Friday, January 31, 2020

The Top Twenty most Instagrammed lakes in the world

Italy's Lake Como is stunningly beautiful and eclectic
(Courtesy: Pixabay)

CHARLOTTE, NC— Instagram launched in October 2010, and became an "instant" overnight success when a million registered users signed on in just two months. Within a year it was up to 10 million users and, as of May 2019, a billion people had registered.

Created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram is a photo and video-sharing social media networking service owned by Facebook in which an account's posts can be shared publicly or with pre-approved followers. Users can browse other users' content by tags and locations, and view trending content. They can also "like" photos and follow other users to add their content to a feed.

To help users discover both photos and each other, "hashtags" were introduced in January 2011. Today, Instagram encourages users to make tags both specific and relevant, rather than tagging generic words like "photo", to make photographs stand out and to attract like-minded Instagram users.

The UK's Lake District took top honors
(Courtesy: pixabay)
As of the new year, the most-followed person on Instagram is footballer Cristiano Ronaldo with over 196 million followers, while the most popular woman is singer Ariana Grande at more than 170 million.

The most liked photo on Instagram as of January 14, 2019  is a "picture of an egg," posted by the account @world_record_egg. Created for the sole purpose of surpassing the previous record of 18 million likes on a Kylie Jenner post, the picture currently has over 53 million likes.

Scotland's Loch Ness, home of the legendary Nessie monster
(Courtesy: pixabay)
With that information as background, decided to discover the most "Instagrammable" lakes around the world to help travelers decide where to go on their next picturesque trip.

Choosing lakes throughout the world, set about the task of gathering the number of hashtags per lake in order to identify which would make the best Instagram-worthy place to visit next.

Nevada's Lake Tahoe
(Courtesy: pixabay)
First place honors went to the popular Lake District in the UK with 2,951,548 hashtags.

The top choice was immediately embroiled in controversy since the area is made up of a multitude of lakes rather than a single body of water. Showers To You explained their decision by "taking (the Lake District) as a whole due to the fact it is well known for its glacial ribbon bodies of water."

Also counted among the top ten was the UK’s Loch Ness. The famous Scottish Lake, which is home to the legendary Loch Ness Monster, ranks ninth overall with over 500,000 photos added to the ‘gram.

The United States rates second and third on the list with Lake Tahoe taking the number two position and Lake Michigan number three. Both have well over 2 million, 2 hundred thousand hits. Notably the first three spots are the only ones with 2 million or more images.

Lake Erie lighthouse -- The Great Lakes took 4 of the first
twelve places 
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Also impressively, the Great Lakes captured four of the first twelve positions; 3--Lake Michigan (2,208,442), 6--Lake Erie (863,446), 7--Lake Superior (832,139), 12--Lake Huron (377,916) Ironically, Lake Ontario did not make the list at all.

Italy's Lake Como is a surprising 4th with 1,412,597 Instagrams. By the way, Lake Como is the fifth deepest lake in Europe.

Yet another surprise rounds out the top five with the Dead Sea in Israel, Jordan and Palestine garnering 1,137,909 hashtags.

Of the top 20 most instagrammed lakes, the United States has seven. Only three other countries rate more than one as Russia, Bolivia and the UK each have two.

Lake Titicaca in Bolivia
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Perhaps the best known lakes with the lowest totals are 18th ranked Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia (110,703) followed by Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda. With 51,888 'grams Lake Victoria takes 19th position.

Bolivia's Languna Colorado rounds out the top twenty with 38,462 votes.

And just for the record, Veronica Lake missed the cut completely.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Visit someplace new or return to a favorite spot?

The Moulon Rouge in Paris is a symbol of Bohemian culture 
(Courtesy: pixabay)
CHARLOTTE, NC — One of the nagging dilemmas for people with a passion for travel is the ever-present internal battle of whether to go someplace new or to revisit a destination filled with fond memories. Both options have merit with no right or wrong answer, but in the end it is the traveler and their individual lifestyle which determines the best personal choice.

