Friday, April 29, 2016

Chocolate & Coral are major events on St. Lucia

The Pitons are a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the lush tropical island of St. Lucia  (
ST. LUCIA Nestled in the eastern Caribbean Sea, the lush island of St Lucia has long been a favorite port of call for sailors, but it is now coming into its own as a popular tourist destination.

The influx of visitors could not have come at a better time with the increasing growth in worldwide banana production taking its toll. Though it was first under the influence of French settlers, followed by the British in the mid-17th century, St Lucia became a sovereign nation in February, 1979.
St Lucia is a favorite spot for sailing  (wikipedia)

Popular attractions are the island’s drive-in volcano, the Botanical Garden, Pigeon Island National Park and the majestic landmark twin peaks of The Pitons, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since gaining its independence however, St Lucia has also become home to some of the finest resort properties in the Caribbean. JadeMountain Resort, known for its open-air sanctuaries and breathtaking panoramas was recently named to the American Express Travel list as one of the world’s top 25 hotels. In the process, Jade Mountain captured the award for "Most Breathtaking Views."
Infinity pool at Jade Mountain Resort which is famous for its magnificent views  (
Another St Lucia property, which has also received high marks from Conde Nast Traveler, is Anse Chastanet with its idyllic location in the shadow of the Pitons. Situated on the southwestern coast of the island, Anse Chastanet features 49 individually designed rooms that are tucked within a tropical garden at beach level.
The Pitons as seen from a room at Anse Chastanet Resort in St. Lucia  (
Whether travelers choose Jade Mountain or Anse Chastanet, each property is offering a unique experience during the month of August.
Jade Mountain celebrates Chocolate Heritage Month with a program that traces the history of chocolate as an Aztec beverage, its influence in European exploration and contemporary production.
Making chocolate the hard way from the real stuff  (Taylor0
Guests will be greeted with a chocolate amenity and cocktail, a Chocolate Lovers Breakfast in Bed celebration and a chocolate-infused spa treatment.

There will also be classes in Chocolate Sensory tasting as well as an opportunity to make a personalized chocolate bar.
Chocolate packages will continue throughout the year for visitors who are unable participate in the August Festival.
 What better way to savor one of the finest resorts in the Caribbean than basking in the decadent world of chocolate?
Meanwhile, at Anse Chastanet, the resort has announced its dates for a rare annual event which it has participated in for nearly two decades. Thanks to its location, Anse Chastanet annually witnesses one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular performance when the coral spawns each year. This year the spawning is predicted to take place from August 24-26th.
Spawning brain coral is a rare annual phenomenon that can be viewed in August at Anse Chastanet Resort  (wikipedia)
The phenomenon was first discovered in Australia in the 1980s at the Great Barrier Reef. The annual mass reproduction is now known be critical to coral reef survival.
When the spawning process is underway, coral release millions of packets of egg and sperm cells that appear underwater as massive clouds of white and pink. The upward “snowfall” drifts toward the surface for fertilization and the sea is partially covered by the slicks of coral larvae before settling to the bottom to create next generation of coral.
Though much of the process continues to be a mystery, scientists have been able to accurately predict when it will take place. A week or so after a full August moon, just an hour or two after sunset, using darkness for cover, Anse Chastanet’s in-house diving staff takes scuba divers and snorkelers out the witness this rare phenomenon.
Everywhere you look on St Lucia, the Pitons dominate the view just like the Jade Club at Jade Mountain Resort  (
Whether your choice is chocolate, spawning coral or anything in between, St Lucia is rapidly becoming a travel destination that appeals to a new generation of island hoppers. Sailors and day-trippers from cruise ships are slowly learning they are going to have to share the paradise that was once their domain.
And for those newcomers who are “discovering” St Lucia, Jade Mountain or Anse Chastanet just may be your last resort.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Treasure Island in Indonesia: Bali

Traditional dance in Bali where good triumphs over evil   (Taylor)
UBUD, BALI Elizabeth Gilbert “ate” her way through Italy and “prayed” in India, but it was in Bali where she found “love.”

At one time or another we have all heard the expression “I’d go to the ends of the earth for you.” Well the island of Bali in Indonesia is about as far as you can go from the United States before you find yourself on the return trip home.
An island nation filled with temples  (Taylor)

Of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, Bali nestles between Java and Lombok. It is also the Hindu hub of an archipelago that has a majority Muslim population.

What strikes visitors the moment they set foot on Bali, which is roughly 100 miles in width and 75 miles from top to bottom, is the warmth and serenity of the people. There is a gentleness in the Balinese spirit that is both welcoming and captivating.

