Friday, October 30, 2015

Charlotte’s Doug Eberhart conquers the Traveler’s Century Club

Sukothai was the ancient capital of Thailand -- Just one of countless sites Doug Eberhart has visited  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE  Football season is in full swing and as every player and fan knows, 100 is the magic number. Be it 100 yards for a touchdown or 100 yards rushing or passing, 100 is the standard of excellence in America’s favorite sport.

Every trip is an adventure for Eberhart  
Perhaps that’s why former All-Ohio offensive center for Massillon Washington High School, Doug Eberhart, chose as his next landmark to travel to 100 countries. Today Eberhart measures his success in miles rather than yards but the number 100 remains the standard.

Recently Eberhart, a graduate of Princeton, “touched down” in Piran, Slovenia to become a full-fledged member of the Traveler’s Century Club; people who have visited 100 countries or more in their travels.

Like many “Centurians” Doug followed the wind and Slovenia just happened to be the country that captured the elusive trophy. As a rule Eberhart visits multiple countries when he can, not only for convenience but also as a cost and logistics factor.

Though Eberhart is an expert at finding a deal, he does not scrimp to necessarily seek out the lowest price because he knows all too well that that can be detrimental for a traveler even though it may keep his wallet a little bit fatter.

Over his years of travel, Eberhart estimates he has spent between $200,000 and $250,000 to accomplish his feat, but considering the number of countries he has seen that number is relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, there is no price tag he can put on his memories or his experiences.
Pura Taman Ayun in Bali -- Eberhart never tires of the discoveries he makes while traveling  (wikipedia)
The most expensive trip Eberhart has ever taken was to Tahiti and Bora Bora which rang up a tab of about $8,500. Spending that kind of money is a rarity, however.

Most people do not think of football players as having an interest in seeing the world, but Doug was heavily influenced by his great uncle Eugene Jeffers who was an undercover agent for the CIA for many years. During school holidays, Eberhart and his twin brother, an All-Ohio high school quarterback, were enthralled by “Uncle Jeffs” stories of exotic places from the world’s most intriguing “hot spots.”

Plitvice Lakes in Croatia  (wikipedia)
Eberhart also credits a French professor who brought the world alive, especially when teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation.

That laid the groundwork and Doug has been on a mission ever since. While at Princeton he went to Taipei with a friend as part of the International Student Body. During his visit he contacted a contagious disease know as “wanderlust” which is uncureable. Once bitten the only thing that will stop someone is time and money.

Though Doug did not initially set out to travel to 100 countries, somewhere between 2000 and 2003 he realized he wanted to set a goal of visiting at least 100 countries and territories. Eberhart is careful to qualify his dream because technically territories are not countries and determining prescisely what constitutes a country can be tricky at times.
Ludwig II's fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria  (wikipedia)
For example, the Vatican is a country but it still feels like Rome anyway you look at it. And that’s just one tiny sample of countless other questionable destinations.

 “I always had an interest in the diversity of other countries and seeing the world through other people’s eyes,” says Doug. “I’m not interested in just checking off places for the sake of saying I have been there. I like to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible.”
Africa is one of Doug's favorite places because of its diversity and its wildlife  (John Lasater)
The most obvious question Eberhart gets is which is his favorite country to which he says “Kenya” but actually he qualifies all of Africa in that assessment.

By contrast, his least favorite country is Paraguay which Eberhart found boring.
Antarctica took Doug to the end of the earth  (wikipedia)
Like most world travelers, there are gaps in Doug’s personal itinerary: Israel, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Jordan, Poland, the Seychelles, Bhutan, Tibet and Myanmar to name a few.

The Grand Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden -- Home of the Nobel Prize winners  (wikipedia)
Eberhart’s top five cities, in no particular order, are Sydney, Vancouver, Stockholm, Prague and Rio. Look closely and you will notice that somehow water makes its mark in the rankings.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background  (wikipedia)
One of the best things about his job as a sales rep for Merit Medical says Doug is that it has allowed him the freedom of time to pursue his dream.

And so the quest continues as Eberhart pursues some of those “gaps.” Don’t bet against him. He has already scored once and now he is working on his second 100 following his personal “turn of the century.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Honfleur: The picturesque port that inspired Impressionist art

Honfleur's port is both picturesque and lively throughout the year  (wikipedia
HONFLEURFRANCE Honfleur is one of those places that immediately captivates visitors. In fact, Honfleur itself IS the attraction.