Years ago, one of my fellow traveling companions, a veteran writer, mentioned that her philosophy was that she "wanted to see everything once before she saw anything twice." It seemed like solid advice at first but after a few years of wanderlust were added to my resume, my thoughts began to change.

For example, anyone who has ever visited New York City for the first time in the teeming humidity of July or August is guaranteed NOT to come away with the same impressions of the Big Apple as someone who makes their maiden journey during Christmas when the air is crisp and the city comes alive with seasonal lights and decorations.

Palace of the Liberties in Bruges, Belgium
(Courtesy: visit bruges/en)
To begin, never forget that no two trips are ever the same. Regardless of how delicious and memorable a previous adventure may have been, it is impossible to duplicate, so don't even try.

Also, keep in mind that regardless of how much effort you make, you will never see all of any one destination, which means the best thing to do is to pace yourself. All the more reason for a return visit.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, tour operators created so-called "Deluxe Grand Tours of Europe." These were basically cookie-cutter trips that included 21 countries in 17 days at a killer pace that was totally exhausting. The concept of these "If-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium" tours was, of course, to make senior citizens believe they could see all of Europe in one huge trip of a lifetime by using the comfort of an English speaking guide who also knew how to convert "Monopoly money" into useable funds (euros did not exist back then).

Grand Canal, Venice
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Five minutes at the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, quick photo op, 30 minute bathroom break and off to the next hotel. Luggage outside the door by seven, gulp down a cup of coffee, a stale croissant and uncooked bacon and back on the bus.

Technology and readily available disposable income have changed travel trends dramatically since those post-World War II Grand Tour days. Thus, returning to a destination you've already visited in the past brings with it an inherent comfort level that creates a sense of returning home.

You can still get out and do new things, but you also have a relatively familiar home base that is worth its weight in comfort that eases apprehension and anxiety.

As previously mentioned, while you may have hit the must-see high spots on your inaugural trip to a city or country, chances are you missed many, if not most, of the nooks and crannies that bring a destination to life with its own personality and character. That makes the second and future visits the time to check out a city's museums and/or lesser-known neighborhoods.

Neckar River, Heidelberg
Don't forget that destinations change. The Berlin you experienced on your last trip may not be quite the same today as it was in the ten years since you were there. It's another solid reason for going back to a place that you fell in love with once before.

However, just as places change, so, too, do people, and for many travelers, that's the single greatest endorsement of all for returning to a destination. Whether it's because you went to London when you were eight years old and you want to see it through new eyes now that you're 20 or, better yet, you want to share that same first-time joy you experienced with someone else is truly the magic of travel.

There is something Christmas-like to a travel adventure when you can stand back and savor the reaction of someone who is witnessing something unique for the very first time. It could be Michelangelo's David or Sistine Chapel ceiling. Perhaps it's some grand new culinary treat like escargot in France or caviar in Russia. Maybe it's the Lipizzan horses in Vienna or the massive Edinburgh Tattoo. The catalyst for the moment makes little difference. All that really matters is sharing that moment. Therein lies the secret.

Executive editor George Stone of National Geographic Traveler tells us that "People travel for people as much (if not more) than for sights. Sometimes we discover a bit of ourselves in a stranger; sometimes we learn how to be a better version of ourselves by learning from a local " 

The face of India
(Courtesy: S. Huitt)
"Discovery" is the key that unlocks the pleasures of travel and discovery can occur at any time in any place.

Certainly the flip side of the traveler's dilemma is easier to justify. After all the very nature of travel is to see and to experience the world beyond our personal borders. Traveling to a new destination is therefore by definition already incorporated into the process of being on the move.

On the other hand, returning to a place for a second, third or, even, fourth time should not deter travelers. Actually it should be regarded as a luxury or a bonus.