With an average salary for most Balinese of about $500 per month, it is obvious that the island population is not a haven for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. At least the local population that is.
Which, in its own way, defies the notion from Islamic nations that the lack of resources is an excuse for global terrorism.
Communities are an integral part of Balinesian life that center around local temples  (Taylor)

Bali was the third stop for Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray, Love based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert in 2010.

And it doesn’t take long to discover what captured Gilbert’s heart about Bali. Everywhere you look there is a temple rising above congested streets filled with mopeds and other forms of transportation.

Woman praying at her temple  (Taylor)

Yet, somehow there is a spirituality within the minds and souls of the people that is infectious. It is a serenity of spirit that travelers immediately understand though it may be subliminal at first.

Ubud is a thriving, growing community that both Gilbert and Roberts found infectious. At one place or another, no matter when you visit, you will discover a festival somewhere. Here grateful residents bring their offerings to the temple to honor their individual histories.
Bali is filled with lush vegetation that is just a heartbeat away from streets filled with traffic and shops (Taylor)
Bali is lush. Despite its teeming streets filled with traffic, there is also a primeval atmosphere where birds sing in the tree-tops, palm trees and other tropical plants abound amid terraced rice fields, active volcanoes and a huge national park to the west.
The night market is a favorite place each evening  (Taylor)

The night market is a daily gathering of local food vendors cooking up traditional Balinese street food. Everything from chicken, beef, pork and, even, goat sate (skewered meat on a stick) to spicy roast pork, fried fish and other local fast food. Don’t look for a Big Mac. You won’t find it in Ubud.

Closer to the main square in Ubud is the more traditional street market where hawkers sell their wares by negotiating a price for scarves, masks, wood carving, bracelets and all manner of other traditional Balinese trinkets.
Balinese artisans are excellent craftsmen at wood carving, weaving and stone sculpture  (Taylor)
For travelers who want to become instant Donald Trump wanabees, Bali is the place. With an exchange rate of roughly 13,200 Indonesian Rupiah to the dollar. In other words if you go to an ATM and get $100 you are an instant millionaire in Bali with 1,320,000 IDR in your pocket.
The Monkey Forest is a popular 27 acre park where monkeys put on a daily show for visitors  (Taylor)
Other than the markets, popular attractions in and around Ubud are the active volcanoes in the northeast, the terraced rice fields and the Monkey Forest in the main part of the city. Visitors enjoy strolling through the 27 acre forest to view the monkeys that occupy the area by the thousands. No matter when you go, you are guaranteed to see a great show.
Hotels are elegant and deluxe...this is not "roughing it" Robinson Crusoe-style  (Taylor)
It takes some effort to reach the Indonesian nation. It’s not the traditional 6 to 8 hour flight to Europe from the east coast of the US. But if you plan for at least a day of travel to get there you will be richly rewarded.
Working the rice fields just as they have done for centuries  (Taylor)
Then you too can return home to tell your best friend that you literally “went to the ends of the earth for him.”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The mysterious Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland

The famous Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland has been a pilgrimage  site for centuries  (Taylor)
EINSIEDELN, SWITZERLAND For more than ten centuries pilgrims from all over the world have journeyed to pay homage to the Black Madonna in the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln. Yet for traditional travelers, Einsiedeln goes largely unknown.

The mysterious black statue which resides in the center of Einsiedeln’s monastery is clad in elegant brocades embroidered with floral accents of gold. In her left arm, the Madonna holds the Christ child, who is, himself, holding a black bird.

Einsiedeln's Abbey is also an exclusive school  (Taylor)

Situated approximately 20 miles southeast of Zurich, Einsiedeln was settled in the Finsterwald, or Dark Forest, of northern Switzerland It can be reached in about an hour by car or by train from Zurich via Wadenswill.

Toward the end of the 8th century, a 40-year old monk named St. Meinard went searching for greater solitude to practice his religious beliefs. Arriving at the place which is now Einsiedeln, he entered the Dark Forest and eventually built a small hermitage.

Among Meinard’s few possessions was a statue of the Virgin Mary given to him by an abbess from Zurich. Over time, Meinard became known for his piety and kindness, and his statue was said to possess miraculous powers.
Elaborate and beautiful Baroque ceiling inside the abbey  (Taylor)
One particular feature made the Madonna stand out from all others. It was black.

Local folklore claimed that years of candle smoke had darkened the statue. Before long the ebony figurine gained a reputation for having a magical aura. St. Meinard made his Black Madonna part of his altarpiece and, in a day when superstitions ran high, mythology grew about many miracles attributed to “Our Lady of Einsiedeln.”