Not that the picturesque harbor on the northern coast of Normandy lacks history -- it is a fascinating little seaport village. It really has more to do with the charming colorful buildings that line the perimeter of the rectangular port amid a perpetual pageant of changing light. Little wonder the Impressionist artists of the 19th century were drawn to the region.

Belfry of the Church of  Sainte Catherine  (wikipedia)
Today, more than a century and a half later, artists still favor a spot at the northeast corner of town beside the Old Dock of the harbor. Here they paint the same scene that has captured the imagination for nearly two hundred years. And yet, somehow each new interpretation seems to maintain a certain individuality despite myriad renditions that have been transferred from palette to canvas over the decades.

When native son Eugene Boudin was advised by Dutch painter Johan Jongkind to practice his craft outdoors, or en plein air, it marked the early beginnings of Impressionism. Later Boudin befriended Claude Monet, who was only 18 at the time, and convinced the young prodigy to give up doing caricatures and concentrate on landscapes. The rest is history.

Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, which depicts the harbor in nearby Le Havre, gave the Impressionist movement its name, though it was initially intended as a derogatory description.
Impression, Sunrise is the painting by Claude Monet that gave Impressionism its name  (wikiart)
Honfleur’s glorious light is typical of the region where white cotton ball clouds can become sinister rolling gray thunderheads in mere minutes. The ever-evolving shades of shadow and light represent the character of Honfleur and provide a kaleidoscope backdrop that rivets the imagination.

The ancient rock and wood Lieutenance is one of Honfleur's landmarks  (wikipedia)
Situated on the estuary of the River Seine that flows through Paris, Honfleur thrived at the beginning of the Hundred Years War when Charles V bolstered the town’s defenses for strategic purposes. It was first mentioned in the early 11th century, but it was not until the middle of the 12th century that Honfleur became a major shipping lane for goods moving from Rouen to England.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Honfleur was an important departure point for several major explorations. Binot Paulmierde Gonneville sailed to the coast of Brazil in 1503. Three years later, Jean Denis, who lived in Honfleur, traveled to Newfoundland and through the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec. Later, in 1681, Cavalier de La Salle, discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River. Both expeditions began from Honfleur.

That maritime flavor remains an important facet of the appeal of Honfleur today. The tiny seaport thrives with sidewalk cafes, charming galleries, narrow streets and architectural allure.
The Church of Sainte-Catherine of Alexandria is shaped like an upside down boat  (wikipedia)
A walk around the harbor is all the orientation one needs. Just behind the harbor is the Church of Saint-Catherine of Alexandria -- the main landmark of the village. The distinct wooden structure with its engaging bell tower was constructed shortly after the Hundred Years War using naval building techniques. A second nave was added later in the 16th century. 

Honfleur has four museums of note. Museum Eugene Boudin pays homage to the master who brought notoriety to the city with his art. Naturally, the town would be incomplete without a Naval Museum. Vieux Honfleur Museum focuses on the village’s history, while the Erik Satie House gets mixed reviews from travelers desiring to know more about the life of the eccentric early 20th century musician.
Le Havre at Sunset by Eugene Boudin  (wikiart)

Saturday is market day until 1 p.m. Regional farmers bring fresh meat, fish and produce to the center of town, which adds another distinct layer of personality to Honfleur’s already seductive charms.

Occasionally a festival will pop up, but for the most part Honfleur is content to exist within its bewitching magnetism.

Access to Honfleur must be done by motor transportation, or by boat, but there is rail service to nearby Deauville and Le Havre.
People flock to Honfleur for its picturesque harbor, sidewalk cafe and glorious light  (wikipedia)You see, Honfleur is one of those in-between places … a place that evokes optimism, a place where the whole world just seems to be right.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Winter fun from start to Finnish

The mysterious Northern Lights are a highlight of a winter trip to Finland  (wikipedia)
FINLAND If ever there was a season suited to one nationality, it would have to be winter in Finland.

Nobody loves winter more than the Finns  (wikipedia)
Finns greet the first snowflakes of winter with eager anticipation where Mother Nature turns an entire country into a crystalline playground filled with exhilarating activities.

No sport represents the Finnish passion for winter more than cross country skiing. Even today, the Finn’s love of their woodlands and lakes is deeply rooted in their rural heritage. Skis have evolved from a primary means of transportation to the most popular source of recreation

Outdoor loving travelers with an appetite for exercise can do cross country hut-to-hut ski tours by trekking through pristine nature, through snow laden forests and across frozen lakes.