Model of Herod's Palace
at Masada in Israel
(Photo: Peabod)
In this day and age of social media, there's often pressure to view vacations as checklist travel in order to outdo others. Avoid such temptations at all costs because it is the least satisfying form of travel there is.

Typical scene in the streets of India
(Courtesy: S. Huitt)

Whether you prefer seeing  new places over return visits or some combination of the two, the purpose of a trip is to experience the things you want to experience on your terms.

However you achieve it is up to you, but always be a traveler first instead of a tourist.


Friday, January 17, 2020

How we can help Australia and its bushfires

Bushfires continue to rage in Australia, but we can help
(Courtesy: 80 trading 24 -- licensed under the Creative Commons 
Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

AUSTRALIA — When it comes to ultra-long distance travel, most Americans are hard pressed to find two more appealing destinations than New  Zealand  and Australia.

Presently Australia is battling devastating bushfires fueled by high winds and weather extremes that are expected to scorch the island continent during the summer season "down under." Environmental damage in wildlife and ecological habitats promises to be staggering.

Australians have a spirit all their own that is infectious --
View of Darling Harbour
Though large, Australia is still an island and, therefore, typically the climate is influenced by ocean currents, including the Indian Ocean Dipole and the El Nino-Southern Oscillation. These climatic patterns often correlate with periodic droughts and a seasonal tropical low-pressure system that produces cyclones in the northern region of the country.

Australians could easily be called the "Texans of Oceania." They are fiercely independent, passionately proud, highly competitive, vociferously opinionated and yet, at the same time they are magnanimously friendly, charmingly hospitable and, perhaps most admirably, dedicatedly loyal.

Australia is the largest country in Oceania and the sixth-largest country by total area in the world. Most of the population resides in coastal cities that line the perimeter of the country.

Most visits to Australia begin and/or end in Sydney, the bustling, lively capital of New South Wales with its now iconic opera being as familiar a landmark for Australians as are the Eiffel Tower to the French, Big Ben to the English and the Colosseum to Italians.

Sydney Opera House
(Courtesy: public domain pictures)
Regarded as one of the 20th century's most famous and distinctive buildings, the gleaming white layered shell-shaped Opera House Performing Arts Centre at Sydney Harbour is a multi-purpose venue that is capable of offering several different performances simultaneously.

Adjacent to Sydney's city center is Darling Harbour, a large recreational and pedestrian area situated on the western outskirts of the central business district. Originally named Long Cove, the locality extends northwards from Chinatown, along both sides of Cockle Bay to King Street Wharf 3 on the east, and to the suburb of Pyrmont on the west.

The Rocks is lively and 
Always a favorite spot, even if travelers have never heard of the district until they arrive, is The Rocks, an urban tourist precinct and historic area in  Sydney's city center near the opera house. 

The Royal Botanic Garden is the most important green space in Sydney, hosting both scientific and leisure activities.

Fifteen separate parks within the city center include Hyde ParkThe Domain and Prince Alfred Park.

The Royal Botanic Garden looks out toward the Opera House 
But these are merely appetizers which most avid travelers easily discover on their own.

Beyond Sydney, just a two hour drive west, are the Blue Mountains with their seemingly infinite stretches of eucalyptus trees. This UNESCO World Heritage area boasts of 87 miles of walking trails that include native bush-lands, impressive rock formations and underground caves.

The Blue Mountains beckon
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Here you can be entertained by stories told by local Aboriginal guides and also admire the craftsmanship of resident artisans.

Be sure to dine at Darley's Restaurant and don't forget to sample some of Australia's famous Blue Mountains wines.

Australia also has a pair of equally famous natural destinations that are more remote than the Blue Mountains but well worth the effort to make a visit: the Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock.

Uluru, more familiarly Ayers Rock, is worth a visit
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Uluru, better known as Ayers Rock, is a large sandstone rock formation in the southern part of the Northern Territory of central Australia. Situated 208 mi southwest of the nearest large town, Alice Springs, Uluru is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area.

