taylor)

So thick was the forest surrounding the land, there was no access road to the property. To make a living Mick and Lucy paddled their produce to market by dugout canoe to San Ignacio just as the native Maya had done ten centuries earlier.

Living so close to the land had a profound affect on the Flemings. They became environmentally savvy and, as time passed, they began to develop a philosophy that contemporary luxury could also exist in harmony with nature.

Today Mick, with his tussled hair, khaki shorts and shirt and mud-covered boots, resembles a modern day version of “Jungle Jim.” His youthful exuberance is infectious. It takes just one encounter with the owner to understand how Chaa Creek Resort evolved into an elegant paradise in the middle of the Belizean jungle.

Serene serpentine walkway to thatched cottages at Chaa Creek in Belize  (Taylor)
Four years after buying the land, Mick and Lucy opened a thatched roof jungle lodge. It was the first of its kind in Belize. Today, the jungle has been replaced by lush landscaping and more accommodations.

By 1983, the British Army Corps of Engineers had built a road. In the same year, a dining room was added to cater to the six existing cottages. Six more cottages followed two years later, along with indoor plumbing and a 6,000 gallon water tower.

Preserving the environment is the Fleming's philosophy  (Taylor)
For more than three decades the Flemings have dedicated their lives to “stimulating interest in the environment and local culture.”

Though larger now, the original garden still provides most of the produce used in the resort restaurant. With more than 60 species of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees, the 30-acre Maya Organic Farm is a favorite tour for guests.

Even the swimming pool is environmentally designed with salt water that continuously circulates and re-cycles.
Chaa Creek's environmentally designed salt water swimming pool recirculates and filters the water  (Taylor)
Activities include a private 365 acre nature reserve, miles of well maintained nature trails, nature hikes, birding, horseback riding, mountain biking and canoeing on the Macal River which flows beside the property. There is even a rainforest medicine trail where naturalists showcase the importance of medicinal plants, their uses and the need for conservation.

A one car crank ferry takes visitors to Xunantunich (Taylor)
Thanks to Mick’s unlimited creativity and imagination, the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm propagates one of the most beautiful butterfly species in the world. The butterfly farm and nature centre are complimentary for guests. Others pay $5 U.S. plus tax.

Popular off-property tours of Mayan archaeological sites include Xunantunich and Cahal Pech situated on a hill overlooking San Ignacio. Both are just a 30-minute drive from Chaa Creek.

Mayan ruins at Xunantanich in Belize  (Taylor)
For the more adventurous, try caving at Actun Tunichil Muknal, known as the “place of fright,” or Barton Creek Cave which is part of one of the longest archaeological sites in Belize. These activities require the ability to swim and the physical capability of being able to climb on rocks and boulders.
The caves at Actun Tunichil Muknal, known as "the caves of fright", have great appeal for adventure travelers  (Taylor)
Like all of Belize, Chaa Creek incorporates traditional thatched roof architecture. Since opening in 1981, the property has expanded to 23 cottages including two Treetop Jacuzzi Suites, two Garden Suites, an Orchard Villa and the Honeymoon Sky room.

Rates are seasonal. From December 16 to April 30, cottages are $235 per person for a single, $165 per person double or $125 per person in a triple. The rest of the year is priced at a per person price of $215 (single), $150 (double) and $115 (triple). Suites and villas are priced per room accommodating between 2 and 6 people depending upon the size of the space. High season prices range from $380 to $625 per suite. Low season goes for $350 to $575 per suite.
Belize beckons in many ways thanks to its rich history, culture and scenic beauty  (Taylor)
Within easy walking distance of the lodge, traveler’s on a budget may want to stay in one of ten Casitas located on the banks of the Macal River. The rustic accommodations are strategically nestled amid an undisturbed jungle habitat. Each Casita features two to four beds, oil lamps and fresh linens. Bathrooms and showers are shared but have no lack of hot water. Prices, including breakfast and dinner, are $55 U.S. per person per night plus tax and service.  