Hut-to-hut tours feature rustic accommodations, sometimes with no electricity. On the other hand, you’re in Finland, which means no amount of rusticity ever goes without a sauna at every location.
Ski trekking and cross country skiing are popular winter activities  (wikipedia)
While much of Finland is relatively flat, all the familiar winter activities are available with plenty of opportunities to hit the slopes for downhill or alpine skiing. Just below the Arctic Circle in Kuusamo, Mt. Ruka is one of the most popular spots in the country for traditional ski experiences.

Telemark skiing is another favorite. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it’s like doing cross country skiing on downhill terrain. Like other forms of the sport, telemark is challenging because it demands stamina combined with rhythm, coordination and balance in order to derive maximum pleasure from skimming across souffl├ęs of powdery white snow.

Hardy travelers can do winter swimming  (wikipedia)
Much of the fun of Finland in winter however, is leaving traditional enterprises behind to find bold adventures unlike anywhere else in the world. It is here that Finnish creativity has no peer.

Each year in February, the Finlandia Ski Race attracts nearly 10,000 participants from around the world for a marathon on skis. Beginning at the Lahti Ski Center about two hours northeast of Helsinki, this test of speed and endurance features two major competitions. The first is a 20-mile race followed by the main event which is 47-miles long. For some the race represents a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, but for most the ultimate goal is to simply cross the “Finnish line.”
The Finlandia Ski Race attracts thousands of people each year in February  (wikipedia)
How about reindeer skiing which is popular in Lapland? Just hook a bridle and tow-rope to your favorite reindeer and race across the tundra at breakneck speed.

Ice hotels are very popular throughout Scandinavia -- Some even have churches sculpted from ice  (wikipedia)
Lapland is also home to annual reindeer round-ups. Just as bison were integral to the lives of native Americans in the western United States for food, shelter and clothing, so too, are reindeer for the Lapps. Round-ups allow visitors to participate in herding reindeer, often by helicopter, as the animals are separated for breeding, slaughter, being returned to their owners or released back into the wild.

Throughout the dark-shortened days of winter in Finland ice sculpture contests are a popular diversion in many small villages.

Just because temperatures are freezing and summer has long been forgotten or is too far in the future to dream about, does not mean that Finns don’t remember the range of activities that await after the snow melts.
How about a round of snow golf. Play with orange balls or wait til spring when the snow melts  (wikipedia)

Ever heard of snow golf? The “greens” become “whites” and the balls are orange so you can find them, but a little snow will never  keep a Finnish duffer from his appointed rounds.

How about fishing? After all, the fish are still under that frozen water. Drill a hole, set up a stool, get a hot glass of cider, drop a line and you’re in business.

There is horse racing too. The trotters at Vermo run all year long.

For members of the Polar Bear Club, why not compete in a winter swim meet. A regulation pool is chiseled out of the ice and all the events are just like summer; breast stroke, butterfly, backstroke and freestyle.
Try dog sledding for an outing into pristine wilderness  (Taylor)

Many travelers find cruising relaxing. So do the Finns. That’s why they offer ice-breaker cruises more than half of the year. The best known and most popular is aboard the Sampo, a retired government ice-breaker that takes travelers out to chop up the ice. Sampo sails out of the seaport city of Kemi. During the tour, participants are allowed to outfit themselves in brightly colored wetsuits and go for a dip in the Gulf of Bothnia.
Snowmobiling is also a favorite activity  (wikipedia)
Summer has the midnight sun, but even that cannot compete with the Aurora Borealis or Northern lights of winter. When conditions are exactly right, another phenomenon known as the “blue-moment” occurs just before sunset when eerie shades of blue envelop the surroundings to create an alien-like atmosphere.

Try snowmobiling or dog-sledding. If no dogs are available, no matter, you can do a reindeer safari instead.

Of course there’s always sledding, skating and campfire cookouts..
When the day is done head for the sauna -- Saunas are Finland's national pastime  (wikipedia)
Whatever your interests, be they offbeat, traditional, adventure or something in between, Finland welcomes visitors to the wonders of winter. The Finns call it “snow-how” because in Finland, there’s no business like “snow” business.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Switzerland's Art & Culture -- Mountains of Creativity

The Castle of Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva was immortalized by Lord Byron  (wikipedia)
SWITZERLAND  When most travelers consider the great centers of art in Europe, they usually think of Florence, Rome, Venice, Paris or Madrid among others.

Chateau d'Oex is a popular place for ballooning  (wikipedia)
If you mention Switzerland, the images that first come to mind are majestic peaks rising from the earth, villages nestled upon the shores of deep glacial lakes or panoramic tableaux that fade into infinity.