One day Meinard rescued two ravens that were being attacked by hawks and, as legend goes, the ravens became the monk’s allies for the remainder of his life.
Two thieves murdered the saint in 861 during a robbery attempt. As they fled into the village, the ravens followed them, squawking loudly until the killers were apprehended at a nearby inn by the alerted townspeople.

For the next 80-years small groups of Beneditine monks came to live in the area now known as Einsiedeln or “The Hermitage.” Over those decades, Meinard’s tiny hermitage was transformed into the Lady Chapel which was said to have been consecrated by Christ himself.
The abbey library has a massive collection of books dating back several centuries  (Taylor)
In 948, on the eve of the consecration, the bishop who was to perform the ceremony had a vision of the church being filled with a brilliant light as Christ approached the altar. The following day as  proceedings began, a voice spoke to the bishop saying the chapel had already been divinely consecrated. Sixteen years later Pope Leo VIII confirmed the miracle, and the Abbey of Einsiedeln has been a major pilgrimage site ever since.

The original Black Madonna was replaced long ago by the statue which is seen today. In 1799, while restoring the present Madonna, Johann Adam Fuetscher wrote that there was no doubt the face had “initially been flesh-colored.”

Following the restoration, the devoted common people demanded their precious Madonna be painted entirely black.
Now completely enclosed in the Lady Chapel within the nave of the magnificent Baroque basilica of the expansive abbey of Einsiedeln, the Black Madonna is praised daily by the monks at 4:30 pm. An on-going ritual that has taken place for four hundred years.

The location of the current Black Madonna chapel is believed to rest over the site of Meinrad's original hermitage.

Whatever the true significance may be, approximately four hundred Black Virgins are now located throughout Europe. Some say the mysterious statues reside in natural energy centers, many of which are remote, which are believed to have been focal points for centuries for numerous earth mysteries.

Though pilgrimages have abated in recent years, the monastery still offers much for visitors. The breathtaking Baroque basilica alone is stunning.
Diorama of Bethlehem tells the Christmas story and the birth of Christ  (Taylor)
For more than a thousand years, Einsiedeln has been a center of learning and a residence for numerous saints and scholars who have studied its priceless collections of letters, manuscripts and music.

The abbey library contains nearly a quarter of a million volumes that are still in use by the community of 60 monks in residence today.

Also worth viewing is the inestimable collection of stringed instruments including some by  Stradivarius and Amati.

With its highly regarded academic reputation, the abbey features a school for approximately 360 advanced students from all over the world. Entrance requirements are strict and only the best and the brightest are accepted.

Just a short walk from the monastery is the Dioarma Bethlehem which is said to be the largest nativity scene in the world with over 500 carved wooden figurines.

Equally famous is the Panorama, a 300-foot long, 30-foot high painting depicting Jerusalem and the the Crucifixion.

For active travelers, Einsiedeln is a popular ski destination featuring three ski areas including ski jumps.

The tiny, yet delightful, community is compact. From the railway station at one end of town to the abbey at the other takes ten minutes or less without stops.

Nestled within lovely rolling countryside, the journey from Zurich to Einsiedeln is a visual feast. It’s an ideal day-trip in Switzerland where the mysterious Black Madonna, and her magic, awaits.