Friday, June 12, 2015

Roger the ‘Roo: From joey to “Hey Joe”

A baby kangaroo, called a "Joey," roams the 90-acre Kangaroo Sanctuary in Central, Australia  (The Kangaroo Sanctuary)

NORTHERN TERRITORY, AUSTRALIA Move over Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, there’s a new kid on the block, and his name is Roger.

Talk about buff!

Roger, the well-toned kangaroo (Kangaroo Sanctuary)
Roger is the kangaroo equivalent of Arnold Schwazenegger in his prime, and he’s making big news in the “Land Down Under.” At 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing in at 200 pounds, the 9 year old marsupial is….well shall we say “ripped.”

Back in 2005, Chris Barns rescued his first “joey,” or baby kangaroo. He became so passionate about the idea of saving kangaroos and educating the public about caring for the large hopping Australian beasts that he quit his job to open The KangarooSanctuary in Alice Springs. Today Barns’ wildlife reserve features 90-acres of untouched bush-land where his mob of 25 kangaroos live.

A “mob,” by the way, is the proper term for a group of kangaroos.

Thanks to donations from fellow Australians and other international assistance, Barns, or “Brolga” as he has come to be known, went on to build his wildlife refuge between 2009-11. Since then Brolga has become the subject of a BBC/National Geographic documentary called Kangaroo Dundee. And the star of the show is, of course, Roger the Roo.

Roger as a Joey  (Kangaroo Sanctuary)
To say that Roger is “chiseled” is an understatement. Weighing just 2 pounds when he was rescued by Barns from a roadside in 2006, Roger now boasts a physique that has made him an international celebrity.

Say Brolga, “I rescued Roger from his dead mother’s pouch in 2006 when he weighed just 2 pounds. Today he’s a beautiful 200 pounds of ‘Aussie muscle,’ I am so proud of him.”

Roger’s favorite pastime, when he isn’t wooing the ladies, is using his strength to crush metal buckets. Naturally Roger’s hobby has made him the star attraction for visitors who come to view his magnificent bod.

According to Barns, red kangaroos can live for more than two decades in the wild, and the bigger they are, the more likely they are to have success with the ladies. Based on Roger’s headshots, he will be well satisfied for the rest of his life.

“Roger probably isn’t finished honing his guns,” adds Barns. “He’s still growing, so he’ll get bigger.”
Roger is definitely a ladies man  (Kangaroo Sanctuary) 
Though he is now 9 years old, it appears there is no “midlife crisis” in Roger’s future.

If you are not careful Roger can still be a powerful force to reckon with, even when he is just having fun. “You never stand and trade blows, not that I would, you don’t want to get within kicking range of Roger,” Barns told News Corp Australia. “Just his hands can scratch you up badly. Recently he gave me six stitches in the groin. You’ve got to understand that big male kangaroos have the potential to disembowel you. I was very lucky recently getting away with just a few stitches.”

Crushing metal buckets is a favorite activity  (Kangaroo Sanctuary)
Judging from the photos, Roger has free range to go wherever he likes. When he is not crushing metal feed buckets, Roger spends his days grazing on grass and grains and kick boxing. Oh yes, and pleasing the female contingent of the mob.

On the other hand, Roger does have a softer side as evidenced by they way he cuddles with his favorite stuffed bunny.

Guided tours at Alice Springs Kangaroo Sanctuary are approximately two and a half hours long on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays when visitors can experience the kangaroos awaking from their naps.