But these are only a prologue to a country that ignites the flames of artistic expression which are frequently unknown to many visitors. Switzerland is a place where the omnipotent hand of nature has created a breathtaking palette for the brushstrokes of man.

To understand the art and culture of Switzerland, you must first look at its history. Centuries before Christ, people settled among the hills of what is now Bellinzona; a gateway between northern and southern Europe near the border of Italy. Switzerland has been a crossroads ever since.
Roman ruins on the Rhine River at Augusta Raurica near Basel are always a surprise  (wikipedia)
Julius Caesar came to Geneva in 58 BC. The Romans later migrated north near present day Basel to establish a colony known as Augusta Raurica in 44 BC. The thriving commercial center of 20,000 people was the oldest Roman settlement on the Rhine.

Zurich's Fraumunster has windows by Chagall (wikipedia)
By 15 BC the Romans had developed a customs post at a place called “Turicum.” Today we know it as Zurich.

With the conquering of the Alps, Switzerland’s cultural landscape was altered forever during the latter part of the 18th century with the onset of tourism.

By the middle of the 20th century, Switzerland was home to some of the finest private art collections in the world; the Buhrle Collection in Zurich, the Oskar Reinhart Foundation in Winterthur and Thyssen-Boremisza in Lugano; all world class exhibitions featuring works by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and Van Gogh to name a few.
Am Romerholz in Winterthur is home to the private art collection of Oskar Reinhart  (wikipedia)
When the city of Basel founded the oldest university in Switzerland in 1460, it also etched an indelible impression upon the cultural canvas of the country.

Amerbach portrait by Hans Holbein  (wikipedia)
In 1661, the Amerbach Collection of Basel was acquired for the university, establishing the first public art museum in the world. Today, the Holbein collection combined with the works of native son, 19th century painter Arnold Bocklin, are among the highlights that contribute to Basel’s Fine Arts Museum as one of the best in the world.

The canton of Ticino has been called “a fragment of the Mediterranean on the fringes of the north” featuring frescoes by Bernardino Luini in the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in Lugano. Luini is often compared to his Renaissance contemporary  Leonardo da Vinci.

Lugano is also home to internationally acclaimed architect Mario Botta who only has two designs in the United States, one in San Francisco and the other in Charlotte.
Mario Botta building in Basel  (wikipedia)

At the Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern, Ferdinand Hodler paints man’s challenges of conquering nature by attempting to ascend to the summit of the Matterhorn.

In the early part of the 20th century, Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner also took  inspiration from the mountains. 

While living in several locations around Davos, the region provided a temporary refuge in Kirchner’s deeply troubled life. Today the Kirchner Museum has received accolades as an excellent example of modern Swiss architecture.
Painting by Giovanni Segantini in St Moritz  (wikipedia)
Just over the mountains tucked in the corner of a hillside in St. Moritz, sits a museum that honors Giovanni Segantini whose mountain motifs are characterized by short, thick brushstrokes that magically blend into poetic rural scenes.

The Olympic Museum in Lausanne rises from wide-stepped, landscaped terraces overlooking the Lake of Geneva to capture the concept of “Olympism” which combines the development of man’s physical and moral senses with his cultural and artistic qualities. Outside the Olympic flame burns as an eternal symbol of the games. It is a celebration of the games of antiquity that is both archive and learning center.
Exterior of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne  ( -- Christophe Moratale)
At the Fraumunster in Zurich, Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows attract visitors from all over the world. Just across the river, the Kronenhalle is one of the city’s liveliest and most sophisticated restaurants where diners are surrounded by original works of many of the world’s greatest artists.

As art critic Judd Tully says, “Switzerland is really a very rich and diverse palette, if you will, of what you can see without having to know that much about it, really.”

TIP: In Switzerland a Swiss Travel Pass (railpass) offers FREE admission to more than 450 museums.

Alexander Calame drew his inspiration from the magnificence of the Swiss Alps  (wikipedia)
With a vibrant artistic heritage, Switzerland looks brightly toward the future where art tells a story  that is a chronology of man’s evolving creativity. It tells of men’s lives and the world in which they lived, yesterday and today with an eye always toward tomorrow.

In Switzerland art is a visual diary of the centuries and a footnote to history.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bangkok, Thailand and the unsolved mystery of Jim Thompson

Ruins at Sukothai the ancient capital of Thailand nestled in the teeming jungles of Southeast Asia  (wikipedia)

BANGKOK, THAILAND Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Charlie Chan. They all conjure intriguing images for travelers. But those master detectives were fiction. A real unsolved mystery still thrives in the teeming jungles of Malaysia and amid the klongs of Bangkok, Thailand.