Friday, April 8, 2016

The mysterious crystal skull and other treasures in Belize

The alter where F. A. Mitchell claimed his daughter discovered a crystal skull in Belize  (Taylor)
BELIZE The famed “crystal skull” of Belize may have been one of the great hoaxes of all times but it still stirs the imagination. So much so that it immediately conjures images of mystery and intrigue.  Even Indiana Jones got into the act.
For the traveler, the idea is seductive enough to challenge any level of curiosity, and the best place to begin is in Belize.  Though fiction most likely outweighs fact regarding controversies over the crystal skulls, rummaging through ancient Mayan ruins nestled within exotic rainforests while embracing the enigma has universal appeal.  
Belize is a land of mystery  (Taylor)
In its own unique way, Belize is the best of all worlds for any sort of traveler.  Adventurers can savor pristine wilderness and solitude.  Environmentalists will find a wonderland of flora and fauna, flowing rivers through dense forests and colorful wildlife protected by a glorious natural habitat.  History buffs, curiosity seekers and amateur sleuths alike can speculate about the origins and disappearance of ancient Mayan civilizations.
For upscale travelers who like to “rough it” by day and luxuriate at night, Belize offers accommodations and cuisine to suit even the most discriminating sensibilities.  Not only can Belize satisfy the needs of either an explorer or a socialite, it can also adapt to suit the pleasures of just about anyone in between.  Except, that is, for lovers of McDonald’s and other fast-food enterprises, for they simply do not exist in Belize.
The tiny nation on the northeastern coast of Central America is proof positive that man and nature can, indeed, live in harmony.  In addition, it has four major assets that American travelers will find to their liking.
First, English is the native language, mixed with an occasional sampling of Creole.  Next, the exchange rate is 2 Belize dollars to 1 US dollar for easy conversion.  Plus, American money is readily accepted everywhere.  Third, electrical current is the same as the states for easy computer hook-ups and no blown hairdryers.  And finally, the time difference is slight from either coast of the United State, so there is virtually no jet-lag from either direction.   
Nature invades the ancient ruins at Lubaantun in Belize  (Taylor)           
Most of the better hotel properties in Belize consist of small, thatched roofed bungalows.  For the truly adventurous however, you can even do a Mayan home-stay by living and farming with the indigenous people of the country. 
Outdoorsmen may want to attempt a “grand slam” by fishing for snook, permit, bonefish and tarpon at Machaca Hill lodge situated within the canopy of a rain forest.  For wake up calls, the Machaca Hill system is truly unique.  At the appointed time, a staff member knocks at the door to present you with a pot full of hot coffee. 
Experiential travelers can explore the ruins at Lamanai Outpost during the day.  Then, in the evening, following dinner, take a spotlight cruise in the lagoon to search for nocturnal creatures in their natural surroundings.
At Ka’ana Resort, visitors who are intrigued by the hidden mysteries of the spiritual world can schedule a session with Rosario Panti, Belize’s last Mayan Shaman.
Pyramid at Xunantunich  (Taylor)
All of which is a circuitous way of returning to those devious crystal skulls mentioned earlier.  Depending on your source, there are either 12 or 13 crystal skulls which have aroused the curiosity of archaeologists throughout the world.  All are believed to originate from Mexico and Central America, with the most famous such artifact being found in 1925 at Lubaantun in Belize.                                                           
According to accounts, the Lubaantun skull was “discovered” by the adopted daughter of British adventurer, and publicity seeker, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges.  While on an expedition with her father, Anna Le Guillon Mitchell-Hedges allegedly unearthed the skull from a collapsed altar as she was exploring the Lubaantun site.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that Mitchell-Hedges even mentioned his daughter’s so-called discovery in a publication.  Further investigations show no documented evidence that Anna was ever in Belize, much less at the excavation.  In fact, research by the British Museum states that no crystal skull has ever been uncovered at an official archaeological site, which means that all of the dozen or so well-known skulls are probably fakes.
Later studies proved that Mitchell-Hedges actually purchased his crystal skull at an auction at Sotheby’s in 1943.  So why then even bother to visit the location of such an obvious hoax?
To begin with, Lubaantun is the largest archaeological ruin in southern Belize.  The ancient city dates from approximately 730 AD to 890 AD before being completely abandoned for reasons still unknown.
Situated about 26-miles northwest of Punta Gorda on a hilltop surrounded on three sides by two converging streams, Lubaantun is, surprisingly, one of the least visited major Mayan sites.  Despite its notoriety for the infamous Mitchell-Hedges skull and a variety of unique characteristics that are atypical of Maya architecture, if you go, you may likely be the only visitors at the site.
In the modern Maya language Lubaantun means “place of fallen stones”, which is appropriate as earthquakes and tree roots have taken their toll.  Other than the removal of underbrush to clear the site, no restoration work as been done at Lubaantun.
Pathway that leads to the site where the Crystal Skull was discovered  (Taylor)
As a result, the lush rainforest setting combined with structures featuring unusual rounded corners and the rare black slate and limestone bricks that were carved to fit together without mortar are, in many ways, a microcosm of Belize itself.  It is, in a sense, mysterious, yet sublime.  A source of conjecture and discovery. 
Though the crystal skull was probably a fake, the ruins at Lubaantun, and throughout Belize, are themselves time machines that beg further inspection, curiosity and speculation.     
Lubaantum is known as the "Place of Falling Rocks"  (Taylor) 
  Travelers will not be disappointed by the diversity of activities in the natural wonderland that is Belize, for the country is, indeed, its own reward.  Who cares if there’s a little “skull-duggery” along the way.  All the more reason to explore Belize for yourself.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Grimm family adventure traveling Germany’s Fairy Tale Road

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were German brothers who wrote down the fairy tales so familiar to us all  (wikipedia)
GERMANY Almost every child grows up listening to or watching fairy tales were written down two centuries ago by the brothers Grimm of Germany. Today, an imaginary “path” along a serpentine route through the back roads and countryside of Hesse and Lower Saxony known as the Fairy Tale Road traces the sites where the stories originated.