As Brolga says, “Roger’s natural instincts as a grown male tell him to fight me. So we have a level of respect for one another now. I run from him.”
One of the kangaroo mob at the Kangaroo Sanctuary poses as Kangaroo Dundee  (Kangaroo Sanctuary)

So from “Pal Joey” to “Kangaroo Dundee” Roger the Roo has become one spectacular specimen of physical fitness. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Grythyttan, Sweden: The town that became a hotel

Winter in the tiny village of Grythyttan, Sweden where the entire town is virtually a restful inn  (wikipedia)
GRYTHYTTANSWEDEN One of the great joys of travel is the serendipitous magic of finding a destination that have been largely overlooked by the guidebooks. Grythyttan, Sweden is one of those  “treasures of discovery”; those indefinable little places, because it is quite literally “the town that became a hotel,” and therein lies its charm.   

Located approximately 200-miles NW of Stockholm, Grythyttan was virtually a ghost town until the mid-1960s. 

Wine cellar dining at Grythyttan  (Communities Digital News)
Originally Grythyttan prospered as a place to stable horses for travelers going to and from Stockholm since the once a thriving community in the 17th century was a midpoint along the road to the silver mines in the region. It was known as an “up-and-down” village because travelers would stop on their way up from Stockholm or on the way back down. The result, Grythyttan’s Gästgivaregård (roughly translated to mean “guest house”) became a popular inn that was known throughout the country for its hospitable charm, its gastronomic excellence and its exquisite wine list.

In 1641, Queen Kristina issued a decree that an inn be built every 55 miles along Sweden’s newly constructed country roads. Each inn was to provide separate accommodations for the three distinct social classes of the day as well a stable that could house a minimum of 24 horses.

Following Queen Kristina’s edict, Grythyttan quickly rose to prominence as the ideal model for the project.

Nightfall in the quiet streets of Grythyttan  (
Eventually, Grythyttan’s Gästgivaregård fell into disrepair and, by the end of the 1960s, the inn was in such a state of ruin that it was scheduled for demolition. At the 11th hour the local heritage society intervened and saved it with a one vote margin of victory.  Arthur Lindqvist and Yngve Henriksson were then assigned the task of renewing the spirit of the inn to its once elegant past.

Enter a flamboyant, 26-year old, antique dealer named Carl Jan Granqvist and the reputation of Grythyttan quickly returned to its former grandeur.

Lace curtains highlight a room at the inn  (Communities Digital News)
In the spring of 1973, Grandqvist reopened the hostelry comprised of 22 buildings with 60 rooms and suites.  Each was exquisitely filled with antique furniture and appointed with artwork created by local craftsmen. Even the inn’s former dungeon was converted into a candlelit wine and cheese cellar.

Despite a population of less than 1,000 residents Grythyttan has more or less returned to a semblance of its past thanks to the innovations of Grandqvist and the patronage of the pop singing group ABBA during the 1980s. Today Grythyttan is home to the chef and restaurant management school known as the Gyrthyttan School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts & Meal Science.

Each room is unique  (Communities Digital News
For 25-years Grandqvist managed the property with such style and flair that the town soon became the “inn” place to go for a relaxing respite for the rich and famous.  With his well-deserved reputation as one of Sweden’s finest gourmands and wine connoisseurs, the flashy entrepreneur frequently entertained guests during summer months with free chamber music concerts at his villa just outside of town.  To accomplish this, Grandqvist provided complimentary accommodations to members of the Stockholm Philharmonic who in return performed in the evenings for guests and villagers alike.

Grythyttan is roughly shaped like a large roundabout with roads radiating like the spokes of a wheel from the central section of town into other areas of the region.  The main inn is situated on a wide spot along one of the country roads leading into town.  Rooms are scattered throughout the property in more than twenty buildings which were once stables, haylofts, blacksmith shops or any one of a variety of buildings that made the town prosperous.

In summer the golden field of Sweden are so brilliant they almost hurt your eyes  (wikipedia)
Though Carl Jan Grandqvist no longer adds his personal touch to Grythyttan’s Gästgivaregård, his personality still survives in this tiny Swedish village that became a hotel.

Here’s a tip.  Arrive in mid-afternoon.  Enjoy the spa.  Wine and dine in elegance. Spend the night.  Savor the magic.