The area around the formation is home to an abundance of springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

UNESCO's Great Barrier Reef
(Courtesy: pixabay)
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system off the coast of Queensland. Composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching over 1,400 mi, the reef is located in the Coral Sea and can be seen from outer space.

It is the world's biggest single structure built by billions of tiny living organisms known as coral polyps. Selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981, CNN has labeled the Great Barrier Reef as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

If this was a normal travel story, this is where it would end, but this time the story is not typical. The places in Australia listed above are traveler's favorites, just as Australia itself is one our favorite destinations. We mentioned these locales as a reminder to us all at just how fragile our planet can oftentimes be.

Colorful  Darling Harbour
The sites and attractions mentioned above are little more in this article than scene setters to whet our wanderlust appetites and to remind us of what could be lost forever.

For those of us who have savored the beauty of Australia, it is time to ask what we can do to help. 

Contact Australian Red Cross' Disaster Relief and Recovery, or get in touch with WIRES, an organization committed to wildlife in Australia. You can also donate to local fire brigades.

To support people affected by the fires, Fast Company suggests donating to the Salvation Army’s disaster appeal or the bushfire appeal fund set up by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Koalas were struggling to survive before the fires
(Courtesy: pixabay)
The fires have made Australia's declining koala population more vulnerable than ever; consider a donation to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which rescues koalas in regions across New South Wales. 

As Executive Editor, George Stone of TRAVEL, a publication of National Geographic, so appropriately writes, "It's not enough to love a land only when the sun shines. Now is the time to care for a faraway place as if it were our own backyard."

Friday, January 10, 2020

Escape winter in one of these five (or six) great Caribbean islands

The Caribbean is a land of perpetual sunshine that is generally
far from the madding crowds of other destinations
(Courtesy: Barbados Tourism)
CARIBBEAN — Sometimes the Caribbean can be a traveler's dilemma. On one hand the stretches of white sand beaches, crystal clear water and eternal sunshine are as beguiling as any destination could be. On the other, for the most part, "if you have seen one, you've seen'm all."

Miles of beaches at the
Turks & Caicos
(Photo: Taylor)
However, as fall and winter fast approach, the allure of warmth and water becomes increasing attractive to escape the wrath of ice and snow.

So how do you decide? Which island is best? Here's a personal top five to consider.

With an abundance of cactus, Aruba is reminiscent of the
Amerian southwest. Mt Hooiberg is its highest point
(Courtest: Aruba Tourism)
Aruba: Nestled just fifteen miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is one third of the ABC islands along with Bonaire and Curacao. While Bonaire remains a haven for divers, retaining much of its pristine features, Curacao for many years was regarded as the hot spot of the three.

No longer. Aruba has long since surpassed its sister island with glitzy hotels, casinos, excellent restaurants, shopping and a variety of other amenities that make it seem a bit like the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.

Depending on your lifestyle, Aruba could just as easily be at the top of this list as the bottom.

All the beaches and main activities center around one side of the island because the opposite shores are too rough for beach lovers to enjoy. More adventurous travelers go to that side to enjoy caving.

Divi-Divi trees grow away 
from the wind
(Courtesy: pixabay)
With its steady sea breezes, one of the distinctive features of Aruba is the Divi Divi trees which grow sideways in the direction of those perpetual winds.

Aruba's Dutch heritage makes shopping in the capital city of Oranjastad almost as good as it is in the Netherlands.

Official languages are Dutch and Papiamento, but English and Spanish are also prevalent. Don't be surprised to watch a television newscast where all four languages are used interchangeably.

Curious resident
(Courtesy: Aruba Tourism)
Geographically the island resembles the American southwest with an abundance of cactus and the highest spot being Mt. Hooiberg at 541 feet.

Dining offers a plethora of restaurants with choices ranging from hotel restaurants to delightful local spots.

Aruba may just be the most active place in the Caribbean.