Once upon a time, Volume I of several books was published called Children’s and Household Tales. While the title might not send you racing to, it was a collection of children’s stories now known worldwide as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Story telling in Bremen (wikipedia)
The collection was the collaborative work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who published 86 stories in their first manuscript. Among them were familiar tales including Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Thumblina (Tom Thumb), Little Briar-Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Snow White and The Fox and The Geese.

For lovers of quaint villages and towns nestled amid pastoral landscapes, the Fairy Tale Road is an ideal tour for parents and grandparents seeking to relive their childhood and for children to explore the sights where the stories took place.

The Grimm’s stories can be viewed on multiple levels. First, they represent folkloric narratives that have become familiar to us all thanks largely to Walt Disney and television. But there is also a deeper, more political, layer of intrigue that many people do not know about.
Steinau is a popular stop on the Fairy Tale route  (wikipedia)

During World War II the Nazis used these legends as propaganda to instill concepts of racial purity. So influential were they that other collectors were inspired by a similar nationalistic spirit that reflected their own cultures.

Initially, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were harshly criticized because the stories were considered unsuitable for children. Boiling pots and children thrown into ovens and cutting off limbs were not the stuff of sugar plum dreams. Some subject matter dealt with missing children, infanticide, abandonment and other assorted atrocities.

In the original version of Rapunzel, though the prince was no doubt “Charming,” the golden-haired damsel became pregnant after one visit from her suitor.

Jacob and Wilhelm were linguistics  (wikipedia)
Beginning just east of Frankfurt in Hanau where the Grimms were born, the Fairy Tale Road follows the lives of the brothers, as well as the fables themselves, all the way to Bremen. Maps are  available at many places along the route.

Travelers should allow four days to do the entire route without being rushed. A word of caution however, be wary of villages using contrived alliances that pose vaguely as backdrops for the tales. Then again, the half-timbered towns and rural settings more than make up for the sins of the pretenders.

The Grimms were highly educated linguists who spoke more than ten languages between them. Though born into prominence, they fell upon hard times after the death of their father, eventually winding up in the nearby poorhouse where they struggled to survive. 

Eventually, Jacob was appointed court librarian to the King of Westphalia in 1808. Wilhelm later joined his brother in the ideal environment for their pioneering work in gathering traditional folklore.

Traveling the Fairy Tale Road is a driving tour that requires, at a minimum, a rental car, a good map, patience and a sense of humor. Many landmarks may be difficult to locate. There are no neon signs or billboards saying “This way to the wicked witch’s house,” or “Seven dwarfs, next right.” But that’s part of the adventure. “Seek and ye shall find.”
Masks in the village of Hamlin made famous by in the story about the Pied Piper  (wikipedia)
Most of the stories were handed down orally from approximately forty sources, a large number of which were provided by a loose-knit group of upper-class women and relatives.

Dorothea Viehmann was the biggest contributor  (wikipedia)
The most prominent tipster was Dorothea Viehmann, an innkeeper’s daughter in Kassel who gathered tales from passing travelers. Viehmann’s most famous story is that of Cinderella.

The Viehmann family inn, Brauhaus Knallhutte, still exists today, where visitors can order a Cinderella meal including a slipper carved from a baked potato.

Though Jacob and Wilhelm only contributed two stories of their own, their dedication to the preservation of German folklore sealed their legacy as pioneers of mythology.

The marketplace in Bremen is typical of the settings along the Fairy Tale Road  (wikipedia)
It is believed that many of the narratives had already been written down during the Middle Ages and were then rewritten again in 17th century before the Grimms did their own editing.

As Maria Tatar, an American scholar with expertise in children’s literature, expresses, “the brothers’ goal of preserving and shaping the tales as something uniquely German at a time of French occupation was a form of ‘intellectual resistance’, and in so doing they established a methodology for collecting and preserving folklore that set the model to be followed later by writers throughout Europe during periods of occupation.”

After more than two hundred years, the stories of Jacob and Wilhelm endure. While some were, indeed, “Grimm,” they rank second only to the Bible in the number of translations.

The Fairy Tale Road is well worth a visit. You might even say it’s “enchanting.” Just follow the bread crumbs and live happily ever after.