Thai silk king Jim Thompson vanished in the 1950s 
Just three short sentences are all it takes in Edward Roy De Souza’s book Solved! The MysteriousDisappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King will get you hooked on this real life mystery of American entrepreneur Jim Thompson: “The hunt was for one man. He came to the Cameron Highlands for a short holiday. Two days later he disappeared!”

An unsolved disappearance in the exotic wilds of mid-20th century Asia was not uncommon, but when the victim was James (Jim) H.W. Thompson, the international celebrity who revived the silk industry of Thailand, suddenly conspiracy theorists and imaginative writers came out of the woodwork to “solve” the mystery.

Nearly 60 years later, the Jim Thompson mystery remains a source of conjecture that not only arouses your curiosity but will enhance your experience when traveling to that part of the world.
Besides the locale, which also makes this story intriguing, is the multitude of theories surrounding Thompson’s vanishing act.

Wat Arun can be seen from the Chao Phraya River that flows through Bangkok  (wikipedia)

Thompson was involved in espionage during World War II, working as an OSS operative. Following the war, he fell in love with Bangkok despite the numerous inconveniences of living there.

Writer's wing at the famed Oriental Hotel  (wikipedia)
There was a nostalgic appeal to old Bangkok that appealed to Thompson’s personality. So much was the “character” of Bangkok’s past a part of his soul that he preferred using the name of “Siam” rather than the new name “Thailand.”

Jim Thompson was an avid walker. He especially enjoyed long strolls in the country and, whenever possible, off the beaten path. Of particular interest were the ancient ruins that abound throughout the country.
While visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia during Easter in 1957, Thompson left the villa for an unannounced walk while his hosts opted to rest during the intense afternoon heat. Everyone expected Thompson to return by six p.m. in time to prepare for dinner. He never did. Jim Thompson has not been seen or heard of since.
Life along the klongs in Thailand (wikipedia)
One of the things Thompson loved about Bangkok was its “organized chaos” that seemed to confuse Westerners. Unlike European centers, Thailand’s capital was a myriad of congestion and confusion with no great squares or intersections of major thoroughfares that could be used as a source of orientation.

Pedicabs are a popular form of transportation  (Taylor)
Much as they are today, pedicabs, or samloh, were a popular form of transportation. The three-wheeled two-seated vehicles were famous for their jingling bells that echoed throughout the city like crickets on a warm summer night in the country. It was “like a chorus of strange insects calling to one another,” wrote William Warren in his book Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery.

Thompson was an American entrepreneur of the first order. His first endeavor in Bangkok involved the Oriental Hotel which nestles along the shores of the Chao Phraya River. The Chao Phrays flows through the city with thousands of “river roads” known as klongs spreading its aquatic tentacles into the bustling metropolis.

Later, Thompson became rich and famous by reviving the silk industry of Thailand, a thriving venture that is legendary even today for its quality and design.
The silk industry thrives in Thailand even today thanks to Jim Thompson  (wikipedia)
In the middle of the 20th century, Jim Thompson was an eclectic anomaly in his adopted home. He was an architect, a retired military officer, an ex-spy, a silk merchant, a multimillionaire and, also, an internationally recognized antique collector.

As Thompson’s collection grew, so did the need for a place to house his artifacts, resulting in the construction of a home that was also a museum. The “House on the Klong” as it was, and is, called, was created from parts of six old Thai up-country houses.
Jim Thompson created his house as a place to display his fabulous art and antique collections  (wikipedia) 
It took nearly a year to re-assemble the sextet of homes into the architectural masterpiece that remains one of the most popular attractions in Bangkok today. Scattered throughout the massive home are blue-and-white Ming treasures, stone figures from Cambodia, elaborate chandeliers, Burmese statues and a dining table once used by King Rama V of Thailand.

Sample pattern of Thai silk  (wikipedia0
Appropriately, the Jim Thompson house nestles within a jungle setting along one of Bangkok’s klongs.
In the 21st century, the silk industry of Thailand thrives and the Oriental continues to be one of the finest hotel properties in the world. Thompson’s “House on the Klong” is a major tourist attraction in a region where “disappearing” is not unusual.

At least twelve theories have been offered as a solution to the Thompson mystery, including one that he may even have planned his own disappearance. None has produced a satisfactory answer.
Jim Thompson's disappearance remains a mystery, but his silk products continue to be a favorite for shoppers (wikipedia)

So the mystery of Jim Thompson continues. All you need to do is travel to Southeast Asia and immerse yourself in discovering the answer.