Barbados Parliament and Museum
(Courtesy: Barbados Tourist Board)

Barbados: As with Aruba, Barbados has done a masterful job of marketing which is noticeable from the moment you set foot on its shores.

Tracing its history to the British Commonwealth, it's not surprising that 40% of the visitors to Barbados arrive from the United Kingdom, so naturally English is the native language.

One of the most notable aspects of Barbados for first-timers is how clean it is, giving the island the feel of  Switzerland being plunked down in the middle of the Caribbean.

Flying fish are a favorite
(Courtesy: pixabay)
The national foods of Barbados are flying fish and cou-cou, also known locally as "fungi." Cou-cou, made up primarily of cornmeal and okra, can be found in any supermarket on the island and is usually served as a complement to steamed or fried flying fish.

Barbados provides just enough to see and do with plenty of time for the beach.

Brimstone Hill Fortress is a landmark on St. Kitts
(Courtesy; Ukexpat --licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

St Kitts & Nevis: St Kitts seems like a quiet spot until you take a boat to Nevis. By comparison, St Kitts is Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.

Once a thriving region for sugar cane, St Kitts and Nevis today rely heavily on tourism for their economy. Many of the old sugar cane ruins have been renovated into beautifully quaint accommodations.

Cannons protect Brimstone
Hill, Mt Nevis in the
(Courtesy pixabay)
Most visitors are fascinated by the green monkey population which is so huge that it is said there are as many monkeys on the islands as there are people.

Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park on the northwestern coast of St Kitts is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the largest fortress ever constructed in the Eastern Caribbean, Brimstone Hill is well worth a visit.

Minutes by boat across the "Narrows", just two miles away, is the gumdrop shaped island of Nevis. With volcanic Nevis Peak in the center of the island, Nevis looks like a cone that has erupted from the middle of the sea.

Breakfast at Nisbet Plantation looking down the
Avenue of Palms
(Courtesy: Nisbet Plantation)
Nevis is a place to rest and relax. Historically the island has ties to Admiral Lord Nelson and Alexander Hamilton which make for pleasant outings when the allure of the beaches calls for a break.

St. Kitts and Nevis may be an acquired taste for some, but for those who just want to sit back and relax, this is the place.

Checking in at the Sans at Grace Bay
(Photo: peabod}
Turks & Caicos: As with Aruba and Barbados, the Turks & Caicos are awakening to the magnetism of tourism. This cluster of islands came to the game much later than her cousins, which is part of the appeal.

Da Conch Shack is a favorite
(Photo:  peabod)
The Turks retain their original rustic charm yet possess much of the infrastructure necessary to make it the best of all worlds.

As would be expected, life centers around the beaches and water activities, of which there are many. Hotels range in virtually every category with one of the best properties for location, comfort and convenience being the Sands at Grace Bay near the capital city of Providenciales.

Rum punch and conch salad
(Photo: peabod)
Conch is the culinary treat of the islands featuring conch fritters, conch salads, conch chowder and everything in between. It doesn't get any fresher than watching natives pluck a shell from the sea before having it served at your table minutes later for lunch.

Da Conch Shack is among the most popular spots for fresh conch served any way you like it. Then head back to your hotel and simply "conch out."

Pool with a view at Le Village on St Barts
(Courtesy: Le Village)
St. Barts: The only island in the Caribbean with Swedish heritage is St. Barts. Located about 18 miles from St. Maarten, this tiny jet-setters oasis probably doesn't have the best of anything in the Caribbean, but boasts the second best of everything.

St. Barts is hilly and small but thanks to its tiny harbor, it does not get as much of the massive cruise traffic as other islands.

Secluded beaches
(Photo: peabod)
Known for its cuisine which is primarily French, every type of food can be found on St. Barts.

Though a bit more expensive than some of the other island destinations, St. Barts makes up for the cost with great beaches and more than its share of character. If you spend a week at this now predominantly French paradise, don't be surprised to catch a glimpse of some well-known personality who is just "getting away from it all."

One reason celebrities like St. Barts is because they are treated like everyone else, far from the maddening paparazzi who so frequently invade their lives.

Gustavia Harbor, St Barts
Five star properties are the order of the day on St. Barts, but Le Village, the only four-star resort on the island will save you some money and provide all the amenities as its more prestigious counterparts.

Le Village is locally owned by native islanders and that makes all the difference.

Fisherman's day is done at sunset in Aruba
(Courtesy: Aruba Tourism)

There you have it. A half dozen Caribbean destinations that break the mold and offer more than just beaches, sand and sunshine.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Passport renewal just got a whole lot easier

Alexander Graham Bell would have been proud to see today's
advances in telephone technology
(Courtesy: Pixabay)

CHARLOTTE, NC – The process of obtaining your first passport or renewing your old one, though not difficult, has always been one of those "put-it-off-as-long-as-possible" hassles of the traveler's world.....until now.

To begin with, many inexperienced travelers are often shocked to learn that the expiration date printed in that little blue book, in many cases, really means you must renew your passport at least six months before it expires or they will most likely be doing their trip at home.

That's because many places will not allow visitors to enter the country if their passport runs out within six months of traveling. All they will do is collect your luggage and put it and you on the next flight home.

Therefore it's critical to be aware of that little quirk and take care of it well in advance.

In the dark pre-internet days of travel, last minute passport renewals were not only hand-wringingly stressful but also extremely expensive. While the process remains costly today, much of that previous tension can be eliminated, or certainly minimized, thanks to the addition of the World Wide Web to our arsenal of recent travel innovations.

Launched in 2014, an app named Mobile Passport may one day become the travel industry's "most valuable player" because it allows absent-minded travelers and procrastinators to renew their passports within 24 hours. 

At the same time, since is an app on your telephone, the beauty is that it can be used to get you through Customs & Immigration. The popular travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler claims that Mobile Passport saves even more time than Global Entry.

Before the onset of the Mobile Passport era, typically the steps for renewal involved setting an alarm for six months before the passport's expiration date, filling out the proper paperwork, getting a new photo, mailing in the application, and then...waiting, sometimes for up to eight weeks.

If you were on the leading edge of the passport renewal cusp,  crunch time could be a nerve wracking ordeal.

Today, Mobile Passport allows users to fill out their passport and declaration information and submit it in advance of returning to the U.S., letting them skip the paperwork, long lines and interviews at customs and immigration.

As part of a partnership with RushMyPassport -- a website with the sole purpose of shortening the process of obtaining and renewing passports -- Mobile Passport has established a system that utilizes modern technology to add yet another contemporary solution to a rapidly growing list of resources that have made travel easier than ever before.

Perhaps most important, Mobile Passport will send you a notification six months before your passport expires, meaning that you no longer need to remember to do it yourself.  

Following notification, MP Provides step-by-step instructions for renewing your passport. Should you need your new passport ASAP, RushMyPassport can help expedite the process in as little as 24 hours. Keep in mind the process can be pricey, but it's probably better than the alternative of cancellation.

Fees start at the standard government price of $170 and get higher as the turnaround time gets shorter.

You still have to physically mail in the application and photo, but that's infinitely easier than driving to a passport agency, the post office or trying to figure out the instructions at the 

Mobile Passport isn't the only source for expedited renewal services, however. FedEx also offers services at more than 2,000 locations with a tiered system of time-frames ranging from 24-hour service to rush renewal that takes between 10 and 12 business days.

At $449 for 24 hour service, it is expensive, but considering the possibility of losing a trip altogether, it could also be viewed as a bargain.

For travelers, either of these passport renewal programs could very well be something that will never be used. Then again, considering the relief from the angst their availability provides by simply being aware of their existence might one day be a huge pill to swallow, but they could also be a blessing that did not even exist in the not so distant past.